Dubai: A Sci-fi Skyline Rising From the Desert

I’ve visited Dubai before, and hate to admit that it was 40 years ago (OMG … how can it be that long!). I was there for a work project, and while I didn’t have much time for sightseeing, my impression at the time was that it was a pleasant, medium-size, Middle Eastern city. It had a few modern hotels and office buildings, with a busy commercial area and souk centered around the large “creek” that flowed in from the Persian Gulf. And every day I could hear the melodic call to prayers from my hotel room. But that modest town is gone, and to me, the present Dubai is unrecognizable.

Four decades is a long time, and any city can make radical changes in that amount of time. But I can’t imagine any city that can equal the extravagant, mind-blowing, and miraculous leap into the future that modern-day Dubai has made.

Economists praise the transformation of the city and its objective of “investing in sectors that hold promise for a post-oil economy,” but what I found so astounding was the seemingly endless number of fantastic, paradigm-breaking, high-rise towers. It’s as if a crew of imaginative architects with a bottomless bag of gold have been at work; sort of like the Keebler Elves, except constructing buildings instead of baking cookies.

The Burj Khalifa, which has the distinction of being the tallest building in the world, is the most famous. Its glistening, needle-like profile can be seen for miles in any direction and it dominates the skyline. It’s slightly more than one-half mile tall (2,722 feet/830m), and is truly a masterpiece of engineering and technology.

It’s the distinctive jewel in Dubai’s architectural crown, but don’t think that it’s the only gem. It just takes a look in any direction to see high rise after high rise unlike anything you’ve ever seen. There are so many that they stopped making the news after a while, and you’d have to be an architect to recognize any of the building names.

This is the point where I should say that because there are so many unique designs that it’s hard to pick a favorite, but this just isn’t the case. Without a doubt my absolute favorite is the seven story, stainless-steel clad Museum of the Future.

Gleaming in the desert sun and covered with Arabic calligraphy it’s take-your-breath-away beautiful – surely one of the most elegant and dazzling buildings in the world.

But, as you may have heard in the news, the humanitarian side of all this new construction may not be as shiny as the buildings. The kitchen window in our small apartment overlooked a large construction site for yet another new building. Early every morning I’d see large white buses delivering groups of workers who had probably spent the night sleeping in work camps, and then after a long day we’d see the same buses pick up the dust-covered crews.

The latest statistics on population say that only 15% of the residents of Dubai are native Emirati, and the remaining 85% are foreign expats, most of whom are primarily from Asia. What an amazing statistic! So it’s no secret who’s laboring day after day in the desert heat to construct these new buildings. And if media reports are correct, some of these workers are effectively enslaved by large construction companies and forced to work under inhumane conditions. So it’s important to keep in mind when looking at these fabulous, record-breaking skyscrapers that we may not be seeing the whole story.

Despite this controversy, Dubai has become world-renowned as a forward-looking city which is successfully making the transition from an oil-based economy to more sustainable industries. It’s now a world center for trade, tourism, banking, and real estate. It has cutting edge infrastructure and what must certainly be one of the best collections of contemporary architecture in the world.

Dubai is breathtaking, futuristic, and truly unbelievable. It reminds me of a sci-fi book cover with an unforgiving landscape sprinkled with a collection of gravity-defying needles reaching to the sky. And like a good sci-fi book plot, below all this glitter is a more complicated tale. You won’t hear much about the controversial side, but visit and make your own judgement. If you pass through this part of the world don’t miss it.

Happy Trails,

James & Terri


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

33 thoughts

  1. After 9/11 I wouldn’t have thought anyone would have wanted to reach for the skies, James, but the quest to go higher and higher goes on. Your photos make it look dynamic and exciting, but it’s the souk and the old side that would fascinate me. Everyone I know that’s been has said what an amazing city, but they’ve mostly been interested in cocktails and shopping. I wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to go, but it’s not high on my list.

    1. Jo, you make a valid point about these towers being targets, particularly in this part of the world. But as you say, the trend goes on.

      And we’re veterans of dusty, old souks, and we love them. We visited the souks on Dubai Creek and will eventually be posting about the experience. There are still many locals who live and work in the old city, which feels far away from the glitz of the modern bits. And I think it’s important to see both sides. The city has made an astounding transformation, no doubt, and depending on one’s priorities and preferences, it can make pleasant and entertaining stop. ~James

  2. Unlike Jo, I would heartily recommend a visit to Dubai if you’re at all interested in some of the most fascinating architecture anywhere in the world. We were there several years ago and therefore missed the Museum of the Future sadly. I’d be willing to spend a pretty penny to visit Dubai just to view that architectural wonder in person.

    Glad you shed a light on the other side of the beauty, namely those who toil in virtual slavery to bring us those buildings of the future. I often wonder why there are so very few buildings in North America and much of the rest of the world that are as jaw dropping as those in the Middle East.

    1. Annie, as you can probably tell from the tone of the post we were truly astounded by Dubai: gobsmacked as the Brits say. Some of this may be the fact I had visited so long ago, and while I knew things had changed, I just wasn’t mentally prepared for the scope of the transformation. The turnaround is like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I’m so happy that we decided to stop.

      As for visiting, it probably fits into the category of the non-traditional vacation spot. If fantastic sun and beaches, world-class restaurants and hotels, outstanding luxury shopping, and dune buggies in the desert get you excited, it’s the place to visit. However, whether making the long flight to get there is worth it … well that entirely depends on one’s priorities. ~James

    1. Peggy the building itself is so fabulous I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of this museum. We’ll probably do a post on the museum at some point. It’s incredibly photogenic, and we were there on the perfect day. Of course, Dubai doesn’t have many gray, overcast days so this Museum is a photographer’s dream. ~James

  3. It was great to read something from someone who has experience of both the old and new. I would love to see it in the same way I like to see a sculpture garden, but perhaps because of my age, I would spend more time in the old city you describe in a comment above.

    1. Ray, when I visited in the Pleistocene :), it’s hard to imagine how different the city was. But the focus on the new in this post may give the wrong impression of how much of the old has survived. The old city is still there, and a vibrant life still goes on. Also, they’ve restored a part of the old souk and it’s a big tourist draw. But, I suspect that for most visitors, the new architecture and high tech feel of the city will overshadow the historic parts. Which I guess is what the city fathers were trying to achieve. ~James

  4. I am loving all your travel pictures and stories I would love to travel to some of these places y’all have great fun and enjoy love y’all so much

    1. Thanks Angie. I’m happy that you’re following along on the blog and enjoying it. One of the fun things about travel is the surprises that turn up, and Dubai was one of the big ones. As I said to someone else, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. Hugs to you and all the TN family. Love You, JH

  5. Dubai has never been high on my list of places to visit but I can certainly see the draw to such an interesting city, both the old and the new. The Museum of the Future is absolutely stunning and for me, the most appealing. It saddens me to think that the workers building these buildings are being treated in such a horrible manner and working under such inhumane conditions. It’s difficult to comprehend how this can still be happening in 2023 but alas, I fear it happens more often than we care to think of. Very interesting post!

    1. Lynn, since I had spent time in the Middle East before, normally Dubai wouldn’t have been high on my list either. But, as I said, it had been a looonnnng time since I had seen it, and Terri and I are so glad that we stopped. It’s a great way to break up a long trip from SE Asia to Europe, and it truly was a wonderful surprise.

      As to the workers and their treatment, I’m sure that most visitors rarely see that side of it, and we wouldn’t have either except for the construction site next door. Cultures have rationalized mistreatment of other cultures for thousands of years, and unfortunately, it’s still going on today. And for must people, one’s opinion of the situation is dependent on their position in the food chain: sad but true. However, having said that, Dubai is a marvel to see, and I’m glad that we made the stop. ~James

    1. Good analogy Ken. With 85% of the population being non-native expats, I’m sure there are many immigrant success stories. But conversely, if the media coverage is correct there are just as many stories of exploitation and mistreatment. One only hopes that the government has stepped in to assume some sort of monitoring role. ~James

  6. The architecture is really fabulous. Our city is growing, but not in a similar direction. Each building is less attractive than the next! Sorry to hear about how the workers were treated in the construction of the museum of the future. Too bad it was not also workers’ rights of the future too.

    1. Rebecca, I’ll have to say that there were very few “average” buildings in Dubai. It’s an architect’s dream world and most companies seem to pride themselves on building something bigger, better, and more attractive. Also, with all the beautiful buildings the peer pressure to build something exceptional keeps the cycle going. Very cool! ~James

  7. I do wonder about the ground under all those buildings, and whether it is up to handling the weight! Your last post was Bangkok – did you skip everything in between?

    1. Kathy, that’s a good question, and one that I’m sure the architects and engineers considered. I watched an interview with the principle architect of the Burj Khalifa, and he discussed all of the never-before encountered problems that had to be overcome as a result of the size and height of the building. Interesting stuff.

      And on this trip we tried to visit some new places, so since we had previously had a good look at India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, we decided to make the jump to Dubai. ~James

  8. Thanks for this informative post full of eye-popping photos! When I saw the first photo of the Museum, I didn’t even realize that it was a building, but perhaps a park sculpture! Are these others all office buildings?

    1. Marilyn, our hotel was right downtown, and really close to the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building), and most of the high rises around us were mixed-use: commercial, residential, and retail. As you’d expect, some also have ultra-fancy hotels as well. One question that I came away with is Where on Earth is all the Money coming From? I realize that it’s the oil-rich Middle East, but the Burg Khalifa alone cost $4 billion dollars. Hard to imagine. ~James

  9. Impressive, James. And I expect the reality of your ‘It’s as if a crew of imaginative architects with a bottomless bag of gold have been at work,’ is quite true. And as you added, cheap, exploited labor.
    When Peggy and I were in Egypt in March, our guide told us that many of the college graduates head for Dubai and other such places because they can’t get jobs in Egypt. Then then ship back a significant amount of their incomes to their families.

    1. Curt, given the amount of new construction in Dubai, I’m sure that a large percentage of the foreign laborers there have menial jobs on building sites. However, with the diversification and growth in their economy over the past few years, I’m also sure there must be lots of openings for professional staff. And one thing I didn’t mention in the post is that Dubai does not have a personal income tax, so a well paid professional could have extra money to send home. So, it’s not all bad news. ~James

      1. From what Sabaa, our guide told us, James, it’s like the second or third most important source of income for the country, but many more countries employ Egyptians than just Dubai.

    1. Hannah, it’s a long trip to get there, but it will be unlike anything you’ve seen. I think the countries in that part of the world are looking beyond oil, which is smart, and Dubai seems to be in the forefront. It makes a great stop on the way to or from SE Asia. ~James

  10. A museum! I thought that magnificent shape was a sculpture! It is even more picturesque nestled among all those glittering skyscrapers. Qatar appealed to me the same way Dubai did to you, and it has the same dark side to all that futuristic beauty as well.

    1. Lexie, is that not the most wonderful building? I was absolutely in awe. We had planned on stopping in Qatar on our way to Israel, and had to change plans, and ended up in Dubai. It was such a fantastic surprise, and the ideal stopover on our way from BKK to Vienna. Not only is the architecture fabulous, the city itself has developed into something unique, curious, and unlike anything we’ve seen. I wonder about how it will fare long term, and it will be interesting to do a bit more research into the whole city planning side. What a strange, and wonderful place. ~James

  11. I was in Dubai 20 years ago when the Burj Al Arab was the tallest building. I can see there are many more impressive buildings now. I loved Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. So much so that I wrote a book set there which started my writing journey.

    1. Darlene, it’s great to hear some of the backstory on your writing career. These times and places certainly stick in one’s memory.

      We lived in Sudan under strict Sharia for two years and have traveled to a number of traditional Muslim countries, and I can say that Dubai today is VERY different than most of these countries. We found the architecture impressive and awe-inspiring, but also Dubai’s attitude of growth, enthusiasm, and plans for the future. I can believe there are lots of urban planners looking at Dubai for ideas and inspiration, as well as case studies on what did and didn’t work. What an intriguing place. ~James

      1. When you think that it was not that long ago it was just a small fishing village! I found there was a certain vibrancy in the city and every we met was very friendly and hospitable.

  12. What an amazing transformation, James! Your study of the modern architecture suggests that Dubai has chosen sci-fi as a unifying architectural style. It is both stunning and beautiful, and so vertical. Considering your advice, I will certainly check it out if we are ever in that part of the world.

    1. Joe, it’s difficult to describe how astounding the transformation was to me. Most of the photos in the post were in the downtown area, but there’s another area farther out at the beach which also has its own collection of high rise buildings. I can’t imagine the total investment, but it has to be in the hundreds of Billions!! And one thing I learned as well, which I should have already known, is that Dubai’s oil reserves are actually not that large when compared to the other Emirates (especially Abu Dhabi). So, even given the oil wealth, I can’t imagine where all the investment dollars are coming from. It’s a puzzle that I’m curious to dig into. ~James

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