False Creek, Dubai

An uncanny replica of Vancouver's False Creek – in the heart of the Middle East. It goes by the name Dubai Marina.


An uncanny replica of Vancouver’s False Creek – in the heart of the Middle East. It goes by the name Dubai Marina.

In a globalized world, goods move, capital flows, people travel, but cities stay put. Streets and buildings and seawalls are the ultimate fixed assets, each set on the map, locked into its own particular site. Or so I thought. Now, I am not so sure, after touring an unsettling new urban development in the United Arab Emirates. It’s a development that sprawls over what used to be an empty stretch of the Great Arabian Desert, just west of Dubai. Called Dubai Marina, it’s almost a perfect clone of downtown Vancouver – right down to the handrails on the seawall, the skinny condo towers on townhouse bases, all around a 100-per-cent artificial, full-scale version of False Creek filled with seawater from the Persian Gulf. I first stumbled onto this uncanny replica of False Creek in November 2001, when I travelled to Syria at the invitation of the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture. I was the only North American architecture writer to accept this invitation to the heart of the Arab world, though colleagues from Europe and Asia were less inhibited. Typical of the graciousness I encountered from the Arabs eager to assert their humanity in such trying times, I received a further invitation to travel on to Dubai for a public talk. I was curious to visit a place that had only recently landed on the radar of architects and developers worldwide. A hereditary sheikdom under the Al Maktoum family, the emirate of Dubai was investing its dwindling stream of oil revenue in extravagant urban development, predicating its future on a new role as resort and service centre for the whole region. Eighty per cent of the residents of Dubai are expatriates, ranging from the lowest levels of construction labourers and service employees shipped in from the Indian subcontinent, to large numbers of Europeans and North Americans attracted by the climate and tax-free environment. [pagebreak] Canadian architects were at the forefront of the reshaping of this trading hub on the Persian Gulf, notably Toronto-based Paris Opera designer Carlos Ott, who did the first sketches for Burj Al Arab, the dhow-shaped, billion-dollar hotel set on an artificial island in the sea, plus a dozen other hotel and office towers. Touring around the world’s only – and self-described – seven-star hotel and the shiny new malls, Dubai reminded me of the Calgary of the late 1970s that I knew as an architecture student, the two cities linked by a mania of building for building’s sake, powered by an unspoken fear that the boom could end at any moment. None of this prepared me for the Vancouver connection I stumbled onto while there. Over glasses of persimmon juice at a Canadian consulate-sponsored reception after my talk, I spotted Blair Hagkull, whom I had met a few times when writing about Vancouver’s Concord Pacific development, where he worked as a marketing group VP. Hagkull was one of Concord Pacific’s first employees after Li Ka-Shing acquired the site in 1988, rising through the organization to shepherd the complex urban development through planning negotiations and design, then helping manage its highly successful initial marketing. When I asked what he was doing in Dubai, Hagkull beckoned to a couple of associates who gathered around, one of them Robert Lee, also formerly with Concord Pacific. Hagkull replied with a question of his own, “Has no one told you what we are up to here?” When I replied no, he laughed and glanced conspiratorially at Lee, then proposed a plan: “This is too strange just to tell you, because you will never believe it unless you see it with your own eyes. We will send a car for you at 11 a.m. tomorrow.” The limousine raced by a hyper-real vista of dozens of new office and hotel towers on Sheikh Zayed Boulevard, a street that had not existed 10 years previously. We headed west towards the Great Arabian Desert, still one of the most under-inhabited zones on earth. How strange, I thought, as we passed the gaudy sign of the local franchise of Planet Hollywood. Strange indeed that the last building we passed before heading out on the rock-strewn desert – so inhospitable it is bereft of a scrub tree or a cactus – is a symbol of Western pop culture. A few miles on, we turned down a bumpy temporary road, then entered a dome of dust containing a bustling hive of construction vehicles and cranes. Hagkull was standing there with the same Canadian colleagues from the night before, but every other worker on site seemed to be from the Indian subcontinent, construction teams yelling out instructions in Bengali, Urdu and Malayalam. Earthmovers grinding and groaning all around us, we walked up a small rise, then looked down at what first seemed to be a shallow canyon. Soon it was apparent that the newly constructed valley was filling up with water, a huge pipe spewing a torrent of seawater imported from the Persian Gulf, a couple of kilometres away. [pagebreak] Smiling broadly, Robert Lee then said: “Trevor, take a careful look down there, then tell me what you see.” The desert wind whirling construction dust into darting eddies, I felt self-conscious about being put on the spot, half a world away. A few moments of staring, then a familiar shoreline curve came into view, then another undulation after it, like a glimpse of hips evoking those of a distant lover. Hagkull and his colleagues started to giggle at the first signs of revelation on my face. “It’s False Creek,” I muttered, my eyebrows and hands shooting up. “You guys have rebuilt False Creek, full size, way out here in the Arabian Desert.” Reeling with laughter, Hagkull asked me for my critic’s opinion of what I saw. “Well it’s, it’s… very False Creek!” Dubai went on to build a Neo-Egyptian shopping mall, an indoor ski hill with a chairlift drifting above snow manufactured from desalinated seawater, not to mention the world’s tallest and biggest just-about-everything-else. With major magazines piling up awestruck inventories of “Las Vegas on the Persian Gulf,” I returned there in February of this year to get beyond the images and find out about the real Dubai, and the story behind Dubai Marina. Why did a version of Vancouver – and no other North American city – get built on the desert sands? Hagkull and the other Canadians I met in 2001 had all stayed on in Dubai through the difficult post-9/11 period and the start of the Iraq War. What was the Vancouver-honed skill set that these developers found so profitable and exportable that it held them to this distant place in this volatile region? Most of all, what does this phenomenon say about Vancouver’s place in the world? By 2006, United Arab Emirates residents knew they were on everyone’s screens. In questions after my February talk at the American University of Sharjah, the next Emirate city-state east of Dubai, architecture students were very curious about how their city was regarded elsewhere. But what surprised me most is that none of them was aware of the Vancouver inspiration for Hagkull’s project, officially called “Dubai Marina.” Their jaws dropped when I showed them the Vancouver sources for Dubai’s first all-high-rise residential neighbourhood, and it took clarification in questions later for them to fully realize that False Creek was rebuilt into residential towers before their own version, and there was a Canadian source for its city-building ideas. Just as intriguing, the students demonstrated the combination of pride, curiosity and earnest naiveté that reminded me of the same qualities in Vancouverites. Residents of both places are conscious their cities have arrived on the global stage, but are jointly worried that this stage could turn out to be a runway – a place to strut urban fashions, or worse, maybe just a landing strip where international investors arrive and take off. With architect Dan Hajjar, one of the Canadians who had accompanied Hagkull and me five years earlier, we returned to the same desert rise where I had first blurted out my “very False Creek” epithet. It was desert no longer. Directly imitating their Vancouver precedents, a phalanx of thin high-rise towers on townhouse bases lined a seawall. Thirty or more towers were rising around Dubai Marina and related developments along the artificial water body were now substantially larger than the Concord Pacific Place that inspired them. The company behind the project, Emaar Properties, has since become the world’s largest developer, declaring a profit of $1.3 billion for 2005. Local estimates are that one-fifth of all the construction cranes in the world are currently at work on $300 billion of real-estate projects in the United Arab Emirates, more than half of that mind-boggling total in Dubai alone. Hajjar is with the Toronto office of the American architectural mega-firm HOK – geopolitical realities are such that it is often easier for a Canadian branch of an American company to function in the Middle East. [pagebreak] Hajjar told me how the design of the tops of the Vancouver-style highrises had evolved: “At first, we wanted distinctive caps on them, so we used some geometric ornament and a kind of dome form,” the Lebanese-Canadian designer recalled, applying the multicultural principles of his architectural training in our country. “But when the design was reviewed by religious authorities, it was thought they were too similar to domes on mosques, so we came up with the more abstract, ribbed version you see here.” Tellingly, more recent towers have no such design gestures toward regional traditions, in the process their architecture becoming even more interchangeable with their cousins in downtown Vancouver. Largely because of Arab cultural values requiring a view-protected realm for women and children, very visible high-rise condos have been a tough sell to Emiratis, but widely successful with the expatriates that make up 80 per cent of the market. Hagkull thinks that Canadians – especially cosmopolitan Vancouverites – have some significant advantages when doing business in the Middle East: “Canadians share with Americans an ability to do complex, large-scale business, but we temper this with our knowledge and sensitivity to other cultures. That is so crucial here.” He explained that personal relationships are paramount in the Asian business world, and multi-billion-dollar deals can be sealed with a handshake (but yes, the lawyers draw up the contracts later). Hagkull backs up his pro-Canadian sentiments in his hiring practices for the 45-employee RSP Group, the real-estate development and financial investment consulting firm he established in 2002, after getting Dubai Marina underway for Emaar Properties, controlled by Dubai’s leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and family. Hagkull says before founding RSP Group, “the last time I was self-employed it was shovelling out horse barns as a teenager, outside Chilliwack.” While both Hagkull’s self-run jobs involve dealing with Arabians, nearly half of his senior staff are Canadians, and he delights in finding Canadian signs and symbols in Dubai’s exploding urban environment. “Out by the airport I was amazed to see a sign for Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers, but most Vancouver firms are still too inward-looking – they have no idea of how much room there is for all kinds of businesses here,” he says. “It will probably take a B.C. recession to get them interested in growing their firms in this market.” Hagkull thinks it is not just Canadians’ personal sensitivities, but also ideas – especially urban development ideas out of Vancouver – that have a natural market all over Asia. When asked what he is most proud of in the Dubai Marina project, he says: “The seawall. It is the main magnet to this day.” While the development was produced by a completely non-consultative planning process, and the surrounding residential zone lacks the modest ratio of social housing found in Vancouver, the UAE version of the seawall may nonetheless be a greater success than its Vancouver source. It boasts a wider diversity of people on and around it than any local shopping mall, and compared to Vancouver, their seawall is substantially wider and lined with dozens of restaurants and cafés. After my Middle Eastern trip I visited our seawall in False Creek and Coal Harbour, and it looked a little stark and Presbyterian, a narrow band for walkers and bicyclists to pass through, a kind of aerobic expressway, but almost nowhere a place to linger, with barely a half dozen restaurants along its whole length. One small strip of the Dubai Marina seawall can have that many dining options at all prices serving up a baffling variety of global cuisines, along with waterparks for children, temporary art exhibitions, live musicians and strollers in every colour and cut of national dress going – from the dishdashes and abayas of the Arabian peninsula, to South Asian dhotis and kurtas, to tank tops and Air Jordans. Dubai Marina’s seawall is an obliging urban festival; Vancouver’s seawall is an obligation to exercise. The whole idea of Dubai Marina, and Hagkull’s involvement in it, began with the False Creek seawall. As VP of marketing for Concord Pacific in the spring of 1999, he was asked to tour a group of visiting developers around Concord’s project. Among them was Emaar Properties chairman Mohamed Ali Alabbar, who had been trusted by then prince, now Dubai’s supreme leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, to put together a development package for an empty parcel of land west of their city. Hagkull says Ali Alabbar studied at the University of Washington, and had watched Vancouver’s redevelopment with great interest: “He knew False Creek in its previous version.” Dubai’s royal family was looking to create new urban spaces where all classes of society, all races, all combinations of citizens and expatriates could relax and meet each other – this being a part of the world new to the idea of public urban space – and it was coming apparent that shopping malls were not enough. “As we walked along Vancouver’s seawall, Ali Alabbar got really interested in the details of its construction. In fact, I had to get down underneath it to show him how the tiebacks of the handrails work.” Precisely the same handrails, from the same manufacturer, are now and forever a part of Dubai Marina. For his part, Hagkull says, “I was impressed with the completeness of his questions, the combination of big ideas and practicality.” Ali Alabbar was not just interested in Concord Pacific and the seawall’s working details, but in Hagkull as a potential manager for his company. A few weeks later, Hagkull and his pediatric nurse wife Tracy were invited to Dubai for a visit, and by the end of 2000 they had relocated there with their two preschool kids. Concord Pacific urban designer Stanley Kwok had already been engaged by Emaar to rough up a general plan for Dubai Marina, and Hagkull soon talked Lee and several other trusted associates from the same corporation into aiding him with project management and marketing duties. Thus, a Vancouver-dominated team was commissioned to build a version of its city for one of the Middle East’s wealthiest and most innovative royal families. The current Dubai condo boom is similar to Vancouver’s – both are sustained by overseas investors. Hagkull says the Dubai boom was made possible with three legal changes there: the creation of a mortgage compliant with Islamic Sharia laws; the decision to allow non-Emiratis to buy property; and issuing anyone who buys a condo the “right of residence.” These advances mean the UAE may be beating Canada in attracting talented and monied immigrants, the key motor of Vancouver’s urban success. With new development, “Dubai is attracting the best, the brightest and the wealthiest from the entire region,” says Hagkull. “Remember, there are more millionaires in India than Canada has citizens.” RSP Group has a hotel project underway in Morocco and housing projects in Pakistan. They are also in Turkey and Kenya. “Dubai is at dead middle of all this, and we have the largest port and largest airport between Amsterdam and Singapore.” [pagebreak] The fallout from 9/11 had an unexpected benefit to Dubai. Worried about potential restrictions on investment, capital held by Saudis, Kuwaitis and Emiratis previously parked in London, New York and Frankfurt migrated back to the region, along with a wave of talented young Arabs who had graduated from Western universities. Estimates of this return flow of capital start at $100 billion, six times the amount Hong Kong and Taiwan investors brought to Canada in the 1990s, and much of that sum has since returned to the factories and property markets of China, with the singular exception of B.C. real estate. With the best business climate in the Gulf region, Dubai became the new home to much of this returning capital, and much of that was turned into real-estate development. Despite the hype that is thick in the air in both places, Dubai and Vancouver have thus been more the unexpected beneficiaries of geo-politics than the authors of their own economic narratives, and both places need a constant flow of human capital and offshore real-estate investment to stay afloat. Quality of life and, especially, quality of the residential environment are crucial to both places, according to Hagkull: “As for Vancouver, people who could live anywhere show up in Dubai.” The personal qualities of good humour, sensitivity, determination and vision that had allowed Hagkull to help push through the Concord Pacific scheme, then start Dubai Marina for Emaar, and more recently dozens of even larger projects from Morocco to Pakistan, were not born in business school. The best developers are seldom the product of any system where Harvard case-study thinking predominates. Growing up amidst the horse stables and berry farms of the Fraser Valley, Hagkull studied communications at SFU. While still a student, he was one of the first hired as a tour guide for the B.C. pavilion at Expo 86. “I was one of those blue-suited zombies,” jokes the developer, but that zombie-job had him talking to people from around the world interested in this province. His next job, just out of school, saw him become one of Concord Pacific’s first employees, barely a month after Li Ka-Shing acquired the site. One example of the dozens of residential, shopping centre and hotel deals currently being put together by RSP Group (owned by Hagkull and a partner) is the massive Saadiyat Island project in the adjacent emirate of Abu Dhabi. This is a huge coastal mixed-use project with a Concord Pacific-like range of parks, even a Frank Gehry-designed branch of that global art exhibition franchise, the Guggenheim Museum. The key decision-maker here is local Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, and Hagkull has worked for five other royal families in the region, the world’s only zone where hereditary monarchies still predominate. Hagkull switches effortlessly from speaking of Saudi princes to Vancouver’s princes of real-estate development – Concord Pacific’s Terry Hui, developer-turned-premier Gordon Campbell, civic politician Gordon Price and Mayor Sam Sullivan, all of whom he worked with in Vancouver. There may be another reason that Hagkull and other ex-Vancouverites have found Dubai so productive a ground in which to apply their real-estate and development expertise. The economic character of these two urban ingenues is converging year by year. Vancouver is the youngest major city in North America, while Dubai is the newest trading centre on the Persian Gulf, growing from a 19th-century colony of Iranian merchants trading with the Bedouin of the Arabian peninsula. As is largely true for Vancouver, Dubai has never been an industrial centre, carving out instead a niche as a trading and export hub. Both Dubai and Vancouver talk a big game about being centres of the information industry, but Dubai sustains largely empty zones grandly named “Internet City” and “Media City,” while Vancouver’s mid-1990s proposal for a high-tech hub on the False Creek Flats fell flat on its face. This is because both cities are rapidly pricing themselves out of the game as a home to start-up and knowledge-based businesses, not to mention corporate head offices. For both Vancouver and Dubai, real-estate development has become an end unto itself, the builder of most fortunes – self-validating and far too unquestioned. Condo development and tourism are at the core of Dubai’s vision of itself and, it could be argued, the same is true of Vancouver. This presents unique challenges. Case in point: At May’s luncheon meeting of Vancouver’s Urban Development Institute, ever-boosterish Vancouver condo king Bob Rennie quipped, “Like stopped clocks, those who predict an end to the condo boom are right twice a day.” His humour was as forced as the applause that replied to it, because no one knows better than developers that booms come to an end, and the art of their business is to reduce their exposure at precisely the moment of the most manic hype. No less a source than The Economist magazine calls the current global real-estate boom “the biggest speculative bubble in economic history.” Because they have become high-cost cities obsessed with real estate, and because of their lack of industrial and corporate infrastructure, Vancouver and Dubai will feel the coming real-estate shakeout more than most cities. Vancouver has not seen a let-up in real-estate growth since just prior to Expo 86, and the recession to come will be an opportunity to figure out if it really wants metropolitan status, or whether it remains stuck as a fellow “portal city” with Dubai: a gateway to somewhere else, a resort for a global golden class, a place to divert and shop, but most certainly not a place to create authentic new wealth. Like Dubai, Vancouver will never grow up until it finds some way to create added value through its ideas and innovations, not just through exporting natural resources and developing real estate. Thus, the Emirati princes knew exactly what they were doing when they built a version of Vancouver to house 40,000 new condo dwellers from all over the world. They recognized and built Vancouver within Dubai, and it is now time for our town to recognize the Dubai we are creating here. Maple Leaf Mafia: Canadians Remake Dubai BLAIR HAGKULL: The Chilliwack native is a former senior executive with Vancouver’s Concord Pacific who was hired away to help produce Dubai Marina for Emaar Properties, which has since become the world’s largest developer. After launching that project, he formed his own investment and development consulting firm, RSP Group, which is active from Morocco to Pakistan, including projects for six different royal families. ROBERT LEE: The ex-Vancouverite is also a former Concord Pacific executive. Currently he is a senior project manager for Nakheel Properties, the other major Dubai developer, and similarly controlled by the ruling Al Maktoum family. Lee is currently working on the massive palm-shaped projects in the Persian Gulf, where desert sand has been moved to shape artificial islands in the form of the much-loved desert symbol, their huge “fronds” soon home to tens of thousands of house and condo owners. DAN HAJJAR: The Canadian-born and trained architect has spent six years as the Dubai representative of the Toronto franchise of HOK, the huge American architectural firm. His firm designed much of the current wave of Dubai’s high-rise towers, including the first phases of Dubai Marina, and recently opened the world’s most advanced Formula One motor-course, ringed with high-end villas for those who like the buzz. NORR ARCHITECTS: The Toronto firm was on the ground floor of the Dubai boom, its flamboyant Uruguyan-born partner Carlos Ott (best known for his competition-winning scheme for the Paris Opera) the favoured designer for the Al Maktoum family for many years. Along the way Ott and NORR designed many hotel and office towers, including the first design concept for the billion-dollar Burj Al Arab hotel, finding its inspiration in the traditional dhow sailboats that used to ply the waters of the Persian Gulf.