Farewell to the Ramada Dubai

Another of Dubai's iconic early landmarks faces the wrecking ball as the city continues its dizzy ascent.

The Ramada Dubai in the 1980s. Courtesy Ramada.
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The Chicago Beach Hotel, Hard Rock Café and Jumeirah TV Tower are famous Dubai landmarks that disappeared years ago. Next to be added to the list: the Ramada Dubai.

The hotel is another link to an old Dubai receding into memory at a rapid rate. When the four-star Ramada opened in Bur Dubai in 1983, it was mostly surrounded by desert. Today, more than three decades on, it is at the heart of an urban sprawl that seems to add a new apartment block or hotel or skyscraper every day. The 174-room hotel faces the wrecking ball at the end of the month.

The Ramada Dubai is owned by Abjar Hotels, and for chief executive Abdellah Essonni, the decision to demolish it and build a new hotel has not been easy. “We have agonised over it for a long, long time,” he tells me. “We have come to a point with Ramada Bur Dubai where it is best to renew the whole thing.”

The news follows the loss of several landmarks in the area. Spinneys Ramada shut its doors in May after serving the people of Bur Dubai for 20 years. Many residents said at the time it felt like a piece of the community was being taken away, while last year, the Golden Cinema closed. It was the last independent Indian cinema operating in Dubai and had opened in 1972. But Essonni cautions against an overly nostalgic view when it comes to the hotel: “There is a sentimental attachment on behalf of the owners and guests. It’s a landmark. That roundabout used to be known as the Ramada roundabout. But let’s be realistic. We are not talking about the Taj Mahal here and we’re confident we can offer a far better alternative.”

Inside the hotel’s atrium is another, perhaps more precious landmark: the tallest stained-glass mural in the world. The spectacular feature is 41.14 metres high and 9 metres wide and, most notably, earned the UAE’s first Guinness World Record title.

Its well-known designer, John Lawson, worked for Goddard and Gibbs of London. His association with the Middle East began in the 1970s when he joined Charles Clark, the studio owner, at a trade fair in Dubai. Lawson, who passed away in 2009, also designed the stained-glass window decorating the dome in Oman’s majestic Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque; a glass dome in the Sultan’s palace outside of Muscat; another stained-glass dome in the Beit Al Quran museum in Bahrain; and in South-East Asia, the glass dome in the Kiarong mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei.

Lawson undertook many private commissions around the Middle East and, according to his obituary in The Telegraph, also designed stained-glass for an unnamed shopping centre in Dubai.

The Ramada mural was commissioned by Fouad Haji Abbas, the original owner of the building, before it was bought by the current group. Lawson was commissioned to design a feature based on 17th century Mughal styles known for their floral displays.

His creation depicts 28 different species of flowers and shrubs with birds decorating the background, bordered by small geometric panels. The subtle changes in colour from the bottom to top are barely perceptible; lighting is provided by 300 fluorescent tubes.

Management have appealed for offers or suggestions on what to do with it and the hope is that the spectacular mural can stay in the country. “We want suggestions from the public. It’s a cultural product which relates to the entire country,” says Senol Sarisen, the hotel’s general manager. “If someone from the government side, or from another hotel or company has a location, we can discuss further. Come up with a suggestion and we’ll consider it. It should be looked after, utilised somewhere else and kept.”

All offers will be considered including a sale and the hope is that it can stay in the country. “We need to hear from people, the community, about what will be best use for the mural rather than just leave it as part of the demolition. That would be a real pity,” says Essonni.

Despite its age, the hotel has high occupancy rates and, according to Sarisen, some guests have been coming back for more than 20 years. But it no longer meets the standards set down by Dubai tourism chiefs. It had to be renovated or else, rebuilt. “The hotel does not have the required rooms for people with disabilities. We don’t have prayer rooms either so it needs changes,” says Sarisen. “Rather than renovating, why not build something bigger? It is sad for some. But to achieve something better you must sacrifice.”

The hotel’s 180-plus staff are set to be moved on to the group’s other hotels but for one long-serving member, it’s the end of an era. H I P Gunatunga has worked at the Ramada Dubai for nearly 30 years and is the assistant front office manager. From Sri Lanka, Gunatunga arrived in the UAE in 1987. As he shows me around, he recalls how people used to play football with makeshift goalposts on the sand outside the Choithrams supermarket, which was then one of only two buildings around the hotel.

Gunatunga says the guests, whom he has known for many years, are emotional about the hotel’s imminent closure.

“They are like our family – whenever they want to come they call my mobile. My mobile has more guest contacts than friends,” he tells me. “They ask: ‘Where are you going? We want to come to the same place.’ Some say they don’t want to go to a new hotel,” says Gunatunga. “This is called Ramada roundabout so it’s part of the city. Personally I’m sad but looking at the full scenario, it’s good.”

The property will be demolished after the last guest checks out at the end of August. In its place will be a complex that includes a five-star hotel, residences and a shopping mall.

It’s still not clear which hotel chain will take over. But for whoever moves in, the demolition of the Ramada Dubai is a symbol of the dizzying growth of a city that refuses to stand still.

John Dennehy is deputy editor of The Review.