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Who will save Dubai’s old buildings?

Efforts to preserve historical structures can get in the way of self-interest

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Al Fahidi Fort is one of the most important historical buildings in Dubai
Property Weekly

As cities in the UAE continue to grow into larger metropolises, experts advocate saving buildings from each decade. “The buildings that should be conserved and retrofitted are those that have a cultural, historical and social weight in society,” says Mohamed Khodr Al Dah, chairman of the UAE Regional Group for the Institute of Structural Engineers (IStructE). Among the buildings that have been preserved include Shaikh Saeed House, Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood or Al Bastakiya, which dates back to the 1800s, the Al Fahidi Fort that houses the Dubai Museum, and the Al Ahmadiya School, which dates back to 1912.

Modernising history

The Etihad Museum, which opened last year, is an example where a historical building, the Union House, was restored and integrated in the modern museum design reflecting the moment of the UAE’s creation.

“The rulers back then chose a circular building for the Union House because everyone could sit in a circle, so there was no hierarchy — a very diplomatic and smart method to sign the manuscript,” recalls Al Dah of the signing of the declaration forming the UAE.

Union House is hugely significant to the founding of the UAE

Union House Dubai

Protecting the decades

Jonathan Ashmore, founder and director of the architectural and design practice Anarchitect, says it is important to understand the evolution of buildings. “What is iconic, what’s not and what would be worthwhile keeping, contributing to the fabric of the UAE today and in the future?” he ponders.

Ashmore says it’s not just about salvaging a building and putting it in a glass box. “It’s the experience, which equally counts,” Ashmore remarks, citing the Sharjah Art Foundation, which was retrofitted so many times it became almost impossible to retain the original buildings.

Al Fahidi fort now hosts the Dubai Museum

Al Fahidi fort

Al Dah says buildings from the 60s, such as Rashid Hospital and the Ambassador Hotel Bur Dubai, and the World Trade Centre and Radisson Blu Hotel on Baniyas Road are worth conserving.

“The World Trade Centre is one of the first buildings I saw growing up,” says Al Dah. “If you look at newer areas such as Dubai Marina, the Sheraton and Hilton may be of social, historical value. Of course, the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa definitely need to be conserved. There are lots of buildings like this out there, which people link to a story.”

The Burj Khalifa is already under discussion to be registered on the Unesco World Heritage Site list, according to Rashad Bukhash, the chairman of the UAE Architectural Heritage Society.

Al Dah says some historical structures have already been lost due to various reasons, such as the Al Nasr cinema, which was burnt down in a fire. “An old cinema could have an emotional attachment, or for example the Hard Rock Café, which used to be a symbol for the city boundary.”

Craig Ross, a partner and head of project and building consultancy at Cavendish Maxwell, says it’s also about keeping the skyline beautiful for the future. “The Armed Forces Officers Club and Hotel in Abu Dhabi, for example, is a fantastic building from the 90s.”

Shaikh Saeed House

Sheikh-Saeed-House Dubai

According to Bukhash,Dubai has around 3,200 traditional houses in 1950. “We only have 10 per cent left today, yet Dubai is still the best in the Gulf in conserving buildings,” says Bukhash. “But many buildings from the 70s to the 80s, basically those over 40 years old, are also under demolishment.”

He adds: “Over time we learnt form our mistakes in restoration. Termites and humidity were problems in historic buildings, [but] now we have solutions for them. Rusted steel is a challenge of more modern structures.”

Demolishing versus conserving

“Money will always be against conservation,” laments Al Dah. “As we demolish we increase the urban density of the city. Typically the driver for demolition is efficiency of the land; the owners want to get more money out of it, so they build higher. Although conserving the buildings is harder, we also need spaces in the city where we feel comfortable and free to walk, like Bastakiya.”

There’s a lot that can be done to extend the usefulness of structures. “For example, the 1970s villas in Jumeirah can be brought back to life as commercial villas, retaining the walls, but modernising the inside, creating contemporary heritage,” says Ashmore.

Al Ahmadiya School


Contemporary yet historical desert retreats also make sense such as Fossil Rock Lodge, which converted old structures from the 1960s.

But Ross worries about life cycle costs. “It takes time to retrofit and reap the rewards. It’s beneficial in future, but why should [an expat property owner] care. ‘We leave Dubai in 10 years’ [these owners would] say. This is the hardest thing to get over,” says Ross.


Dubai Municipality (DM) regulations are in place to revise buildings before they can be pulled down. Any building over 40-years-old would be evaluated and receive a score for its historical, social, economic and architectural elements, according to Bukhash. A Grade I building, such as Shaikh Saeed House, would get a minimum of 90 out of 100 points. The next grade also requires the structure to stay put, but renovations were permitted, while buildings of no value can get permission to be demolished.

However, it isn’t always clear cut, as some owners don’t agree with the scoring. “A 30-40 year old building that brings an income of Dh1 million per year, and now I want to demolish and build a bigger tower to triple my income. How will you convince me to keep and renovate it?” says Bukhash. “That’s the difficult part.”

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