Continuing to bloom: Kamelia Bin Zaal’s new project on Abu Dhabi’s luxe Zaya Nurai Island

Catching up with Kamelia Bin Zaal, who's following up her Chelsea Flower Show bow by working on Abu Dhabi's luxurious Zaya Nurai Island and revamping her own business.

Work at Zaya Nurai Island, overseen by Kamelia Bin Zaal, pictured above, is enhancing the existing landscape design of the Abu Dhabi island by introducing new plant species. Ravindranath K / The National
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There are changes underfoot on Abu Dhabi's Nurai Island, which is home to Zaya Nurai ­Island, a boutique luxury development consisting of a hotel and 23 private residences.

Nadia Zaal, the co-founder and chief executive of Zaya Retreats, has recently put the island’s landscaping and planting in the very capable hands of her sister, Kamelia Bin Zaal – best known for becoming the first Emirati to exhibit at the Royal ­Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show (the planting equivalent of the Oscars) earlier this year. Kamelia has been charged with enhancing the existing landscape design of Nurai by introducing new plant species and working to up-skill the in-house landscaping team responsible for its care and maintenance.

Kamelia’s career in landscape design began about 10 years ago after a spell working with the ­Government, she explains. “I had always been outdoorsy. My dad [Zaal Mohammad Zaal] has massive green fingers, and my granddad on my mother’s side was always messing about with flowers in the garden. I had studied art, and knew I had to find a way to do something creative. My dad had started the Al Barari project [a real-estate project in Dubai recognised for its abundant planting and garden design], and was thinking about the landscaping, and I had a light bulb moment.”

But landscaping Nurai Island presents some unusual challenges, not least because every leaf, flower, tool and piece of moving equipment has to be brought on to the site by boat. There had also been initial issues with getting the quality and quantity of water needed to sustain the plants, so the current landscaping isn’t as established as it might have been.

Kamelia wasn’t involved in the original landscaping plans for the island, as her sister was working to tight deadlines and she was already committed with projects at Al Barari. She did, however, work on garden designs for one of the show villas, where banks of grasses blend seamlessly with roofing materials using artificial grass.

She reflects that, in the first instance, “possibly some of the wrong species were selected, and a new approach was needed to ensure the longevity and sustainability of the original vision”, which was for a lush, green island landscape. “From the beginning, I said to my sister: ‘Look, we are on an island, it’s a harsh environment, so let’s keep the palette as simple as possible, and make sure that whatever is planted will thrive’.”

Al Barari has the largest plant nursery in the UAE, and Kamelia worked with the team there to put together a planting list of species that they felt would do well on Nurai – although the nursery was unable to supply any specimens itself, because it’s currently focused on propagating and growing its own plants for phase two of the project there.

“I was using the same principles that I was using in Al Barari, which is to form a canopy with planting that creates the shade and retains the moisture. It also helps to stop the evaporation of water, while protecting the plants so that the undergrowth and shrubs thrive,” she says.

“What it needed was filling, to give that sense of the Maldives and that lushness. What I have made sure of is that we have an abundance of coconuts and swaying palms, as well as ­Hibiscus rosa-sinensis and Hibiscus tiliaceus, which I know do very well in this island environment. I also brought in more Pongamia glabra and Bismarckia nobilis because I love them. I used them at Chelsea. They are originally from Madagascar, and they are now starting to come back again and do quite well because the water is now where it should be. I had to bear in mind what we had already in the planting scheme, and keep what was doing well, and then grow from that point.”

Kamelia has been revamping the island’s planting scheme in phases, with an initial focus on public areas. “Basically we are working in stages now. Our priority was the welcome centre, reception, deli area, Frangipani restaurant and the pool area. What I’ve also done is concentrate on one of the existing resort villas to show how I want it to be changed. We are waiting now for a delivery of plants for that, so that I can get in there and complete one. I’m doing it stage by stage.”

Kamelia has introduced additional plant species that are hardier and better suited to the environment, and is working to enhance the soil. “You’re talking compost, fertiliser and general feeding, and we are looking at a coconut mulch. I am about to set up composting on the island with my sister, because that is going to be key going forward. What you want to do is create an outer barrier, which is why I’m trying to thicken up the planting on the outskirts of the island, so that it can protect the inner ­areas.”

To help conserve water, Kamelia has added retention molecules to the soil, but she believes that the key to water conservation is getting the mulch down and working compost through the soil.

Does working with family present some challenging conversations, I wonder? “They are your client, ultimately, but the other thing is that we can speak frankly without really bothering each other. I respect that she is a developer, she isn’t a landscape designer, and vice versa. I have to compromise, and then sometimes she has to, and there is an understanding of that, and it is what makes it work just fine.”

Just as Nurai’s landscaping is being given something of a reboot, so too is Kamelia’s career. For the moment, she will continue working on Nurai, but she is also refocusing on re-establishing her own landscape-design practice, Second Nature, which is getting a rebrand.

“I was living, breathing, everything, Al Barari, and I have decided to break away from it. It’s been 10 years, and it was time for a change and a refresh,” she says.

“I want Second Nature to be what it was for me in the beginning, which is a boutique design studio that concentrates on giving people exactly what they want. Not this redesigning the same thing and rehashing it, because unfortunately that is what seems to happen.

“I also hope it encourages landscape designers to go and get out there. We need more emphasis on designers themselves, because there is really good talent, but they are getting sucked into the big landscape architectural firms.”

Clients also need to be educated on the importance of good landscape design, she says. “I think we need to send the message out that a well-designed garden will last you a long time, and it will add value to your house or property were you ever to sell it. For me, the garden is an extension of the interior. There’s not a difference for me. We can live seven months of the year successfully out in the garden, and we do a lot of entertaining outside.”

Kamelia is a big believer in the importance of connecting with nature. “A garden makes a huge difference to anyone’s life. It’s soul enriching. We wouldn’t be here, we would not exist, without plants. I don’t think that message is really sent out there enough.

“Any garden is food for the soul, which was another reason why doing a garden at Chelsea was about sending the message ... that a garden is transcendent. People can relate to it, once they are in it, they can understand it. So it doesn’t matter where it is, it gives a sense of security and just… life.”

Kamelia’s Chelsea entry, The Beauty of Islam, is a project that’s especially dear to her heart. “It was about my country, my culture, and it was about my religion. So for me, all things came together to make that happen. The thought of doing Chelsea is always a pipe dream for any landscape designer, but the cosmos played a role and made it happen for me.”

In addition to a silver gilt medal, Kamelia’s garden received commendations and visits from a number of high-profile guests, including Prince Charles, which was especially pleasing to her because the British royal is someone with a special appreciation and knowledge. “He just gets Islamic gardens,” she says.

“To be honest, just to be at the Chelsea Flower Show and on the main avenue, for somebody who had never done a show garden in her life, was, I felt, enough. I really wasn’t expecting a medal out of it. My medal was the fact that I was actually there. I was very in awe of the show and the whole process.”