DUBAI 2002-2012/ Free Zone and Urban Transformation

“Dubai’s location between the developed economies to the west and the emerging economies to the south and east make it a natural centre point for trade, global financial markets and transportation links.”

—- Report: Middle East Free Zones of the Future

Launched in 2004 in Federal Law, Free Zone Policy has a profound influence on Dubai’s development. Several free zones are set up throughout Dubai city, so as to attract foreign investment and to promote the globalization of economy in Dubai. The setup of the free zones not only changes the economic structure but also affects the urban structure in Dubai.

Figure 1 John Harris’ first Dubai Masterplan
Figure 1 John Harris’ first Dubai Master plan in 1959 © John Harris, 1959

Dubai is located on the Persian Gulf and right next to a large area of desert, which triggered the coastal development around the Dubai Creek. In the early 20th century, there were several industries developed based on the creek, such as, fishing, pearling and shipping. Moreover, in the previous master plan of Dubai, dense urban development was mainly planned around Dubai creek. ( Figure 1 ) Therefore, Dubai Creek became the city center at that time. With the rapid industrial development, in 1980s,the new Port of Jebel Ali and the main artery Sheikh Zayed Highway was constructed. The infrastructure development formed the framework for further urban expansion in Dubai. In Figure 2 , from 1980s to 2005, the urban form of Dubai gradually developed  from a compact regiment to a long coastal strip. As the urban form changed and urban area increased greatly, the old city center around Dubai Creek could not fulfill the needs to support the whole city. So the setup of free zones throughout the city played a key role in transforming Dubai’s urban structure from a monocentric city to a polycentric city.


Figure 2 Dubai’s urban morphology development from 1930 to 2015 © Elsheshtawy Yasser, 2009

According to the Free Zone Authority, the aim to set up free zones is to develop “city in city” in different fields, including finance, business, manufacture, internet and media. In the free zones, companies are offered with lots of benefits, including tax exemption and 100% land ownership. In the trend of globalization, foreign investment and companies on different fields are attracted to the free zones in Dubai. Incorporated with the global power, the free zones are developed into new city centers where dense development activities take place.

Figure 3 Free Zones in Dubai:
Figure 3 Free Zones in Dubai © Peng Huiting, 2016

The site location of the free zones is planned carefully because it has a great influence on the urban fabric. Most of the free zones are set up on vacant land in new urban fabric. Rather than cluster together, the free zones are situated throughout the new urban strip from the edge of old city center to the new port of Jebel Ali (Figure 3). They are developed into new city centers with the global power and foreign investment, so that the new urban fabric with multiple centers can be highly activated. Moreover, the free zones are all distributed along highway infrastructure. Through the highway, they are connected to one another and form a new network of multiple centers throughout the urban fabric. For example, Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) is one of the largest free zone in Dubai. It’s situated on a block of desert south to the old city center, bounded by multi-lane highway running through the whole city. Within 5 years, it has been developed from a vacant land to one of the most important city center in Dubai. Moreover, the surrounding areas are also activated by DIFC and developed into a large-scale recreational zone Downtown Dubai and some residential zones.

Therefore, mainly driven by the globalization trend, Free Zone development is also a response to the urban expansion in Dubai and helps transform Dubai from a monocentric city to a polycentric city.

In our study, we choose three free zones as the examples with the reasons below.


Business Bay

  1. a new business center based a the extension of the creek
  2. To develop a mini Manhattan to redefine the position of Dubai in middle east.
  3. Real estate project which is residential oriented and mixed-use to attract the investment.
  4. Multiple small centers connected by roads and water.


  1. DIFC is an important symbol of globalization in Dubai.
  2. Architecture firms, developers and contractors from different background are involved in the DIFC development.
  3. It’s interesting to see the relationship between architecture in DIFC with the trend of globalization and vernacular factors.


  1. High tech based industrial development
  2. Economic transformation: from real estate/ finance to service industry
  3. Coastal development – beginning of inland development
  4. Dubai smart city’ testing field


Elsheshtawy, Yasser. Dubai: Behind an urban spectacle. routledge, 2009.

Matly, Michael, and Laura Dillon. “Dubai strategy: past, present, future.” Harvard Business School (2007): 1-20.

Pacione, Michael. “Dubai: City Profile.” Cities 22, no. 3 (2005): 255-65.


“Middle East Free Zones of the Future”, Jacqueline Walls, 2013,


2 Comments on “DUBAI 2002-2012/ Free Zone and Urban Transformation

    • Thank you so much for your comments! We reorganized the two posts to make it more clear. In James’ post, he briefly introduce the background of the development from 19th century to 20th century. And in this one, the main focus is the introduction of Free Zones as a response to urban structure transformation in Dubai and three zones we further investigate into.

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