x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Dubai's Desert Springs Village: curious, charming, and under threat

The green, close-knit community of Desert Springs has stood for almost 40 years, a peaceful escape from the bustle of Dubai. But the emirate is growing, and the compound risks being developed.

Despite its obvious charms, the community has faced the threat of demolition since at least 2007.
Despite its obvious charms, the community has faced the threat of demolition since at least 2007.

DUBAI // The lush green grass and bushes of tumbling bougainvillea at Desert Springs Village were once surrounded by acres of desert.

But the developing city has caught up with the gated villa complex, and now threatens to swallow it whole.

Built in 1973 as a remote outpost on the edge of Dubai, the community is now surrounded on all sides by the towering apartment blocks of Tecom, and residents fear that each year could be the last before the land is redeveloped.

"There seems to be a lot of pressure to build on this area," says Sonali Walke, 30, from India, who lives with her husband and son in a two-bedroom villa. "Every year they say they might demolish it, but the contracts get renewed."

Groups of young children are a constant presence, popping in to visit different "aunties", or making use of a rusted climbing frame and a broken seesaw in the dusty, aging playground.

Ms Walke believes it would be a great shame if the area were lost.

"It's very peaceful and really green," she says. "This is a real community that you don't find anywhere else in Dubai."

At the centre of the complex is a community hall, which once housed a popular expatriate pub called The Glue Pot.

This was taken over by a Chinese restaurant, its ceramic oriental lions standing guard until a few years ago. The statues have gone and the hall is now boarded up.

Behind this, an empty swimming pool slowly filling with sand sits next to discarded gym equipment and a broken snooker table that the children fantasise about playing.

Jairam Mannath, 64, from India, takes pleasure in his daily routine of feeding the scores of stray cats.

He has lived in the community for six years but has been in Dubai for more than 30 years, and can remember Desert Springs soon after it was built.

"This used to be a landmark, everyone knew it," he says. "Now everything else has been built up around it, this place has been forgotten.

"Still, every now and then people come to ask what this place is."

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Despite its obvious charms, the community has faced the threat of demolition since at least 2007.

Plans to redevelop the land seem to have been sidelined for the moment, but every year tenants wait anxiously to see if they are to be moved on. Will they be able to renew their contracts later this summer?

"We still don't know," says a sales assistant at the development's owner, Al Kazim Real Estate. "We will let them know."

Yasser Elsheshtawy, an associate professor in architecture at UAE University, has often argued for the need to preserve Dubai's historic landmarks.

Yet even he believes replacing the community with a more modern development makes economic sense.

"When it was built, there was still a lot of land to build on," he says. "This was right in the middle of the desert, so you could afford to do that. Now, land is relatively scarce and this is prime real estate.

"For many people in Dubai, this development would not be missed. It's one of those curious places that you have to discover. You don't really see it when you're driving along Sheikh Zayed Road.

"It would only be a loss for the people who have lived there, as it would hold some memories."

The development is fully occupied and some residents have recently moved in with year-long contracts, giving hope to others that demolition must still be some time off.

At the Paragon grocery shop at the entrance to Desert Springs, business is still thriving.

"Before, there weren't many people around because this area was empty," says K Usma, a 63-year-old Indian who has managed the shop since it opened 10 years ago.

"Now this place is full, which means business is better than ever."