Gilded in Black Gold: Six Gaudy Projects of the Petroleum Gulf

It’s not a surprise that the Gulf region contains some of the world’s more curious construction.

Northwest to southeast Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the U.A.E. and Oman share more than just a shoreline along the world’s most politically charged body of water. These desert regions were for centuries populated by nomadic Arabian shepherds and traders, seasonal migrants.

Fossil-fuels changed everything. Today the grandchildren of  the last  generation of nomads occupy some of the world’s most densely-populated urban areas along the Arabian Gulf, only returning to satellite-dish-adorned desert tents on weekends and holidays. Royalty from Kuwait City to Muscat awash in petroleum and natural gas dollars invest huge sums in bold construction projects at home as much as they do in Western financial markets (and luxury goods) abroad.

In an absolutist state, the powerful approve the project plans that conform to their private considerations—there’s no debate over proposals. The resulting construction can become rather extravagant and often unique, sometimes perplexing.

Here’s a short list of regional icons, with an eye towards what’s in store if these cities can realize their plans and grow ever larger, their builders ever more ambitious.


The Kuwait Towers


location: Kuwait City, Kuwait
completed: 1986
key fact: The towers can hold up to 4500 cubic meters of water, which is perhaps enough for every NATO soldier to have a shower if Kuwait’s oil facilities were ever (again) threatened by hostiles.

This complex of water towers designed by a couple of Scandinavian architects has come to be considered a symbol of the Gulf region. What it symbolizes is less-well established. The army of Saddam Hussain was observed using the towers for target practice after their 1990 invasion. Recounting this tragic history occupies the bulk of the interior wall space on the tower observation deck ($7). The second deck completes its rotation every 30 minutes, allowing for a view across the whole city.


King Fahd International Airport

location: Dammam, Saudi Arabia
completed: 1990
key fact: KFI Airport’s Area = 425 square miles. (Bahrain = 385 sq. mi.)

Where do you think the world’s largest airport by land area is located? London? New York? Some secret military base in Nevada? Well, possibly. But as far as wikipedia is concerned, it’s outside the capital of the oil-afloat Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Far outside. One story says that the airport was designed to enrich government officials (the al-Saud family) by turning adjacent, previously worthless scrubland into prime real estate near the terminals,  to be sold at great profit. In so doing, they ended up building an airport unnecessarily distant from the city it was purported to serve. Since it was already convenient for travellers in the Dammam area to fly out of nearby Bahrain, many airlines were reluctant to switch airports. Subsequent efforts to increase the number of flights into Dammam airport have failed as notoriously long wait times and a reputation for poor treatment of travellers has discouraged business. Even the royal family has rejected King Fahd Airport, spurning their private royal terminal in Dammam for their private terminal at the Dhahran Airport a few miles away.


 Bahrain World Trade Center

location: Manama, Bahrain
completed: 2008
key fact: At full capacity the 3 wind turbines generate enough power for 15% of the tower’s energy needs.

If you ever mixed your propeller-plane replica kit with your “Skyscrapers of the Future” Lego set as a child, you might have pieced-together a structure that bore resemblance to the Bahrain World Trade Center in Manama. With three turbines, the skyscraper complex is the first of its kind—many engineers turned down the opportunity to lead the project declaring it undoable or too dangerous. The curve of the towers accelerates wind speeds in the gap, creating an airstream “S” effect that maximizes thrust on the blades. The three bridges were specifically designed to avoid contacting the blades during incidents of high winds. Tourists, though, will likely have to content themselves with exploring the shopping center on the ground floors.


 Souq Waqif

location: Doha, Qatar
completed: 2008
key fact: In 1900 the population of Doha was around 12,000.

Saved from demolition and opened to the public during Doha’s recent pre-World Cup construction spree, the Souq Waqif is a romanticized relic of a borrowed history. What was a small complex of concrete warehouses and vendor stands has been refurbished to look like a traditional Middle Eastern heritage theme park. It’s a delight for any traveller nostalgic for Arabian cities as portrayed in Disney stories of their childhood. Urban history in Qatar , though, dates back little more than a century. Of course, if entrepreneurs of the Medieval period had valued petroleum, perhaps an opulent city built on the site of modern Doha might have had a neighborhood that resembled the Souq Waqif. Historical preservationists excepted, tourists flock to the market’s warren of alleys and large plazas for picture-taking, to see the falcon market, and to eat at many fine restaurants or smoke hubbly-bubbly on a rooftop.


Sultan Qaboos Palace

location: Muscat, Oman
completed: 1972
key fact: The sultan doesn’t actually live here.

Brutalist architecture meets gaudy, Arabian fantasy: perhaps the one thing everyone might agree with regarding the Sultan’s estate in Muscat’s government district is that it’s not what you might expect for a ruler’s residence. It’s big and it’s ornate, but after that it all gets kinda hazy. There are colors and patterns, curves and corners, and if you catch it at the right angle, it may be four dimensional. Its indefinite quality certainly makes it a regional must-see. To get within the gates, you’ll probably have to be a member of the delegation of a massive fossil-fuels corporation.


Foreshadow or Fantasy?


The Dynamic Tower

location: tbd Dubai, U.A.E.
completed: ???
key fact: The rotation of each of its 80 floors will be individually controlled.

Famous for its decade-long boom in high-end construction, Dubai’s projects  have been unprecedented in both their horizontal and vertical dimensions, e.g. man-made islands in shapes appreciable only at altitude, such as from the upper floors of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. The overnight manufacture of the ambitious metropolis has made Dubai the showcase of the Gulf region’s booming urban centers. Still, among all the city’s fanciful buildings, completed or in the works, the Dynamic Tower would stand out. If built, it would be the world’s first skyscraper with floors that each rotate independently. Were it proposed for anywhere else in the world it might seem a mere fancy of a rogue architect who enjoys playing SimCity too much.  Pictured in Dubai, it seems slightly less absurd. Supposedly there are plans for similar structures to be built all over the Gulf.


Perhaps the fate of the Dynamic Tower will offer a vision into the future of development in the Gulf.  If forged in steel and glass it would likely be a signal of the end of the slowed regional construction boom, ushering in a new stage of an undeclared, but ever-intensifying rivalry of monument-building among  the petroleum barons of the Gulf capitals. If a mirage in the virtual cloud, its proposal would represent the high-water mark of what was believed possible in a gilded era of Gulf fabrications.


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Gilded in Black Gold: Six Gaudy Projects of the Petroleum Gulf