One of four themed zones in Riverland Dubai is meant to evoke 1950s America. Courtesy of Riverland Dubai

The city’s latest diversion might spur the economy, but it excludes the majority of the population.

Riverland Dubai, the Persian Gulf emirate’s latest theme park, opened this week to fanfare in the local press. It features a half-mile sea-foam green river traversing four zones with buildings that evoke different places and eras: 17th-century France, late 19th-century France, colonial India, and the United States of the 1950s. All of the zones have a sanitized, rarefied look that glosses over any of the messy realities that each place and era saw. Instead, they have a myriad of shopping and dining options, and there’s a Polynesian-themed hotel for those who desire an overnight stay. Entry to the park is free of charge, though it serves as a gateway to ticketed venues such as Legoland Dubai.

The odd historical and cultural choices, the Epcot-like feel, and the aura of consumerism make Riverland Dubai ripe for caricature. It would be easy to describe it as simply another Dubai project that uses pastiche and extravagance to draw attention and business.

Yet Riverland Dubai has a deeper story to tell, namely of how the emirate’s economy shapes its landscape through the near-continuous construction of leisure spaces. The American University of Sharjah architecture professor Kevin Mitchell notes, for instance, that Riverland Dubai is part of the city’s broader strategy of attracting regional tourism—a strategy that has produced a number of themed environments such as the luxury resort Madinat Jumeirah, which bills itself as “an authentic recreation of ancient Arabia.”

Spaces like these are part of Dubai’s shrewd attempt to diversify its economy so that it is not overly dependent on oil—a goal that all of the petroleum-rich Persian Gulf nations are trying to meet. Dubai has been the most successful, in part out of necessity: its oil reserves are small in comparison to those of its fellow emirate, Abu Dhabi, which holds 94 percent of the UAE’s oil. As a result, Dubai has focused on other sectors such as tourism, global shipping, and real estate.

Still, this focus on tourism and foreign investment means that the people who actually live in Dubai are often left out of the equation when it comes to the city’s showy projects—except perhaps to build or work in them. Foreign laborers make up close to 90 percent of the population and hail mainly from across Asia. Yet most will likely never set foot in the park, which appears to be mainly geared for tourists, Emiratis, and well-to-do Western expats, with offerings such as a sushi restaurant designed by Philippe Starck and a store selling high-tech gadgets. Rather, locals inhabit and frequent spaces rarely covered in the media, such as the older, less expensive districts of Karama and Satwa, which feature low-rise apartment buildings and ground-floor shops.

Karama is a lower-income area of Dubai that is home to many of the emirate’s foreign workers. (Jan Toledo/Flickr)

Mitchell says that these types of quotidian spaces, rather than the emirate’s iconic structures and theme parks, will in the end determine what kind of place Dubai is. “In the long term, urban environments formed by unassuming buildings will perhaps play the most significant role in establishing the identity of the city,” he says.

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