Dubai has always been known to push the boundaries when it comes to infrastructure development. With structures like Burj Khalifa, Burj al Arab, The Palm Atlantis, or the Dubai mall; the skyline of the Emirate has grown farther than that of Manhattan.  The wealthy emirate is home to many of the most innovative and ambitious architectural projects. One such ambitious project undertaken by Nakheel Properties was the Dubai Manmade Islands along the coast of Dubai which extends the coastline about 50 kilometers into the sea.

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01 the hotel Burj Al Arab on a manmade island ©my Bayut

The Dubai islands projects were aimed to become tourist hotspots while housing Luxury hotels, Low and high-density housing, and commercial structures.  The ocean properties Dubai comprises are the palm islands, the world, the universe, and lastly the Dubai waterfront. 

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Design view of the Palm Jumeirah and Palm Deira with The World and The Universe archipelagos © World Atlas

About the project | Manmade islands

In 2001 Dubai reached the peak of infrastructure development. With most of the coast already developed, Nakheel properties ventured out into the ocean for further expansion of the coastline for infrastructure. This gave rise to what was supposed to become the prestigious projects for the wealthy emirate. Among the ocean properties were three projects that would look like Palm trees when viewed from space, the Palm islands consisted of Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali, and Palm Deira. Later on ‘The World’ was proposed which would have clusters of islands resembling the world map. Further the project was expanded with the Universe and the biggest archipelago yet i.e. the Dubai waterfront was to be developed next to the Palm Jebel Ali. These Archipelagos were the most ambitious of the many experimental architecture projects. The massive development along the coast was aimed at creating a boom in the tourism industry of Dubai which in turn would create many sources of income and fund the extraction of oil. 

The construction | Dubai man made islands

The massive archipelagos were created as a large land reclamation project in which millions of cubic meters of sand is dredged from the coastal regions of Dubai and dumped to form the islands. The massive amounts of sand required to build the islands were acquired from the deep sea beds about six nautical miles from the coast. For the construction of the manmade islands, large amounts of rock were quarried from multiple quarries throughout Dubai. Limestone is also a material used for it. 

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Dumping of dredged sand in water ©About civil

The islands 

  1. The Palm Islands

Palm Jumeirah was the first of the palm islands to be completed. This cluster of manmade islands alone doubled the entire coastline of Dubai. The fonds of the palm had multiple private houses, luxury villas, hotels, and resorts. The trunk as well had commercial development. The crescent-shaped islands surround the palm and act as a breakwater protecting the palm from the water. The crescent has two openings to ensure water circulation. The crescent also holds the hotel Atlantis, the adjacent waterpark, and other luxury properties. The Jumeirah is the largest artificial island and already has 10,000 residents. The land reclamation and handover were completed in 2006.

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Palm Jumeirah ©Engineering daily

Palm Jebel Ali was similar to the palm Jumeirah but on a larger scale. The financial crisis of 2008 had affected Dubai as much as the rest of the world and caused the project to halt. Similarly, Palm Deira was eight times the size of Palm Jumeirah. The financial dip caused the land reclamation and construction to stop, however, the southwestern part of the island was rebranded and scaled-down as the Deira Islands. Deira Island is host to various art and culture-related activities along with the Two high-rise structures. 

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The empty islands of Palm Jebel Ali ©Tours and travels

2. The World Island

When viewed from the space or the highest point of the BurjKhalifa the world island archipelago is entirely visible and resembles the world map. The concept of this cluster is the islands would be developed to correspond to the countries in the area. This project was launched in 2003 and the sizes of the individual islands spanned from 14,000 sq.m to 42,000 sq.m. Although the economic dip affected this project too and slowed down the development, a few of the islands such as the Lebanon island, The Heart of Europe, and the Floating Seahorse villas are partially developed. 

The Universe islands comprise the Sun, the moon, the planets of the solar system, the Milky Way, and a distant galaxy. This archipelago wraps around the World and was a part of the second phase of the project.  

3. Dubai Waterfront | Manmade islands

Dubai waterfront was supposed to be the largest development project of a manmade island in the world. Along with its symbolic relevance to the Islamic scriptures, the crescent shape was also chosen to protect Palm Jebel Ali from erosion and other natural calamities. 

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Crescent shaped Dubai Waterfront plan (someday) ©Tarokh travel tourism

What went wrong?

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The sinking islands in the World cluster ©The inertia

The economic shift caused many development projects to come to a standstill. The financial losses also caused investors to back out and also at a point the buyers were refunded for the islands. The halt in the construction in combination with the rise in sea level would later result in the gradual erosion of the sand from the islands. All the megaprojects were compelled to shut down; projects related to the artificial island were about to collapse. 

Most of the construction sites are shut down in no time amid this crisis. The declining demand for the project leads to the rapid fall of the price of the plots. Slowly and gradually the prestige project of Dubai was sinking back into the Persian Gulf. To top it off, the suicide of a certain buyer, the arrest of another for fraudulent payments, and most importantly the financiers backing out of providing funds to continue construction took a huge toll. According to Nakheel properties, more than 70% of the world’s islands were sold before the report declared the islands were sinking. 

Dubai islands early plans ©Coastal Development
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Dubai islands now ©Coastal Development

Environmental impact 

  • The erosion of sand due to wind and water
  • Ecological imbalance due to the disruption in the existing coast. The environmental alterations and constant construction has damaged the flora & fauna and depletion in marine life. 
  • Loss of the coastal shape. 
  • The construction and obstacles caused the water around palm Jumeirah to become stagnant and thus the poor water quality. 
  • The construction of the manmade islands has eroded the coastal soil of Dubai, altered wave action and sedimentation patterns, and other patterns of nature which are associated with ecological damage and long-term environmental issues.
  • A study showed as much as 2 inches of construction sediments on the oysters.
  • Coastal water flows altered.
  • Inadequate water circulation in dead-end channels allows for algae blooms, reduced water oxygen levels. 

The Prestige project of the artificial islands was aimed to change the face of Dubai’s coastline. The experiment threads the thin line between pushing boundaries in structural development or manipulating the natural topography. The developers of the manmade islands of Dubai claim that the recession has merely halted the construction process temporarily and that it will be completed. The innovation doesn’t nullify the impact on the environment but even in their dormant state, the islands have gained quite the traction, thus ensuring their viability as a tourist hotspot. 

The complete proposal of the manmade islands ©Ayomoro hotels

References | Manmade islands


Manasi is a young architect who never ceases to be amazed by the stories told by historical structures. She appreciates the power of words as they say what the pictures can’t show. She believes that any piece of art is a form of expression and should be used wisely to say something important.