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What is the True Size of Dubai?

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As one of the world’s most exciting urban sagas of recent times, Dubai has risen from being a small dessert village in the 1960s to a global city in 2014. The 1990s and 2000s saw particularly intensive periods of construction in Dubai, with foreign immigrants streaming into the area and vastly expanding the city’s size. After nearly defaulting on its debts in 2009, Dubai’s economy is on the up once again, with numerous international companies seeking to profit from the growing consumer base in the city. Potentially, this investor interest should be even more pronounced as the size of Dubai and its consumer base is often underestimated.

The Urbanised Conurbation of the Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman Emirates Forms an Integrated Metropolitan Area

Dubai metro area resized.jpeg

Source: Euromonitor International


Dubai: From City to Metropolis

The most common understanding of Dubai’s size defines the city as an urbanised territory in Dubai emirate, while the actual city extends well beyond the emirate. Over the last decade, Dubai has pursued vast infrastructure projects which naturally attracted tens of thousands of blue-collar workers. For example, in 2013, immigrants accounted for nearly 90% of the United Arab Emirates population. The influx of foreigners into Dubai soon inflated rental prices in the core city area - housing accounted for up to 40% of average household spending in the city in 2013. The huge rents in Dubai triggered urban sprawl and build-up in surrounding territories, and workers soon found apartments in the neighbouring Sharjah and Ajman emirates just as appealing as in central Dubai.

Today, Sharjah is even known as the “bedroom” of Dubai, with the two emirates growing their economic ties. For example, to ease traffic congestion and facilitate commuting, Sharjah has put forward plans to integrate its bus system into the Dubai metro. At the same time, retailers find rents in Sharjah more attractive and as of 2014 Sharjah has seen its retail operations grow, in turn attracting shoppers from Dubai. The bottom line is that metropolitan Dubai should no longer be treated as a Dubai emirate but rather as an all-inclusive urban conurbation of the Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman emirates.

More than Five Million People?

The expansion of Dubai has been so fast that it has been difficult to document properly: the huge swings in immigration to the country and lack of recent census make the numbers hard to verify. Official Dubai statistics put the resident population of the Dubai emirate at 2.1 million in 2012. At the same time, the Dubai emirate daytime population, which includes commuters and tourists, was around three million, according to official statistics. However, United Arab Emirates national statistics office estimated the overall country's population to be eight million in 2009, and, bearing this figure in mind, the resident population count of two million in Dubai is clearly too low.

The country’s estimated population growth rate was 7% prior to 2005, while thanks to growth in immigration the figure quickly rose to over 20% a year over 2006-2008, with most newcomers settling in Dubai. Since the economic downturn in 2009, Dubai’s population growth has slowed dramatically, but Dubai remains the fastest growing city worldwide. Taking into account immigration, natural increases and available population estimates from national statistics, the city saw its population nearly triple over 2005-2013, and, as of 2013, the total population count for the wider Dubai metropolitan area (ie the Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman emirates combined) stood at five million. Annual consumer spending in the Dubai metropolitan area reached US$118 billion in 2013, similar to that in Milan or Rio de Janeiro.

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