Retro Middle East: From camels to cosmopolitan - the changing Gulf landscape

Published August 15th, 2013 - 13:15 GMT

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Doha then and now
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Image 1 of 8: Dusty Doha’s giant steps: Qatar’s modern history is short; rapid development beset the sleepy desert backwater in the last 30 years. And the bulldozing isn't over yet. Grand developments are upon the turbo gas pumping peninsula, set to host the 2022 world cup and an unprecedented sustainable model downtown regeneration project to boot!

Dubai then and now
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Image 1 of 8: Bullet train Dubai: The Gulf's most famous and friendly face, Dubai has developed architecturally, commercially and economically faster than any of its neighbor states. From sea port to oil well to tourism hotspot, this fancy playground boasts a star-studded skyline with kingpin Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

Abu Dhabi
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Image 1 of 8: Dazzling Abu Dhabi: Nothing more than a few lonely office buildings in the 1970s, Abu Dhabi was initially built for an estimated population of 600,000. Today, the Emirati city is one of the top glamor destinations in the Gulf, boasting a population of 900,000, broad boulevards, a plethora of skyscrapers and man-made islands.

Sharjah
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Image 1 of 8: The sun never sets on Sharjah: Like dozens of other places across the globe, the UAE fell victim to British colonialism in the 20th Century. This picture of Sharjah, taken by Brits in 1973, has been superimposed on a recent snap of the Emirati city to show just how far the Sharjah's development has come in the last 40 years.

Riyadh
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Image 1 of 8: City of Sands: Although huge parts of Riyadh are still under construction, the Saudi capital has rapidly transformed itself from an empty desert into a contemporary urban centre. Despite being one of the most conservative places on Earth, Riyadh's architecture is utterly modern.

Jeddah
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Image 1 of 8: Humble beginnings: Jeddah went from a small and simple desert town into the major metropolis of Western Saudi Arabia. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was characterized by small houses and a meager population. Today it is Saudi's commercial hub with a population of three million and attracts students with its avant-garde mixed uni campuses.

Manama
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Image 1 of 8: Financial hub: Bahrain's oil wealth helped spur fast growth, and in the 1990s a concerted diversification effort led to expansion in other industries, transforming parochial Manama into an important financial hub in the Middle East.

Kuwait
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Image 1 of 8: Gamma + Global city: Before skyscrapers sprouted from Kuwait city, and before the Saddam-inspired Liberation Tower marked the tiny oil kingdom’s super-scape, Kuwait city was a sunny, sandy, traditional Arab urban planned desert, minus the high-rises and 360-degree Avenues. Progress aside, some say it still retains a dull brown desert monochrome.

When we think of urban regeneration projects, we automatically turn to the Western world or Japan to be wowed by the most futuristic visions.  But while people thought the Arabs were sleeping, the Gulf states have been undergoing radical structural overhauls.

What makes the transformation of the Gulf all the more miraculous is that before these deserts were developed into metropolises, there was nothing but huge expanses of inhospitable sandy expanse.

It's hard to imagine Dubai, Doha or Kuwait City, today's avant-garde cosmopolitan hot-spots, as nothing but sand dunes grazed haphazardly by drifting rogue camels. Their exponential transformation into dynamic urban dwellings, offering all the modcons for an affluent 21st Century lifestyle, are all the more impressive for their shady past.

Abu Dhabi, a glamorous, bustling city in the Middle East, was nothing but a small village of pearl fishers until the 1970s.

Qatar's Doha has come a long way since its independence from Great Britain in 1971, yet is still considered something of a sleepier Arab city in respect of its pioneering parting Gulfi peers. Sill, Qatar has its hands in many developmental pies: it has dipped its gas giant mitts into education, setting up prestigious satellite college campuses in its sandy climes. 

Exploding with skyscrapers rather than the bombs of the wider Middle East, the Gulf states' innovative designs that scream modernity reflect a city planning style that has remained loyal to the Occidental roots of the region. The Gulf cities, although unrecognisable from their former selves, still retain an Eastern charm. 

Tourism in the Gulf is also booming - as cities like Dubai who took a recent gamble in turning a mean tourism trade are reaping the rewards of a successful investment, with vistors  in scores seeking a beach holiday or lucrative prospects flocking to the once-deserts backwaters.

Perhaps having more to do with its favourable tax laws, the Gulf affords a tempting safe-haven for expats and constitutes a fascinating cultural experiment in bringing locals and expatriates together, melting pot style.

If the world is your oyster shell, then the Gulf is your pearl! But at what cost all this extravagance and towering empire-building? Now the Gulfis and their expat guests face a compromised air quality as pollution replaces nature's sand-storms.

Take a look at some of the most impressive transformations that the biggest Gulf cities have undergone to turn them from arid desert into sexy metropolises. 

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