Nowhere is the scale of Dubai’s explosive growth as staggeringly obvious as in the far south of the city, home to the vast Palm Jumeirah artificial island and Dubai Marinadevelopment – evidence of the emirate’s magical ability to turn sand into skyscrapers and raise entire new city suburbs up out of the waves. Ten years ago the district was the largest building site on the planet – at one point it was estimated that Dubai was home to a quarter of the world’s total number of construction cranes. Now the building crews have gone, leaving a brand-new city and the world’s largest man-made island in their wake, with a forest of densely packed skyscrapers lined up around the glitzy marina itself and the fronds of the Palm spreading out into the waters beyond.
Dubai Marina is Dubai’s brand-new city-within-a-city, most of it built at lightning speed between 2005 and 2010 (although further enhancements, such as the Dubai Tram, which opened in 2014, continue to be added on a regular basis). There’s no real precedent anywhere in the world for urban development on this scale or at this speed, and the area’s huge new residential developments and commercial and tourist facilities have already shifted the focus of the entire emirate decisively southwards.
Like much of modern Dubai, the marina is a mishmash of the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Many of the high-rises are of minimal architectural distinction, and all are packed so closely together that the overall effect is of hyperactive urban development gone completely mad. It's all weirdly impressive, even so, especially by night, when darkness hides the worst examples of gimcrack design and the whole area lights up into a fabulous display of high-rise neon, while the pleasant oceanfront The Walk promenade and the parallel Marina Walk, just inland, now boast two of the new city’s best and liveliest selections of restaurants, cafés, shops and hotels.
Occupying a huge swathe of land some 10km inland from the marina, the vast Dubailand development (wdubailand.ae) has become the defining symbol of the spectacular hubris which engulfed the entire city for much of the noughties. Launched in 2003, Dubailand was originally slated to become the planet’s largest and most spectacular tourist development, boasting an extraordinary mix of theme parks and sporting and leisure facilities covering a staggering 280 square kilometres – twice the size of Walt Disney World in Florida. Major attractions were to have included the Restless Planet dinosaur theme park (featuring over a hundred animatronic dinosaurs) and the Falcon City of Wonders (with full-scale replicas of the Seven Wonders of the World no less), not to mention the world’s largest hotel (the 6500-room Asia-Asia) and the planet’s biggest mall (as if the Dubai Mall weren’t already big enough on its own).
In the event, Dubailand struggled from day one, and was finished off completely (along with most of the emirate’s other loopier mega-projects) by the financial crisis of 2008–9. Parts of the complex did actually manage to get built, even so, including the Dubai Outlet Mall, Global Village, the Dubai Autodrome and Dubai Sports City, and a quartet of golf courses (the Els, the Arabian Ranches, and the “Earth” and “Fire” courses at Jumeirah Golf Estates). Meanwhile, the one Dubailand novelty attraction that has been finished (although not until 2013) is the appropriately bonkers Dubai Miracle Garden (t04 422 8902, wdubaimiraclegarden.com; Oct to late May daily 9am–9pm, Fri and Sat until 11pm; 50dh). Furnished with some 45 million plants, this is claimed to be the world’s largest flower garden, although the place is notable not so much for its record-breaking botanical contents as for the sheer zaniness of the overall design – a surreal horticultural headtrip complete with striped flower beds, wacky topiary and myriad outlandish designs (changed annually) which have previously included floral pyramids, flower-encrusted buildings and cars, and an 18m-high replica of the Burj Khalifa. The attached Butterfly Garden (wdubaibutterflygarden.com; daily 9am–6pm; 50dh) seems rather tame in comparison, with fifteen thousand of the winged creatures flitting around nine climate-controlled domes.
Situated way down along Sheikh Zayed Road south of the marina, the outlandish, mile-long Ibn Battuta Mall is worth the trip out to the furthest reaches of the city suburbs to sample what is undoubtedly Dubai’s wackiest shopping experience (which is saying something). The mall is themed in six different sections after some of the places – Egypt, Andalusia, Tunisia, Persia, India and China – visited by the famous Arab traveller Ibn Battuta, with all the architectural kitsch and caprice you’d expect. Highlights include a life-size elephant complete with mechanical mahout (rider), a twilit Tunisian village and a full-size Chinese junk, while the lavishness of some of the decoration would seem more appropriate on a Rajput palace or a Persian grand mosque than a motorway mall. As so often in Dubai, the underlying concept may be naff, but it’s carried through with such extravagance, and on such a scale, that it’s difficult not to be at least slightly impressed – or appalled. In addition, the walk from one end of the elongated mall to the other is one of the most pleasant strolls you can have in Dubai’s pedestrian-hating suburbs, especially in the heat of summer.
The marina itself (apparently inspired by the Concord Pacific Place development along False Creek in Vancouver) is actually a man-made sea inlet, lined with luxury yachts and fancy speedboats, which snakes inland behind the JBR, running parallel with the coast for around 1.5km. Encircling the water is the attractive pedestrianized promenade known as Marina Walk. Various kiosks around Marina Walk offer a mix of expensive boat charters alongside much cheaper dhow cruises for those who want to take to the water, and there's also a good selection of waterfront cafés and restaurants around Marina Mall and in the adjacent Pier 7 building next to the swanky yacht marina.
Presiding over the northern sea inlet into the marina is the quirky Cayan Tower (330m; formerly known as the Infinity Tower), designed by high-rise specialists Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who were also responsible for the Burj Khalifa. The latest in Dubai’s increasingly long list of iconic skyscrapers, the tower is instantly recognizable thanks to its distinctively twisted outline, which rotates through 90 degrees from base to summit – a bit like the famous Turning Tower in Malmö, Sweden.
Just northwest of here rises the city’s most dramatic pod of super-tall (300m+) skyscrapers, with a dozen or so very narrow, very high towers virtually rubbing shoulders alongside Al Sufouh Road. None is of any particular architectural distinction, although the impression of sheer height is impressive, and a guaranteed neck-stretcher. Biggest of the lot are the Marina 101 Tower (426m) and the Princess Tower (414m), currently the second-and third-tallest buildings in Dubai (and almost precisely half the height of the 830m-tall Burj Khalifa) – the former also currently holds the record as the world’s highest residential building.
For a city-state with aspirations of taking over the world’s tourism industry, Dubai has a serious lack of one thing: coast. In its natural state, the emirate boasts a mere 70km of shoreline, totally insufficient to service the needs of its rocketing number of beach-hungry tourists and residents.
Dubai’s solution to its pressing lack of waterfront was characteristically bold: it decided to build some more. The Palm Jumeirah has already added 68km to the emirate’s coastline, although this was just the first (and smallest) of four proposed offshore developments which were intended to create anything up to 500km of new waterfront. Two further palm-shaped islands – the Palm Jebel Ali, 20km further down the coast, and the gargantuan Palm Deira, right next to the old city centre – were also planned. Reclamation work on the former has apparently been complete since around 2008, although development of the island’s infrastructure (slated to eventually house a quarter of a million people) has been on hold for several years, and shows little sign of resuming. Palm Deira, meanwhile, has now been relaunched as "Deira Islands" in a new and non-palm-shaped form.
The current status of the even more fanciful The World development is similarly uncertain. Lying around 5km off the coast (accessible by boat only, unlike the three palm developments, all of which are connected directly to the mainland), this complex of artificial islands has been constructed in the shape of an approximate map of the world (weirdly impressive when seen from the air). It was originally hoped that developers would buy up individual islands and create themed tourist developments, perhaps based on the “nationality” of the island they occupy, but although physical reclamation of the islands has been complete since around 2006, little development has yet occurred and most of the islands remain uninhabited dots of sand in the ocean – while 2011 saw persistent (though unsubstantiated) rumours that the entire archipelago had begun to sink back into the sea. The only way of currently seeing the islands is by visiting the beach club on Lebanon Island (t04 447 2240, wtheisland.ae). The island is open daily 11am–6pm and costs 300dh per person to visit, including boat transfers (hourly) from Jumeirah Fishing Harbour. Visitors have the use of the club’s beach, swimming pool and the smart Toro Blanco lounge-restaurant, specializing in Mediterranean cuisine.
Finally, plans for a fifth and even more extravagant artificial archipelago, christened The Universe (with a design based on the solar system) were announced in 2008, but were put on hold soon afterwards and now appear to have been permanently cancelled.
Dubai is now officially the tallest city on the planet, currently home to twenty of the world's one hundred loftiest buildings. By comparison, traditional high-rise hotspots Hong Kong and Chicago muster just thirteen top-100 buildings between them, while Shanghai manages just four – the same as Abu Dhabi. The landmark example of Dubai’s sky-high ambition is provided by the staggering Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, while other high-rise icons include the Burj al Arab and the glittering Emirates Towers, as well as less well-known buildings such as the twin towers of the recently opened JW Marriott Marquis Dubai, the world’s tallest hotel, and the Princess Tower, soaring high above the Dubai Marina.
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.