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The Building of Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai

1 October 2014

An interview with Dene Murphy, CEO of Mirage Leisure And Development, Gerald Lawless, and founder of KCA International, Khuan Chew

In 2000, His highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Earmarked a piece of land on the coast beside Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Beach Hotel in the Jumeirah neighbourhood of Dubai for development. Occupied at the time by Chicago Beach Village, just four years later it would become one of the world’s most iconic resorts, Madinat Jumeirah. This month marks the 10th anniversary of Madinat Jumeirah’s official opening in October 2004. Here CEO of Mirage Leisure And Development, Dene Murphy, President and Group CEO of Jumeirah Group, Gerald Lawless, and founder of KCA International, Khuan Chew, recall one of the biggest projects of their careers. Following a chance meeting with H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Dene Murphy’s Mirage Mille Leisure And Development (as it was at the time) was chosen as Development Manager for the building of Dubai’s One & Only Royal Mirage resort. At the dawn of the new millennium, H.H. Sheikh Ahmed had a much bigger project in mind for the company’s CEO.

THE DEVELOPMENT MANAGER: Dene Murphy, CEO of Mirage Leisure And Development

How did you get involved in the Madinat Jumeirah project?
Somewhat out of the blue, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum requested that we put some ideas together for a development on the Chicago Beach site in Jumeirah, Dubai. I called one of my guys, and I said, ‘I want you to get hold of Eduardo Robles and Thanu Boonyawatana [founders of architectural firm Creative Kingdom] – I need them in Dubai on this date.’ I went home, packed my suitcase, jumped on a plane and came to Dubai, and met the guys here. Then we met with H.H. Sheikh Ahmed and [President and Group CEO, Jumeirah Group] Gerald Lawless, and had a conversation about the project that would become Madinat Jumeirah. 

You were briefed about the project at that meeting. What was the brief?
The original brief was for a 600 room resort. Dubai was almost a bit shy about its heritage at the time; there were all these glass buildings going up. The brief demanded that we ask: how can we take the history, the heritage of Dubai and convert it into something that is for today – something that the tourists will come to Dubai and talk about? Gerald suggested that I take my team down to the old Bastakiya neighbourhood [Dubai’s heritage area] and give some thought to what we might do. So I went down there with the two guys from Creative Kingdom. We were walking along the Creek, and we looked at each other, and Eduardo said to me, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ And I said, ‘I’m thinking exactly what you’re thinking. There’s some inspiration in this’. 

What was that original light bulb moment?
I said, ‘Look, we’ve got to bring some water into this thing.’ Then you start to apply minds to what the composition would be, the layout of the resort. We could work off the trading, we could work off the historical aspects of Dubai, we could work off the abras, the transportation around the site, etc. So you had your idea. 

When did you present it to H.H. Sheikh Ahmed?
We were in Dubai for a couple of days, and we did some sketches on tracing paper. I remember sitting down with Gerald first, and then I was invited to meet H.H. Sheikh Ahmed. I had these plans, and I was trying to explain to him what we planned to do, and to figure out if everybody was excited about our ideas. His Highness said to go away and work on producing some more detailed ideas. 

So you went away and prepared the pitch, and then you came back to Dubai?
Yes. We came back and we met with H.H. Sheikh Ahmed and Gerald and on the 15th floor of Burj Al Arab; they’ve got a little boardroom on the corner there. I did a presentation, and everybody, including His Highness, was pretty excited about what we were proposing. Forty-five minutes later UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum arrived with a group of people – many of them leading developers at that time. I had never met H.H. Sheikh Mohammed before, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness me, we’ve only got one shot at this now, His Highness is either going to hate it or love it.’ 

I did a presentation for H.H. Sheikh Mohammed, and there were a number of questions, and I’ll never forget him saying to me, ‘This water – what is it? Is it fresh water? Is it sea water?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what it is yet.’ And he said, ‘Well, the next time I see you, you had better tell me what it is.’ Which of course we did. It was a very tense time for us, because this development was about to become a major milestone in the lives of our little business. 

That evening I received a phone call saying that H.H. Sheikh Mohammed had approved the project. When I got the phone call, I must confess, I was a bit emotional about it, and I thought, ‘Boy oh boy we’re going to have to perform’. 

This was 2001. HH Sheikh Mohammed wanted Mina A’ Salam finished in time for the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund in 2003, didn’t he?
We’d indicated something on the plan [where Chicago Beach was located], and during the course of a presentation, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed asked me what it was. I said that we’d like to eventually link everything together with Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Wild Wadi Waterpark, and that we were just suggesting what could be done in the future. 

He said to me, ‘How quickly can you build this?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, we haven’t even designed it.’ So he said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what, there’s an IMF conference in September 2003, how much is it going to cost?’ So I gave him a number, and he said, ‘Build it, I want to see the hotel there.’ Of course, that put us into a flat spin, because we had to get out of the starting gates at 400mph, to try and achieve the opening date. 

That was the beginning of the development. There must have been a buzz around the project at the time?
Madinat Jumeirah was such an exciting development. And as the story started to unfold, the designs started to appear, everyone just bought into it. What was there to dislike about it? It turned out to be one of the greatest resorts in the world, and it still is, even today, 10 years later – it is still one of the greatest resorts in the world.

How closely did you work with Gerald Lawless and his team at Jumeirah?
Design is the integration of everything, and we don’t design these things for ourselves, we design them for a consumer. So we had to have considerable input from Gerald and his team. Who is the customer? Who is going to come here? What do they want? We can all go and have a nice jolly time designing all of this stuff, but the message that I always emphasise is that we are only as good as the business we leave behind. 

What were the highlights of the project? The water in the lagoons is seawater, isn’t it? That must have presented quite a problem for you? H.H. Sheikh Mohammed wanted to know how this part of the project was going to work. So I got all the experts together, and we asked, ‘What are the options?’ Then one day it occurred to me, we’re trying to get too clever here. Why don’t we just use seawater, pump it in and pump it out again? 

So we don’t need to treat it, we don’t need to put filtration in, none of this fancy stuff, why don’t we just do that? So I went back to the guys and said, ‘Why can’t we just pump it in and pump it out again?’ They agreed that it was a pretty good idea. So that’s how it happened. 

How involved was H.H. Sheikh Mohammed in the project?
I used to see H.H. Sheikh Ahmed regularly to discuss budgets, progress reports and design issues and so on and so forth, together with Gerald and his team. At key moments, mock-up rooms, for example, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed would come in and review them, saying, ‘Yes I do like this’ or ‘No, I don’t like that.’ A lot of that happened on site. We always tried to create the first sample room on site to set the benchmark and quality standards. H.H. Sheikh Mohammed came to the site quite a lot during that period. 

And now you’re working on a new hotel for phase four of the Madinat Jumeirah development. How is that going?
The guys came and spoke to me about it, so what we’ve done with phase four is to make it a cousin, not a brother of the rest of Madinat Jumeirah. It’s more contemporary, more modern, but it still has the form, and it still has the scale, and it’s still a resort, and it still belongs in the same family. It’s quite a nice transition between the old and the very modern. It will be ready for Q1, 2016.

THE OPERATOR: Gerald Lawless, President and Group CEO, Jumeirah Group

When did you first become involved in the Madinat Jumeirah project?
When I had a discussion in late 2000 with His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum. His Highness informed me that UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was planning to develop the Chicago Beach Village area. 

His Highness came back to me a couple of months later, in mid-February 2011, and told me that H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum needed a proposal for the best way to develop the area. So we then put a document together within the company, and running parallel with that, H.H. Sheikh Ahmed was also working with Dene Murphy of Mirage Mille. 

Where did the idea to draw on Dubai’s heritage come from?
While they loved the environment and the architecture of Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Burj Al Arab, our guests often asked about the heritage of Dubai. So we wanted something that reflected the culture and heritage of the city. We wanted architecture that reflected Dubai architecture. Mirage Mille conducted a study; they visited the Creek. And then they came back in March, and they presented the ideas to H.H. Sheikh Ahmed and to the corporate team of Jumeirah Group. 

They had set up all the artist perspectives of how Madinat Jumeirah would look, and we were absolutely delighted with the results. We could not believe that they were able to come up with something that was so real, so close to the original vision. It had been made clear from the start that while we wanted this to be reflective of the old spirit of Dubai, we did not want it to be like a theme park. So we wanted it to be authentic, and when we saw the scheme boards everybody thought it looked fabulous. 

So the original concept came from your guests?
H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and HH Sheikh Ahmed had a vision for the project. What we wanted, based on that vision, was to do something for the guests that would not be high-rise, which would be more connected to the culture and heritage of Dubai. 

The project was given the go-ahead quickly. Is that unusual in Dubai?
There is a process. You need planning permission. The specifications laid out by the municipality are very clear, and they are followed to the letter. They are there, and they are very real. When Madinat Jumeirah was being planned, Dubai was under rapid development. The Palm Jumeirah was under construction at the time. There was a lot happening. H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum wanted the project to commence as soon as possible. 

You moved a road in order to build the conference centre, is that correct?
Yes. We informed H.H. Sheikh Ahmed that one thing we did not have in the design was a good conference centre, and we thought we should have one. He asked where we should put it, and we pointed out the ideal place, but it would be on the wrong side of the road, as it was then. 

As that area had not been developed at that time, he agreed to move the road, and that enabled us to put in what I think is one of the best-designed conference centres in any hotel or resort. Moving a road was not easy, because of everything that was underneath. 

How involved were you and your team once the building began?
HH Sheikh Ahmed kept very close to it all the way through, and really had a very clear idea of how it would develop and how it would look. We kept very close to the project. For me it was really important that we appoint our General Manager at an early stage. So we appointed Serge Zaalof, who is now President and Managing Director at Atlantis The Palm, as our General Manager. 

He was working for us at the time as General Manager of Jumeirah Beach Hotel, so it was great to have Serge on board, living and breathing the project all the way through. He was able to establish his own team for future operations at an early stage. It was a real running start for when Mina A’ Salam opened in 2003 and the rest of Madinat Jumeirah opened in 2004. There were no issues. Everybody totally bought into the concept. Everybody agreed that it should be as it would be. 

So you knew exactly how operations would function right from the start?
I think we all knew. We had established the DNA of Jumeirah over the years. We had only been operating since 1997, but we still had a clear idea of the level of the market that we perceived ourselves to be at, and that was at the very top end, competing with the likes of Four Seasons, The Ritz-Carlton, Shangri-La and Mandarin Oriental. This was the competitive space we saw ourselves in. So, therefore, all of the services at Madinat Jumeirah would have to be commensurate with that. 

How did the public react to the project?
There was a big wow factor when [the resort] opened, and an immediate embracing by the community in Dubai of Madinat Jumeirah as part of the emirate. It enhanced the whole Dubai product. People immediately had a very good feeling about it, because it was available to the community. People could go there and enjoy the facilities. So it really became a destination within Dubai. 

How did your guests react when Madinat Jumeirah opened?
Our regular guests thought we had delivered on the promise. We said that this would be Arabian hospitality, an Arabian city that they could all come to enjoy. We still have guests who say they have come for seven days, their holiday is finishing and they have never left the resort. It is because they do not feel the need, they feel like they are experiencing so much of Dubai by just staying in Madinat Jumeirah. We do encourage them to visit the creek and to visit the malls, and of course they do, but quite a lot of people just stay at Madinat Jumeirah, because it’s so serene, so all-encompassing. 

Work has now begun on phase four. How is that going?
We are so excited now that we are filling in the last vacant lot with the fourth phase of Madinat Jumeirah, and that is going to be another great Jumeirah property. I think it will be fantastic. We are so pleased about it. We have seen the drawings of what that is going to look like: 435 rooms, all sea facing. In many ways we like to think architecturally it is a natural evolution from the modernity of Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Burj Al Arab to the traditional architecture of Madinat Jumeirah.

So this is a joining together. It is slightly more modern than Madinat Jumeirah and has a bit more heritage than Jumeirah Beach Hotel, and it joins the development together, with Wild Wadi Waterpark in the middle. It will be completed in March 2016. The corporate and development teams of Jumeirah are working closely with the architects at the moment.

THE INTERIOR DESIGNER: Khuan Chew, Founder of KCA International

To what extent did you see Madinat Jumeirah as a continuation of the project you had already started with Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Burj Al Arab?
 These three projects are very contrasting and attract different clients – all drawn to Dubai’s golden beaches, which all three hotel destinations naturally provide. But each of them has its own character. Jumeirah Beach Hotel is a contemporary hotel with more than 20 restaurants; Burj Al Arab is your icon of Dubai, where the rich, the powerful, and the famous want to be seen in these richly adorned modern Arabic spaces; and then Madinat Jumeirah, which completed the Dubai experience with the old flavours of Dubai and the UAE. The idea of Madinat Jumeirah was to counterbalance that of Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Burj Al Arab. 

What was your initial brief for the various interiors in the Madinat Jumeirah resort?
So Mina A’ Salam was the ‘port of entry’ hotel – the stopover place and gathering [point] for travellers. Merchants from the four corners of the earth. So we had the Wharf resembling a warehouse. The scale of the hotel was more human compared to Al Qasr. Al Qasr was ‘the Palace’, so it was more ornate and modelled on the layout of an ancient Arabian palace, consisting of a series of rooms, one after each other, which was typical of grand houses/buildings all over the world, including in the Middle East. 

The level of furnishing was pretty lavish. The plasterwork in the decoration was very much layered to reflect opulence – the proportions of the spaces were on a much grander scale than Mina A’ Salam. Then we had the Dar Al Masyaf villas, which were a model of the Arabic courtyard house. Whether you had a suite facing the sea or the waterway, you enjoyed complete privacy amid the vicinity of a larger village life, which had a souk to offer, a theatre, countless eateries and bars, and transportation – as if you were in Venice. The spirit of Dubai tradition had to be reflected in our interiors. Madinat Jumeirah was seen as very much a centre, a hub for traders, merchants, kings and royalty – a city in the making. Both hotels reflect the diversity of society past and present. 

Madinat Jumeirah was a very different project to both Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Burj Al Arab, with a strong emphasis on UAE heritage. What research did you carry out?
We had the benefit of a guide from the Minister of Public Works who showed us the revival of Bastakiya; this was the source of our inspiration for Madinat Jumeirah. Details of columns, arches, corbels, doors, windows, and the proportions of rooms, etc, including the space planning of the hotel was very much based on Bastakiya, but of course Madinat Jumeirah is on a much larger scale. 

The local museum as well as H.H. Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s house was a big inspiration for our designs. However, the level of decoration in terms of woodwork, metal work, inlay, mosaics, stones, mushrabeyah, were mainly derived from our archive of books and various visits to museums elsewhere e.g. London and Paris. A great deal of inspiration also came from grandmasters of the 19th and 18th centuries who painted on their travels to the ‘the Orient’, as can be seen today in the great works of art housed in Musee d’Orsay [in Paris]. 

To what extent did you discuss the interior design with H.H. Sheikh Mohammed and H.H. Sheikh Ahmed?
H.H. Sheikh Ahmed was advising Mirage Mille on the main development. I did have a few meetings initially with H.H. Sheikh Mohammed, who advised that there had already been a ‘resort hotel’ (Jumeirah Beach Hotel) and a ‘palatial modern Arabic hotel’ (Burj Al Arab), so now he wanted all the visitors to Dubai to experience the culture and life style of Dubai and the UAE. This was what Madinat Jumeirah was about. 

What aspects of the interior design are you most proud of?
‘The Harry Potter’ staircase, which is located in the Mina A’ Salam leading from the lobby to the lower floor, where the dining room is, and also access to take the abra to the souk or Al Qasr. This staircase was painstakingly carved from hard wood to our design drawings by craftsmen and installed piece by piece in situ. The gentle steps and generous width meant that it was very comfortable on the legs. 

How important was this project in terms of your career?
Having done the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Burj Al Arab, my staff and I thought that would be the limit of our involvement at such close proximity. When we realised that we were being asked to join the team of Mirage Mille for Madinat Jumeirah we could hardly believe what we were about to embark on. This project is certainly the crowning glory of what Dubai stands for. I call these three projects the Golden Triangle of KCA and Khuan Chew.

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