Paradise is not quite lost, so let’s preserve some of the UAE’s fading past

While praising progress, Jonathan Gornall argues that not everything needs to be lost as the UAE constantly reinvents itself

The Palm has undergone many changes since 2006. (Kamran Jebreili / AP)
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It wasn’t the most attractive beach in the world, but for the four years I lived in the UAE the small, nameless strip of sand tucked behind the breakwater at the southern entrance to Dubai Marina, unknown to tourists and most expatriates, was my launch pad for countless maritime adventures.

Sandwiched between the marina and the vast desalination complex to its south, this was a slice of land that happily had somehow been overlooked by developers. Few ventured down the sandy track that led past a small boat yard to the water’s edge, and it was here that I’d park my car and launch my kayak from that forgotten beach.

One favourite destination was the then-undeveloped tip of the uppermost frond of the Palm Jumeirah, inaccessible by road. Landing to sit in the shade afforded by the overhead monorail bridge, I would eat my sandwiches and watch the holidaymakers at the Palm Atlantis lying side by side on the sand just across the narrow stretch of water.

For the price of a paddle-powered 14-kilometre round trip I had the same stretch of sea to swim in, my own private beach and my own crowds to share it with – nervous bubbler crabs which, if one sat perfectly still, would re-emerge from their holes and continue creating their astonishing patterns in the sand.

Another frequent destination was the most southerly of the twin Logos, the kilometre-long mirror-image islands raised in the shape of palm leaves just off the shore on either side of the stem of the Palm. The northerly Logo, developed as a private retreat, was lush and green, but its southerly sister lay barren, littered with the detritus of an abandoned building site.

Coming ashore to sit on the deserted island felt faintly piratical – like planting a flag and staking a claim to a previously undiscovered territory. It was so close to civilisation – indeed, it had been created by that civilisation only recently. Yet, despite the proximity of the Palm and the comings and goings of vessels from the northern entrance to Dubai Marina, it offered an adventurous sanctuary from the bustle of the city.

It wasn’t entirely undeveloped. Adapting to the human occupation of the Gulf littoral, industrious ghost crabs had colonised this man-made island and, as part of the process of excavating their burrows, were piling up the spoil into miniature towers of sand.

Standing as they did in the shadow of the giant man-made structures of Dubai Marina, the towers created by these crabs had something at once optimistic and yet poignant to say about the relationship between human beings and nature.

All that was almost five years ago. I left the UAE in March 2012. Since then, everything has changed. The breakwater beach has gone, along with the boat yard, both buried beneath a reclamation project protruding a kilometre or more into the sea. The return of the developers to the Palm has also doubtless seen the bubbler crabs evicted from their once-secret beach.

And now, with the announcement this month that a spectacular new marina development is to be built at the opposite end of Jumeirah Beach, complete with berths for 1,400 yachts and the now obligatory iconic building (a 135-metre tall hotel-cum-“lighthouse”), the days of the ghost crabs and their deserted desert island are also numbered.

The success of the vision set in train by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid with the creation of the Burj Al Arab Hotel, which opened in December 1999, has been astonishing. No one would deny Dubai its ever-evolving development – like a shark dependent upon the constant passage of oxygen-rich water across its gills, it has to keep moving, creating fresh attractions to maintain the all-important flow of visitors. And, of course, Dubai was not built solely to pander to the foibles of a British expat with a penchant for paddling kayaks.

But when I read about the 20 million square foot Dubai Harbour project in the UK's Daily Mail newspaper – the international media coverage itself a measure of the success of Dubai's build-it-and-they-will-come phil­osophy – I experienced a wholly unexpected sensation of loss and nostalgia.

When I moved to the UAE in May 2008, I was a reluctant expat, persuaded to leave the United Kingdom not by career ambition but by unhappy personal circumstances and necessity. I spent much of the time I was there missing my corner of England, especially a riverside village in the eastern county of Suffolk, where little has changed for hundreds of years.

Since leaving the UAE in March 2012 and returning to Suffolk, however, I find my thoughts drifting frequently to a place 5,500 kilometres away, where everything changes, all the time. Being parted from a special place, wherever it is, can be as emotionally testing as being parted from a loved one. Discovering that part of that place has been wiped from the map sets the sense of loss in stone.

It is, of course, foolish to expect time to stand still, especially in a place such as Dubai, the time-lapse capital of the world. Ever since British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who visited the then Trucial States in the late-1940s, pronounced himself “distressed” that the Bedouin were poised to “exchange … the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world”, those of us passing through this enigmatic land have sought to impose our own, restrictive notions of what life in this part of the world should be like.

But this is about much more than the nostalgic memories of a transient expat, as the appeal last week by art lovers and architects in Dubai for the city to save its pre-iconic buildings demonstrates. At immediate risk are Al Amal psychiatric hospital on Al Wasl Road and the pavilion in Safa Park, both built during the 1980s and now facing destruction. Each, say those campaigning for their preservation, is a vital link in the chain of progress that defines Dubai and its people.

This is not, of course, about a small, insignificant beach, or even a whimsical man-made island that surfaced from the waters of the Gulf only a little more than a decade ago and failed to fulfil its intended destiny. But memories of places, as well as people and experiences, are important, and in the headlong rush to the future, the UAE must take care not to eradicate entirely the landscape of its past.

As Dubai marches rapidly towards tomorrow, it is the small places – the seemingly insignificant buildings and spaces that serve no obvious, wealth-generating purpose – that are in danger of being forever lost. We in the UK passed this way in the 1960s and 70s. In the enthusiastic rush to embrace the new and cut the ties with a not always happy past, London’s forward-looking planners destroyed much of the city’s irreplaceable built heritage.

Icons are invaluable, as Dubai has proved again and again. But let us hope that someone, somewhere in Government, has their eye on the rear-view mirror, with a view to preserving the best of the past for the benefit of tomorrow.

Jonathan Gornall is a regular contributor to The National