Seven years ago, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) was on a building trajectory that not even the most stable of economies would have been able to maintain, evidenced by the more than 300 cranes that riddled the Dubai skyline.
“It almost looked like a painting or an art piece,” says Jeffrey Beers, founder of Jeffrey Beers International. “Clearly, sounder minds have slowed this down a bit,” he adds of the pace at which the country’s hospitality market was developing. “But I think that’s a good thing. I think it was going ridiculously fast.”
In 2004 and 2005 designers were beginning to discover this untapped corner of the world that was poised to become the next great adult playland. Renderings of underwater hotels, architectural feats of metal twisting into the sky and, of course, Dubailand swirled throughout the internet. To the uninitiated, it appeared to be a world that knew no limits, financially or spatially; “the golder, the better” was its aesthetic motto.
“They were of the approach of ‘more is more,’” says Nadia Biski, AIA, partner with BBG-BBGM. Beers references the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai as a “ridiculously opulent” example of the U.A.E’s former design mentality.
But in 2008 the area came to a crossroads, in more ways than one. “Prior to 2008, hotels were steadily going under construction, starting within the next 12 months or were in early planning,” says Rebecca Evans, messaging director with Lodging Econometrics, a provider of real estate intelligence. “When the economy peaked in 2008, things started slowing everywhere. More and more projects were put on hold, and those that were in early planning were canceled altogether or put on hold indefinitely.”
“And of course they’d borrowed all the money, so it’s all leveraged,” says Beers of Dubai. “Whereas Abu Dhabi actually has a lot of wherewithal—they have a lot of royal. The money is real there, it’s not leveraged money.”
Abu Dhabi was the more stable of the two in terms of design as well.
“The crash has certainly had an impact. The economics of these developments are looked at from a much more realistic viewpoint. But I think that the trend isn’t just economic,” Beers explains. “I actually think that there’s a more sophisticated point of view. I think Abu Dhabi always spoke to that sort of elegance. Dubai was more Vegas; the very impressionable younger sibling of the U.A.E. Dubai just completely took it over the top—more is better. But I think that the town and city have grown. I think it’s become more mature and, for that matter, more sophisticated.”
He cites a One&Only brand project on the Dubai Palm as an example of a more understated elegance in design, and a more “resort-like” attitude towards interiors and service. He also notes that a major cultural scene is developing in Abu Dhabi, with a strong, young art movement taking place and a number of galleries popping up.
Biski provides even further insight into how the region is developing in the post-recession world.
“When I went to the Middle East in 2004, I’d say 90 percent of their world was ex-pats and only about 10-15 percent were the local groups over there, the Emirati,” she says. But the tides are now turning and the community is experiencing something called “emiratization.”
“Emiratization means they are releasing the ex-pats of their roles and responsibilities, and bringing the local people into the roles of authority to take over and take back the companies and run the businesses in the U.A.E.”
“I think in our initial projects over there, the clients were still learning and understanding what style of aesthetic they wanted over in the Middle East, specifically the Emirates, where we’ve had a lot of our work,” Biski adds. “And I think over the years our experience has been that they have slowly developed a layer of sophistication and a layer of understanding their culture because they’re a very young group of people. They’re originally nomads who lived in the desert, so to transfer their lifestyle into the built environment took a lot of growing up over a very short period of time for them as a culture. So I think and believe that the rest of the world had a strong influence and was very much a part of contributing to them growing up and becoming sophisticated. They clearly employed the rest of the world to design their hospitality industry and their residential industry because I don’t think they really knew who they were. They were looking for all these international influences to have a voice for them and to help guide them until they got to a layer where they felt comfortable, which is exactly what they’re going through right now.”
Bringing the local culture back into the aesthetic has been an important design influence as well, she says. For example, U.A.E. culture makes use of many geometric patterns; BBG-BBGM also does a great deal of research into how surrounding buildings—local, residential and community—look. They take those details and incorporate them into the design in a way that gives locals a taste of home. “It gives them a feeling of calm and comfort because it does relate to where they’ve come from, and it also helps them identify where they’re going.”
The area is certainly moving toward better times as more projects continue to come back online, according to statistics provided by Lodging Econometrics. “Abu Dhabi and Dubai are both mature pipelines that are starting to see a rise in new openings,” says Evans. “The region as a whole is starting to see this same upstick. The city-state of Qatar is also a growing pipeline—on a much smaller scale than Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but still growing. This is due to the anticipation of tourists it will bring to the area with the hosting of the FIFA World Cup, scheduled to take place there in 2022.” (For more in-depth statistics on hotel openings for the U.A.E. and other areas in the Middle East from 2008 forward, please see this chart, courtesy of LE.)
Both BBG-BBGM and Jeffrey Beers International report that they have a number of proposals out and inquiries into further projects in the area. BBGM is looking forward to the opening of the Rosewood Hotel in Abu Dhabi, currently under construction and slated to open in September, while Beers is anxiously waiting for The Cove to start development once again. This 600-room boutique hotel is a site on the Dubai Palm, about a half-mile down from Atlantis, a completed Beers project that survived the crash.
“I always felt that for Northern Europe—the Brits, the U.K., Germany, all of Scandinavia and a lot of Russians, of course—it’s sort of their Miami Beach. You have guaranteed sun, so there was no doubt in my mind that from a tourist destination standpoint, people just had to weather through a bad economic period,” Beers says. “I actually think now for the next 10 years the region is poised for development.”