Dubai’s revived ‘World’ archipelago gets its first hotel
In a Dubai courtroom 11 years ago, a lawyer representing Nakheel, the public developer, was charged with the “death” of his most ostentatious project. The headlines of the following newspapers cheerfully warned: “Dubai fears the end of the world”.
The collection of 300 man-made islands off the Gulf Coast, laid out to look like a map of the world and surrounded by a 27km breakwater, was announced in 2003 and intended to be the ultimate trophy real estate project. Soon the sand was dredged up, islands began to appear and a bidding frenzy ensued; in a 2006 publicity stunt, Richard Branson posed on the island representing Britain wearing a Union Jack suit.
Then came the global financial crisis, plunging the ambitious emirate into recession. Legal wrangling has devoured the city. Work on the world islands has stalled, but Nakheel’s lawyer insisted the project was not dead, merely as a patient in a ‘coma’ – implying he would wake up over time and would succeed.
Now, a decade later, that seemingly optimistic assessment is about to come true. In keeping with Dubai’s rollercoaster story, the city’s service and tourism-driven economy is back, driven first by an influx of wealthy people thanks to the successful handling of the pandemic by the United Arab Emirates and, more recently, a flood of wealthy Russians seeking financial refuge. In December, the man-made archipelago got its first hotel: a five-star resort operated by Anantara that sits on Argentina’s representative island and offers 70 beachfront villas with panoramic views of the skyline dotted with Dubai skyscrapers.
There is a fitting circularity in the fact that this first hotel is owned by the man who launched the World Islands, Sultan bin Sulayem, former managing director of Nakheel and confidant of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum .
“I had always thought of the islands as a mirror of the Maldives,” he told me as he strolled the island in flip-flops. “I was determined to make this dream a reality.”
In 2008, bin Sulayem’s family business purchased 10 islands in the archipelago area representing South America. During Dubai’s debt crisis, he left Nakheel and refocused on the business that had made his name: Dubai Ports World. The logistics powerhouse has become one of the biggest port operators in the world, although its P&O Ferries unit sparked fury when it sacked 800 British seafarers in March.
Alongside his day-to-day work as managing director of DP World, bin Sulayem and his children began developing the complex in 2014, as well as building a personal family home there. Anantara became the operator, bringing its own style, the result of years of operating five resorts in the Maldives. Banks refused to fund its development – so the entire cost was funded by bin Sulayem personally. “In the coming months, once we have a balance sheet of operations, banks should be more comfortable funding the next phases,” he said.
From a Palm Jumeirah pier, a 15-minute speedboat transfer offers views of Dubai landmarks such as the self-proclaimed “seven-star” Burj Al Arab hotel. At the entrance to the boat by the oval breakwater of Le Monde, the seaside resort of Anantara appears, its circumference bounded by a thousand coconut palms imported from Oman. Staff applaud guests in a ceremony that mimics Maldivian traditions. Peacocks take root among the young plants that dot the waterfront.
Influencer-friendly features, such as a heart-shaped rock sculpture framing the distant Dubai skyline and swings submerged in the rising tide, will no doubt fill Instagram timelines for years to come.
Dubai’s skyscrapers may be visible, but the sense of isolation will be a comfort to grizzled residents of the metropolis, where hotel experiences often revolve around crowded beaches and boozy brunches. “This is a place for those who will enjoy the Maldivian vibe of an island resort, but know they still have all of Dubai’s attractions close by,” said James Hewitson, the hotel’s general manager.
It takes a gentle 30-minute walk to circumnavigate the island, and while most of the world remains unbuilt, a handful of other developments are visible. There’s the lush surroundings of ‘Greenland’, where Sheikh Mohammed owns a villa, and Viking longship-themed apartment buildings and palaces on ‘The Heart of Europe’, a six-story residential and hotel complex he is.
The developments have alarmed conservationists worried about the impact on the marine environment, including the destruction of coral reefs and the siltation of the Gulf’s once aquamarine waters. Additionally, the cost of building and maintaining properties on these remote islands raises questions about their sustainability.
“Dredging sand to reclaim beaches and artificial islands is a never-ending process,” says Jim Krane, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “Water currents, winds and rising sea levels are all working against the tide of Dubai’s central planners. Without constant attention, the World would slip under the waves.
Cut off from the mainland’s power grid, the Anantara complex relies on a generator to power the island. “Everything that is consumed [on the World] is shipped,” says Krane, author of Dubai: the story of the fastest city in the world. “All this extra work adds to the cost and increases the carbon footprint – in a place that is already at the bottom of the class when it comes to carbon emissions.”
To mitigate the resort’s environmental impact, bin Sulayem hired a sustainability advisor to look for efficiencies. There are plans to install more solar panels; wastewater is treated on site; drinking water is produced on the island and delivered in reusable bottles.
Its maritime location is several degrees cooler than the mainland – a key attraction during the high heat and humidity of the Gulf summer, when temperatures can exceed 50°C. Hotel management expects strong demand from staycations and regional visitors from neighboring Gulf States.
For the most part, the operation is already well oiled. Staff are attentive but give guests some privacy, communicating via WhatsApp rather than intrusive phone calls. A Mediterranean-themed restaurant offers buffet breakfast and all-day dining. Qamar, the gourmet restaurant, has a porch overlooking the sea, where Arabic and Indian dishes are served, including some of the best naan in Dubai.
It may be an ersatz Maldivian experience, but the resort nonetheless offers a unique escape for Dubai residents and a new sight for visitors to the emirate.
Simeon Kerr is the FT’s trade correspondent in the Gulf
Simeon Kerr was a guest at the Anantara World Islands Dubai Resort (anantara.com). Double rooms cost from AED1,837 (£399)
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