Thursday, January 25, 2007


On 17 January, the UAE had its own version of 9/11. It was in retrospect a rather small scale event, but when people saw images of thick black smoke pouring out of a high-rise tower in Dubai and what appeared to be people falling or jumping in desperation, thoughts of 9/11 resurfaced.

In fact the incident was a fire on the top floors of a 35-story tower, still under construction. The initial images for most were seen not on TV but on the Internet. While there were reportedly up to 300 people trapped on the tower's upper floors, many were rescued by helicopter from roof-top and the majority able to escape via staircases once the fire was brought under control some 2 hours or so after it had started. Final reports are of 2 fatalities and a few dozen injuries, most released from hospital the following day.

It was not 9/11 and rather than terrorism--never even suspected--the cause is being reported as an electrical short or other construction related mishap, aggravated by the fact that the building's fire safety mechanisms were not yet being utilized.

The hallmark of this thankfully limited tragedy is the attention it directs toward issues such as
  1. evacuation and fire-extinguishing procedures in high-rise towers--Dubai will soon have the singularly tallest building in the world along with hundreds of other towers including several over 100 floors; and
  2. safety measures in construction--the fire is only one of a number of high profile accidents in recent years at construction sites or affecting the workers who build them.
Is Dubai moving too fast, is one question that has been raised. Is the government not too negligent if not complicit in poor safety measures at building sites and poor health and safety regulations in general?

These types of questions are useful to raise, but one should not be so quick to point fingers. Although the exploding construction sector and over exuberance for grandiose projects clearly have their faults, Dubai is engaging in a social and engineering experiment of sorts which requires all parties to improve and expand their functionality and effectiveness. The country is in essence attempting a speedy transition from a third world paradigm to a first, with a substantial measure of success. Anyone who has been in the UAE over a period of a few years will be aware of how many changes there are, often improvements, within any relatively short span of time.

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