Around 2km south of the Creek, the beachside suburb of Jumeirah marks the beginning of southern Dubai’s endless suburban sprawl. The area’s swathes of chintzy low-rise villas are home to many of the city’s European expats and their wives – immortalized in Dubai legend as the so-called “Jumeirah Janes” who (so the stereotype runs) spend their days in an endless round of luncheons and beach parties, while their hard-working spouses slave away to keep them in the style to which they have very rapidly become accustomed. The suburb is strung out along the Jumeirah Road, which arrows straight down the coast, lined with a long string of low-key shopping malls and cafés. Attractions include the Jumeirah Mosque, the old-fashioned Majlis Ghorfat um al Sheif, the former summer retreat of Dubai’s erstwhile ruler Sheikh Rashid, and the enigmatic Jumeirah Archeological Site.
Stretching for the best part of a kilometre along the south side of Al Wasl Road, the quirky new Boxpark is one of Dubai’s most original and enjoyable recent openings, and puts most other contemporary retail design in the city to abject shame – only The Beach at JBR by the same developers (Meraas) comes close. Opened in 2015, the development was modelled after the original Boxpark in London’s Shoreditch – a “pop-up mall” housed in a cluster of refurbished shipping containers – although the Dubai version is considerably more colourful, polished and, as you might expect, upmarket. As in London, shipping containers form an integral part of the design, jutting out at intervals from between a long line of rather Bauhaus-looking cubist structures, all stacked up beside or on top of one other in an enjoyably haphazard jumble, like a long pile of postmodern shoeboxes. Assorted artworks ranging from metal palm trees to purple penguins add to the fun, and the whole strip is colourfully illuminated after dark. It’s also a rewarding place to eat and shop, with dozens of funky boutiques, cafés and restaurants and lots of brands you won’t find anywhere else in the city.
The first zoo on the Arabian peninsula when it was founded in 1967, Dubai Zoo serves as the overcrowded and rather unappealing home to a wide range of animals, almost all of whom arrived at the zoo having been taken from smugglers apprehended by UAE customs officials. The resultant mishmash of haphazardly acquired animals includes giraffes, tigers, lions, chimps, brown bears, Arabian wolves and oryx, plus assorted birds, though it’s difficult to see very much thanks to the ugly cages, covered in thick wire-mesh (installed, ironically, to protect the animals from visitors; when the zoo first opened, locals would turn up armed with sticks to prod depressed animals into action, and sadly the behaviour of many of today’s visitors is little better).
Fortunately for the animals currently confined at Dubai Zoo, construction work on the long-awaited Dubai Safari, the city’s state-of-the-art new zoo-cum-safari park, is finally nearing completion, with a scheduled opening date in late 2016. The new 300-acre, eco-friendly complex is located on the city outskirts in Al Warqa (off the Hatta road opposite the huge Dragon Mart Chinese-style shopping mall) and will provide a superior home for all the animals now in captivity in Jumeirah, as well as some new arrivals, and meaning that the old Dubai Zoo will finally and mercifully become a thing of the past. The park’s website hadn’t yet launched at the time of writing, but an online search for “Dubai Safari Park” should bring up all the latest news and information on the current state of play.
Rising dramatically out of an endless sprawl of low-rise villas, the Farooq Mosque offers a rare and correspondingly welcome dash of architectural excitement amid the endless suburban monotony of southern Jumeirah. One of three Dubai mosques (along with the Jumeirah and Diwan mosques) currently open to non-Muslims, the Farooq was rebuilt in 2011 with funds provided by the Al Habtoor foundation of Emirati businessman Khalaf Ahmad al Habtoor and can hold around two thousand worshippers, making it one of the largest in the UAE. Inspired by the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the exterior sports four spiky, 65m-high minarets and 21 domes in classic Ottoman style. Inside, the beautifully decorated prayer hall features an unusual quadrapartite dome, a huge red carpet and exquisitely decorated mihrab – a blissfully cool and peaceful retreat in which to sit and recharge both physical and spiritual batteries during the heat of the day.
Iranian Hospital and Mosque
Standing on either side of Al Wasl Road, the striking Iranian Hospital and nearby Imam Hossein Mosque (generally known simply as the “Iranian Mosque”) add a welcome splash of colour to the pasty concrete hues which rule in this part of the city. The hospital is a large, functional, modern building improbably covered in vast quantities of superb blue-green tiling in the elaborate abstract floral patterns beloved of Persian artists. The mosque is even finer, its sumptuously tiled dome and two minarets particularly magical, especially in low light early or late in the day. Unfortunately the mosque is walled off and you can only see it from a certain distance – the best view is from the small residential side street which runs around the back of it, rather than from Al Wasl Road itself.
Jumeirah Archeological Site
The slight but intriguing Jumeirah Archeological Site is one of Dubai’s best-kept secrets, scattered over several acres of prime real estate in the heart of Jumeirah. First excavated in 1969, the site protects the remains of a small settlement which grew up here thanks to the area’s strategic location on the caravan route between Mesopotamia and Oman. Originally established in pre-Islamic or early Ummayad times (fifth to sixth centuries AD), the settlement reached its zenith during the Abbasid period (ninth to tenth centuries) and appears to have remained inhabited until perhaps as late as the eighteenth century.
The fragmentary remains of seven structures lie scattered around the site, all now largely vanished apart from the bases of their coral-stone walls. Buildings include several residential dwellings, a small mosque, souk (signed “Market Place”) and a “ruler’s palace”, still dotted with the stumps of its original pillars. Most impressive are the remains of a sizeable caravanserai, with small rooms arranged around a large central courtyard, its antique outline providing a memorably weird contrast to the hypermodern skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road rising loftily behind.
Jumeirah Beach Park
Squeezed in between the sea and Jumeirah Road near the suburb’s southern end, Jumeirah Beach Park was easily the nicest park and public beach in Dubai, with a spacious white-sand beach equipped with loungers and parasols and a pleasant strip of wooded parkland behind. It’s currently shut due to work on the massive new Dubai Canal project and is scheduled to reopen with new and improved facilities in late 2016, in the (admittedly rather unlikely) event that everything runs to schedule.
Rising proudly above the northern end of the Jumeirah Road, the stately Jumeirah Mosque is one of the largest and most attractive in the city. Built in quasi-Fatimid (Egyptian) style, it’s reminiscent in appearance, if not quite in size, of the great mosques of Cairo, with a pair of soaring minarets, a roofline embellished with delicately carved miniature domes and richly decorated windows set in elaborate rectangular recesses. As with many of Dubai’s more venerable-looking buildings though, medieval appearances are deceptive – the mosque was actually built in 1979.
It also has the added attraction of being one of the few mosques in Dubai open to non-Muslims, thanks to the six weekly tours run by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. These offer a good opportunity to get a look at the mosque’s rather chintzy interior, with its distinctive green-and-orange colour scheme and delicately painted arches. The real draw, however, is the entertaining and informative guides, who explain some of the basic precepts and practices of Islam before throwing the floor open for questions – a rare chance to settle some of those perplexing local conundrums, whether it be a description of the workings of the Islamic calendar or an explanation of exactly what Emirati men wear under their robes.
Jumeirah: a note on names
Names in Dubai are often used with a certain vagueness – the name Bur Dubai, for example, is often taken to cover the entire area south of the Creek as far as Sheikh Zayed Road, while back when it was first built no one seemed entirely certain whether Dubai Marina should be called Dubai Marina, or New Dubai, or perhaps something else entirely. None, however, has proved as enduringly slippery as Jumeirah. Strictly speaking, Jumeirah proper covers the area from roughly around the Dubai Marine Beach Resort in the north down to around the Majlis Ghorfat um al Sheif in the south. In practice, however, the name is often used loosely to describe the whole of coastal Dubai south of the Creek down to the Burj al Arab, and sometimes even beyond.
Further confusion is added by the fact that Jumeirah has been adopted as the name of the city’s leading luxury hotel chain. The Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Madinat Jumeirah, for instance, aren’t strictly speaking in Jumeirah, but in the adjacent suburb of Umm Suqeim (although both are owned by the Jumeirah chain – as is the Jumeirah Emirates Tower hotel, which is actually on Sheikh Zayed Road, and the Jumeirah Creekside Hotel, in Garhoud). Further south the J-word crops up again at the Sheraton Jumeirah BeachResort and Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Resort, both in what is now the Marina, while the name has also wandered off and attached itself to the Palm Jumeirah artificial island, Jumeirah Lakes Towers and the now abandoned Jumeirah Garden City project – none of them in, or (except for the latter) even particularly near, Jumeirah proper. And that’s not the end of it: thanks to the Jumeirah group the name can now be found attached to properties as far afield as London, New York and Shanghai – an impressive feat of global colonization for the name of what was, until fifty years ago, little more than a humble fishing village.
Majlis Ghorfat um al Sheif
Tucked away off the southern end of Jumeirah Road, the Majlis Ghorfat um al Sheif offers a touching memento of old Dubai, now incongruously marooned amid a sea of chintzy modern villas. Built in 1955 when Jumeirah was no more than a small fishing village, this modest traditional house was used by Sheikh Rashid, the inspiration behind modern Dubai’s spectacular development, as a summer retreat and hosted many of the discussions about the city’s future, which in turn led to its dramatic economic explosion during the 1960s and 1970s. The two-storey building serves as a fetching reminder of earlier and simpler times: a sturdy coral-and-gypsum structure embellished with fine doors and window shutters made of solid teak, the whole of it enclosed in an old-fashioned Arabian garden complete with date palms and falaj (irrigation) channels. The majlis itself is on the upper floor, with cushions laid out around its edges and the walls and floor adorned with a modest selection of household objects, including an old-fashioned European radio and clock, rifles, oil lamps and coffee pots which in 1950s Dubai were considered all the luxury necessary, even in a residence of the ruling sheikh – a far cry from the seven-star amenities enjoyed by today’s Emiratis.
About halfway down Jumeirah Road, the eye-popping Mercato mall is well worth a visit even if you’ve no intention of actually buying anything. Looking like a kind of miniature medieval Italian city rebuilt by the Disney Corporation, the mall comprises a series of brightly coloured quasi-Venetian-cum-Tuscan palazzi arranged around a huge central atrium overlooked by panoramic balconies, while side passages lead to miniature piazzas on either side – a memorable example of the sort of brazen kitsch that Dubai does so well. Not surprisingly, it’s all proved immensely popular, and the fake-Florentine thoroughfares are thronged most hours of the day and night by a very eclectic crowd, with Jumeirah Janes ducking in and out of the mall’s designer boutiques and crowds of white-robed Emirati men lounging over coffee in the ground-floor Starbucks while their veiled wives and Filipina maids take the kids upstairs for burgers and fries at McDonald’s – a picture-perfect example of the multicultural madness of modern Dubai.
Just under a kilometre further down Jumeirah Road, the Agora Mall was just a hole in the ground at the time of writing but promises to rival Mercato in the commercial kitsch stakes when finished, housed in a kind of glass-roofed Roman temple, with bits of faux-Tuscan naff plastered down the sides.
Flanking Al Wasl Road a couple of blocks inland from the coast, Safa Park offers a refreshing expanse of grassy parkland impressively backdropped by the skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road. The park is well supplied with children’s attractions, including numerous play areas, a boating lake and a miniature fairground area, although some attractions only operate in the evenings, if at all. The park has also lost a large slice of land on its northern side to accommodate the new Dubai Canal, currently off limits during construction work.
The Dubai Canal and Jumeirah Corniche
Unveiled in October 2013, the US$550-million Dubai Canal (or “Dubai Water Canal” as it’s officially, if rather pointlessly, called) is the second and final phase in the extension of the Creek from its original terminus at Ras al Khor all the way back to the sea. The canal will stretch for around 3km, extending the Creek from its current end near Business Bay through Safa Park and back to the Arabian Gulf near Jumeirah Beach Park, with walkways and cycle paths en route, as well as four stations served by regular public ferries, making it possible for the first time to travel between the old city, Downtown Dubai and Jumeirah by water – although it’s unlikely the project will be finished anytime much before late 2017, if then.
Meanwhile, the entire Jumeirah coastline between the Dubai Marine Beach Resort and Burj al Arab is also currently being beautified with the phased opening of the Jumeirah Corniche. The 14km-long corniche comprises a broad, pedestrianized walkway, plus jogging track and cycle path, offering a pleasantly breezy and traffic-free way of getting up and down the coast. Showers, toilets and kiosks are also being added at strategic beach locations and the whole thing will also eventually connect to the Dubai Canal. The entire corniche is now largely finished, although Jumeirah Beach Park and the Jumeirah Open Beach are both currently closed for development.