Skyscrapers in the Sand

Dubai’s skyline is a symbol of its ambition

Approach Dubai from the desert and its gleaming skyscrapers shimmer like a mirage. Dubai’s architectural achievements symbolise the emirate’s arrival as a great commercial centre and a modern city.

Dubai now has the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa at 828m); the tallest hotel (the JW Marriott Marquis at 355m); the tallest residential building (the Princess Tower at 413m); and by the end of the decade, the world’s tallest commercial tower (the Burj 2020).

This long line-up of world-firsts reflect the city’s economic dynamism, its business know-how and inspires curiosity and optimism about just where things can be taken in Dubai.

In terms of the number of buildings standing at over 150m, Dubai ranks third in the world after Hong Kong Kong and New York. Some of the world’s greatest architects have helped Dubai achieve this but the city has also called on the architectural and engineering talents of the Middle East.

Yet Dubai has the greatest number of buildings standing at over 300m—18 in all, with 10 in construction—and that makes its skyline taller than Manhattan’s or Hong Kong’s or Chicago’s.

Take a drive down the eight lane artery of Sheikh Zayed Road, past Business Bay and down to the Dubai Marina and you’ll see how the skyscrapers reflect the dynamic forces that are attracting people and businesses to Dubai.

Buildings mean people. By 2020, Dubai’s population is expected to grow from its current level of 2.39 million to more than three million people. 

The emirate prides itself on its stable mix of cultures and easy lifestyle, attracting not just locals from the region but people from all over the world.

For this reason most skyscrapers are residential buildings (51 per cent), followed by mixed designs buildings (21 per cent) and offices.

And it is not just a height contest either. Design and appearance provide an aesthetic aura that conjures up something unique to Dubai and exciting about the Arabian Gulf.


According to Bashar Kayali of al Ghurair Construction, the Dubai-based company that installed the silvery façade for the Burj Khalifa, design is critical.

Kayali said the aesthetic effect of a building façade went beyond the appearance of the building itself and helped define the surrounding public spaces.


Set in Dubai’s financial district, the silvery and coppery gleam of the Jumeirah Emirates Towers--tower one stands at 354.6m--captures and recalls the desert light in a blaze of modernist design.

Many of Dubai’s skyscrapers are adorned with variants of traditional Arabic design, such as the mashrabiya, a screen for shade and for privacy, while others have unique geometric properties.


For instance, the design of the two towers of the JW Marriott Marquis was modelled on the date palm, an omnipresent symbol of Arabic life.


Located on an artificial island in Jumeirah, the Burj al Arab opened as a hotel in 1999; it was the first of many tall buildings with designs that are stamped as being from Dubai.

Before 1999, Dubai did not have a single building above 200m, but after that the rush of super tall buildings began in the 2000s.


Another outstanding design is the Cayan Tower, a remarkable twisted building standing at 306.4m and located in the Dubai Marina.

A luxury apartment complex, each floor of the Cayan is set 1.2 degrees clockwise to the floor below and the entire building is twisted 90 degrees from top to bottom.

Seen from the Palm Jumeirah, the Dubai Marina’s astonishing skyline confirms its status as the biggest cluster of apartment skyscrapers in the world.

Dubai’s skyscrapers are now a symbol of the emirate as much as the desert has been for millennia.

These modernist citadels belong to the city and its people as an identity, a reminder in steel, concrete and glass of what can be achieved in Dubai with the right level of determination and skill.

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