Variously described as ‘the world's largest leisure and entertainment destination’ or ‘the Disneyland of the Middle East’, DubaiLand was first announced in October 2003.
The 107 square mile site lies inland from Palm Jumeirah, between Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Road and the desert. The master plan shows 26 development projects within which there are 50 visitor attractions.
The largest four projects are Arabian Ranches, Dubai Sports City, Falcon City of Wonders and Golf City, all residential developments but within themed environments. The so-called attractions are not necessarily what you might expect if you think DubaiLand equals Disneyland. In Sports City, for example, the attractions are the Olympics specification sports stadia and the Formula One racing circuit, attractions not only for visitors but for those who want to live here or invest in property.
In the 12 years (at the time of writing) since the DubaiLand project began pundits, investors and bloggers have been clamouring for at least one serious theme park, and despite years of promises from the developers not one has yet been built. What have been built, however, are a number of residential developments, sold to investors on the back of these promises. Arabian Ranches is a residential development surrounding a golf course and alongside an equestrian centre. Not a roller coaster in sight, but this is part of DubaiLand, albeit an exclusive enclave.
In the heady days before the economic downturn in 2008 the massive DubaiLand project seemed perfectly achievable to its champions. But the scale of the infrastructural works was never properly appreciated. It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at a project, you cannot expect a tranche of desert the size of Birmingham UK, or Long Island USA to be greened over, populated, provided with drinking water and electricity, and ready to welcome 15 million tourists in the space of ten years.
You (only) have to trawl through the property investment blogs to appreciate the unrealistic expectations of investors and theme park aficionados. But it is ever the way; developers are always faced with the chicken-and-egg problem of how to get people to buy a house in a development with no shops on the one hand, or how to get retailers to open up shop in a development devoid of inhabitants on the other.
DubaiLand has been sold on the promise of adjacent attractions and leisure facilities, and for those who invested in houses and apartments it has been a long wait for the promise to be realised.
And what about communications and transportation? How do you move 15 million expectant tourists around this virgin territory? Of course you need roads for the construction firms to reach their building sites, but trains or trams are what tourists need, and nobody is going to build train tracks for a non-existent population.
It wasn’t until the economic downturn of 2008 that the DubaiLand organisation finally admitted that without the proper infrastructure individual developers would be unable to attract investors. The infrastructure was being built, but not at the impossibly fast pace that developers were led to expect.
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In 2004, the year following DubaiLand’s launch, 13 development deals worth USD 4bn had been closed and another 45 deals worth USD 9.5bn were expected within five years.
By 2005 some 15 ‘elements’ of DubaiLand had been announced, including Underwater World, Equestrian World, Snow World, Legends of Arabia World, Golf World, Flea Market World, The DownTown, Sports City, Space World, Aviation World, Bio World, an un-named theme park, Jebel Ali Airport, Global Village, Arabian Ranches and other residential projects. Over the years that followed some of these elements were renamed, some scrapped, some built and some new elements added to the DubaiLand menu.
Three more ‘projects’ were announced in 2006, Beautyland, Western City and The Emirates Planetarium, whilst the government-owned management firm, Tatweer, said it would open three of its key attractions that same year, Dubai Heritage Vision, Dubai Outlet Mall and Plantation Polo and Equestrian. Al Sahra, Heritage Vision’s centrepiece performance arena, opened in 2006 and the Outlet Mall in late 2007, but Plantation Polo and Equestrian with its air-conditioned stabling for 800 horses went bust in 2008 and was never built.
A further 12 projects were said to be scheduled for completion in 2009; The Great Dubai Wheel, The Emirates Planetarium, Snow Dome, Legends of Arabia, Restless Planet, Mall of Arabia, Global Village, Aqua Dunia, Dubai Bazaar, Astro Lab, Dubai Sports City, and two sports stadia. Only the Dubai International Stadium, mainly used for cricket, and Global Village were realised.
DubaiLand was now aiming to attract six million additional tourists to the city in 2012.
In 2007 several more attractions ‘catering to the entire family’ were announced. These included The Restless Planet, a dinosaur theme park being developed in cooperation with the London Natural History Museum, Sports City, featuring large state-of-the-art stadiums (two of which had already been announced in 2006), Islamic Culture and Science World, Mall of Arabia, set to become one of the largest shopping centres in the world, and Tiger Woods Dubai, one of the centrepiece projects of DubaiLand with plans for 22 palaces, 100 luxury villas, a 33,445 square metre hotel and 75 mansions. At the same time City of Arabia and Al Kaheel were said to be already on the starting blocks.
The what’s-on-and-where-to-go magazine ‘Timeout’, however, had this to say in May 2007: “Take a drive through the vast area of desert where DubaiLand will be built and it is hard to tell if any work is even being done. So can the brains behind the monumental theme park really hope to welcome visitors by 2010?” The writer’s conclusion that DubaiLand is simply ‘a monumental theme park’ confirms the public expectation: DubaiLand = Disney Land, only bigger.
The magazine went on to say that the new visitor centre at the project’s headquarters includes “a detailed replica of an area in which Bawadi – a Las Vegas-style strip lined with glitzy hotels and a shopping centre covering 40 million square feet – will be just a short journey away from a giant snow dome and dinosaur theme park.” The theme park / Las Vegas image again.
Mohammed Al Habbai, DubaiLand’s CEO, was confident that ‘components such as Universal Studios and Tiger Woods Dubai are due for completion in 2010. It is all with the aim to secure DubaiLand as the ultimate leisure and entertainment tourist destination in the world.’ By 2014 neither component had been completed.
In 2007 the financial crash hadn’t yet happened, but the unlikelihood of DubaiLand meeting its various project deadlines had become blindingly obvious. Originally scheduled to open by the end of 2007, building work had not even started on most of the projects. Moreover it was looking increasingly unlikely that the new opening date of late 2010 would be met. People began to say openly what many already knew, ‘Planning is at the root of the problem. When land was first sold, the infrastructure had not been properly considered.’
By the end of 2007 only three elements of DubaiLand were officially operational: Global Village, a traditional fairground surrounded by 37 international pavilions; The Dubai Autodrome, the race track component of MotorCity; and the first phase of Plantation Polo and Equestrian Club. Al-Kaheel, a one million square metre project comprising equine centres with indoor and outdoor arenas, a breeding centre, 400 villas, a hotel and a theatre, ran into difficulties and was taken over by the developer, Tatweer.
In January 2008, before the world’s banks began to close their doors, big name theme parks by DreamWorks, Universal City, Marvel Entertainment, Nickelodeon and Paramount were said to be ‘confirmed’, two of them to be opened by 2011.
In February DubaiLand announced the creation of the world's first 'Little Big Club' in Dubai, featuring ‘globally popular characters Barney, Pingu, Bob the Builder and Thomas & Friends’. The 25,000 square foot indoor/outdoor project would represent ‘a multi-million dirham investment within the permanent Global Village which is set to open its doors in the last quarter of 2008.’
In March a new Six Flags DubaiLand was announced ‘filling 60 lushly-landscaped acres with thrill rides and family attractions and entertainment’. And so it continued, Dubai had now attracted theme park commitments from three of the world's five largest theme park companies. But why, some wondered, nothing from Walt Disney Parks and Resorts?
Despite dark clouds looming on the horizon DubaiLand’s CEO Mohammed Al Habbai dismissed reports that some of the projects had been delayed. “The Formula 1 theme park will be ready by the third quarter of 2009,” he said, “and 2010 will see the launch of the first water theme park, Universal Studios the Tiger Woods Dubai golf course and the City of Arabia.” He went on to say, “Other phase one projects due to open in 2010 include the Ernie Els Golf Course, Global Village, Dubai Outlet City, Plantation World and the Al Sahra Desert Resort. The target date for completion of all the projects is 2020, by which time more than 250,000 staff will be working at the theme parks.”
Two years earlier 12 projects were said to be scheduled for completion in 2009, including The Great Dubai Wheel, The Emirates Planetarium, Snow Dome, Legends of Arabia and Restless Planet, yet even though construction had not started on any of these the DubaiLand people continued to deny that some of the projects were delayed, on hold or had been cancelled, saying “The indoor snow centre at DubaiLand, the Dubai Snowdome, is very much on our agenda. A detailed plan has just been submitted and we are working on it.”
A year later Snowdome had disappeared from the menu.
DubaiLand’s attractions were now divided into seven types: theme parks, culture and art, science and planetariums, sports and sports academies, wellbeing and health, shopping, and resorts and hotels. Within these more than 20 attractions had been announced, ‘most’ of them said to be on schedule. The management company committed to a new opening date of 10th December 2010, when Universal Studios would make its blockbuster debut.
On the ground 95 per cent of DubaiLand was still just sand.
There were two types of DubaiLand projects: those being managed by government-backed Tatweer, and those by private investors. Tatweer’s were to be the entertainment providers (Tiger Woods, Universal, DreamWorks), whilst real estate projects with attractions tacked on (eg MotorCity, The Plantation, Sports City, Al Barari, Falcon City and Golf City) belonged to the private sector. These latter projects would all be packed with houses, but DubaiLand preferred to pitch them as attractions. Thus, Al Barari was described as "botanical gardens with villas", and The Plantation as an "equestrian and Polo-inspired lifestyle statement".
As the summer of 2008 turned to autumn the economic outlook was looking less rosy. In December Tatweer announced that the entire DubaiLand development was under review because of the financial crisis. Tatweer itself was now to be merged into a joint venture with three other property developers.
DubaiLand's master plan incorporated 45 theme-based projects of which more than twenty, including residential areas, had already been signed off for development as part of the first phase. But at the beginning of 2009 the plans came under review to ensure they conformed to the government’s new Dubai Strategic Plan that had been drawn up in the light of the global economic crisis. Delivery of the much trumpeted ‘world's first Formula One theme park’ at DubaiLand was slipped a year to 2010 because of a lack of funding. Analysts at Mideast bank EFG-Hermes were speculating that the project might be dumped altogether.
In May 17 of DubaiLand’s world-class attractions were showcased at the Arabian Travel Market (ATM): The Tiger Woods Dubai, Universal Studios DubaiLand, Bawadi, Global Village, Marvel DubaiLand, DreamWorks DubaiLand, Six Flags DubaiLand, Legoland DubaiLand, Freej DubaiLand, Dubai Sports City, Al Sahra Desert Resort, Dubai Lifestyle City, City of Arabia, Dubai Golf City, MotorCity, Dubai Outlet Mall and The Palmarosa.
In June the New York-based amusement park chain Six Flags filed for bankruptcy protection but said that plans for its first park in the Middle East were "moving forward". The following month the Tiger Woods development was said to have been delayed by at least six months although DubaiLand said that consistent progress was continuing at the course, emphasising that three of the 18 holes were completed, which confirmed its commitment to the project.
The Dubai Outlet Mall was indeed up and running in 2009 and expecting an annual footfall of six million visitors, but the ‘humble’ attraction complained that many of its customers didn’t realise that the mall was part of DubaiLand.
The opening dates of two big name attractions, Legoland and Universal Studios, were slipped by two years although developer Tatweer insisted there had been no change in the plans for DubaiLand and that Universal Studios remained an integral part of it.
At the same time the Dubai Snowdome had quietly disappeared from the project's Web site.
But while the attractions seemed to be getting nowhere, at least some of the residential projects were nearing completion with Dubai Properties announcing that Al Waha and The Villa at DubaiLand should be completed by the year end. The same developer showcased more than 15 developments at the property jamboree, Cityscape, including Tiger Woods Dubai.
DubaiLand’s CEO kicked off 2010 by telling the world that “DubaiLand now has exclusive pockets of residential communities such as the Arabian Ranches, MotorCity, Leyan Community, The Villa and Al Barari, making the destination an attractive place to live, work and play." And in a remarkable display of indomitability he went on to say, "DubaiLand is a huge destination and so it is good that the crisis slowed things down, giving us the time to know what components we need and plan it properly and realistically."
The Al Waha and Layan residences were handed over or leased out, albeit without any shops, and the builder’s focus switched to two more residential districts, Remra'am and The Villa. Meanwhile while Arjan, Liwan and Majan, residential districts launched in 2006, were all but stalled.
City of Arabia, Dubai Lifestyle City, Palmarosa, Al Barari and the Taleem Beacon Education project were all now under construction. At Dubai Golf City the developer was having a hard time selling properties around the unfinished Tiger Woods golf and becoming increasingly anxious that it would never be completed, while the Las Vegas inspired Al Bawadi strip of hotels and entertainment venues was also idling, waiting for the market to pick up. Here and there ‘slivers of DubaiLand are slowly coming to life’ reported The National newspaper in June. Slivers, that is, of the biggest project on the planet, and for the rest of 2010 there was nothing more to report.
By 2011 DubaiLand had been at virtual standstill for over two years as private developers and contractors watched Dubai’s real estate market collapse. Dubai Properties Group, the project backer, started talks with developers to review their contracts as part of plans to get the project back on track.
At the same time Business Monitor International warned that ‘while plans to re-launch the massive leisure project by year-end certainly send out positive signals about the recovering sentiment within the market, we believe serious thought (and downsizing) will be needed if the multi-billion dollar DubaiLand project is to fit in with the harsh realities of Dubai's subdued property market in 2011.’
By October the Dubai Properties Group was renegotiating four projects and planned to unveil details of a ‘sustainable city’ by end-2012.
2012 turned out to be the quietest in DubaiLand’s ten year history. Just one new project was launched, Falcon City of Wonders, another residential project. Expected to be completed by the end of 2014 it was to have its own Eiffel Tower and a larger than life-size Taj Mahal surrounded by Mughal style gardens. Meanwhile on the other side of the development site work was restarting at Mudon, a 70 million sq ft development on hold since 2008. Mudon, Arabic for ‘cities’, features five residential quarters depicting Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Marrakech.
Come 2013 things went really quiet ... until in November Dubai won the right to host the World Expo in 2020.
In May 2014 Dubai Properties Group announced that “DubaiLand is one of DPG’s most important projects considering its close proximity to the World Expo 2020 Dubai site and we expect to see it attract even more investor interest in the coming years."
Three new DubaiLand projects were announced; IMG Worlds of Adventure, ‘set to be the world's largest indoor themed entertainment destination built around four exciting zones’; Butterfly Garden, ‘a unique 4,000 sq. m butterfly shaped park that will include nine domes home to 24 different species of butterfly and an impressive butterfly and insect museum’; and Sustainable City ‘set to be the first Net Zero Energy City in Dubai that will include 500 townhouses and a solar powered golf cart transportation system’.
In October 2016 Universal Studios Theme Parks & Resorts officially abandoned the project it began in 2008 and which, at the time, was expected to open in 2010. Another big name, Legoland, had also been struck off DubaiLand’s menu and transferred to Jebel Ali’s new Dubai Parks and Resorts along with newcomer, Bollywood.
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