Towering ambition: Why autocratic nations get high on skyscrapers

Dictatorships build 1.6 more skyscrapers per year than democracies, research finds

When it comes to creating skyscrapers, dictatorships are head and shoulders above democracies, according to a new research paper.

University of Oslo political scientists Haakon Gjerlow and Carl Henrik Knutsen crunched the numbers and found that a harsh authoritarian leader is worth about 150m of high-rise construction per year.

Or, to put it another way, Knutsen and Gjerlow write, the least free nations build an average of 1.6 more skyscrapers a year than strong democracies.

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The Norwegian capital is a good example of the phenomenon. Oslo has no buildings meeting the researchers' definition of a skyscraper as a building more than 150m (492ft) tall, but Norway enjoys a perfect score of 100 on Freedom House's global index of political and civil liberties.

At the other end of the scale, Dubai's Burj Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates (Freedom House score: 20) is set to be overtaken as the tallest building in the world by the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia (Freedom House score: 10).

Of the 128 buildings exceeding 200m (656ft) completed worldwide last year, 84 were built in China, which has a Freedom House score of 15 due to government repression, state surveillance and the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.

The structure of high-rise architecture is different in free and unfree nations.

Knutsen and Gjerlow found that skyscrapers built in autocratic states tend to have more "vanity space" – the distance between the highest floor and the physical peak of the building, which serves no function beyond adding extra height.

Five of the ten skyscrapers with the most vanity space are located in Dubai, with three more in China and two in the US.

While it's hard to quantify which skyscrapers serve a purpose and which are merely "white elephants", the study found that autocratic rulers "are more likely to construct tall buildings even in the absence of clear economic incentives," says Bloomberg.

Gjerlow says that for ambitious dictators keen to put themselves and their nation in the spotlight, constructing huge edifices is a natural, if crude, way to secure attention.

"It could just be that they think the building is cool, or it could be that building has the power to put them on the international stage," he said.

Handing out lucrative construction contracts is also a useful way for a corrupt regime to secure and reward its allies, he added.

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