It started as a whimsical project almost three decades ago when Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan – the Bedouin ruler of Abu Dhabi and first president of the United Arab Emirates – began a mission to transform the dry-as-bone Sir Bani Yas Island into a lush forest paradise.
Desert Islands Resort & Spa
No expense was spared and what started as one man’s dream has become a showcase for ecotourism and sustainability. The sheikh’s “Greening of the Desert” programme enabled the planting of 2.5 million plants and trees on the island including over 18,000 date palms, olive groves and succulents around the palace grounds.
The island’s irrigation system waters each tree from roots to leaves and there is a wildlife reserve stocked with 23 species. Critically endangered species such as the horned Arabian oryx, declared extinct in the wild in 1976, the extravagantly horned Scimitar-horned oryx and the Arabian gazelle roam around in enclosures. Added to this is a menagerie of other animals that caught Sheikh Zayed’s imagination such as giraffes, elands and emus.
The project is an environmentalist’s dream that only someone with an excess of funds and a huge imagination could make happen.
The island was the birth place of the Bani Yas tribe, of which the majority of the UAE’s ruling families belong to, and was the first place on the Arabian Peninsula to be inhabited. There are 36 Islamic and Christian archaeological sites including a Christian monastery dating back to 600AD. Until the mid-20th century, dates were cultivated on the island and diving for pearls was the main source of income.
Then in 1958, British explorers discovered a significant deposit of crude oil. The enormous wealth that came with the discovery of oil transformed Sheikh Zayed from a simple desert chief into a major player on the world’s economic stage. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which Sheikh Zayed set up in 1976, now has an estimated $1 trillion invested in world markets.
After his death in 2004, Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) assumed responsibility for the area’s expansion, developing the Sheikh’s inspiration into an ambitious $3-billion project to build a Maldives-like holiday destination across eight islands in the Arabian Gulf.
The Desert Islands project has Sir Bani Yas Island as its showcase for eco-tourism and sustainability; there are plans to link Marsa Jabel Dhanna to the mainland by means of a two-kilometre-long jetty leading to a 150-room beachfront hotel and luxury marina precinct which would be the gateway to travel to the other islands by speedboat, water taxi or resort aircraft.
The Discovery Islands will have luxury resorts, over water bungalows and luxury tented camps while Dalma Island will showcase archaeological museums and traditional dhow fishing villages. The entire venture is believed to generate around 6,500 jobs.
The first step of the Desert Islands project was the opening of the five-star Anantara Desert Islands Resort on Sir Bani Yas Island in October 2008. Given its remote location and desert-dry conditions, the Thai luxury hospitality group Anantara have done a fine job of turning the resort into a luxury beachside playground.
The garden’s palm trees and manicured lawns are tended to by an army of gardeners who work around the clock to keep the trees and plants healthy. But I suspect it will be years before the foliage becomes as lush and green as it is naturally on a tropical island.
The resort’s interior design is exotic yet chic. Marble, brass, timber and leather are stylishly coordinated to invoke an ambience of grandeur that isn’t out of place in its desert surrounds. Imagine splendid ornamental pots, gorgeous patterned cushions, sink-into-your-seat leather chairs and stunning Arabian-style lanterns hanging from the ceiling in the main lobby.
Rooms have plush bedding and modcons like satellite television, individually controlled air conditioning, electronic in-room safes and mini-bars. The restaurant serves a competent menu of Thai and international cuisine but future plans include the introduction of Arabian cuisine to the menu along with Arabian cooking classes.
Surprisingly, the resort’s main building is a four-story block-like structure with uncharacteristically little architectural flair, especially when compared to other more subtle Anantara resort structures around the world. “The building was built as a guest house, several years ago, by Sheikh Zayed,” says Anantara Resort’s General Manager Andre Erasmus. “To honour the memory of the sheikh, we refurbished the existing building which provides most of the accommodation,” says Erasmus.
Low-lying buildings such as the spa, beach villas and luxurious royal villas were added to the grounds, along with a swimming pool, gym and tennis court. Plans are underway to open an eco-camp at with around 15 tents offering adventurous guests the opportunity of sleeping in the desert under the stars.
There’s a huge list of activities include snorkelling, scuba diving or fishing in the Arabian Gulf, mountain biking through the desert hinterland, hiking to the top of the salt dome hilltops and kayaking among mangroves.
I join a wildlife safari in an open-air cruiser driven by safari guide Adam Gordon, from Newcastle in northeast England. A 50kmh speed limit is in place for the safety of the free-roaming sand gazelles. Most of the other animals are fenced off in enclosures so driving through the game park still gives the impression of an open-range zoo.
“The fences will be eventually torn down so the animals can roam freely,” says Gordon. Native animals will be relocated into one vast 3,500-hectare Arabian Wildlife Park and non-native animals into a smaller Safari Park. The removal of the fences is being managed in stages with the assistance of a South African company, International Conservation Services, hired by TDIC to provide advice on conservation and environmental management.
Much of the shoreline is reclaimed land and hectares of mangroves are being planted to stabilise these areas. As part of the arrival ritual guests are asked to write their names on a piece of biodegradable, recyclable paper. Once a month the names are collected and a mangrove planted for each guest.
The island operates the region’s only wind turbine, which is capable of generating 850 kilowatts per hour. And the aim is for the entire island to become completely self-sustainable through solar and wind-generated power.
“Everything we do has to be natural and respectful,” says Desert Island’s marketing manager Lars Nielson whose recent experience includes marketing Werribee Open Range Zoo in Melbourne, Australia. “All our activities are guided and the animals and environment come first.”
A lot of money is being thrown into building this environmental showcase but whether it will sustain itself in the long run remains to be seen. “I don’t think this place will ever pay for itself. It’s something only someone with enough money could do,” observes Gordon
The Desert Islands project might sound ambitious but when compared to the US$100 billion invested in infrastructure projects to transform Abu Dhabi into an international cultural capital over the next five years, the Desert Islands project is a mere drop in the ocean.
Abu Dhabi’s investment juggernaut has a mind-boggling menu of development projects from a futuristic performing arts centre to outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, a campus of New York University, a new airport, ports, industrial zones and marinas. Hotels and resorts are shooting up like beanstalks in a bid to catch up to neighbouring Dubai.
When you observe such rapid progress, it’s difficult to imagine that it was only around 50 years ago when the first tankers streamed across the Straits of Hormuz into the Indian Ocean carrying oil. Back then, the city’s wealthy still lived in mud houses. Now the wealthy can safari in comfort and style at the former sheikh’s private reserve.
Discover Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi’s national airline Etihad Airways began operations in July 2003. The airline has won a number of accolades including ‘world’s leading first class airline’ at the 2008 World Travel Awards. Sir Bani Yas jetty at Jabel Dhanna is 250 kilometres from Abu Dhabi. Boat transfers to the island take 15 minutes.