Dubai on the Beach-On Life Style and Beach Culture, Virginie Lefebvre

This paper will develop two ideas to understand why Dubai is creating as many kilometers of beaches as possible and the consequence of those developments.


The rst reason is to attract the wealthy as, in this rst part of the 21st century, the rich are never being richer and are looking for new destination, where they will be safe, being able to spend their enormous fortune, while looking for fun and excitement. This situation is similar to the one that has developedleisure destination during the industrialization in the 19th century, when rich British families created, for example, Nice as a winter destination before i became a summer one. The second idea is that beaches, are still seen as the most desirable destination to spend time with family in the developed world as well a in the developing one. One of the consequences of this type of leisure activity is the constant rede nition of social role and social differences as well as differences based on sex and money. On the beach at some point everybody is equal and it is very dif cult to prevent visual or physical contact.

Dubai is trying to attract tourist, but also investors and their European employees by proposing a alluring life style. This lifestyle is based on the assumption that there is no longer a difference between vacation and work. This lifestyle could potentially rede ne relations between men and women in a Muslim society, where they are traditionally separated. It may as well become a common ground for the different classes of the society. Working and living conditions are especially dif cult for the emigrates who are working low paid jobs, but the access to most of the beaches is free or very cheap. As Margaret Crawford has suggested in Urban Design Now, the public doesn’t exist, one should speak about a different public. The beach as a public space was since it was invented open to every public, but under the banner of the elite public and the doctor who were supposed to teach them to behave.

Dubai is designing the set and the scene for that purpose. Water in all shapes and forms, from seaside, swimming pool, fountains, spa, beaches both private and public becomes synonymous with pleasure, beauty and endless summer in traditional as well as in our post industrial cultures. Inside or outside, naturalor arti cial, water is Dubai`s strength and paradox. It is a paradox not only because Dubai is located near the desert, but also because of prevailing issues of sustainability.


Contrary to the assumption that everything is gated and privatized in Dubai, the design of the shore is offering real and unique public spaces. Public beaches, a beach park and an urban port deserve studies. But before describing it, I will return brie y to the invention of seaside resort in order to trace the possible origins of some of Dubai’s spatial characteristics.

Dubai itself is inviting us to do so. I saw in January 2006 an exhibition for a commercial event in a mall advertised with a fake old poster of Nice, which was invented as a winter destination by the British in the mid 18th century.

When seaside resorts were a medical

Before Nice became a fashionable destination, according to the French historian Alain Corbin , the seashore was a place for shermen and sailors; it was not a place for leisure. Seaside in Europe was considered as dangerous, synonymous of death. Cliffs, and beaches were places for workers. Nobody knew how to swim and travelling by ship was always a bit hazardous. The water was considered a support for commercial and shing activities, and occasionally a site for warfare.

At the end of the 18th century, seaside towns began to be developed as winter, and later in the 19th century, as summer resorts. Doctors were at the origin of the passion for seawater. They wrote books on the bene t of drinking seawater. Also, they defended the idea that the air from the seashore could heal serious diseases like tuberculosis, and even nymphomania! Physicians joined forces with developers to attract the rich and famous. Spas were the rst cities to capitalize on their relation with the water to attract tourists and to use advertisement on a large scale, like Dubai is now doing to attract visitors.

During the 19th century, two types of city coexisted along the shore. On one hand, harbors grew along a rational pattern to follow the expansion of commercial exchanges, and became specialized in the traf c of goods and their transformation. On the other hand, tourist resorts such as Cabourg on the Normandy coast became popular destinations for the French aristocracy. As the industrial city was denounced for its terrible living conditions, the seaside became a desirable destination for the wealthy few that could afford vacations. At the same time port-cities turned their backs to their commercial ports, seeing them as sources of nuisance.

During this period sea and seaside were still synonymous with fear, as well as a way to regain physical strength. Being frightened and simultaneously reassured were among the paradoxical experiences of resorts developments. As Dominique Rouillard has stated in her seminal study of 19th-century seaside resorts, the urban design of seaside resorts had to provide excitement, perhaps even fear, while remaining safe. One of the most important infrastructures was a sea wall to protect the city, as well as to provide a place for a long promenade along the shore. This promenade was important in the eyes of doctors to promote physical activity and it was the most desirable location for main facilities like the Casino and the Grand Hotel. Also, the promenade was the place where people went to admire the sea as well as to be seen, like in Nice along the famous Promenade des Anglais, which was such a public success that it was continuously expanded until it reached the airport, becoming one of the major features of the city. Dubai is following the same tracks, providing safe harbor and exciting water-park, Caribbean beaches and Venice’s like canals, wild shing and safari in the desert. The romantic experience of watching the sublime of nature (sea-sky-sands) is carefully advertised worldwide, as well as the extreme comfort of hotel and residences. In Dubai the sea seems so peaceful that one wonders if there is it is the clam before the storm.

Walking on the water

Dubai’s fame as a tourist destination comes from the picture of the Palm and The World posted in airports and printed in glossy magazines. The romantic idea that one could own a private island, inspired Marlon Brando, who cut himself from the world in a tiny Paci c Island, Tetiaora, he had acquired. One could dream to live like a Robinson surrounded with water. However, in Dubai case, it is a fantasy, as those islands are conveniently located near the shore, surrounded with stores, hotels, resorts and restaurants. In addition, the central part of the Palm leaf is directly connected to the shore with a bridge. Following Eco’s point of view a fake island is much more interesting, and probably more picturesque than the real one, at least it is easier to live on. Brando, after spending some times on his island, never came back and transformed it into what is now, a shabby resort, even if it is still a very romantic one.

Dubai’s islands are fantasies, as it was a fantasy to walk along a pier in Blackpool or Nice. Among other infrastructures invented in the 19th century for tourists, one must not forget piers. They were at rst simple jetties as their original purpose was to cater for the need of the passengers’ boats, which reached the shore with a rowboat before their construction.

Piers appeared with the railroad in the 1880s to attract visitors to new resorts. Such infrastructures originated in England and spread everywhere. They were multi-purpose infrastructures providing attraction for as many as 2,000 people, with kiosks for music, cafes, restaurants and stores. They displayed sometimes curiosities such as the skeleton of a giant whale, included a Casino or a roller coaster. One had to pay to have access to the platform, which was both an amusement park and a physical experience of being in the middle of the sea without sailing. Also piers offered a new point of view onto the shore. One can compare the view of Dubai from the palm leaf islands to a renewed version of the British piers experience.

Dubai is not only providing picturesque beaches, it is also building connections between city and water. Claude Prelorenzo, a French sociologist, has argued convincingly, that, for the Modern Movement, the ideal city was green, whereas for the postindustrial society, it has to be blue, positioned along the water under a permanently sunny sky. This is also one of the reasons why the mayor of Paris organized Paris-Plage, or Paris- Beach to attract Parisians and tourists by transforming the city into a fake seaside resort. To live near the water and with a view is a common desire for inhabitants of London, Montreal, Amsterdam, Boston, New York or Rio de Janeiro.

However, it is necessary to question the reason of this role given to the water. First, overall, the sea stands as one of the last wild and natural spaces. Also, water in a lot of cultures is synonymous with life and birth. The presence of water in design is not new. For example, water in Arabic gardens such as the Alhambra in Grenada is as important as vegetation. Water changes its meaning after transformation of commercial ports in urban places. There is often a contradiction between the rational character of the quays and the desire for wilderness.

At least four different types of relation with the water are proposed in Dubai: a picturesque one (all fantasies islands and canals), we just looked at, an historic one, in a natural port called the Creek, a contemporary one, the beaches (Jumeira and Al Mamzar park), and an urban port type. These different relations function like a unique infrastructure, over and under the ground, which is generating a large and irregular grid, where residential and office development take place. The water management is especially difficult, as most of the water is coming from the sea on a sandy ground.

The beaches as a social melting pot

On the Jumeira side of the Creek, on the left bank, after the enclave created by the commercial port, the city stretches along the shore. The urban fabric is the result of an addition of villas. This system ends nearby the Burj Al Arab tower and the Jumeira Beach Hotel on the Chicago beach. The beach is a simple stretch of sand with a lot of small public facilities, electric light and a street access along it. Private beaches and public ones are interspaced. Along the first part of the shore, a large promenade was built to bike, run or walk along the beach. There are few cafés or restaurants, and the character is mostly residential. All sorts of people, men and women, tourist and Europeans, expatriates and Emirates occupy the beach. At the end of the grid stands the Jumeira Beach Hotel by Atkins and Partners architects, which could have been inspired by Marina Baies des Anges, a major residential complex located near Nice. The shape of the wave and the structure of the building which is curved in plan and elevation in order to maximize the view for every apartment are very close to architect Minangoy’s Marina Baie des Anges realized in the 70s by a private developer. It is interesting to compare Marina and the Jumeira beach because in both case it produces a new landscape, a vertical line confronted to the horizontal of the sea, and it closes the view for those located behind.

In front of it stands the Burj Al Arab hotel, on its artificial island connected to the shore by a 400 meter long private bridge. Its distance from the coast and the fact that the bridge is designed for a car access give the tower a strange position that could be compared with a giant lighthouse that plays the role of a landmark. It shapes is reminiscent of a Japanese tower built along the Yokohama waterfront. The main argument here, like in the case of Marina, is to maximize the view to the sea and from the sea. In both cases also the landmark building is ending the beach like a giant punctuation mark.

The beach as a lifestyle

It is probably Rio and LA, which have most developed the beach as a lifestyle. From there, fashion as well as body image, and body language were imported elsewhere. The beaches in Dubai play a very important role in the concept of the leisure type of lifestyle the city is able to offer to its one million inhabitants. In this matter it is important to clarify that there are at least four different types of public in Dubai. The less numerous one are the Emirates, who represent less than 10 % of the population. The more important ones are the Expatriates, who are mostly workers or merchants from Iran, India or the Philippines. The European expatriates are called European to distinguish them from the other aliens. The fourth type are the tourists. The social geography is clear. Near the Creek are living mostly the Expatriates, the Europeans and Emirates are living along Jumeira and in neighborhoods nearby. Tourists are everywhere, but some hotels accommodate mostly Russians.

One of the problem of beaches for designers since their invention as a public space was their lack of social barrier. At first, in Normandy, beaches for men and women were separated, but it was difficult to prevent the access of undesirables from the sea. For that reason the beach could be a model of interaction of different public, socially and sexually. In the context of Dubai it is true that the public space offered by the beach seems to be occupied by everybody.

On the other side of the Creek, the right bank, the Deira side, one can find Al Mamzar Park, which provides beaches planted with palm trees users have access to a free dedicated parking, restaurants, public facilities, cafés and to a shaded zone barbecue area. One can use the beach until 11pm at night and swim at night under the electric light. At Al Mamzar, men and women, European or not, seem to stay nearby in swimming suits. There are not a lot of Emirates though, but some of them were preparing a barbecue, and I saw a number of expatriates playing basket ball. The ambiance was quiet, evocative of a sunny paradise along the ocean.

As a conclusion, I will ask the question of the evolution of beaches as the main public space in Dubai. Nowadays it seems that there is still something in common between people of different cultural and social origin at least along the beaches I visited. As long as the status will be maintain, those spaces will play the role of a quiet and possible common ground, as every body have access to the beach for leisure. Already tourists and emirates are complaining about the indecent attitudes and irregular uses of the less educated, the poor, the unwelcome expatriates. As we know from history, beaches may be closed and reserved to a certain public. In South Africa beaches were segregated during the Apartheid, when it was not possible they were just forbidden for the black and Indian population and reserved to the white only. In Cuba, in Varadero, beaches are privatized and their access is forbidden to anybody, and especially Cuban, who is not a guest in the nearby hotels. In Dubai, the construction of thousand of kilometers of private shore, will accentuate the imbalance, rich, European and poor workers won’t probably share the same beaches anymore. The welcoming and glamorous mix of people lying on the sand will become an image of the past. This may provoke a violent reaction, described in one of Michel Houellebecq‘s novel, where terrorists, because of the indecent behaviors of Western tourists, attack a private beach.

Virginie Lefebvre

teaches courses in urban design at the GSD Harvard University. She has been professor of architecture and urban design at the Ecole d’Architecture in Ver- sailles, France. She is the author of La Grande Arche de la Defense (1989) with Francois Chaslin, Paris- ville moderne (2003), and has directed Les espaces publics modernes (1995). In 1988, she founded with Claude Prelorenzo a research group, le GRAI, to study the relationship between architecture and in- frastructure. She is working curently on the subject of tourism in the desert.Sincerely

No Comments

You can be the first one to leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *