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Dubai is emerging as one of the most respected architectural sites in the world owing to its renowned structures and remarkable designs. However, it must be understood that the buildings represent more than just the physical; they have a cultural role as well.

Architecture in Dubai is an affirmation of its distinct multicultural composition but in the wake of all this modernization, its inhabitants have sought to maintain their cultural heritage. Through this analysis, it shall be seen how certain buildings in Dubai are indicative of; the need to have a sense of belonging, a reaction to the changes in the society and an attempt to maintain pride and national identity.

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Depictions of cultural heritage in Dubai’s architecture

Ancient architecture has been merged seamlessly with modern designs in this City. In Shindagha district, one will find the oldest building in the history of Dubai known as the Al Fahidi Fort. This building dates backed to the eighteenth century since it was built in 1799. The emirates’ administrators realized the importance of such a historical building so they placed it under the guardianship of the Dubai Museum.

The latter group would ensure that the Fort remained well maintained and visible. In this same district, one can also find wind towers which are unique structures that resemble typical towers but are shorter in length. Those were traditional buildings that were used by inhabitants decades ago. Perhaps the most outstanding component of architecture in this area is the former Sheikh Saeed’s home (Sambige, 2009).

This building underwent major renovations and has even been transformed into a cultural centre as it is a museum. In it, one will find a lot of information about the history of Dubai and the manner in which its people lived in the past. Even the physical appearance of the building is indicative of the UAE’s cultural heritage. It is shaped in the form of dhow. Previously, most inhabitants used dhows for trading since this was a major form of transport at that time. The practice is still prevalent today as many creeks still possess the iconic dhow.

One can find more of these traditions in another district called Bastakiya. The area is flooded with hotels and galleries that have been built using Islamic imprints. Although these are modern designs, they were inspired by Dubai’s rich history. The same idea can be found in the Palm Islands. These are artificial coastlines that were inspired by the Palm tree which has traditionally been a source of food, trade and much more to the inhabitants of this Emirate.

Many hotels have been built using modern designs but are surrounded by traditional forms in order to show the world the Arabic heritage of its people. For instance, the Madinat Jumeirah imitated a traditional fortress synonymous to the Arabs. One can also find a marketplace within this location in order to contribute towards the traditional cultural experience of the place.

In this City, one is also likely to find many other old houses that have been renovated by the administration and turned into historical sites such as the Mjlis Gallery. Here, one can learn about the Arabian traditional lifestyle. Music, cuisine, dressing and other cultural components of art can be found in these locations.

One of the most outstanding buildings is Burj Khalifa; now rated as the world’s tallest building. It was only completed last year in 2010 and has certain features that make it uniquely Arabian. First, the building epitomizes modern interpretations of Islamic architecture.

It is triple lobed and this has always been associated with a flower called hymenocallis which only grows in the desert and actually originates in the UAE. Many other patterns in it are derived from Islamic footprints so it can be said that the building conveys the unique culture of Dubai. Since Dubai has the tallest skyline then it has definitely attracted world attention to the heritage of these people (Krane, 2009).

Cultural significance of the architecture

Several buildings in Dubai have been restored and renovated by the emirates’ administrative arm. Indeed Dubai Municipality has been the recipient of many architectural awards including the best restoration project.

The reason why the Municipal has taken a personal responsibility over these buildings is to safeguard the “cultural legacy of Dubai” as described by Engineer Bukhash of the Architectural heritage Department. He asserted that such efforts are imperative in the affirmation of national identity. Indeed the presence of an architectural heritage department illustrates just how seriously people in this Emirate treat their culture. It should be noted that natives in Dubai account for less than thirty percent of the population.

Consequently, it is easy for them to lose their sense of nationhood to the many foreigners in their nation. The state needed to do something about that possibility by establishing or restoring immensely visible and distinct buildings that would symbolize this national identity.

The use of iconography or creation of iconic images such as the Burj Khalifa have illustrated just how important the Islamic culture and way of life is important to the people of Dubai. They have shown the world that this is a component that brings its people together. Many architectural designs have been created in order to create a sense of belonging. This is the reason why one is likely to find Museums and galleries that reflect this.

Even modern buildings borrow from past preferences thus showing that there is something distinct about the UAE and Dubai in particular. In other words, the natives wanted to feel as though they actually belong to a real place with a real culture. When put in another way, these cultural buildings have served the purpose of enforcing a sense of belonging.

Dubai has often been seen as a place of wealth especially with its shopping festivals and the only ‘seven star’ hotel in the world. Indeed, most of these landscapes are quite western. It would have been quite easy for them to get immersed in the western culture since the same has happened to many places around the world.

These quick and immense transformations in Dubai’s culture may have contributed towards a rigid depiction of the country as prosperous but without a unique identity. Dubai had to work on its brand in order to give it a distinct personality that would make it different from other western or developed nations around the world. In other words, some of these cultural buildings were sending a non verbal message to the world that Dubai is unique and that it has not been submerged by more dominant world cultures.

Critiques have affirmed that this is indicative of a weak confidence in one’s culture. By looking back at the emirates’ past and bringing it to life through architecture, residents in this city were illustrating that they were not sure about their identity and needed to use such a method to convey it. Nonetheless, these are the views of the minority since architectural identities have always been ways of telling the world what is going on in a certain location, district, country or region.

The reason why possession of a unique cultural identity is so important to Dubai is that the world is increasingly getting more inquisitive. Proliferation of internet technologies allows people to access information as a fraction of a second. Societies want to learn and know more about the ‘Other’ in an attempt to bridge the cultural knowledge gap. Most individuals have accepted that they will need one another in the future so they have been working at knowing and understanding others.

If stakeholders reflect about their identities and use architecture as that unique instrument to portray that deep vision then chances are that the concerned culture will have created a domain for itself and will be illustrating that it does indeed have something lucrative to offer the world. Cultural reflection through architecture is insightful and this provides a way of bridging both the present and the past. It may even give indications on how the future could turn out and thus promote culture (King, 2004).

It is true that tourism is one of the many reasons why foreigners flood this small emirate of the world. Inhabitants in Dubai have realized that and have attempted to represent themselves through the visual components of their buildings. It is almost as though these buildings are metaphors which are revealing certain literal and abstract relationships between the past and present eras.

Some of the architecture achieves this through its direct relationship with the past i.e. that the building was designed ages ago which in certain instances, this is revealed through few images or elements that either borrow from historical architectural designs or are inspired by certain cultural components. Sometimes the latter can be found in the natural environment such as the desert flower. All these contribute towards a visual component in tourism.

Sometimes a conservative approach is needed in order to detest against post modernism. It is almost as if these buildings want to defy all other goings on in their environment. Such conservatism is indicative of a form of rebellion against change. Architecture- much like any other form of expression- can be used as a platform for demonstrating how globalization has permeated and affected the lives of different people around the world.

When designs fit into the status quo then chances are that their functionality and visual effects are also indicative of global discourses. However, when a nation is bombarded by international symbols and signs then natives are likely to respond through cultural resistance. Indeed, this problem has been discussed in local media especially concerning western manners and style of dress.

The same debate has permeated into the architectural profession and locals have felt a need to conserve the Islamic way of life through different avenues such as architecture (Asfour, 2004). However, since the global environment is still an important part of the Dubai way of life then architects cannot simply eliminate all influences from the modern era. Consequently, most have struck a compromise between the past and the present.

They have not copied everything from the past but have used influences from the rich cultural heritage of the UAE to create a new and refreshing identity for their way of life. In other words, this is still cultural resistance albeit a milder, less radical and effective way of resisting western cultural domination.


A look at some of the architectural designs in Dubai reflects a need to capture past values in stone or concrete. Many buildings have been inspired from the past while others have been preserved throughout history. These conscious efforts may be seen as a way of curving out a cultural and national identity.

On the other hand, they maybe a form of cultural resistance since Dubai has been invaded by numerous external cultures. On the other hand, since natives represent such a small portion of the population of the emirate then architectural cultural identity may be used to reinforce a sense of belonging among its natives who may feel invisible to the foreigners in their land.


Asfour, K. (2004). Identity in the Arab region. Berlin University of technology conference. 12, 99

Krane, J. (2009). Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. NY: ST Martins Press

King, A. (2004). Spaces of global cultures, architecture, urbanism and Identity. London: Routledge

Sambige. A. (2009). Cultural identity key to success for Gulf cities. Arabian business, September, 9th