Top 16 Arab buildings
Andy White examines some of the GCC's most significant buildings
Compiling a list of the best buildings in the Arab World is a monumental task. How do you compare structures built hundreds of years apart?
How do you rank long-venerated examples of Islamic architecture alongside the very latest in glass-and-steel towers?
And how do you value the input of the traditional Arab artisan against the dead-eyed accuracy of modern-day machinery?
Our frame of reference has incorporated the MENA region as well as the GCC. We have tried to include buildings from a range of countries across the Arab world, although the relatively recent discovery of oil has meant that some nations are only just flexing their architectural muscles – the turbo-charged economies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have become synonymous with audacious examples of modern architecture, while less well-off nations such as Algeria and Morocco point deservedly towards the achievements of their forefathers.
We have limited our selection to in-use buildings only, hence the omission of structures at tourist sites such as the Giza Necropolis and Petra in Jordan. We have chosen only completed projects, or that are scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, and we are aware that some of our choices are more obvious than others. We are aware, too, that there are likely to be some glaring absentees from the list.
Why don’t you tell us what they are? And in the meantime, enjoy a journey through some of the greatest chapters in the history of Arab architecture and construction.
1) Burj Al Arab, UAE
Architect: Tom Wright
Contractor: Murray & Roberts
It is the match even non-tennis fans remember. If there had been any doubts about the power of ‘Brand Dubai’, then they were dispelled in February 2005 when tennis greats Andre Agassi and Roger Federer stepped onto a sun-drenched court to knock a few balls about.
It was not just any court, however: this was 200m above ground, on a surface specially laid across the helipad of the Burj Al Arab, the world’s first ‘seven-star’ hotel.
It was a publicity stunt that entered into legend and helped cement Dubai’s reputation as a place where anything was possible. It also enshrined the Burj Al Arab, whose shape was designed to mimic the sail of a ship, into the annals of architecture history, as synonymous with Dubai as Big Ben is with London, or the Eiffel Tower with Paris.
The Burj Al Arab now boasts one of the most recognisable silhouettes on the planet, its two ‘wings’ spread in a V-shape to form a vast ‘mast’, resembling the sheets of a traditional wooden dhow. Hotel rooms start at AED7,000 a night, but the Burj Al Arab is priceless.
2) Burj Khalifa, UAE
Architect: Adrian Smith
Contractor: Samsung Engineering & Construction
Later this year cinemagoers will watch Tom Cruise perform a series of death-defying stunts throughout the latest instalment of his billion-dollar Mission Impossible franchise. In one scene, however, Cruise will not be the biggest star on the screen.
That honour falls to Burj Khalifa, a building easily as iconic as the diminutive Scientologist dangling off it.
A potent symbol of Dubai’s evolution from sleepy trading outpost to twenty-first century metropolis, Burj Khalifa’s statistics do the talking: at more than 828m and more than 160 storeys, it is the tallest building in the world, the tallest free-standing structure in the world, has the highest number of storeys in the world, the highest occupied floor in the world, the highest outdoor observation deck in the world, the elevator with the longest travel distance in the world, and the tallest service elevator in the world. In total, the building’s construction took 22m man hours and more than 110,000t of concrete were used in its foundations alone.
The weight of aluminium used on Burj Khalifa is equivalent to that of five A380 ‘superjumbo’ aircraft, and the amount of steel rebar used in the construction is 31,400 metric tonnes – laid end to end, this would extend more than a quarter of the way around the globe. Tom who?
3) Capital Gate Building, UAE
Architect: RMJM Dubai
Contractor: Al Habtoor Engineering
It must be hard to make an impression in the UAE, the skyscraper capital of the Arab world and a country where high-rise blocks have been springing out of the sand for more than a decade, culminating in the tallest tower ever constructed. So where next?
The architects behind the Capital Gate building in Abu Dhabi knew that they were wasting their time trying to break any vertical records, so they went horizontal instead. The tower is the world’s furthest-leaning man-made tower, as certified by the Guinness Book of Records – four times the incline of the famous Leaning Tower in Pisa, Italy.
The incline of 18° westwards is subject to such gravitational pressure that the architects designed the world’s first ‘precambered core’, a breakthrough technique which allows floor plates to be stacked vertically and staggered over each other.
This core has slowly been pulled vertical as the building has risen, giving the structure strength and compressing the concrete in the 35-storey tower. One of the tallest buildings in Abu Dhabi, this world record-breaker is anchored to the ground by 490 piles, each of which is driven up to 30m into the rock below.
4) Grand Serail, Lebanon
The Grand Serail has played many roles since 1831, when a small brigade of Egyptian fighters first established a barracks on the western side of a hill overlooking Beirut.
They were fresh from what would prove to be a short-lived victory over the Ottoman Empire; when the Ottomans recaptured the Lebanese capital a few years later, the Grand Serail was first used as the headquarters of military and civilian departments and then, after its expansion, turned into the headquarters of Ottoman governors.
Since then it has found use as a hospital, courthouse, the Institute of Fine Art of the Lebanese University, the headquarters of the high commissioner of the French government, the Presidential headquarters, and now the Prime Minister’s headquarters.
Terribly damaged in the Lebanese Civil War 1975-90, the 430-room building underwent significant restoration along with the rest of Beirut Central District. The work was completed in 1998 and all contracting and handicrafts, including stone, marble, steel and carpentry works, were carried out by Lebanese firms.
Today, the Grand Serail is a fine blend of heritage architecture and modern interior design – appropriate in a city which has long embraced its past, while hoping for a brighter future.
5) Great Mosque of Algiers, Algeria
The Great Mosque lies at the heart of Algiers’ historic Kasbah district, close to the harbour, and has been rebuilt many times since its construction in 1097.
It earns its place on this list as one of the few remaining examples of Almoravid architecture, a style named for the Berber dynasty that once had an empire which stretched more than 3,000km north to south, extending over present-day Morocco, Mauritania, southern Spain and Portugal, western present-day Algeria, and a part of what is now Mali.
The Almoravids rejected the lavish decoration that had dominated the architectural style of their predecessors the Umayyad, and built on a practical rather than a monumental scale – piety prevented them from erecting elegant or magnificent buildings.
In years to come it will likely be overshadowed by the a new mosque planned for the capital, which will accommodate up to 120,000 worshippers and boast the tallest minaret tower in the world, and yet the Great Mosque’s thousand-year history will ensure it never leaves the hearts of ordinary Algerians.
6) Kairouan Great Mosque, Tunisia
The Great Mosque of Kairouan, also known as the Mosque of Uqba, is not just one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world, but the model upon which the majority of mosques across the entire Maghreb region are based.
A masterpiece of Islamic architecture, the mosque was founded in 670 AD by the Arab general and conqueror Uqba Ibn Nafi.
It has undergone significant modifications in the intervening years, with successive sovereigns pulling down and reconfiguring parts of the building. And as was the case with many early mosques, the fame and reputation of the house of worship once enabled Kairouan itself to develop and repopulate at a greater pace than other conurbations.
The city’s university, which consisted of scholars who worked in the mosque, was a particular success and became a centre of education both in Islamic thought and in the secular sciences, throughout the Ninth and Tenth Centuries.
Today no element besides the mihrab, the niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Makkah, dates from before the ninth century.
But it has not lost its sense of history: within the mosque is a hypostyle prayer hall, in which the roof is supported by columns, a vast courtyard paved with white marble, and a square minaret that has since served as the prototype for all the minarets of the western Islamic world, including North Africa and Andalusia.
7) Kingdom Centre, Saudi Arabia
Architect: Ellerbe Becket
Contractor: El-Seif Engineering Contracting Company
The Kingdom Centre, also known as Al Mamlaka Tower, is located in Riyadh, and is currently the second tallest skyscraper in Saudi Arabia.
It is owned by billionaire businessman Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, who spent around $450m building the 41-storey tower, which today hosts his Kingdom Holding Company, as well as a shopping mall, the Four Seasons Riyadh and luxury apartments.
Work started in 1999, and one of Saudi’s most iconic modern landmarks was completed in 2002. At more than 300m it is the third-tallest building with a ‘hole’ in the world – visitors who do not mind heights are invited to walk across a sky-bridge at the very top of the tower, as well as take in the view of Riyadh from the public observation deck.
In August this year, Kingdom Holding Company publicly confirmed that plans for a sister project to the Kingdom Centre had been finalised. Prince Alwaleed is to build a super-tall skyscraper to be named the Kingdom Tower, which has been approved for construction in Jeddah, at a preliminary cost of $1.23bn.
Upon completion in 2017 it will become the tallest building in the world and the first to break the 1km barrier, but were it not for the Kingdom Centre blazing a trail, it is doubtful such an ambitious project would ever have gotten off the ground.
8) King Abdullah I Mosque, Jordan
King Abdullah I Mosque is one of the most famous modern buildings in Amman. Completed in 1989 by the late King Hussein of Jordan, the mosque is a memorial to his grandfather, and is the only mosque in Amman that openly welcomes non-Muslim visitors.
Those who do venture into the mosque will recognise its magnificent blue mosaic dome, underneath which 7,000 worshippers may offer prayer, with space for another 3,000 in the courtyard outside.
The dome is 35m in diameter and inscribed with verses from the Quran, while its colour is said to represent the sky and the golden lines running down to its base depict rays of light illuminating the 99 names of Allah.
From its centre hangs an enormous three-tiered chandelier inscribed with further lines from the Quran.
Inside the mosque there is also a small museum hosting a collection of personal items that once belonged to King Abdullah I. With the building of this mosque, his grandson’s legacy now features one of the finest examples of modern Islamic architecture in the Arab world.
9) King Hassan II Mosque, Morocco
Architect: Michel Pinseau
Contractor: Bouygues Construction
More than 6,000 traditional Moroccan artisans lent their skills to the Hassan II mosque, which took five years to build at a cost of $800m, and was inaugurated in August 1993.
The mosque is the largest in Morocco and has room inside for 25,000 worshippers; a further 80,000 can be accommodated in its adjoining grounds.
It boasts the tallest minaret in the world, at 201m, but perhaps its most striking feature lies at ground level: part of the mosque has a glass floor so worshippers may perform their duties directly above the Atlantic Ocean.
The idea was inspired by a verse of the Quran which states that “the throne of Allah was built on water”.
Other mod-cons include a heated floor, electric doors and a sliding roof, while the minaret is topped off by a laser beam that is visible from 40km away.
All of the granite, plaster, marble, wood and other material used in its construction was taken from around Morocco, with the minor exceptions of some white granite columns and the glass chandeliers, both of which come from Italy.
However, all of this was achieved on a budget that was raised entirely through public donations – an achievement of which the Moroccan people remain justifiably proud.
10) Kuwait Towers, Kuwait
Architect: Sune Lindström and Malene Björn
Kuwait Towers were inaugurated in March 1979, and are today perhaps the most recognisable landmarks in the small Gulf state.
Designed by Swedish Engineers Sune Lindström and Malene Björn and built by Energoprojekt, a contracting company from Belgrade, Serbia, the towers are positioned at the very heart of Kuwait City, and have become a tourist destination in their own right.
The development consists of three towers: one water storage tower which is almost 146m high, one electricity tower which illuminates the two larger towers, and the main building which boasts cafes, restaurants, VIP reception halls and also a viewing sphere 123m above sea level.
Visitors are offered a panoramic view of Kuwait City, as well as the Arabian Gulf, on a viewing platform which revolves 360° every 30 minutes.
11) Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar
Architect: I.M. Pei
When hundreds of thousands of football fans flock to the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha will no doubt be at the top of the list for sightseers new to the energy-rich Gulf nation.
Already one of the region’s most iconic buildings, the museum is home to one of the largest collections of Islamic artifacts in the world, from manuscripts to textiles, ceramics and a wide range of other materials, with items originating in Spain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, India and Central Asia.
The museum, which draws its influence from Islamic architecture and was erected on a standalone island so as not to encroach on other buildings, was designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, who was coaxed out of retirement at the age of 91 to work on the project.
Pei travelled on a six-month journey across the Muslim world, studying Muslim architecture and history and reading Muslim texts to draw inspiration for his design. His dedication is reflected in the finished building, which opened in November 2008, and is undoubtedly the beating cultural heart of Qatar.
12) National Assembly Building, Kuwait
Contractor: Jørn Utzon
While Jørn Utzon is best remembered as the visionary draughtsman behind the Sydney Opera House, his contribution to Kuwait’s architectural development should not be forgotten.
The Dane had a personal passion for Islamic architecture, and so when he was invited to pitch for the project in 1969, he took it on in spite of his complaint that the ocean-side site was blighted by “an untidy town behind”.
The building was completed in 1985, and features a distinctive canopy, as well as sweeping rooflines designed to evoke Bedouin tents.
Home to four spaces – a covered square, a parliamentary chamber, a large conference hall and a mosque – the building was set on fire by retreating Iraqi troops in 1991. It has since been restored at a cost of more than $70m, although many of the renovations departed from Utzon’s original design, and changes were imposed.
14) Platinum Tower, Lebanon
Architect: Nabil Gholam and Ricardo Bofill
Contractor: Arabian Construction Company
Beirut’s renaissance as a real-estate hotspot has driven property prices through the roof in the ‘Paris of the Middle East’.
And Platinum Tower, the city’s tallest building and one of its most prestigious addresses, is emblematic of the newfound optimism which courses through the veins of the Lebanese capital.
Located on the seafront in Beirut’s buzzing hotel district, the 153m-high residential block overlooks a host of landmarks including the Rafik Hariri memorial, St. Elias Cathedral, Corniche Beirut, All Saints Church, and Beirut International Exhibitions and Leisure Center.
Platinum Tower will one day be overshadowed – physically, at least – by the under-construction Sama Beirut tower in the Achrafieh district, which will take on the mantle of being Beirut’s tallest building once completed. Until then, Platinum Tower remains the most potent architectural symbol of Beirut’s bright future.
15) World Trade Center, Bahrain
Contractor: Nass, Murray & Roberts (JV)
Manama’s waterfront has undergone something of a facelift in recent years, low-slung apartment and commercial buildings having been replaced by shimmering giants of concrete and steel.
The most striking addition is the Bahrain World Trade Centre (WTC), a grand building with a grand title, and the undoubted product of grand ambition. Completed in 2008, the 50-storey structure was the first skyscraper in the world to integrate wind turbines into its design, with three sky-bridges each holding a 225kW turbine aligned north to catch air streams coming off the Arabian Gulf.
Two sail-shaped towers funnel wind through the centre of the building and into the turbines, which provide as much as 15% of the towers’ total annual power consumption, equivalent to providing lighting for around 3,000 homes annually. The WTC won several awards for the incorporation of renewable energy.
16) Yas Marina Hotel, UAE
Architect: Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture
Contractor: Al Futtaim Carillion
You know you are onto something special when on race day of a country’s inaugural Formula One Grand Prix, there is less talk about the track than there is about the space-age hotel towering over it. But that is the magic of the Yas Marina Hotel.
A remarkable building, and the first new hotel in the world to be built over an F1 race circuit, Yas Marina Hotel was designed by Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture, principals of New York-based Asymptote Architecture.
It incorporates aesthetics and forms associated with speed and spectacle, as well as the artistry and geometry that form the foundation of traditional Islamic art and craft.
Its most astounding feature is a 217m glass-and-steel canopy enveloping the hotel and boasts a LED lighting system incorporating video feeds transmitted over 5,389 diamond-shaped LED panes.