Mina Akhavan is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow & Adjunct Professor in Urban Planning and Design at Politecnico di Milano-Department of Architecture and Urban Studies, where she received a PhD degree in Spatial Planning and Urban Development (2015), with a doctoral thesis on port-cites, port infrastructures and their impact on urban development. Her research interests also concern the globalization trends and logistics network; transnational urbanism; sharing economy and new emerging workplaces. More recently she has been working on a research project regarding mobility and ageing. She has published in several peer-reviewed journals and wrote the book entitled: “Port Geography and Hinterland Development Dynamics”(Springer). She is a member of the management committee (Italy) of the European Cost Action 18214 “The Geography of New Working Spaces and the Impact on the Periphery” (2019-2023). She is also a member of the editorial board of the bi-lingual (Italian-English) journal of Urbanistica.
DM: Hi, my name is Diane Mehanna. I'm an Architect and Program Coordinator at Sharjah Architecture Triennial. I am pleased to welcome Dr. Mina Akhavan who is joining us today for the third series of SATtalks, Architecture+ Infrastructure.
I'll start with a short introduction. Mina Akhavan is a postdoctoral research fellow and Adjunct Professor in Urban Planning and Design at the Department of Architecture and Urban Studies at Politecnico di Milano, where she received a PhD in Spatial Planning and Urban Development in 2015. Her doctoral thesis focused on port cities, port infrastructures, and their impact on urban development. Her research interests include globalization trends and logistics network, transnational urbanisms, sharing economy, and new emerging workplaces. More recently she has been working on a research project regarding mobility and aging. She has published several articles in peer-reviewed journals and a book entitled Port Geography and Hinterland: Development Dynamics (Springer, 2020). She is also a member of the editorial board of the bilingual Italian-English journal Urbanistica.
DM: Thank you for joining us from Milan. It's a pleasure to have you with us today.
MA: Thank you for giving me the time. It's a pleasure.
DM: Let's start by talking about the context of your work. What are the motivations that led you to study Middle Eastern port cities and their infrastructural developments?
MA: My interest in port cities studies goes back to 2011, when I started working on my Masters thesis on new urban waterfronts in some European post-industrial port cities. But then, during my studies on the very extensive literature that we have on port geography and port city studies in general, I discovered that actually these studies are derived from mostly Western world and fast developing countries of the far East, such as China. So, I discovered this geographic gap in port city studies and literature. That was one of the main motivations that led me to go explore to understand what is happening in the Middle Eastern world or Western Asia. And, within this region (which is also the region that I'm from, that was also another motivation), this fast developing Arab states, Arab world of the Persian Gulf, was very much interesting as they are becoming key leaders, key players in the global sphere, not only in the global supply chain, but also key investors and mediators of that global commodity flow.
So, for my doctoral studies, I had this chance to tackle the complex issues regarding the interaction between the city and the development of ports in this region, from which I chose Dubai as my main case study. This was also because Dubai has actually reached this level of development that we can actually compare it with other international “global hub port cities,” such as Singapore in the East or the others in the West.
And, the story of this changing position of Dubai ports within the regional maritime ports eventually becoming a main node, a main hub not just in the region but worldwide is very interesting. Also, because this port city development in the Western world—developing from small fishing village into major port cities—has happened over centuries, in Dubai, this transformation happened in just less than 40 years. This also makes it easier to track down different phases of development for us, urban planners and those who are interested in urban studies.
DM: Can you elaborate on the multidisciplinary aspect of your research methodology and give us examples about the type of experts you collaborate with?
MA: I have to say that of course I built a framed theoretical basis starting from the literature, but then what I discovered is that the literature was very much biased with mono- disciplinary tendencies, so, I very much tried to apply multidisciplinary lenses and mixed methods. I'm trying to mix some qualitative and quantitative methods derived from urban planning, geography, urban economy, and social studies disciplines. To be more specific, my supervisor in my PhD is an economic geographer so that also opened a new world to me. I had the chance to work with big data, try to work with more sophisticated, quantitative methods. I had the chance to go to CNRS Paris in Paris, which is a very important research center: they are all geographers so they actually used other kinds of methods with respect to my background, which is architecture and urban planning.
DM: If we look into Middle Eastern ports and more specifically into maritime trade in the Arabian Peninsula, which port cities play a key role in the regional network today?
MA: Well, this is an easy question because a great part of my study was concerned about this. But, when I'm going to talk about ports, I have to say, first of all, that I have mainly tracked down container ports. And, let's start from a more worldwide perspective, container ports worldwide are competing to expand the capacity, to keep pace with the needs of the fast growing trade requirements of regional shipping, port developments, and so on.
Part of the Middle Eastern region, especially countries favored by the oil revenues, are all first about mega port-development strategy. More specifically, when we talk about the GCC countries, they are investing heavily their oil revenues in further developing the port-infrastructures and developing trade zones and industrial complex with the aim again to promote trade, creating employment, and to diversify the non oil-based economy. This is really important for these countries. So, as the regional trading hub, the Emirates ports, mainly with Jebel Ali one taking the lead has invested (this data is from up until like 2013) $8.6 billion on expanding their port-related facilities. Thanks to its port and anchored infrastructures, the Emirates accounted for 50% of the GCC imports and 30% of the exports.
I want to go a little bit backwards into history—again, not recent but let's say since the 80s—because, actually, Dubai emerged very recently. But, before that, we had mainly the Saudi Arabian ports that were playing a key role. We have the Jeddah port, the port of Dammam, which previously—I'm talking about the mid 80s—they were handling around 40 to 50% of the total commodity flows that we're entering into the region. But, then, starting from the mid-90s onwards, the regional network started changing and we see that Dubai ports—at the beginning we had Port Rashid and Port Jebel Ali working together, later on Jebel Ali took the lead. Now, around 40% of the traffic is being controlled by Port Jebel Ali. Now, after Dubai, we have Port Jeddah of Saudi Arabia second, then we have Salalah in Oman. We also have the port of Sharjah, Khor Fakkan, and the new King Abdallah Aziz Port, Dammam and so on. These are the most important ones.
DM: You described port cities in the UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia as key players in the regional trade. Now I'd like to ask what are the characteristics that allow these ports cities to be more competitive than others?
MA: Again, I want to make reference to the Dubai one. One of the main key words here are the leader's vision towards this hub-making. It seems that the government-based initiatives, coupled with this internationalization strategies can be effective in attracting FDI (Foreign Direct Investments) for local growth and for consolidating its position as a regional and global transshipment and logistics hub. If I have to summarize some of the key points: definitely, strategic location at the crossroad of the major shipping line, trading use is the key note here, and the provision of modern infrastructures. We are talking about not only maritime ports but then coupled with airports and other ancillary trade-related infrastructures. This diversifying and growth in economy, the growing international trade, added-value industries, the establishment of free trade zones, growing urbanization, this multinational demographic pattern that we see in the Emirates is also a key point. And then developing a multimodal logistics capabilities and of course, last but not least, the active role of the government and various public institutions. So, the role of institutions here is quite important—I would say very important. A political economy that we've seen and the strong policies that have been applied in this country city-state is essential.
DM: Looking at Dubai's context of government-based initiatives and investment on modern infrastructure, as you just explained, I'd like to go back to a term that you often use in your writings to describe Dubai's development, which is "the Dubai model." Can you explain further what you mean by this designation?
MA: First of all, I have to underline the fact that the term “Dubai model” wasn't first used by me. Other researchers from different disciplines (architects, historians) have also used this term. I would want to refer to Martin Hvidt in 2009, his publication The Dubai Model: An Outline Of Key Development-Process Elements in Dubai is something that inspired me. What was missing in many of these publications is this important role of the port as the “backbone” of city development. So, I try to use this to kind of understand whether there is this model, this pattern of development. In other regions like in the Western and the Asian, we have this port-city development model, but what was missing here was one for the Middle East. I try to fill the gap in the literature.
DM: Could you describe the four-phase development pattern that you use to represent Dubai's growth from a regional entrepot in the 60s and 70s into a global hub port city from 2000s and onwards?
MA: I outlined this model which contains four stages. I want to be more specific about what this means: so, it's about this reciprocal relationship between the port and city development throughout time. I tried to trace this development starting from Dubai as a fishing village and the advent of a free port starting from the 20th century until mid-50s. The “entrepot port-city” from 60s or 70s, the third one is the “transhipment hub port-city” started from 80s to 90s and the most recent one that we have is the “logistics hub port-city” starting from the mid-2000s until the present. So, using this conceptual modeling will help us understand this development—this change of the nature of this relationship between the port and the city through time. This is why also economic geographers use these kinds of conceptual models, which I try to apply for the case of Dubai.
For me, this model is mainly characterized, on the one hand, by the massive influx of oil revenues invested on modern transport infrastructure starting with maritime ports, and, on the other hand, through developing the free port into varied Free Trade Zones to allow foreign direct investments. I discuss this model of development is triggered by a trade-based infrastructure, a development model based on a reciprocal relationship. I discuss that historically the port has been a backbone for the social economic development and increasing the level of international trade. Starting from the creek-dredging and then the construction of the two main, very massive man-made ports, and its developing hinterland, which are key elements in diversifying the economy and making a logistics hub city.
DM: So, to go back to the relationship between the port and its hinterland, I'd like to focus on Jebel Ali area, which is composed of Jebel Ali port and an adjacent Free Trade Zone. Can you describe how the Free Zone's growth contributed to Jebel Ali's development into a transhipment hub? And maybe, give us a sense of this growth and explain the notion of extraterritoriality that is intrinsic to Free Zones.
MA: The development story of Jebel Ali area and the Jebel Ali Free Zone area in general is indeed complex. And then also, I should underline the fact that, when we talk about Jebel Ali, we should not forget that this was built as the second port of Dubai, a massive made one. Before that we had Port Rashid, built in 1972. But then through time (there is a whole lot of Interesting story behind this, you can find it in my book, I have gone into detail into this) from the mid-80s, Port Rashid was still one of the main ports of the region, but it gradually lost its container traffic and container activities to the new port at that time, Jebel Ali which was built by the end of the 1970s, in 1979. It then maintained part of its general cargo flows and until 2008, when it was officially closed for cruise shipping operation. When Port Jebel Ali was built at that time there was nothing in that area at the border of Dubai and it was complete desert. It was kind of a trigger for the development of the whole city. If I want to be more specific, as key government-led initiatives that led to this development, I have to divide them into “main infrastructures”, “ancillary infrastructures” and “trade and logistic based institutions”.
I want to underline that we have in this area, first of all the port and then we had the two Free Trade Zones (Jebel Ali North and South), which were also built in around the mid-80s and their main functions included port discharge cargo, warehousing and logistics, trade manufacturing, and services for local, regional and international players. Another very important development in that area, which helped trigger Jebel Ali into another level, was a new airport complex (which was previously called the Dubai World Central) launched in 2006 at the center of this 140 square kilometers multifunctional development. We have Al Maktoum airport, which was inaugurated in 2010 for freight flows, and now, this area, of course, it's called Dubai South, I'm sure you know about this, again, here we have a massive Free Zone area which includes business and organizations operating in the aviation and logistics industries. The master plan (which has now been revised for many times), originally had the working title of Jebel Ali Airport City, now it's called Dubai South and it really works together with the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone and the Jebel Ali Port. We call this a “multimodal logistics corridor”.
I have to underline the fact that Jebel Ali was originally born as an industrial district (this is what we know from studying the planning documents), the location and constructions of the industries in close proximity to the two main maritime ports ensure a reduction in costs and economies of scale, based on the data on the amount and type of commodity traffic handled at the two ports, the type of goods and how they are discharged (like petroleum or general goods containers and so on). So, this is just to give you a little bit example of what we are talking about but we know that that port is specialized in a container traffic: 70% of the traffic.
DM: Can you explain what is a multimodal logistics corridor? And, maybe tell us how it allowed Dubai to become a global maritime node.
MA: It's called the “Dubai logistics corridor,” which was inaugurated in 2010 with the vision of linking sea, land, and air, which spreads over an area of approximately 200 square kilometers. It was a vision to host around 10,000 companies with more than 300,000 employees, which is something that was the first of the kind in the world in order to create this “logistics corridor”. The different elements that I pointed out beforehand about the port, free-trade zone, and the southern part of the area (which is Dubai South), together they develop this logistics corridor. This is one of the key elements that allows Dubai to become a regional competitor, becoming a logistics hub, not just at the regional level, but at also at the global scale.
Going back again to your question about how the Jebel Ali Free Zone was a driving force or a growth pole for the development of the other city, I have to say that the decision to locate JAFZ as a pioneering free zone project: the city was to offer the foreign companies easy access to major business facilities related to maritime activities, giving them 100% foreign ownership—this was the key point. Of course, this was the first attempt to develop the port, hinterland, and logistics activities, and as the chairman of Dubai Port World calls it, Jebel Ali Port plays “a pivotal role enabling international trade” so companies operating in this area can import and export their goods and products to the various countries of the region.
We know that now we have in Dubai around (well, my data is a little bit old, from 2015) 22 other free zones active in Dubai. You might have heard of, the Dubai Technology Park, Silicon City, Industrial Area, and so on, and they are known to be copying the idea of the Jebel Ali Free Zone. And, together they are making this mosaic city of cities. What I also call the “spreading system” of Free Trade zones in developing the desert. Dubai was one of the first city state in the GCC countries to establish this trade-oriented free zones as regulatory enclaves with a tariff-free imports and full foreign ownership of business. Even through my mapping of this area, you can even perceive it, how this mosaic of free zones has helped develop the city from the Jebel Ali area towards the historical part, which is known to be the Creek and the Port Rashid area.
DM: What is the relationship between Port Rashid and Jebel Ali today? Do they have any kind of complementary roles?
MA: Well, not really. Why did Dubai decide to develop another port away from the city center? Because Port Rashid was becoming very congested. The amount of traffic coming to the city center was becoming too much to control. So, this was the first reason that they decided to push this kind of activity a little bit away from the city center. So, no, there is no conflict between these two because they do completely different maritime related activities: now Port Rashid is active only for tourism-based functions: it's open only to cruise ships and minor trade related activities.
DM: We discussed modern infrastructure and multimodal logistics, but what about the operators or companies that operate these logistics platforms?
MA: For instance, we have the Dubai Ports International and Dubai Ports Authority that merged to develop this Dubai Ports World; Jebel Ali is the flagship project of the Dubai Ports World but now it's acting as an international player. I don't know if you want me to go in deep into that point as well.
DM: Yes, can you describe how Dubai Port World became a leading global port operator with a portfolio of 78 operating marine and inland terminals worldwide. What are the other major activities of the company at an international scale?
MA: Again, this is another very interesting topic that I believe should be further studied because we know little bit about the impact of this international, very powerful port operator that is working at the worldwide scale. When did it start from? We know that the formation of the wholly owned subsidiary, Dubai Port International (or DPI) in ’99 together with its first foreign project, which was the Jeddah Islamic port in Saudi Arabia. So, it all starts from there: they started to go outside, first in the region and then worldwide. So, a year later around 2000, DPI had to control over port of Djibouti, and not only the port but also the airport, as well as managing its maritime port and container operations and the logistics steps.
When DP (at that time DPI, starting from 2005, it's called DP World… I will explain how it came to that), we should know that when they arrive there, they take control of the infrastructure. So, either they do only management or they collaborate, let's say contribute to the investment on the more like engineering development of the port and this can be based on some agreements. So, it can be a 30-year agreement, just to give you an idea. We know that the global footprint expanded by the Dubai Ports operator went towards India in 2002, Costanza in Romania in 2003, and then so on. Another important step in global development strategies was in 2005, when DPI buys the North Kerala based CSX World terminal, which was a leading global container terminal at that time, including Asia and South America. The acquisition makes Dubai among the top six world operators of terminals.
We are talking about 2005, and at that time we have the formation of what we know today as Dubai Port World or DP World, which is an Emirati maritime-based terminal operator which has the Jebel Ali as its flagship project as I mentioned beforehand. It's a wholly-owned subsidiary by the government, and as you also mentioned yourself, currently controls 78 maritime ports worldwide. The business model that they apply in different ports (but it really depends on the political system, you know that the ports are mainly national assets, so they are mainly governed by, they are part of the public sector) but then when a foreign investor arrives, there has to be a very important public-private agreement.
DP World follows a very competitive strategy, including innovation, capacity, sustainability, and funding. Now we know that it has marked itself as a leading global terminal operator. Currently, it's among the top 5 key players of the world by controlling the flows and it's like controlling the global supply chain. This is something that I call for future studies because we know very little about this. With my students, we have tried to understand, track down—we're using mapping, using JS data—to understand what happens when DP World arrives. So, we studied the development elements to understand whether there is a similarity between the Dubai model and the development traces after DP World arrives. We are still in the process of understanding so we came up with four main hypotheses. So, one hypothesis is that it completely imports the main model into the country. Well, I can say that in the case of Djibouti, we have the strong presence of the DP World and the Dubai model. So, one of the hypothesis is the complete transfer of the Dubai model. The second would be the major impact, the third minor impact, and in the fourth, we have no impact. In the fourth one, it’s mainly in the cases where there is already a strong presence or a strong development of the sector. So, it cannot apply its “Dubaization,” or let's say the Dubai model as such.
DM: Can you name the top five global operators that DP World is competing with and give us some specific examples about terminals operated by DP world internationally?
MA: The first is Cosco, Beijing, China. The second one is Hutchison Port Handling, Hong Kong, again, in China. The third one is the APM Terminals in the Netherlands. Fourth one is the PSA International in Singapore and the fifth one's DP World, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Dubai is now one of the developers, for instance, in the new London's gateway. I don't know if you know the project, a very, very interesting project around 2010 or 12, if I'm not wrong. Since London port city has been a very important historical port city, the development follows the Western World development. So, I would divide them also geographically, those major ports cities that have a long history behind them, let's say the presence of DP World can be minor or it can be zero. But, for me to talk about Djibouti (it's actually in the African region), so the presence would be much stronger. We know that the portfolio diversification strategies, this geographic expansion of DP World as a leading global terminal through acquisition, mergers, and reorganization of assets gives rise to the question of this particular kind of impact of how these international operators can transform this spatial pattern in terms of infrastructure, institution and settlement changes. These are the three main factors that we are also working on. There is a very little study done so far, so I definitely call for future research to go more in depth on this topic.
DM: Thank you for sharing some insights about your new study. It was actually thrilling to dive into the field of port-city infrastructure, but more specifically to understand Dubai's port model at a regional and global scale.
MA: First of all, thank you very much for giving me, this chance, to knowing you and your team, and then maybe sharing with you very little part of the studies that I have been doing in the past seven years. If any students, any researchers are listening to us, I really invite you to, we need more studies in the literature. We really have a lack of studies on the Middle Eastern world in general. When we talk about Middle East, of course, we cannot even generalize. So, we need to go and do more in depth studies into case by case. So case study approaches and more multidisciplinary studies.
(Visual ID credit: SAT, Image credit: Mina Akhavan, Podcast soundtrack credit: Rambling by Blue Dot Sessions)