Spend time with someone who lives in Dubai and at some point you’re guaranteed to have the “when I first came here” conversation:
- “When I first came here Mall of the Emirates was just a patch of sand” (2002);
- “When I first came there were more empty sand lots than buildings on Sheikh Zayed Road” (2001);
- “the Hard Rock Café was way out of town” (2000);
- “there were rumours about them building a palm-shaped island.” (1999);
- “Dubai ended at World Trade Centre” (1990);
- “there were still arish [palm frond] houses in Jumeirah” (1986);
- “the road to Abu Dhabi hadn’t been paved yet” (1975);
- “there was no road to Abu Dhabi” (1970).
It may seem like a game of one-upmanship (or, more accurately, one-downmanship – the honours being taken by he who knew the place when it had the least) but as UAE residents we can’t resist. It’s a mixture of nostalgia for our particular version of “old” Dubai and amazement at what has been happening around us every day.
While Burj Khalifa, is the world’s tallest building at 828 metres, it is only one, very visible symbol of the Dubai Phenomenon – the biggest and fastest construction project in the history of mankind.
Many images of the Louis Vuitton Trophy show the yachts against a backdrop of ochre-coloured towers – a 42-storey high wall of them stretching for 1.7 km along what was a marshy sand spit until 2002. Now it is Jumeirah Beach Residence: 40 towers comprising 6,900 apartments, built at a cost of Dh6 billion (about €1.2bn) in just five years.
The developer Nakheel (nakhl is Arabic for palm) began reclamation work for Palm Jumeirah in 2001; by the time the 16 fronds and 11km crescent-shaped breakwater were completed they had consumed 7 million tons of rock and 94 million cubic metres of sand.
And still the building continues: Jones Lang LaSalle, a leading property consultancy estimates that 26,000 new housing units will have been completed this year and another 25,000 will be handed over next year, bringing Dubai’s total stock to 320,000 homes.
It’s hard to imagine Dubai with a population of only 20,000 in 1950. Even in 1968 it was only 59,000, in 1975 less than 180,000; today the National Bureau of Statistics puts it at 8.19 million. In 1957 a British surveyor reported that 12 Europeans lived in Dubai – and while Europeans remain the smallest group of expats, the total expatriate population now outnumbers Emirati nationals by more than five to one.
Well into the 1980s “hard” buildings along the southern side of Dubai Creek (Khor Dubai) were only three deep; behind that the houses were still traditional arish structures. Today Dubai city stretches some 30km south from there – built up all the way to Jebel Ali.
New Dubai, as the area around the regatta’s headquarters at Dubai International Marine Club, is often referred to, has become a magnet for tall buildings. Dubai Marina has been designed to house 120,000 people when its 80-odd towers are completed. (And if it looks strangely reminiscent of Vancouver that’s because it is: the Canadian city’s Concord Pacific Place development was the model for it.)
Immediately behind DIMC is what has become known as “the tallest block” – a concentration of super-tall towers unmatched anywhere else in the world: among them Le Reve (where Roger Federer has a winter home); the twisting Infinity Tower – at 330m easily dwarfed by the octagonal 23 Marina (380m) and newly topped-out Princess Tower (414m). Currently 12 floors above ground, Pentominium will beat them all at 516m when completed in 2013. Dubai now has 56 buildings of more than 200m and 14 above 300m – both figures beating New York and Hong Kong.
Strange to think that the 312m Burj Al Arab, the alluring sail-shaped hotel about 2km north of DIMC was of a height considered unlikely to be replicated when it opened in 1999 (stranger still to think that until the mid-1990s Jumeirah Beach Road came to a dead end at that point – far away from the city as it was).
From the headline-grabbing projects (Palm Jumeirah, the Marina, Burj Khalifa, The World islands) to the city as a whole, Dubai is the product of an unusually bold vision. To those who might say insanely bold: think of the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China? We can’t possibly know what the ancient equivalent of The New York Times or CNN said back then but today we look upon those things in awe. Posterity will tell if that’s what awaits Dubai; in the meantime we can only stand, stare and be amazed.