In the 1950s, the northwestern coast of the Arabian Peninsula was a barren wilderness. A mere collection of huts dotted the expansive desert sands. But in the past 60 years, and especially in the last quarter century, a very different landscape has emerged. The region now teems with burgeoning cities, some of which have become desirable destinations for wealthy tourists, Fortune 500 companies, and leading academic institutions from the United States and elsewhere.

    The discovery of crude oil in the 1930s and 1940s spurred rapid growth and modernization, turning the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Oman into some of the world’s most affluent countries in just a few decades.

    While oil provided the financial resources for these nations to thrive, it is the innovative thinking of political leaders and business elites that has shaped the region’s rapid and distinctive urbanization. Additionally, openness to expatriate workers, both highly skilled and unskilled, has been made necessary by the juxtaposition of rapidly expanding economies and small indigenous populations. This has given many of the region’s most important cities an international character and a cosmopolitan flavor. In cities like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha, for example, 85 percent of the residents, if not more, are foreigners.

    These three cities illustrate emerging trends very well. Although many other examples would be instructive, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha are certainly among the region’s most dynamic and innovative.

    In the UAE, originally a loose federation of seven emirates known as the Trucial States, the country’s founding president, Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi, harnessed the emirate’s wealth for numerous construction projects. Among the new buildings were hospitals, schools, mosques, and homes. These early projects paved the way for the development of industries that expanded Abu Dhabi’s economic base, contributing to its emergence as a leader among the emirates. When the UAE was formally established as a nation in December 1971, Abu Dhabi city, the emirate’s capital, became the country’s capital as well.

    Since that time, Abu Dhabi has become a sought-after destination for tourists, attracted by its white, sandy beaches, world-class hotels, elegant shops, and numerous fine restaurants. It is home to the luxurious Emirates Palace Hotel, built at a cost of $3 billion and situated on more than 200 acres of lavish gardens and well-manicured grounds.

    The $3 billion hotel is only the beginning of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious building plans, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan. One of the most comprehensive of the new developments is Saadiyat Island, a massive complex being built on an island 550 yards off the city’s coast. The island will eventually be home to over 150,000 residents and house seven diverse districts.

    World-class architects Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Tado Ando have been commissioned to design some of the most distinctive structures in the Cultural District, including branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre Museums and a Maritime Museum. Saadiyat Beach and South Beach will feature five-star hotels and resorts, golf courses, luxury homes, and high-end shops, as well as access to pristine beaches. The remaining districts will offer low-rise residential homes, eco-friendly zones, and three marinas with combined berthing for over a thousand boats. Saadiyat Island will also have a stunning performing arts center, and it plans to be a center for higher education as well. Organizers have recently completed arrangements to establish campuses of New York University and the Sorbonne.

    The UAE’s efforts to increase its prominence include more than tourist and cultural attractions. Abu Dhabi seeks to be a pioneer in the field of renewable energy. In February 2008, ground was broken for a planned city near Abu Dhabi’s International Airport. The development is part of the ambitious $15 billion Masdar Initiative, administered by the government-owned Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company. The city will be the world’s first zero-waste, zero-carbon emission city.

    Designed to house a population of 50,000 when completed, the walled city will cover 1,500 acres. No cars will be permitted within the city walls. Instead, walking, bicycling, and a rapid transport system will be the primary means of travel throughout the city. Each rapid transport link will be located within walking distance, roughly 200 yards, from any point in the city. Masdar will eventually be home to both Abu Dhabi-based and foreign industries, as well as research facilities and educational institutions. A select group of international companies will be invited to set up residence in a special free zone, offering tax-free status and 100 percent foreign ownership.

    The remaining thousand acres outside the city wall will be used for power-generating activities. Among the most important installments will be a photovoltaic factory and field, wind farm, desalination plant, water treatment plant, and recycling center. The photovoltaic facilities will be completed first and will provide clean energy to power the construction project.

    Even as Abu Dhabi champions sustainable energy alternatives, business is booming in the neighboring emirate of Dubai, about an hour and a half drive to the northwest. The city has taken aggressive steps to become a haven for international business. These measures have been designed to move Dubai into a knowledge-based economy. Ironically, only 6 percent of Dubai’s GDP is based in the oil sector. Ninety-four percent is based in manufacturing, tourism, and services.

    Dubai’s Technology and Media Free Zone is home to an increasing number of multinational corporations. Many are attracted by the zone’s tax-free environment and the ability to operate as an entirely foreign-owned entity. Home to Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City, and Dubai Knowledge Village (KV), the free zone provides the platform and infrastructure for organizations and educational institutions to expand into new markets. IT giants such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems, IBM, HP, and Dell all call Internet City home. Media City services more than 50 news outlets, including CNBC and Reuters.

    Dubai’s leaders also plan to help build the region’s talent pool through KV and through Dubai International Academic City (DIAC). The latter is a separate facility launched by KV in 2007 and devoted exclusively to higher education. With over 350 partners, KV’s $250 million campus is home to universities from all over the globe, as well as human resource companies, professional training centers, and research and development organizations. Together, KV and DIAC currently host 20 universities from 10 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Australia, France, and the Indian Subcontinent. One of these is Michigan State University, which recently established a branch campus in DIAC and enrolled its inaugural class this fall.

    The UAE is not alone in its international education pursuits. Neighboring Qatar is also taking strides to improve the quality of life for its citizens, including the expansion of opportunities for women and a significant investment in education and research. In Doha, Qatar’s capital, a 2,500-acre campus houses the largest number of American university branch campuses in the Middle East, or perhaps anywhere outside the United States. Known as Education City, the campus was developed under the leadership of the Qatar Foundation, an organization dedicated to working collaboratively with some of the world’s finest academic and research institutions in order to move the country toward a knowledge-based economy. At present, Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, Texas A&M University, Northwestern University, and Virginia Commonwealth University all offer specialized degree-granting programs in Education City. Qatari and other international institutions dedicated to training and research are located in Education City as well.

    These innovative and ambitious developments in urban life and international education are transforming the character of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha, as are comparable projects in several other cities in the Arabian Peninsula. In the last year, the University of Michigan has begun to explore the possibility of playing a role in this dynamic urban environment.

    University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman visited Abu Dhabi and Dubai in March 2007, accompanied by Mark Tessler in his capacity as Vice Provost for International Affairs. Coleman was invited to deliver a keynote lecture at an international conference entitled, “Women as Global Leaders,” organized by Zayed University in Dubai. Hosted by the crown prince and the minister of higher education, she and Tessler also received private briefings on Masdar, Saadiyat Island, and other development projects. They also met with officials from the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU), with whom U-M signed an agreement to explore possibilities for collaboration in a wide range of areas. Discussions about how to move this cooperation forward are being coordinated by Professor John King, U-M’s Vice Provost for Academic Information. King has been an advisor to UAEU and the country’s minister of higher education for several years.

    U-M is also engaged in Doha. The Institute for Social Research (ISR) has signed a contract to assist Qatar University (QU), the country’s flagship institution of higher education, in building its own facility devoted to social science research—the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI). QU sought Michigan as a partner because of ISR’s outstanding reputation, and it seeks, with help from ISR, to develop SESRI over the next five years into a world-class social research institute that will be the best in the region. Work on this project, including a visit to QU, began this fall. It is being led by a seven-member team at ISR that includes Mark Tessler, who is Principal Investigator, and James Jackson, ISR’s Director.

    In some ways, the jury is still out on these bold initiatives. Exciting as they are, there are challenges as well, and so the extent to which they fulfill their promise and potential remains to be seen. Moreover, the affluence and demographics of the UAE, Qatar, and other Gulf Arab countries set this region apart from the rest of the Middle East, limiting the extent to which their urban experiments can be replicated elsewhere. Yet, these initiatives are not only giving cities in the Arabian Peninsula a dynamism and an exciting new face; they are also developing, testing, and refining models that may inspire others. Lessons from the Knowledge Village and Education City models will be important as universities around the world weigh the benefits and opportunity costs of international partnerships and overseas campuses. Moreover, experiments like Masdar may yield generalizable insights about energy use and transportation in urban environments.

    Kirstin Olmstead is Managing Editor of The Journal of the International Institute and a Marketing and Communications Specialist at the International Institute.

    Mark Tessler is the Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor in the Department of Political Science, Director of the International Institute, and Vice Provost for International Affairs at the University of Michigan.