The UAE is a country of many architectural icons, from John Elliott’s Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi to Adrian Smith of SOM’s Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Michael Lyle & Partners designed Central Souq in Sharjah. Few however, have an actual daily impact on each and every citizen and resident of the UAE. That isn’t the case with the Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai, the nerve centre of the UAE. This is a place unlike any other in the country or beyond. Before elaborating on what exactly goes on inside a few words about its history.
In 1996, one year after being appointed by the late Shaikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum as Crown Prince of Dubai, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched a competition to design and construct the two tallest towers in the Middle East, Europe and Africa. One would serve as a hotel and another would be a business tower, and both would be connected to a shopping boulevard.
Once completed they would turn out to be much more than that. The Towers would also form part of a string of major projects launched by Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid in his first few years in office including Tom Wright’s Burj Al Arab, Halcrow’s Dubai Internet City and HHCP’s Palm Jumeirah.
The two towers, completed in 2000, were designed as a collaboration between Canadian architect Hazel Wong of Norr and Arcadis, a Dutch design and consultancy firm. The taller office tower stood at 350 metres high while the adjacent hotel tower would measure 305 metres in height. Each tower is topped by a 43.7-metre high needle that rises above it into the sky. In a recent interview Wong said that her “key objectives in the design of the Emirates Towers was to create the composition and placement of the twin towers to appear to be constantly changing, depending on the point of view and time of day.” An objective she no doubt succeeded in attaining judging from images captured of the towers both inside and out.
The office tower, officially named Emirates Towers One houses a number of financial and government offices but its most important tenant is no doubt the office of the Prime Minister of the UAE known as the PMO. Other important tenants include the Executive Office which is the hub of strategic decision making and implementation, Dubai’s think-tank if you will, and the Executive Council whose members comprise the heads of Dubai’s main government authorities and agencies. The office tower also houses the team behind what is perhaps one of Dubai’s most ambitious projects, Expo 2020 Dubai, the UAE Centennial 2071 project as well as the Dubai Future Foundation which is overseeing the construction of the Museum of the Future on grounds belonging to the towers. At 570,000 sqm (42 acres) these grounds are so vast that one of the most popular features of the Emirates Towers are peacocks belonging to the nearby Zabeel Palace that are left to roam the territory.
Recently the building became home to the Dubai Future Accelerators programme and a youth hub to host young entrepreneurs, programmers and other professionals. The presence of these various strategic government entities enables the towers to act as a nerve centre of the UAE and even earned the office tower the nickname White House of Dubai and ensured a constant stream of high profile local, regional and international dignitaries.
If lobbies could talk...
Next door, the hotel tower, officially named Emirates Towers Two stands out for its unique lobby atrium which raises over 30 floors. This might be the only lobby in the world where entrepreneurs, businessmen and women, government officials, both local and international and an array of other professionals sit side by side. In a span of one day one could encounter a UAE cabinet minister, a CEO of a major multinational, a wheelchair-bound journalist, a young Emirati student, an Indian tech entrepreneur, a Saudi businesswoman, a head of state, intellectuals, politicians, diplomats, artists and even foreign agents — I have personally met them all there over the past 15 years. If lobbies could talk this one would have the most interesting stories to tell. As someone who spends several months a year on the road, staying in hotels all over I have come to regard this hotel lobby as one of the greatest in the world, unmatched in its range of patrons.
The Emirates Towers hotel Godolphin ballroom also serves as home to numerous events including Christie’s auctions of Middle Eastern art that has been held there since 2006. Events such as these auctions along with the conferences and exhibitions that take place in the nearby DIFC (Dubai International Finance Centre), World Trade Centre and other venues make sure that the crowd that frequents their lobby of choice are amongst the most diverse anywhere in the world.
For years I encountered Indian modernist painter M.F. Husain (1915-2011), then well into his eighties, who frequented the hotel always wearing socks but never shoes. I can never forget a story he once shared with me in the late 2000s. That day as we sat in the hotel lobby on the pre-recent refurbishment low-lying black leather seats dressed in his signature black Indian suit I asked him, “Do you always only wear socks?” He replied “I actually prefer not to wear any socks at all but I only do so here in this hotel.” I asked him to elaborate and he replied in his soft manner “I was once sitting in this hotel lobby and the manager approached me and very respectively whispered ‘Sir as an esteemed guest we would like to offer to buy you a pair of shoes.’” Husain told me he was slightly flustered, smiled at the gentleman, politely declined the offer and from then onwards started wearing black non-slip socks to the towers. (Husain’s rationale was that shoes prevent one from connecting to the earth and our environment).
The Emirates Towers is far greater than simply a physical structure, it is a factory of the future. Within its walls the best of Emirati minds interact with each other and with the best of global minds. Its role as an incubation centre for future Emirati leaders was evident when recently a number of young ministerial appointees in the latest UAE cabinet reshuffle were selected based on their performance while working at one of the office tower’s government entities.
These towers are where many of the country’s internal policies are formulated, from tax laws and regulations to environmental standards, futuristic endeavours and grand schemes that will continue to transform the country. It is where foreign leaders whose countries hold the most promise in technology, science, academia and commerce are taken to meet the Prime Minister and his teams of bright young minds. Hazel Wong’s Emirates Towers is much more than two of the most iconic buildings in the world. They are the epicentre of Dubai and a point of convergence of the UAE’s present and future.
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a UAE-based writer.