A country's architecture is an expression of national progress and this is especially true for emergent economies. In the early 1990s, several Asian cities invested in the construction of skyscrapers to send a message to the world in general and America in particular: we have arrived.

Architecture is also a way for a place to project its identity — whether local, national or regional. Nowadays, however, traditional archetypes have been affected by an extraordinary phenomenon called globalisation.

The Arab world is experiencing unprecedented growth. Cities are the new focus. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah, Doha and Kuwait City are raising the architectural bar and investing in unique and exceptional building projects.

The Gulf region's emerging model of the city is not only being admired by top architects and designers, it is also being replicated in other parts of the world. Dubai in particular has acquired a reputation for having an unmatched appetite to further navigate. It is quintessentially distinct; a trend setter and an inspiration to many. In that sense, international architectural firms have found in it an expanding and profitable market.

Employing one fourth of the world's construction cranes, Dubai, it seems, never stops building. The city aspires to become a global trade and tourism hub on par with other major cities around the world. It also wants to function all year long or to borrow a famous slogan; it wants to be a city that never sleeps.

Having said that, the city with the highest number of "first place" entries in the Guinness Book of World Records is often criticised for having "outrageous projects that are "unsustainable". Experts will say let's get beyond the façade and get serious because Dubai is a serious city with mega projects in the works.

Much media focus has also been on the city's "exploited immigrant workers". The emirate is taking all measures it can to improve their living standards. On a different note, many see this place as too western in its building structures. Here one can argue that whether we like it or not, things are operating now within the realm of an intimately interconnected world bearing in mind that Western culture embodies strong forces of modernisation.

Weekend Review met some of the world's top architects and designers and sought their opinion on development in the UAE. Most of them preferred to focus on Dubai.

They talked about the city's identity with respect to its architecture, the overall artistic direction of the city and whether or not Arabic and Islamic architecture is on its way out.

Asked what they thought about the statement "Dubai is an ongoing architectural experiment", each had a unique response. While most shared praise for the emirate's handling of the new development "rush", some talked about the hurdles and suggested ways to remove them. All agreed local talent in design and architecture is rich but that talent needs guidance and support.

Rasem Badran
Architect and Founding Partner, Dar Al Omran, Jordan

I have a shared history with Dubai on many levels. It started with assessments I did here a long time ago. My company is currently doing work in Abu Dhabi and on an urban project.

My work aims to showcase the culture of a place. In Abu Dhabi, for example, there are layers to the culture.

Dubai is a place that has “constructional, structural, developmental, civilisational and cultural'' inheritance which was built on a city that has historically been a trading emirate. With trade you are also talking about culture and spreading it. Through trade, one can create multicultural interaction.

Today we see a culture changing constantly. People come here from Europe, Asia and the rest of the Arab world. So like domains or layers, culture develops with circumstances and life patterns. This creates a contemporary social order established by newcomers. They create new patterns of life.

Dubai's culture will sustain itself through its old imagery. There is no transformation in Dubai. In Arabic, Amaar (meaning construction) refers to human beings. There is no place without the people. There is definitely a culture of import with regards to architecture.

One of the problems in the region is that Arabs always rely on import. The Western world came up with the culture of production. Here, we don't even respect original work. I also believe that we in the Arab world still suffer from a complex that imported is always better.

I would like to stress on the cultural value that is missing from the Western package. The West enjoys a materialistic civilisation that has been exported to our part of the world.

Is there a balance in Dubai between modern and old? Dubai is no longer a local city; it is a global city and therefore, it is responding to global needs and equipping itself with the necessary infrastructure.

Rodney Fitch
Chief Executive Officer, Fitch, a British design firm

My company and I have great hopes for Dubai. This city is larger and more active when compared to others in the Gulf. Dubai sits between mature and emerging markets.

We believe that in the construction of new malls, 60 per cent of the space should be kept for entertainment and the rest for shops.

There is plenty of economic evidence to support this argument. Given the momentum of building, there will quickly be an oversupply. Dubai will provide more square feet of shopping space per capita than there is in America. You have to ask yourself this question - is that good news? Many of the malls are going to be unsuccessful. The growth is disproportionate to the demand.

Is Dubai an ongoing experiment? It is a work in progress. I have often said if you want to see the future of retail, go to America where competition drives innovation.

Dubai's identity can be described in two words: bold and progressive. You can only answer that question by referring to the new buildings which, without doubt, are the most audacious whether they are museums or high-rise condominiums.

I think there is single-mindedness here. I am a great admirer of the polity of this place. I once was in a group of people along with Margaret Thatcher discussing what the British government can do to support business. Some people proposed tax breaks but she said: “Gentlemen, my role is not to give you solutions but simply to give you a level playing field on which you will make things for yourself. You will create the success.'' I get the impression that this is the view of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, here in Dubai. There is a vision for this place which emanates from the Ruler and he is letting the place “get on with it''. He has a very light touch. That is single-mindedness.

Is Islamic design on its way out? When I first came here 20 odd years ago, all over this region, you could find traditional Arabic architecture. Many years before that, you could go to London and find the same things there. But in order to have a modern London (and a modern Dubai), those buildings have to be taken down to make way for the newer things. It is the paradox of life.

Is there lack of talent in the Arab world? The problem here is that inherently the region has become lazy because it hasn't needed to develop. This can be addressed by creating the infrastructure that gives people the opportunity to exercise their talent. All you need in a place like Dubai is 500 really talented designers who should be educated both in the Arab world and abroad.

Rashid Karim
Designer and Founder, Karim Rashid Inc, USA

This is my third time here. I don't have any projects in the works just yet but I have recently had an art show as well as a hotel show (showcasing a future hotel room).

Dubai is probably building identity. To me, it is a 21st century Las Vegas. It is about progress, poetry and innovation. It needs to take these ideas in sincerity — all the way —not just in building skyscrapers. Progress should be now on the human level too.

All cities need a kind of eclecticism that makes them beautiful. If you look at Paris, the majority of its interesting buildings have been designed by foreign architects. These things happen all over the world. Arab culture needs to be in balance with the Western and Eastern ideas brought into the city and that makes for a richer place.

My personal critique is that we should always aim to build something that reflects the time in which we live - not construct an antiquated building. There is no sense of authenticity in it and too much fabrication. I think what the Middle East has to do is find its contemporary iconography.

Dubai has myriad things taking place here which are very healthy. I don't think you can put one fingerprint on a city and plan it from scratch like Jefferson did with Washington. Over time, that city became interesting because of the eclecticism of multiple cultures. That is what made it happen.

The real metropolis of the 21st century is a multicultural place just like Dubai. Look at the habitats. Statistics support this. What bothers me about the way the city is being developed is that it is not a pedestrian city. The charm of Paris, New York, Milan or London is that there are places to walk. The only walking that takes place here is in shopping malls and the only people who can afford leases of shopping malls are the very big brands and big chains.

So there is no sense of originality or authentic experience. If I go into a mall and see Louis Vuitton, it is the same as in every major city. I think right now the only thing that is authentic about Dubai is its mega structures. Those are about the fallacies and egos of architecture. Now, there needs to be something more on a human level.

I am actually surprised that some of the more radical architects weren't invited here. The architecture that has taken place here over the last 30 years is more second or third rate Western architecture and you can't mass-produce architecture.

At the moment, I am not seeing strong examples of Islamic architecture but of Islamic motifs being used as cladding and ornamentation.

There is not so much a lack of Arab talent but a lack of having the patronage and the opportunities to prove themselves both regionally and internationally. At the end of the day, I can only know what is exposed and that is the power of the media. So, if they are not interested in popularising the work that is done, you don't come to know of it.

The Middle East needs to disseminate its culture. I think it has always felt insecure about its culture because it lives in the shadow of the West. I am sure that much of the local talent is upset at not getting enough opportunities.

Khalid Al Malik
Chief Executive Officer, Tatweer, UAE

In the Arab world, there is a problem of understanding the importance of design in our life. Personally, I feel it has been ignored in the Arab world. People haven't yet understood the importance of design in our life, products and services. Everything is positively impacted by design. There is a vacuum in the Arab world and people need to be educated.

Today, Dubai has a blend of different nationalities and cultures. Thus, the look and feel of the city is modern. But there are sites in Dubai that are historic, such as the Dubai Heritage Village and Bastakiya. We can easily see how Dubai has developed. First it had the old feel, and today, we find a new side to it. There is an attempt to combine the two to come out with a new mix.

I agree that there is an obsession with architecture here but it is purely commercially driven and time bound. It is tied to economics.

There is some confusion when it comes to the “identity'' of Dubai. It is because of the nature of the city - its cosmopolitan culture. If you look at the architects working here you will find that they come from different nationalities and backgrounds. I think that is healthy if you have a defined direction for them. The degree of freedom for doing things in a city like this is amazing. Oman, for example, has a system that must be followed regardless of where the architects come from. The issue is the guidelines.

Dubai, of course, is trying to preserve its identity and the Dubai Municipality is working on this. For example, there are certain guidelines for certain locations and cities. This is due to the speed of growth in the city.

Dubai is a modern city. It is an established entity and not so much an ongoing experiment.

If you wanted to compare Dubai to another city, you would have to compare it to at least three or four cities (different components that they each have). Singapore is one of them because it has issues of survival - they have no natural resources. A situation like that compels creativity. Taiwan is another fantastic example. Malaysian cities are another example — while they preserve their Malay identity, the cities are fast becoming modern. If you go to Amman, you will see a similar preservation of the Bedouin tradition.

Dubai is a city that is driven by a visionary who has a whole city convinced about his vision and ambitions. This is rarely seen these days. It makes me think of India and Gandhi where again the country was driven by a single visionary.

I think we have enough UAE architects in the city but they are not getting enough opportunities. This comes back to the question of resources and financial capabilities. There is also an element of mistrust. The market is not yet mature and these people have little experience. But we do have the talent.

Rem Koolhaas
World-renowned architect and founder of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Netherlands

I have been involved in the Gulf region (Qatar and Kuwait, and in the UAE, in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah). In Dubai, I am working on two buildings for Porsche Design in the Business Bay that will be completed in two years.

The way I work is to understand the place before I intervene. I look at its history because it usually has useful contributions.

For a long time, I have been fascinated by how cities evolve. My chair at Harvard is all about understanding what goes on as cities grow. In China and the Gulf region, cities are growing with unprecedented speed. This growth has been based on structures such as the skyscraper which, despite having existed for sometime, have gone through a transformation because of the speed of construction.

Al Jazeera is an interesting way to illustrate my point. Television is a tool invented by America but nobody doubts that Al Jazeera is Arabic, has an Arabic message and conforms to Arabic values. Architecture is the same way. Once it is inhabited or shaped by local conditions, it acquires that character.

Does Dubai have a unique flavour? It depends. I think the modern part has a flavour and so does the old part. Dubai's old parts are very nice (even though old here means it was built in the 1950s or 1960s) that are very characteristic and unique.

Everyone is obsessed with the row of towers on Shaikh Zayed Road but there is a lot more. The whole of Deira is incredible, including the side of the creek. From Emirates Towers to the creek you come to the residential areas that are very beautiful and unique; definitely not a replica. They are very authentic yet hardly ever mentioned.

In Dubai, there isn't an obsession with architecture per se, but an obsession with money and hence with real estate, and therefore architecture. That is the story of Dubai so far. There are also many voices calling out for creating infrastructure as part of an intrinsic whole rather than a series of fragments. One feels that there is a will to shape it in this way.

One also feels that the government needs to think of issues such as transport, infrastructure, culture and about the more traditional elements of the city. Since the rush has been so incredible, elements that typically come at the inception of a city are now being imposed on it.

It is extremely difficult to say Dubai has an identity crisis because you would have to immediately ask, which part of Dubai has an identity crisis.

Dubai is like a laboratory where you make discoveries. You sometimes discover dead-ends and then you abandon research and initiate new research. I see it in an optimistic way. People have realised that there was poor planning in the past and initiatives are being taken to correct that.

I got involved in China for the first time ten years ago. At the time, there was a very standardised and “uncreative'' local form of architecture. Ten years later, there has been an unbelievable surge and Chinese architects are now at the same level as others around the world. This will certainly happen here.

In the UAE, I see that each city is trying to define itself in a contrarian relationship with the others, such that Ras Al Khaimah doesn't want to become like Dubai and is hence offering something emphatically different. The beauty of this is that this system of internal relationships enables the cities' own specific spectrum of specialities.

Dubai is an amalgam of new development, intelligence and a sense of the past. It is a hybrid of Arab and foreign initiatives. You have a situation where you can experiment with different themes. The substance is already here. Now there is the question of developing further and making it a real city.

There are heartfelt efforts by local architects to work with traditions. There is also a quasi-Islamic aesthetic by Western architects to give their work an Islamic look, which I find quite embarrassing. I see many of these buildings not having a long life. One thing that must be realised is that architecture today doesn't have the same pretence of eternity that architecture used to have.

Globalisation confronts everyone. The Middle East will continue to retain its core values but will balance them with new trends.

Finally, local talent is rapidly emerging in the UAE. I can't judge the quality of education here, but I sense that it is quickly improving.

Favourite Building?

Dubai's expansion has placed it on the map of iconic development. It is a charming city replete with inspiring architecture and memorable buildings. We asked five UAE residents to name their favourite building in the emirate.

Ali Youssef Ali
Emirati businessman

“I love the architecture and design of Madinat Jumeira because it showcases a blend; old design with a modern touch''. He also adds, “The building looks original and that makes it more attractive''.

Tarek Galal
35-year old architect

He also chooses Madinat Jumeira. He says, “Architects of Madinat Jumeira came up with a new design - one that mixes old world pleasures and entertainment with a modern, sophisticated ambiance.''

Sharon Bland
28-year old

She says her favourite building in Dubai is the One and Only Royal Mirage because “it has a nice holiday feel as it is tucked away and is quite romantic''. She also points out that the “structure of the One and Only building resembles the past''.

Narayan S.

He chooses Burj Al Arab as “the nicest building in Dubai''. He says, “The seven-star hotel is an icon of Dubai and has an excellent location … it is also very modern looking''.

Jihan Karara
Design manager

Cites Al Ismaili centre in Dubai as her favourite building because it “creates a majestic destination that reaches the soul, in all its glory and splendour.''