This Maldives-style resort is putting Dubai’s resurrected World archipelago back on the map
With the new Anantara hotel, the trophy real-estate project is seemingly resurrected after it mothballed during the financial crisis. The Financial Times’ Simeon Kerr takes a look.
In a Dubai courtroom 11 years ago, a lawyer representing Nakheel, the state-run developer, faced accusations that its most ostentatious project was “dead”. Subsequent newspaper headlines gleefully warned: “Dubai fears end of The World”.
The collection of 300 man-made islands off the Gulf coast, arranged to resemble a world map and surrounded by a 27km breakwater, was announced in 2003 and intended to be the ultimate trophy real-estate project. Soon sand was being dredged, the 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.
But then came the global financial crisis, bringing the ambitious emirate into recession. Legal wrangles consumed the city. Work on the World Islands stopped but the Nakheel lawyer insisted the project wasn’t dead, only merely like a patient in a “coma” – implying that it would, in time, wake up and be successful.
Now, a decade on, that seemingly optimistic appraisal is closer to coming true. In line with Dubai’s rollercoaster history, the city’s services-and tourism-oriented economy is back on the way up, buoyed first by an influx of wealthy people thanks to the United Arab Emirates’ successful handling of the pandemic and, more recently, a flood of rich Russians seeking a financial haven.
In December, the artificial archipelago got its first hotel: A five-star resort operated by Anantara that sits on the island representing Argentina and offers 70 beachfront villas with panoramic views of Dubai’s skyscraper-strewn skyline.
There is a fitting circularity in the fact this first hotel is owned by the man who launched the World Islands, Sultan Ahmed Sulayem, Nakheel’s former chief executive and a confidante of Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed Rashid al-Maktoum.
“I had always envisaged the islands as a mirror of the Maldives,” he told me as he strolled around the island in flip-flops. “I was determined to make this dream come to life.”
In 2008, Sultan Ahmed’s family firm bought 10 islands in the area of the archipelago representing South America. During Dubai’s debt crisis, he was moved on from Nakheel and refocused on the company that had made his name: Dubai Ports World. The logistics powerhouse has gone on to become one of the world’s largest ports operators, though its P&O Ferries unit sparked fury when it sacked 800 British seafarers in March.
As a sideline to his day job as chief executive of DP World, Sultan Ahmed and his children started developing the resort in 2014, as well as building a personal family home there. Anantara came on board as the operator, bringing its own style garnered from years of operations across five resorts in the Maldives. Banks declined to fund his development – so the entire cost has been funded by him personally. “In the next few months, once we have a track record of operations, the banks should be more comfortable to fund the next phases,” he said.
From a jetty on the Palm Jumeirah, a 15-minute transfer via speedboat provides views of Dubai landmarks such as the self-styled “seven-star” Burj Al Arab hotel. As the boat enters through the World’s oval breakwater, the Anantara resort comes into view, its circumference marked out by a thousand coconut trees imported from Oman. Staff clap arriving guests in a ceremony aping traditions in the Maldives. Peacocks root among young plants dotted around the beachfront.
Influencer-friendly features, such as a heart-shaped rock sculpture framing Dubai’s distant skyline and swings that are submerged by the rising tide, will no doubt fill Instagram timelines for years to come.
The skyscrapers of Dubai might be visible but the sense of isolation will be a comfort for grizzled residents of the metropolis, where hotel experiences often revolve around packed beaches and boozy brunches.
“This is a place for those who will enjoy the Maldivian feel of an island resort but know that they still have all the attractions of Dubai on offer nearby,” 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 on, a handful of other developments are visible. There are the lush surroundings of “Greenland”, where Sheikh Mohammed has a villa, and apartment blocks and Viking longship-themed palaces on “The Heart of Europe”, a residential and hospitality complex over six islands.
The developments have alarmed conservationists worried about the impact on the marine environment, including the destruction of coral reefs and the silting of the once-aquamarine waters of the Gulf. Moreover, the toll from construction and maintenance of properties on these isolated islands raises questions over their sustainability.
“Dredging up sand to reclaim beaches and artificial islands is a never-ending process,” said Jim Krane, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “Water currents, winds and rising sea levels are all working at cross purposes to Dubai’s central planners. Without constant attention, the World would slip under the waves.”
Cut off from the mainland power grid, the Anantara resort relies on a generator to power the island. “Everything that’s consumed [on the World] gets shipped in,” says Krane, author of Dubai: The Story Of The World’s Fastest City. “All of this extra work adds to the cost and increases the carbon footprint – in a place that’s already at the bottom of the class in carbon emissions.”
To mitigate the resort’s environmental impact, Sultan Ahmed has hired a sustainability adviser to seek out efficiencies. There are plans to install more solar panels; sewage 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 soaring heat and humidity of the Gulf summer, when temperatures can top 50C. The hotel management expects strong demand from staycations and regional visitors from the neighbouring 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 provides a buffet breakfast and all-day eating. Qamar, the fine-dining outlet, boasts a porch overlooking the sea, where they serve Arabic and Indian food, including some of the finest naan in Dubai.
It may be an ersatz Maldivian experience, but the resort nonetheless offers a unique escape for Dubai residents and a new vista for the emirate’s visitors.
By Simeon Kerr © 2022 The Financial Times. Kerr was a guest of the Anantara World Islands Dubai Resort.