The tall buildings of Abu Dhabi. Image: iStock

A defining image across Asia over the past few decades has been the construction crane looming over a horizon of tall, box-style buildings, the air speckled with dust from whirring industrial machines and the ever-present buzz of cars and motorbikes.

From Shanghai to Mumbai to Dubai, the construction of real estate and infrastructure projects has radically altered lives and societies and even geopolitics across the vast Asian continent and beyond.

Consider where you are right now, reading this article. You may be in a dazzling skyscraper somewhere in Asia – the home of the world’s tallest buildings – or an office in London or New York, or perhaps a cafe in Riyadh or Karachi. Wherever you are, the construction industry has shaped your experience – and your life – and will continue to do so.

Think of Shenzhen in 1979, just a year before it was designated as one of China’s first special economic zones. It was a modest fishing city of some 330,000 people with a planned economy and limited contact with the outside world. Now, it’s a sprawling metropolis of nearly 13 million people and a major tech hub both for today’s recognizable Chinese brands – think Tencent or Huawei – and the next generation of tech behemoths.

Shenzhen was just one of several Chinese cities that underwent radical transformation in the late 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st. China poured more concrete and cement in construction projects from 2011-13 than the US did for the entire 20th century.

The construction crane has been an ubiquitous feature of Chinese life over the past few decades. The reshaping of China’s built environment has been breathtaking in scope and history-altering, helping lift several hundred million people from poverty and cementing China’s strength as a global superpower.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has also been a major center of construction activity over the past two decades. While Dubai captures much of the attention with its dazzling architecture and Manhattan-style skyline, it is not alone. From Cairo to Rabat to Riyadh, construction is reshaping the region. 

In the middle of World War II, British prime minister Winston Churchill stood before the House of Commons and made a plea to rebuild its damaged chamber rooms, gutted by German bombing. “We shape our buildings,” Churchill said, “and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

The same can be said of major construction projects in infrastructure and real estate. There is the mundane and the dramatic.

First, the mundane: housing. Well-planned development in this sector coupled with affordable mortgage financing and reliable property deeds remain the cornerstone of a healthy middle class. For far too long, this essential provision of mortgages and affordable housing had been neglected across the region. While Saudi Arabia’s construction boom captures headlines, its mortgage boom also deserves more attention. 

Now, to the dramatic: major geography-shifting infrastructure projects. Consider just two feats of geography-altering engineering – the Suez Canal of the late 19th century and the Panama Canal of the early 20th. In both cases, engineers reshaped our world, linking oceans and seas blocked by land, and charting new paths for trade and commerce, while reordering global geopolitics and economics.

Some commentators like to suggest that geography is destiny. The reality is that we cannot ascribe our destiny to one factor alone, and simply to pinpoint geography misses the point. It’s the built environment of your geography that can shape your destiny, and the most important question of all is this: Are you connected? Egypt and Panama are far more connected than they would have been without their respective man-made canals.

If your geography is rich with the infrastructure of connectivity – seaports, airports, roads and rail, high-speed Internet access – then your destiny heralds more promise. But even the best geography can be undermined by poor planning and management.

A glaring example would be the beautiful geography of Somalia – a long Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea coastline, a gateway to East Africa, with easy Red Sea access to the bustling port city of Jeddah. Somalia, of course, has done little to leverage its geography and remains a failing and flailing state. So, too, Lebanon, with enviable Mediterranean Sea geography and highly unenviable governance.

By contrast, there was no geographic “destiny” in the rise of Singapore or South Korea or Hong Kong. In all three cases, each country or city-state leveraged its never-depleting resource – geography – and built up the infrastructure of connectivity to create an environment conducive to business and trade.

In the Arab world, the prime example of construction-altering history would be the development of the United Arab Emirates. Again, there was no “destiny” of geography in the rise of the UAE. The country with 0.13% of the world’s population now accounts for about 2.5% of the world’s sea container commerce and 1.5% of total trade, and has emerged as a major hub for aviation, tourism, technology startups and outward investment. 

Now the center for construction in the region has moved to Saudi Arabia. The Neom mega-project has both dazzled and dazed observers, but look closer at the US$1 trillion of construction and real-estate projects across the kingdom over the past six years and you will see a country launching itself deeper into connectivity and transforming its society in the process.

While the headlines blare the eye-popping dollar amounts spent, it’s important to remember that infrastructure and construction – rather than geography alone – is a powerful shaper of a people’s destiny.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and editor and founder of the Emerging World newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @AfshinMolavi.