Venice in Dubai

Tamara Walid speaks to the team behind the ambitious US$11bn Arabian Canal mega-project.
Venice in Dubai
By Tamara Walid
Sun 13 Jan 2008 04:00 AM

Coming up with a list of things that Dubai has not yet attempted - at least when it comes to construction - might prove quite a feat. From constructing the world's tallest building, the world's largest snowdome, an airport that could become the world's largest aviation facility, the largest man-made island and even the world's largest car park, Dubai has been there, announced that. Now there's a canal, and not just any.

Aside from the staggering US$11bn tag price on the Arabian Canal, its developers promise it will be the largest and most complex work of engineering in the Middle East since the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1859.

The Arabian Canal project involves excavation work deeper than has ever been done before in the region

"The Arabian Canal will create life in the desert," says Saeed Ahmed Saeed, CEO of Limitless, the company developing the canal, adding: "It is Dubai's most ambitious mega-project to date, and is the biggest, most complicated civil engineering project ever undertaken in this region.

Development manager Ian Raine seconds Saeed's opinion, saying: "We've got lots of offshore projects with a lot of reclamations being done offshore, but this is actually the first project of its kind where we are bringing the water into the desert to create a development in the desert. That will make it unique.

Raine can say that again. The canal's significance mainly boils down to the fact that space for waterfront developments in the emirate is running out and this project holds the solution. Further man-made islands have also become a challenge as it has been proving increasingly difficult to dredge sufficient sand for their development.

The canal, which will be 150 metres wide and six metres deep, will require digging and moving more than one million cubic metres of earth, enough to fill 400 Olympic-sized swimming pools every day for a period of three years. Upon completion, three years from now, it will be able to accommodate vessels of up to 40 metres long. The 75km canal will flow inland from Dubai Waterfront, running past east of the new Dubai World Central International Airport prior to making a turn back towards Palm Jumeirah. Many different projects will benefit from the canal running right through.

"The canal passes through a number of different development areas - it passes through Dubai waterfront, which is a Nakheel development, through Dubai Industrial City which is a Dubai Holding development, through Jumeirah Golf Estates which is a Leisurecorp development," explains Raine.

Moreover, Limitless, a development arm of Dubai World, is splashing US$50bn on its largest mixed-use development as part of the Arabian Canal. The development will take up to 20,000 hectares and stretch 33km along the inland section of the canal. The project will include residential, commercial and business units. Raine believes it will be exceptional.
"This will be a city that will potentially have up to two million people and it will have all the features that you would expect to see in a city. In addition to residential areas there will be commercial, retail, some light industrial areas potentially, there'll be parks, and green spaces," he says, promising: "Within each of the various phases of the development there will be facilities; we will give everybody what they need within the development."

While two million residents might strike some as an optimistic figure, Raine is confident that the waterfront development, which is set to be completed in phases over a period of 15 years, will attract a great deal of interest.

The canal will bring an unprecedented waterfront destination inland

"All I can really say is that looking at the two phases we're releasing, the interest has been at such a level that there certainly doesn't seem to be any shortage of demand," he says.

So far, the masterplan for the entire development is ready and work on the detailed masterplan, or phase one and two within that development, has commenced. The completion date for phase one of the waterfront development is set at three to five years from now.

According to Raine, plans to build the canal have been in the pipeline for a number of years, but it was only in the first half of 2007 that Limitless were asked to "take the project to delivery". While originally under Nakheel's remit, the canal project was handed over to Limitless last year.

"There's a lot of work that's been done in developing the original plans and concept of Nakheel's design group. We took that over in June last year. That's where our involvement really started and we've taken it from that point to where we are now, which is actually far more detail on the master planning of the area that Limitless will be responsible for. And we had a preliminary start on some of the construction work," says Raine.

He adds that the scheme has been part of the longer-term development plans of Dubai. Where other projects that the canal passes through are involved, Raine believes that completion time of the waterway should not be largely affected by the completion times of other projects.
"I don't think the canal construction is going to be too affected. If you consider that it goes through Dubai Industrial City and through Dubai Waterfront, those are developments that extend many years into the future so we are coordinating the construction with those developments so the canal can be completed without those developments being necessarily complete," he says, adding that other projects' completion dates might extend several years into the future, possibly long after the canal is finished.

The path towards completion of the canal, however, could prove to be a bumpy ride. "The next three years will be challenging and exciting times for Limitless, as it manages the design and construction of the Canal," as CEO Saeed puts it.

Saeed doesn't seem to be worried though, confirming that the company will be working with the ‘best of breed' to deliver this project.

"We will be working with the most experienced engineers and consultants - in terms of technical engineering, canal construction and local knowledge - to ensure that we deliver this project on time and with distinction," says Saeed.

And the complexity of the canal, engineering-wise, has required outsourcing to only the most experienced firms. Clearly, with a project of such scale, ensuring that best practice is put in place is essential.

"The expertise exists worldwide for these kinds of projects and it's a unique project for the Middle East, but canals have been built before and the engineering consultants that we brought onboard have the expertise in those kinds of fields. We have experts in geotechnical engineering, who are people who have local knowledge in Dubai, but we also brought in expertise in canal construction," says Raine. This ensures that local knowledge of the geotechnical side in Dubai and also the larger knowledge of canal construction are available to work side by side on the canal, according to Raine.

Preliminary work, mainly in two areas in the inland section, has already begun. While one contract involves marking out part of the canal in one area, the other includes a pilot excavation, within the Phase One developments.
"This work includes the collection of survey and engineering data that will provide us with essential information for the main canal work, which will start later this year," says Saeed.

With infrastructure, Raine admits there are challenges to the project, but confirms that the plans have been around for a long enough period that all developers have been aware of the projects and have incorporated that within their masterplans.

Will there be any landmarks that have to be knocked down to make way for the canal? Raine assures us that this will not be necessary, saying: "Nothing has to be displaced. There are some modifications to the road systems because we have to put some bridges over in two areas, particularly Sheikh Zayed Road. The ground level is quite low and we have to build bridges through the canal, which will elevate the road in all those sections, but as we come further inland it becomes less of a problem as the ground elevation increases.

Both Saeed and Raine agree that the biggest challenges associated with building the canal will be related to its engineering issues. Saeed says: "The sheer size and complexity of the project brings a host of new challenges. For example, it will involve excavation work that is deeper than has ever been done here, using the largest machinery ever seen in the region.

Raine further explains that, in the inland section, the ground elevation is about 70 metres and the canal would run at sea levels. This is the reason for deep excavations in some areas, he says, adding that those challenges are exactly what prompted the company to undertake a pilot excavation and learn to get around certain obstacles.

Saeed, however, is confident this will be a thing of the past. "These are challenges that can be overcome with the right planning, people and partners," he says. And Limitless seems to have found that in Bund Construction and Samsung Corporation, at least for the preliminary work. The company has yet to announce the main contractor to build the canal.

"We've got major international contractors who are interested in this project. We are getting into detailed discussions with a number of these contractors about how they resource the projects," says Raine, pointing out that contractors will be hiring their labour force from the traditional route but a number of them are expected to be resourced from elsewhere, therefore solving the shortage in the labour pool currently causing grief to many contractors in Dubai.
The financing of the canal and waterfront project will be generated from the development itself, according to Raine. "The developments we are creating within the city will be there to finance the project," he says. And while a date for sale hasn't been set yet, Raine reveals that the first phase is expected to be selling "really soon" and that interest from investors has been phenomenal.

While features that will attract investors to the development are plenty, Saeed is quick to emphasise one of the project's main advantages.

"Dubai is already famous for its pioneering waterfront projects, but the Arabian Canal is unique in that it will bring a huge, unprecedented waterfront destination inland. Arabian Canal will be a globally-recognised landmark destination for UAE residents and visitors, with public open spaces for leisure and community events as well as a number of mixed use developments.

He adds that Limitless' mixed-use development - stretching for 33 kilometres along the inland section of the canal - will be a new city in the desert and a focal point for Dubai's cultural attractions, hosting marinas, residential communities and business centres as well as wide open green spaces.

Limitless has not been negligent of the environment and claims to have a focus on sustainability in its development approach. Raine explains that there's much more to this approach than a marketing tool.

"The initiative we are looking at is alternative sources of power generation and making use of certain energy from power generation. Potentially, we might be looking at solar energy and creating larger green areas, which will help create small climates and therefore assist with the overall sustainability of the project," Raine says. He adds that a number of initiatives are under consideration at the moment but that no particular formulas have yet been chosen. This will become clearer within the next few months as the company delves into various green initiatives.

While many initially voiced skepticism over the feasibility of the canal plan, it is now evident that these were unfounded doubts. As with Dubai's many wonder projects, the canal seems to be coming our way and Saeed promises it will cause quite a splash. "The whole world will be watching as the Arabian Canal unfolds, and Limitless relishes the prospect of producing what will undoubtedly be a future wonder of the engineering world," says Saeed.

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