Lying off the coast around 5km south of the Burj al Arab, The Palm Jumeirah is far and away the largest example of modern Dubai’s desire not just to master its unpromising natural environment but to transform it entirely. Built between 2001 and 2006 and stretching 4km out into the waters of the Arabian Gulf, the Palm is currently the world’s largest man-made island, and has doubled the length of the Dubai coastline at a total cost of over US$12 billion – although even this grandiose feat is only the first in a series of four artificial islands currently under development.
As its name suggests, the Palm Jumeirah is designed in the shape of a palm tree, with a central “trunk” and a series of sixteen radiating “fronds”, the whole enclosed in an 11km-long breakwater, or “crescent”, lined with a string of huge resorts. The design has the merit of providing an elegantly stylized homage to the city’s desert environment while also maximizing the amount of oceanfront space in relation to the amount of land reclaimed (as Jim Krane puts it in Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City: “It was Dubai at its most cunning. Since seafront properties are the most valuable, why not build a development that has nothing but seafront?”).
Despite the size and ambition of the development, however, the Palm feels disappointingly botched. The palm-shaped layout remains largely invisible at ground level – although it looks terrific from a plane – and the architecture is deeply undistinguished, with a string of featureless high-rises lining the main trunk road and endless rows of densely packed Legoland villas strung out along the waterside “fronds”. The developer, Nakheel, was allegedly forced to almost double the number of villas on the island to cover spiralling construction costs, resulting in the overcrowded suburban crush you see today – much to the chagrin of those who had bought properties off-plan at launch, only to move in and discover that they were virtually living in their neighbours’ kitchens. Only towards the far end of the island does the Palm acquire a modest quotient of drama, as the main trunk road dips through a tunnel before emerging in front of the vast Atlantis resort – although by then, one feels, it’s probably too late.