Jeremy Burns: The Wonder Beneath Our Feet

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It was an audacious project even in a city renowned for audacious projects. But the city planners of Dubai did it not once, but four times.

In an up-and-coming global metropolis where development is booming and the limited beachfront real estate is sold at a premium, most cities would build higher, tighter, cramming more and more condos or hotels onto the limited land. Dubai did that too, but then they did something distinctly Dubai: they created more beach.

Dredging tons upon tons of sand from the floor of the Arabian/Persian Gulf, the planners behind these projects built miles of new beachfront property in the waters of the Gulf itself. Three of these developments were built in the shape of palm fronds, which not only lends a beachy vibe to the new landmasses but also offers a near ideal shape for maximizing the number of waterfront lots. Anchored to the mainland and each other by a primary stem, each “leaf” of the structure has a single main road, on either side of which is a house which backs up to the waters of the Gulf. For most, the view is of a canal-like divide between their house and the next one across the water, but it’s primo real estate nonetheless. The whole ensemble is encircled by a barrier wall to minimize waves and their attendant erosion, though a number of gaps in the wall do allow easy access for residents’ yachts and other watercraft to enter the Gulf beyond.

The fourth reclaimed-earth real estate development is the famous “The World” project, which used 300 artificial islands shaped and positioned into a rough approximation of a world map. Unfortunately, the global economic crisis hit before the islands could be developed by their buyers (a tragically common theme that I witnessed first-hand in many forms during my tenure in the city, and one I’ll be touching in an upcoming blog post), and rumor had it that even the retaining wall ceased construction midstream, which led to – for a time at least – the unrestrained waters of the Gulf siphoning away some of the newly dry land back to the depths. Even now, nearly a decade after the economic crisis dried up investment in Dubai like the summer sun on the nearby dunes, only one of the 300 islands has been commercially developed.

The Palms are a different story, however. Palm Jumeirah, the first (and smallest) to be constructed is a stone’s throw from the world-famous Burj Al Arab, the sail-shaped seven-star luxury hotel that became the icon most associated with Dubai in the years before the record-shattering Burj Khalifa debuted. At the apex of the palm is the palatial Atlantis resort, mirroring the Bahamian original with its unique design, top-tier restaurants, and fanciful water park. And while Palm Dubai and Palm Jebel Ali may be larger, Palm Jumeirah was the original. In my new book, THE DUBAI BETRAYAL, I set a series of scenes on Palm Jumeirah and in the canals and Gulf beyond, utilizing this fascinating setting as a backdrop integral to the action.

Though I didn’t frequent any of these reclaimed-earth developments often during my two-year stint in the city, I did spend New Year’s 2009 on Palm Jumeirah. A friend of a friend had a home there and was throwing a fancy house party to usher in the New Year. With sea breezes blowing off the ubiquitous winding coastline, quelling the still-warm late December night, I enjoyed a night of mingling, making new friends, eating hors d’oeuvres, and enjoying all the reflection and dreaming that comes along with crossing that boundary into a brand new year. But when midnight hit, while I watched the grandiose display of fireworks overhead, I never forgot that the real wonder was right beneath my feet.

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On June 7, 2016

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