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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Bluewaters’ soft opening has more fizzle than bang

Dubai's newest island development will be epic, eventually, but for now it is little more than a ghost town

It is easy, in a city such as Dubai, which is essentially a series of self-sufficient communities loosely threaded together, to fall into the trap of never straying too far from your ‘hood. Humans are creatures of habit – and once you have immersed yourself in familiar surroundings, it is all too easy to become fully entrenched.

I am lucky enough to have accumulated a solid network of friends within my community – largely because our dogs like playing together – so it is not unheard of for me to get through an entire Friday having only ventured as far as a neighbour’s house, for an impromptu barbecue or movie session, or the nearest park, for a doggy play date.

Last weekend, I made an effort to travel further afield and go somewhere completely new. Lunch at Bluewaters, Dubai’s swanky new island development, seemed like the perfect solution. Having watched it emerge from the sea over the last few years, I was intrigued about what it would look like from within. It has only just opened, so I thought I would be an early adopter – ahead of the curve, for a change. But, it seems, I was a tad too early.

The lights at Bluewaters, Dubai. Courtesy Leslie Pableo/The National
The lights at Bluewaters, Dubai. Leslie Pableo / The National

Bluewaters is open, but in the very loosest sense of the word. An empty car park was the first sign that something was amiss. The scores of security guards standing around with nothing to do was another. It was like getting to a party before any of the other guests show up and the hosts are still tidying up. More than 100 shops, restaurants and cafes are scheduled to open at Bluewaters in the coming months, but last Friday we could barely grab ourselves a spot of lunch. Only two restaurants were open on the waterfront, and when we tried to take a seat at one of them, we were informed that they were still undergoing staff training and weren’t serving guests yet. The other, being the only place offering any form of sustenance, didn’t have any space for us.

We wandered around the expansive, eerily empty space, coming across the odd shop open for business – a Superdry, an iSea and a Discover Dubai. If I had been in the market for a pair of sunglasses or some souvenirs, I would have been in luck. But alas, I was not.

One of the restaurants that is now open at Bluewaters. Leslie Pableo/The National
One of the restaurants that is now open at Bluewaters. Leslie Pableo / The National

Projects such as Bluewaters, which follows in line from developments such as The Beach at JBR, La Mer and CityWalk, have been essential in creating a public realm in the UAE. They offer a space where people can gather, be outdoors, and engage with each other and their surroundings. They have a filled a hole in Dubai’s urban fabric. As local landscape designer Kamela Zaal comments: “Living in a city like Dubai that has grown as quickly as it has, we’ve had to rethink and design to create a community atmosphere again … it’s our responsibility as designers and as artists to bring people together.”

Bluewaters adopts the tried-and-tested formula that Meraas has applied to those other projects, and while the format has essentially revolutionised the idea of public spaces in the UAE, it will be nice to see the company trying something new in the future, to prevent this undeniably successful model from starting to feel repetitive.

Bluewaters’ main USP is, of course, Ain Dubai, the UAE’s answer to the London Eye – just bigger, as is the city’s wont. One of the highlights of last weekend’s almost entirely wasted trip was standing at the foot of the mammoth structure and appreciating just how impressive it will be when it opens at the end of next year.

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Read more of Selina's thoughts:

From Dubai to Abu Dhabi: some lessons learnt on a long commute

Let’s not be blasé about the range of opportunities Dubai has to offer

Missing out on family milestone events. Is this the real expat tax?

Two performances of 'Swan Lake' show how Dubai's cultural scene has found its feet

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I have no doubt that one day, in the not too distant future, Bluewaters will be epic, but at the moment, it’s a ghost town – albeit one with great views. Sign posts indicate that it will be home to a host of new and interesting food brands, including Gunaydin, The London Project and Alici, which currently has a charmingly worded sign emblazoned across its front that says: “We’ve gone fishing, back soon with the catch.”

Unfortunately, Bluewaters has fallen prey to the curse of the soft opening. Instead of launching with a bang, it has kicked off with a slightly disappointing sizzle. Having already made the trip and found myself largely underwhelmed, I’m not sure when I’ll head back. It turns out that it’s better to wait and go with the crowds than be an early adopter with nothing to adopt.