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Habitat Compensation Island

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This post appears as the article For The Birds in the publication Monument to Habitat Compensation Island, available on GoogleBooks.

For The Birds

Route E11 is the UAE’s longest road and runs mostly parallel to the Gulf coast and sufficiently inland to bypass the natural inlets around which grew the historic town centers of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah.

The 1963 opening of the Al Maktoum Bridge across Dubai Creek made the E11 even more important for the movement of goods between Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the other emirates to the north.  

This 1960 First Dubai Master Plan by John Harris shows Al Maktoum Bridge crossing Dubai Creek

Dubai has only 4% of the UAE’s oil reserves compared to Abu Dhabi’s 92% and so, in the 1960s, Dubai’s ruler HH Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum made the decision to shift Dubai’s economy away from oil and towards trade and tourism. Abu Dhabi didn’t have the need and the other emirates didn’t have the revenue to invest as Dubai did with infrastructure projects such as Port Rashid (1973) near its northern border with Sharjah and the Port Jebel Ali (1979) cargo port near its southern border with Abu Dhabi. Both intensified the movement of goods throughout the UAE but the new cargo port freed up Port Rashid for cruise liners to service the growing tourist industry. Development in Dubai can still be thought of as infill along E11 between those two ports. 

When it opened in 1973, Dubai World Trade Centre was the tallest building in the Arab world and its location shifted the physical and symbolic center of Dubai towards E11 and the movement of people and goods along it.

Dubai World Trade Centre is the tall building in the distance in this photo, circa 1978. The original (old) town of Bur Dubai is in the distance to the left.

This pattern of building infrastructure attractors to stimulate infill led to the Financial Centre Free-Trade Zone (2004~) between Trade Centre and Dubai Mall/Burj Khalifa (2008/2009) and Mohammad bin Rashid City (2012~) residential development between Burj Khalifa and Dubai Marina (2003). Opposite Port Jebel Ali is Al Maktoum International Airport (a.k.a. Dubai World CentralDWC; 2010~) that will eventually take over the international passenger handling role of DXB. The goal is not to increase the movement of goods and people within the emirates but along the major global sea cargo and air traffic routes on which the UAE lies. 

Burj Al Arab (1999) stands on an insignificant dot of land which was Dubai’s first man-made island but no other building in the world is shaped and positioned as iconically. It sits offshore like a cruise liner and one thing we know about cruise liners is that they stop at destinations worth visiting. Burj Al Arab put Dubai on the tourist map but The Palm Trilogy made the world notice.

There’s no historic, logical or theoretical way to understand The Palms. They’re not copies of anything or a development of anything we know. They resist incorporation into Western architectural discourse. Outside the UAE, the attitude is that making islands for hotels, apartment buildings and villas is somewhat frivolous despite it being acceptable in the case of major economic imperatives such as airports. 

It hardly matters now. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis meant that short-term development costs suddenly outweighed whatever long-term value was anticipated. Trophy island projects like Palm Jebel Ali, Palm Deira, The World and The Universe weren’t the only casualties. 

The massive development of development of parks, lakes and towers that was to be Jumeirah Garden City downscaled to the Citywalk (2012~2019) mixed retail and residential development [above] around a multi-purpose arena.

This 2007 video shows how Jumeirah Garden City was imagined.

The new build the other side of the road is what it downscaled to.

The Red Line of Dubai Metro (2009) parallels E11 to link the two airports and everything in-between, including the old areas of Deira and Bur Dubai and the crowded towers of Dubai Marina (2003) and Jumeirah Lakes Towers (2006~) from which many people commute to Abu Dhabi. 

Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City (2009~) was downscaled as development objectives shifted from creating attractions for short-term tourists to creating amenities for long-term residents. The E11 extends to the border with Saudi Arabia but continues as the E10 into Abu Dhabi which is a city on an island surrounded by other islands. The history of Abu Dhabi is not one of making islands but of shaping and connecting them in the knowledge that tourist attractions will increase traffic and residential amenities will encourage infill development. The E12 is the new road into Abu Dhabi, passing through Yas Island (2006~) with Yas Marina Formula I CircuitFerrariworldWaterworld, and Warner Bros. World and then through Saadiyat Island with Louvre Abu Dhabi (2017) as the first of many planned attractions. All along the Gulf coast, marinas, peninsulas and detached islands are still being made to define sections of coastline for concentrations of retail and entertainment amenities. All have the economic imperative of appealing to visitors and residents alike. 

The centrepiece of the Al Raha development, just outside of Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi’s Habitat Compensation Island results from the economic imperative of keeping the harbor channels dredged and is partial compensation for all types of lost habitats, whether on land or undersea.

Dredge spoil can be disposed of in many ways but using it to make an island is neither quick, easy nor cheap. Countless barge-loads of rocks first have to be deposited to form breakwaters in positions and shapes that encourage currents to stabilize and deposit more sand that will eventually sustain flora and, in turn, fauna.  

The UAE lies midway along the West Asia – East Africa Flyway, one of the world’s nine major bird migration routes. It’s the dark blue one.

Abu Dhabi’s Al Wathba Bird Sanctuary, Ajman’s Al Zorah Nature Reserve and Dubai’s Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary are wetland stopovers for some 270 species of migratory birds but, most famously, the Great Pink Flamingo that migrates from Iran, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia. Numbers swell to several thousand in winter but not all fly on.

The sanctuaries teem with birds but so do the frangipani and poinciana trees planted alongside roads, in parks, golf courses, and villa and hotel gardens whether on land or island. Birds don’t care if something is natural or artificial. Most will stay for a while and then fly on but some will stay for longer if the environment is sufficiently nourishing. We who live here are not that different.