The story behind ‘Chinese pagoda house’ in Dubai inspired by owner’s travels

The owner bought the plot of land in Al Badaa in 1965 for equivalent of less than one fils

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It isn’t as tall as Burj Khalifa or as luxurious as Burj Al Arab – but a quirky house in Dubai is almost as striking as those landmarks and older than both of them combined.

In the early Sixties, long before Dubai grew into a futuristic city of gleaming towers and large malls, the pagoda-inspired house began to emerge in Al Badaa, at the end of Al Wasl Road.

Today, nestled among the traditional style villas, the five storey, six-bedroom home, which was once a navigational landmark for ships, remains the subject of much curiosity.

Lion sculptures and a dolphin-themed water feature adorn its imposing entrance, and it continues to attract passers-by.

“There were many stories and rumours circulating about this house,” said Ranya Doleh, 51, daughter of the property’s owner.

“Some said the house was haunted and others said that a Chinese man had built it in memory of his dead wife. Others thought it was an embassy.”

There are no maps or designs for this house. It is all my imagination
Emirati businessman Zakaria Doleh

But the distinctive red house is owned by Emirati businessman Zakaria Doleh.

The 95-year-old bought the plot of land for the equivalent of less than one fils in 1965. He had intended to build an English bungalow on stilts.

Mr Doleh was not influenced by any one place in particular but rather has a passion for everything and everywhere.

“There is no one place that I like or hate,” he told The National.

“I like everything that is beautiful and take what I like and leave what I don’t. This house was built by trial and error.”

Zakaria Doleh said there are no maps or designs for this house. It is all my imagination. Antonie Robertson/The National

Mr Doleh worked in Kuwait for 17 years but decided to buy land in Dubai.

He chose the 400,000-square-foot plot because it had palm trees.

"I saw this plot of land which I wanted because it had palm trees,” he said.

The land was previously owned by a member of the royal family, Mr Doleh said.

Chinese looking house in Al Bada'a, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“After I bought the land, I got a Pakistani worker named Raouf and he didn’t speak any Arabic or English, so we communicated through sign language,” he said.

“Whenever I saw anything I liked in my travels, I don’t copy it but I would come up with something new. This is how the house evolved.

“I would travel and see something I liked and then tell Raouf and we would build it. There are no maps or designs for this house. It is all my imagination.”

Covered in Mr Doleh's art work and photos of his three children, the pagoda is a labour of love and a work in progress. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Mr Doleh’s insatiable curiosity led him to travel for much of his life. He first saw a picture of a pagoda in a travel agency brochure.

“For seven years running, for two to three months, my father would travel in his car from Dubai to Europe,” his son Rany Doleh, 54, said.

“He would buy a brand-new car and sell it by the time he finished his travels and get on a plane and head back.”

The house has a lily pond and a vast outdoor swimming pool that tails off inside the house next to his favourite sitting place. Reflecting its owner’s curiosity and creativity, it is filled with plants, artwork and photos of his three children.

The pagoda is a labour of love and a work in progress.

It took Mr Doleh 15 years to complete the house. Construction started in the Sixties, and he moved in with his late wife and three children in 1981.

While the house has had its share of wear and tear, the family refuses to sell, despite receiving numerous offers.

“There are so many aspects of our personality in this house. It is a treasure trove of memories,” said Rashid Doleh, 49.

“For me, my imagination ran wild in this house and our garden.”

Much of the material used to build the property was sourced locally. The walls, for instance, are made of stones from Hatta.

“The mica is from the backside of Jebel Ali. I remember picking it up and putting it on the truck,” Rashid said.

“We were constantly adding to the house. That prepared us for life because we understood that our environment was constantly changing which is exactly how Dubai is - so instead of being secure in only the things you know, you welcome new things.”

With a sparkle in his eyes, Zakaria Doleh says he remains curious and swims in the ocean every morning, albeit for shorter distances.

“The jet skis have ruined his life,” his daughter Ranya says jokingly. “They now have the border patrols and he gets told off. He used to swim for hours.

“My friends would joke and say ‘Your dad is gone off to Iran for shawarma again’ and my mom would be calling the lifeguards and coastguards asking if he was back.”

Updated: May 13, 2022, 6:31 AM