Sunday, February 5, 2023

A once isolated village will be torn apart in rapidly changing Dubai

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Gary and Amanda James overlook the tall skyscrapers and large malls of Dubai from the front porch of their cinderblock home.

It’s a horizon that in its youthful days seemed impossibly distant. The same spot outside Amanda’s childhood home was an empty desert three decades ago.

From the tiny pearl town of Dubai to the booming financial center, Jebel Ali Village, a collection of cottages built for European port workers in the late 1970s, remained largely the same.

It is a relic of another time. Overseas residents still roam the quiet, windy streets and play Christmas bingo in the clubhouse.

But now the bulldozers are coming.

Nakheel, the state-owned developer of Dubai’s signature palm-shaped islands, unveiled plans to demolish the neighborhood to make way for a gated community of luxury two-story villas. Residents found 12-month eviction notices stuck at their door.

Amanda James, 53, whose British father first moved the family to the village in 1984, said: “We are deeply disappointed.” “I came here during the Iran-Iraq War. I lived in both Gulf Wars. … We have been there for three generations. There is a history of people growing up, meeting each other, having their families here.”

Responding to a request for comment, Nakheel said it informed residents of its plans and complied with legal requirements.

“We recognize the importance of Jebel Ali Village to the history of Dubai and its residents and, for this reason, have decided to undertake the redevelopment to preserve and enhance the longevity of the community for many more generations to come,” the company said. said, arguing that the planned pools, parks, sports courts and bike trails would bring residents together in new ways.

As the oil boom in the 1970s, American and European workers of international oil conglomerates, lured by generous cost-of-living allowances, descended on the dusty cities of the Persian Gulf. The migrants settled with their families in well-preserved communities throughout the region, turning outposts such as the Saudi Arabian Oil Company compounds into carefully landscaped replicas of a California suburb.

Dubai did not have much oil, but used what it had to build Jebel Ali, the region’s first major shipping hub and dry dock. Dutch and British port workers moved into houses made of air blocks of concrete. As the neighborhood grew, a school grew. So do horse stables, a pool and clubhouse where residents swap stories over brunch and beer.

“This sense of community is quite unique to this place,” said Donna Dickinson, 40, of Norfolk, England, who spent her teens in the village and moved back with her family last year “to replicate mine for my children.” that was childhood.”

Residents recall the city’s rapid transformation that climaxed in 2002, when the ruler of Dubai allowed foreigners to buy property in the emirate’s territories. This ignited a real estate frenzy fueled by speculators.

Extraordinary housing developments, sprawling golf courses, luxury resorts, expansive water parks and huge shopping malls permeated the land around James’s home. Over time, the coral stone houses of the rulers of the Emirate along the Dubai Creek were destroyed and leveled.

“A lot of history was demolished and replaced,” said Todd Reese, author of “Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai.” “Change is inevitable for a city trying to meet the demands of the market. But there are still places and places of culture where we understand our history.”

Nakheel announced plans to rebuild the village of Jebel Ali and evict residents before demolition. But in 2008 the real estate bubble burst. The company, grappling with billions of dollars in debt, abandoned its vision for the site.

As Dubai’s property prices fell and oil-rich Abu Dhabi saved the emirate from default, village houses sat empty. Years later as the economy boomed, Nakheel allowed old and new residents to return, willing to spend the money to restore the scruffy community to its former glory.

“When you’re an expatriate, it’s hard enough to have some sort of history in a place,” said Dickinson as her 7-year-old son jumped on a trampoline. Behind him was Dubai’s huge aluminum smelter near the port.

In a transient city where foreigners on short-term visas have no way to citizenship far more than locals, the village “was always home, in fact, to my heart,” she said.

Yet signs emerged that one of the last strongholds of the 1970s may not be Dubai anytime soon.

In 2017, Nakheel transformed the rustic clubhouse into a sleek pub with suede chairs and added a dine-in movie theater named after Food Network star Guy Fieri—a contrast to the dilapidated village houses. Even as kids on bikes returned to the winding streets, some homes remained empty, attracting cranky teens looking for secret party spots to harass residents.

The village is torn apart by rumors about Nakheel’s plan. But it wasn’t until last week that residents’ worst fears were confirmed. Travelers proclaiming “a new future of the past” blanketed their cars and gates advertising modern villas of glass and steel.

The remaining Jebel Ali residents will not be offered property in future villas that not many people can afford, and everyone will have to try to find a home elsewhere. Some said they would consider leaving Dubai altogether.

Monique Buitendag, 37, a South African who spent a fortune on renovations a few months ago, is drowning.

“They knew it was coming, and they still sold us the dream,” she said. “It’s just going to look like the rest of the luxurious villas. … you’re missing out on that little old Dubai.”

Corey Rhodes, 43, of Oregon, whose cozy cottage also serves as her business and daughters home school, is heartbroken.

“The emotional feeling you get from living here you’re not going to get anywhere else,” he said grimly.

Amanda James has felt whiplash before. Reflecting on the stubborn charm of the old village, she wonders if Dubai could do more harm than good.

“My hope is that today’s youth don’t think Dubai is Disneyland – because it isn’t,” he said, staring at the city’s tapering towers twinkling in the haze. “There was so much depth to it.”


Follow Isabel Debre on Twitter at


Nation World News Desk
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