Dubai is at an exciting juncture: behind it lies the bad old days of regional unrest, global recession and economic vulnerability. Ahead lies the prospect of enhanced stability, stronger regional ties and closer integration with the international community. With prestigious cultural and infrastructure projects underway, this is an excellent time to visit this city that's at the heart of Middle East while being a world away from neighbouring troubles.

Gearing up for World Expo 2020

When Dubai won the right to hold the first World Expo in the Middle East in 2020, the announcement was celebrated with massive fireworks erupting at the Burj Khalifa. It was a major triumph for the tiny emirate driven by humongous vision and ambition. Preparations to welcome the world (as in some 25 million visitors) between 20 October 2020 and 10 April 2021 are in full swing on the 4.38 sq km site in a newly planned district called Dubai South, near the Al Maktoum International Airport. The fair’s guiding principle ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’ is as high-minded as it is urgent: the need for collaboration across cultures, countries and religions in coming up with sustainable solutions for the world’s biggest problems. In keeping with this aim, a humanitarian district is being planned which will include training and conference facilities for use by the United Nations and other aid agencies.

To facilitate transport to the Expo site, a 15km extension to the metro is underway, incorporating a 3.2km subway tunnel. Also on schedule is construction of the centrepiece translucent dome, Al Wasl Plaza. Some 65m high, it will be the largest single structure on the site.

Dubai as Early Adopter

Already famous for having the most luxurious stable of police cars and a police force currently training to use hoverbikes, Dubai is now positioning itself as a testing ground for futuristic modes of transport. The police fleet itself has been augmented by an autonomous robot police car that will act as a mobile surveillance unit. Self-driving smart vehicles are expected to account for 25% of all traffic by 2030. The emirate is also experimenting with multicopters and drones to provide a flying taxi service and is reportedly exploring the possibility of building the world’s first Hyperloop, a vacuum-sealed pod transportation system that would cut the trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi to 12 minutes. Whether any of it will ever get off the ground, so to speak, remains to be seen of course, but in a city unafraid of testing the boundaries of innovation, it just might.

Pursuit of Happiness

When Ohood Bin Khalfan Roumi became the UAE’s first ever Minister of Happiness in 2016, her appointment elicited more than a few chuckles. But Roumi knows that her role is no laughing matter. And so does Dubai ruler (and UAE vice president and prime minister) Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who thought of the post. The latest United Nations World Happiness Report ranked the UAE 21 out of 150 countries – the highest for an Arab nation but apparently not good enough. In keeping with the emirate's superlative-striving nature, Sheikh Mohammed wants to make Dubai the happiest place on earth (watch out Disneyland!) and has founded the Smart Dubai campaign to come up with ways to improve people’s lives. One of the most visible initiatives it has rolled out so far involves the Happiness Meters at airports, museums, malls, beaches and other public places. It allows people to click on emojis (smiling, unhappy, indifferent) to register their level of contentment with the experience.

Arts & Culture

It’s easy to think of a city that makes headlines with robocops, flying cars and palm-shaped islands as a cultural wasteland. But Dubai is also making concerted efforts at sharpening its creative profile, with the opening of the Dubai Opera being only the most high-profile stepping stone. The Dubai Design District is quickly becoming a regional laboratory for the world’s finest creative tinkerers, and Art Dubai has catapulted from a little-noticed art fair to a global event in less than a decade. In fact, Middle Eastern art is becoming a hot commodity, with some works fetching huge sums at Sotheby auctions. In Dubai itself, the local arts community now has a key nexus on Alserkal Avenue, an urban campus of upcycled warehouses that’s home to contemporary galleries championing local and regional artists.

Political Role

Overall, Dubai and the UAE have benefited from being a stable political force in a region beset by war and violence. The country’s military is, however, involved in a number of regional conflicts, including the international fight against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as the Saudi-led operation against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The death of 45 UAE troops by a rebel-fired missile strike in 2015 marked the highest number of combat casualties suffered since the country’s founding in 1971, a figure compounded by a further four UAE soldiers who were killed in Yemen's port city of Hudaida in 2018. These deaths have spurred the creation of a new national holiday – Martyr’s Day (30 November).

In 2017 the UAE, along with Bahrain, Egypt and a handful of African nations, joined Saudi Arabia in cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar, which has suspended flights indefinitely. At the time of writing, all diplomatic efforts have proved fruitless in resolving the crisis which has, in turn, rendered the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council virtually obsolete.