Dubai in a decade

Words: Stella Rosato    Photographs: Paul Thuysbaert


Dubai is rich in history, but also innovation as the past 10 years have seen this extraordinary city transform itself — and the next 10 years promise to be equally exciting

On the shoreline of the United Arab Emirates, under the golden desert sun, a remarkable city rises out of the sand. A buzzing urban metropolis where Middle Eastern tradition meets ultramodern vision, there’s nowhere quite like Dubai. And during its 46-year history in the United Arab Emirates, its most exciting and cutting-edge developments have taken place over the past 10 years.

Above: Dubai’s breathtaking cityscape is complemented by its spectacular coastline (Paul Thuysbaert)

Ten years ago, Dubai was swiftly growing apace. Expectations were high in this young city booming with new projects — luxury residential developments, record-breaking skyscrapers, even man-made islands — that were being announced daily. Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, was topping out (eventually opening in 2009 at a staggering 828m in height), “New” Dubai was taking shape in and around Dubai Marina, with its shimmering towers and luxury dining, shopping and leisure facilities, as a brand new terminal at the city’s airport opened to greet the influx of visitors flocking to see if Dubai lived up to the global hype. Elsewhere, the first residents of Palm Jumeirah, the world-famous palm-shaped island that’s visible from space, had moved in.

Above: The Burj Khalifa, a breathtaking 828m high building (Redit Hok); The World Islands : an artificial archipelago of 300 islands (Hannu Liivaar / Alamy stock photo)

The year also saw swift growth of the city’s cultural offerings. Art Dubai, the international art fair that draws galleries, artists and art lovers from all over the world, was in its infancy and the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) was stamping itself firmly on the global map. Wasia Pasha was one of the early orchestrators of the event and in 2007 — just three years after its launch — some of the biggest names in Hollywood were already keen to walk the red carpet. “There was such an interest in this desert city that was gaining so much global attention at the time,” recalls Pasha. “I think people just wanted to come and see what all the hype was about — and when they got here, they realised that it wasn’t hype. Dubai delivers!”

Another decade on, and now organising some of Dubai’s most glamorous events for lifestyle group Quintessentially, Pasha feels the emirate remains a big name draw. “Celebrities love it. They have more privacy in the city than elsewhere and Dubai is now capable of showcasing some of the best events in the world to attract them. Of course, we are all now also gearing up for the event of the century — Expo 2020, the first World Expo in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. It will be quite a spectacle.”

Above: An architectural impression of the Al Wasl Plaza which will be at the heart of the Expo 2020 site (Redit Hok)

Leigh Williamson, an associate with Sotheby’s real estate, also arrived in the city 10 years ago. “I do remember my first impression of a skyline crammed with construction cranes as far as the eye could see, luxury cars on the roads and a feeling that something very special was happening,” he recalls. “We could not keep properties on our books, such was the interest in the city’s real estate, and when developments launched, they sold out in minutes.”

“Over ten years later and the city has seen incredible changes. Like the rest of the world, we had to weather the financial crisis of 2008, following the boom years in the early part of the century, but Dubai not only survived, it was strengthened,” continues Williamson. “The real estate market here has seen an incredible maturity in a short time and really deserves to stand with cities hundreds of years older as a leading destination to live, work and holiday.”

Kate Dombroski, an advertising executive who has also seen the ups and downs experienced by the city, agrees: “There was massive opportunity for anyone arriving in Dubai speculatively because the market was so undeveloped and the creative talent pool was limited. After the recession hit, only the real talent managed to weather the storm. I’d say our industry can now stand and compete on the world stage.”

In late 2007, Dubai was also eagerly awaiting the opening of Raffles Dubai, the group’s first foray into the Middle East. “Everyone was trying to outdo each other at that time,” recalls Jacquie Mavian, a local real estate project director. “It was impossible to keep up with everyone wanting in on the burgeoning Dubai story and, especially as a new hotel, you needed to be very special to stand out.”

If any hotel was to achieve that, it was always going to be the 19-storey pyramid-shaped structure of Raffles Dubai, topping out at just over 100m. It was designed as a true Dubai icon from the outset according to its Australian architect, Bryn Lummus (who previously designed the Residences at Wafi, the luxury shopping, dining and residential complex adjacent to Raffles Dubai): “The hotel had to be viewed within the context of a burgeoning Dubai skyline that was pushing the limits of construction and design. It had to achieve a status and quality that would stand the test of time.”

Above: The distinctive pyramid shape of Raffles Dubai as seen from the Wafi City Mall (Massimo Borchi)

Despite the immense competition the hotel has been up against since its opening — there are now 550 five-star hotels in Dubai and the number is rising steadily — like the city itself, Raffles Dubai has continually adapted to a maturing landscape. The hotel recently celebrated its 10th anniversary as an integral component of the city at the very heart of the buzzing urban scene, positioned near important sites of business, commerce and culture, such as the Khan Murjan souk, the Wafi shopping complex and the Dubai World Trade Centre and Exhibition Halls.

Above: One of Dubai’s many bazaars (Paul Thuysbaert); The waterside of the Dubai Business Bay : a popular area after sunset (Boax Rottem / Alamy stock photo)

So what comes next for Dubai? Ten years on, where will its ambitious innovations and sky-high vision take it in the forthcoming decade — and beyond?

“As a nation, we have always been forward-looking and planning for the future, which has been a key driver of our success,” Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, has commented. He has been a vital figure in the evolution of Dubai as a truly global city, having overseen numerous key projects, including Burj Khalifa and Palm Jumeirah.

Fresh innovation continues to unfold at the city’s cutting-edge areas, from the Dubai Design District (also known as d3) — a hub for the city’s artists, designers, architects and musicians — to the information communication technology-focused Dubai Internet City, where such “ideas of tomorrow” as wearable tech and next-generation robotics come to life in a community of start-ups and entrepreneurs. Elsewhere, after 10 years of eager anticipation, the AE$1 billion Dubai Safari Park has opened its doors to the public in the Al Warqa district. A haven for wildlife lovers, more than 3,500 animals of all shapes and sizes will roam the grounds, including elephants and rare white lions.

Above: The Design District, or d3: a hub of creativity (Uncredited)

On the waterfront, Dubai Harbour, a 20 million square foot development set to house the Middle East’s largest marina, is also underway, while the new man-made island Bluewaters will offer luxury residences and high-end retail and dining options — not to mention the world’s biggest observation wheel — when it’s completed. The World Islands is on an even grander scale with an artificial archipelago of 300 islands. “The Heart of Europe” islands, for instance, due to be finished in 2020, are inspired by different European destinations, complete with luxury hospitality, leisure facilities and climate controlled environments (with Switzerland Island having a real snow plaza).

Looking further ahead, plans include futuristic takes on transport, including auto-piloted drones that whizz a single passenger to their destination at top speeds of 160km per hour. The Sheikh’s own scheme is to have 25 per cent of Dubai transportation smart and driverless by 2030 and have a quarter of the city’s buildings 3D-printed by 2030.

Of course, the topic on every Dubai dweller’s lips right now is the spectacular Expo 2020, which will increase the city’s footprint even further. Twenty-five million visitors are expected to visit Dubai between October and May when the Expo takes place, with more than 70 per cent coming from overseas. To accommodate them, the Expo site is taking shape in yet another new district, Dubai South, and more spectacular architecture is rising from the ground, including a new superstructure — The Tower at Dubai Creek Harbour — that will surpass Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest.

“I predict that as Dubai stretches towards Abu Dhabi in preparation for the Expo 2020, it will be a game changer,” says Ayman Gharib, Managing Director, Raffles Dubai. “The city will move into the same calibre as a London or New York with smaller cities within the larger metropolis, all with their own pace and atmosphere. Raffles Dubai sits within the fringes of historical Dubai steeped in history and culture. That will be our focus for the future, with so much happening in and around The Creek area.

“I see Raffles Dubai’s story very much mirroring the story of Dubai itself and we will both continue to write our own history.”

Above: Dubai Creek Tower (Emaar Properties / Handout)


In just one decade in Dubai, every year has seen groundbreaking change, and there is more to come...

2007 Raffles Dubai opens

2008 Dubai Mall, the largest in the world, opens

2009 Dubai Metro starts operations

2010 Burj Khalifa opens

2011 Emirates NBD and the Dubai Bank merge

2012 Dubai’s population soars to reach more than two million

2013 Dubai wins its bid to host the World Expo 2020

2014 UAE Space Agency launches

2015 Dubai Creek Harbour project is announced to include a tower that will be taller than the Burj Khalifa

2016 Dubai Opera House opens with Placido Domingo performing

2017 Dubai becomes the first city in the world to be registered with its own font by Microsoft

2018 Dubai Safari Park opens

2020 Expo 2020 takes place, with key projects including The Tower at Dubai Creek Harbour and the Heart of Europe islands set to open

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