Celebration of unity: inside the Dubai Majlis Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show

We take a tour of the Dubai Majlis Garden, which this week won a silver-gilt medal at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London

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London has been in full bloom this week, as the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show opened its gates on May 21. This year, set among the English Show Gardens on the Main Avenue, at this most British of floral events, is an award-­winning garden that’s inspired by the heritage and contrasting landscapes of Dubai.

The Dubai Majlis Garden, designed by Thomas Hoblyn, was awarded a silver-gilt medal by the RHS judges and is a response to a brief that asked designers to create a majlis and a meeting place at the Chelsea Flower Show in collaboration with Visit Dubai.

The garden is a “celebration of unity, collaboration and togetherness”, and the majlis provides a setting for gatherings where “people from all social backgrounds, diverse cultures, nationalities and ages can come together to discuss with an open mind”.

Hoblyn, who travelled to the UAE, as well as other countries in the region, says he was inspired by the beauty of the arid terrains he found, fashioned by wind and water, and characterised by both heat and cold. “I made a sculptural interpretation of this landscape to surround our majlis building that, hopefully, metaphorically, would provide a place of contemplation and inspiration to its users,” he explains.

Features of the Dubai Majlis Garden

The garden’s theme is interwoven with a series of visual metaphors to interpret this thought process. Water starts at the top of the garden, where it follows a hollowed curving path in a cast slab and then meanders its way down to a cool blue oasis rock pool. “Water can always find its way around obstacles, and so mirrors the potential ability of people to innovate and work around challenges.”

Hoblyn also wanted to highlight the landscapes found in the UAE, from the mountains of Hatta to the omnipresent desert. The ferruginous deep red soil that contrasts with eroded limestone rocks and gravel reflect this. An indented rocky wadi path cuts across the garden, drawing the eye to move onward and down to the pool below.

The Bedouin trinity of sand, fire and water are all represented within the garden, too. A cast iron firepit sited on the plateau adjacent to the pool provides a space to gather and reflect, in keeping with the outdoor aspect of a majlis and desert gatherings.

Meanwhile, the sanddune-inspired pavilion, a curved structure built by wood craftsman Petter Southall, provides a sheltered place to meet, which reflects the ancient traditions of Bedouin culture and entertaining. Michael Speller’s bronze sculpture Flow adds a human element to the garden with its representation of three walking figures, possibly nomadic, journeying across vast landscapes.

Hoblyn began his design with a clay model to perfect the form of the garden before he furnished it with plants. He then created horticultural mounds and carpets with the flora found in hot and arid countries, and intermingled ephemeral annuals with “blues, oranges, yellows and greens, tying it together much like a painting, with a backdrop of a lot of burnt ochre and burnt sienna, like an Impressionist artist’s colour palette”, he explains.

The garden also features plants found in other regions, many of which have adapted to thrive and grow in arid environments. There are a few rare plants incorporated into the design, too: Arbutus andrachne (Greek strawberry tree) and a hybrid of this, Arbutus X andrachnoides, as well as Parrotia persica, which is indigenous to areas of Azerbaijan and Iran. Another species, Ziziphus jujuba, was originally from China, but is now widely grown in the UAE. There’s a mature and twisted pomegranate tree, as well as true Middle Eastern species such as Allium nigrum (black garlic) and Pistacia lentiscus (mastic tree).

The teardrop-shaped oasis pool is the part of the garden that Hoblyn is most fond of, alongside the “leopardskin carpeting of different greens all around it”, where various aromatics, including several types of thyme, with hints of colour, are interplanted among the gravel.

“We planted this area last, and even on the day before we were judged, I was changing plants over,” he admits.

Rationale behind the majlis theme

The rationale for bringing together plants from all over the world was to reflect the multiculturalism that is found in Dubai, where “more than 200 nationalities live and work”, explains Hoblyn. “Visit Dubai wants to promote the idea that the majlis can bring Emirati and other peoples together, and that we should all be speaking freely with one another in this Year of Tolerance,” he adds.

A light-strewn earthen wall at the rear carries an excerpt of a poem in both English and Arabic. This was penned by 11-year-old Funneh Drammeh of the New­market Academy in Suffolk (an area with extensive connections to the equine world), and eloquently expresses the ideals of a majlis. It reads:

Water in a pond,

Ideas in a mind,

When it rains more drops come,

When you listen, new ideas arrive,

Water rises,

Mind grows.

Water can freeze,

Mind can close.

Keep rising, keep growing,


Judging criteria

The Show Gardens of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show are looked upon as a benchmark for the industry. By pushing boundaries and using new materials and techniques, these designs continue to be a celebration of the art and craft of all kinds of garden-making. The judging panel for the medals, meanwhile, represents a balance of skills over a cross-section of landscaping, horticultural and design experience, and design originality, scale, 3D composition, quality of construction, and planting design and implementation are all assessed.

The judges have to undergo an RHS training process before they can assess the gardens for the four award categories (see more information above), which range from gold to silver-gilt, silver and bronze. After the conclusion of this year’s show on Saturday, the plants will be moved to Newmarket Academy.

“The RHS has specific criteria against which gardens are judged,” says Stephen Crisp, head of horticulture at the United States Embassy in London. “The starting point, though, is: does the entry fulfil the brief the designer wrote for the Show Garden? Does it ‘tell you’ the narrative of the concept in a convincing way?”

Some of the designs at the show fall outside what might be considered a traditional garden and are more representative of a concept or a landscape. “It’s important to have a conceptual element in RHS shows. Gardens are an art form, and it’s important to explore new ideas and broaden what can be considered to be part of this creative process,” says the judge.

The Dubai Majlis Garden similarly hopes to inspire new thinking and collaboration, and considering the silver-gilt the garden brought home, it achieved just that.