x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

'It's not just a canal, it's a big idea'

Unlike the Suez, DubaiWorld's $11bn waterway project is designed solely for its property value.

Ground water seeping up from the excavation at the test site.
Ground water seeping up from the excavation at the test site.

It will require an army of 10,000 construction workers, hundreds of giant drills and bulldozers, and four years of digging to get the job done. A billion cubic metres of earth will be removed from the ground and turned into hills that rise as high as the Emirates Towers Hotel. The 75-kilometre-long Arabian Canal will join the ranks of the great civil engineering legends of the earth - like the Suez and Panama canals. Yet, unlike its predecessors, Dubai's new US$11bn (Dh40.4bn) canal is being dug solely for its value to property development. On its banks a new city will rise with museums, hotels, apartment buildings, villas, shops - and a population of 1.5 million people.

The path of the new seawater canal will run 25km inland from Jebel Ali to an area that is now marked only by dunes and scrubby vegetation, before looping back to meet the sea again at Palm Jumeirah. "It's not just a canal, it's a big idea," says Saeed Ahmed Saeed, the chief executive of Limitless and mastermind of the project. "It's a city built in the desert, where water is so rare. It's a plan to create a new topography, to bring a new definition to Dubai."

As he speaks, he rises and starts pacing his office on Al Khail Road, gesturing excitedly in the air. "Imagine waterfalls, landscaping, yachts up to 40 metres, museums, hospitals, gardens - all in a walkable environment," he says. The sweltering desert is no challenge, he adds. "We'll change it." Dubai World, the parent company of a host of property companies including Limitless, describes Mr Saeed - formerly the managing director of projects at Nakheel - as "the moving force behind the conception of path-breaking projects such as Palm Jebel Ali, the Palm Deira, the World Islands, Jumeirah Village and Jumeirah Islands".

He joined Limitless in 2005 with the purpose of making the company an international player and achieving its greatest challenge: actually building the giant canal. The schedule he has set for water to flow into the canal is 2012 - a pace that will require excavation of about one million cubic metres a day, the equivalent of more than 400 Olympic swimming pools. "Good Lord!" says Roger Dobson, a former director general of the UK's Institution of Civil Engineers, when told about the project. "That is very impressive. When we were doing a canal in Pakistan, we did about 10,000 cubic yards [9,144 cubic metres] a day - and we were rather impressed with ourselves."

As workers dig the canal, separate teams will use the rock and sand to create hills up to 300 metres high, Mr Saeed says. That is three times higher than "Big Red", the tallest dune at Al Nazwa on the Dubai-Hatta road. "These will be like natural mountains," he says. "People in Dubai will be able to live on them and see the city." The man charged by Mr Saeed with leading the 10,000 construction workers, co-ordinating a dozen contractors and ensuring that the canal actually works is Ian Raine, a soft-spoken Briton who moved to Dubai two years ago.

Mr Raine says that construction will probably begin in the autumn. Tenders have been put out for the first phase of the project, which will include the excavation of 200 million cubic metres and development of a total plot of about 2,500 hectares. The entire project is 14,000 hectares - which is almost half as big again as Abu Dhabi Island. "The real challenge is essentially logistics," Mr Raine says at the project's test excavation site near Emirates Road. "It's the scale of the project and the fact that you are dealing with material coming out of the ground very quickly."

The test site hints at the giant undertaking that lies ahead for Mr Raine and his workers. Although it makes up less than one per cent of the length of the canal, it feels huge. The sea-level canal is six metres deep - enough to reach the rocks beneath the sand that will keep the waterway intact. At some places along the canal's path, the topography rises 12 metres above sea level, all of which has to excavated.

This is not just scooping up sand, either. Two or three metres below the dune sands are repeating layers of sandstone, conglomerate rock, siltstone and calcrete pan. The solid rock walls of the test site bear the marks of the giant steel tools that have carved them out. The test site has been dug to confirm engineers' geological reports about what lies below the area's surface, and to see how the walls will hold up over time. Some parts of the canal where the rock is not as solid may require additional ­reinforcement.

The test excavation ran into groundwater during digging, at about 10 metres. It is salt water, which means it might be a reservoir of trapped water from the sea. With the wind whistling and the midday desert heat beating down, Mr Raine looks towards the rectangular pit and says: "This will actually be an urban centre. It will have a marina, offices, flats. There will be 10 or 12 bridges." To track the progress of the excavation, Limitless has created a team of mapping and computer experts who will use regular helicopter flights and a small lorry outfitted with lasers to measure the volume of the earth removed. In a makeshift office, the team uses high-powered systems to integrate hundreds of photographs taken from different angles. The result is a 3D image that can be rendered with special glasses. Mohanad Samarah, a photogrammetry and mapping site engineer, can create interactive graphics that the managers at Limitless can use to "fly" through the project and examine the excavation in detail.

"With a project of this size we need to know where we stand all the time," Mr Raine says. "We will be able to pay contractors when they precisely meet their targets." The $50bn city will begin construction simultaneously with the canal, but the pace will pick up as the canal nears completion. The entire project is expected to take between 15 and 20 years. The master plan for the first phase is still in the works, but Mr Saeed says that there will be island developments in the canal's widest areas, bike paths and villas set around Dubai's first "mountains".

Water will flow the full length of the canal and back into the sea about once a week, keeping it from stagnating. The flow will be controlled by tidal gates at either end. Since the canal is mostly about the development that will stretch along its banks, there will be little or no commercial traffic on the water. Mr Saeed says a fleet of water taxis, as well as pleasure boats and other slow-moving craft, will cruise the water at a maximum speed of about eight knots, or 15 kph.

"Sustainability is a key to this project," he says, adding that the conceptual design of the project include a massive solar farm and plants that will help filter the water - the specifics of which are still being worked out. "If we build something wrong today, our grandchildren will never forgive us," he says. "These projects will last hundreds of years." @Email:bhope@thenational.ae