Dubailand: Lost Dreams
By Aaron Noah M
Location: Dubai, UAE

How would you like to travel back in time to the recent past, to see what happened before Boomtown went Bust?  Heading out of Dubai toward the desert you can find a museum highlighting the glory days, a monument to the reckless audacity of urban development that was all the rage five years ago.  It’s not really a museum, but actually a Tatweer showcase headquarters for a crazy dream that has yet to become a reality: Dubailand.

Dubailand Main Gate

Dubailand Main Gate

Take a drive out of town via Umm Sequeim (Next to Mall of the Emirates) and keep going until you see the colossal Arabian Ranches Interchange.  Stay to the right, following signs for Motorcity and then pull off unto a ragged little road just before you actually reach the interchange.  From here it should be easy to spot the Jurassic Park style gate leading to the Dubailand main office, a unique building surrounded by animals, a roller coaster, a volcano, a giant space shuttle, and various other oddities.  Sign in at the front lobby and then start your surreal tour of the Dubailand dream.

Inside you’ll be confronted by a mini-carnival of displays, each offering a glimpse of the future…or the future as envisioned by real estate developer Tatweer back in 2006.  You see, much of this should have been built by now, but progress on Dubailand ground to a halt after the financial meltdown on Wall Street and worldwide recession in 2008.  But in 2006 the real estate sector in Dubai was still high on itself, like a fat Roman Emperor—giddy, triumphant, and insatiable.  Imagination was the only limit and dreams were being sold on the sand.

Dubailand was the epitome of the grandiose visions of the day.  Plans for the Tatweer project made Walt Disney World look like a village fair, needing approximately 278 square kilometers of desert to build 45 self-proclaimed “mega-projects.”  It would require a minimum of 55 hotels on location to service the 24 proposed theme parks including: Universal Studios, Sahara Kingdom, Marvel Superheroes, Six Flags, Freej, Legoland, Dreamworks, F1-X, Warner Bros Movie World, and Tiger Woods Dubai.  If that wasn’t enough, there were also designs for art and cultural centers, a planetarium, spas, sports venues, and, of course, a horde of shopping and retail outlets to soak up every last dirham tourists would be sweating out during their visits.  Once fully operational, Dubailand would have had a resident population of 2.5 million—practically a brand new city.

Dubailand Architectural Model

3,200 sq. ft. Dubailand Architectural Model

You’ll get a better understanding of the scale of this project once you’ve see the impressive developer model for the entire Dubailand complex.  Living in Dubai I’ve grown accustomed to seeing these miniature architectural mockups of real estate projects, usually found in shopping malls with an eager salesperson nearby, but I’ve never seen a model THIS big.  How big?  There’s an entire room dedicated to it, all 3,200 square feet of it.

This crazy wonderland was, or actually still is, the plan, although only a few bits of that plan have become reality: Al Sahra Desert Resort, Global Village, and Motorcity.  If you are familiar with any of those locations, find them on the model and you’ll be surprised how little space they take up.  You can also check out Tatweer’s interactive map at:

Dubailand Dinosaur

Growing a dinosaur at Dubailand

You might also enjoy the dinosaur exhibit, including another Jurassic Park inspired vision: little dinosaurs being “grown” in glass tubes.   I would have liked to have seen the finished theme park for that.  And that’s when this humorous little space of curiosities starts to take on a sad atmosphere.  Hundreds of square kilometers of pristine desert habitat was destroyed in preparation to build Dubailand, and now most of it is left forgotten, rotting in mid-construction.  I remember the beauty of the area five years ago, a vast stretch of sand and low-lying trees, a quiet escape just outside of the city.  It’s mostly an eyesore now, with the Dubailand office in the middle of it, standing as a memorial to a gluttonous chapter in Dubai’s recent history.

So is the dream lost?  Perhaps not.  Tatweer has announced that construction will resume by the end of 2011, following a reassessment and scaling down of the original plan.  I’m guessing that means that the showcase office, with its über-ambitious designs from 2006, will probably change in a few months.  So see it now and witness this sliver of history before it fades away.

On that thought, I leave you with an image from the official Dubailand brochure, which I think ironically captures the delusions of the real estate market five years back, with a headline that proudly proclaims:

Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

Source: Official Dubailand Brochure

Dubailand Main Office