Grand canal

It's 75km long, 150m wide and 6m deep. The Arabian Canal is the UAE's biggest outdoor project.

View of the canal at the beach and amusement pier.
View of the canal at the beach and amusement pier.

It's 75km long, 150m wide and 6m deep. The Arabian Canal is the UAE's biggest outdoor project.

Of all the projects under way in the region at the moment, the US$11 billion development of the Arabian Canal is without doubt one of the biggest.


It would be very easy to come in and design a protypical edge condition, which might have a seawall, a pathway, some nice trees and it�s a development beyond that.

The 75-kilometre long canal, currently under construction in Dubai, is the largest canal project in the Middle East since the Suez canal was built in 1859, and is set to radically transform the shape of the emirate as we know it.


Developed by Limitless, the development arm of Dubai World, the canal will be 150 metres wide and six metres deep, enough to accommodate vessels up to 40 metres long.

Starting from Dubai Waterfront, the manmade waterway will flow inland, passing to the east of the new Dubai World Central International Airport before turning back towards Palm Jumeirah.

In addition to the main canal, referred to by the designers as the Grand Canal, there will be a US$50 billion waterfront development spanning 20,000 hectares and stretching for 33 kilometres along the inland section of the waterway.

The development will include marinas, residential communities and business centres.

A key feature of the inland development will be a number of smaller canals, referred to by the designers and developers as ‘canal streets', Ian Raine, development manager at Limitless, tells Commercial Outdoor Design.

"The way the masterplan is being prepared is to provide a complete balanced community in each of the phases so it would be a mix of high density urban centres moving through to more medium density commercial areas to lower density and residential areas," he says.

"There will also be a number of what we are going to call ‘canal streets' within the medium density areas so away from the main canal. In addition, we're creating a number of green areas, parks and open spaces within each development area," he continues.

The concept masterplan for the overall project, produced by urban design and planning firm Calthorpe Associates and the landscape master planners SWA Group in collaboration with Limitless, is now in place and work has begun on the detailed masterplan for the first two phases of the project.

Water will be a central element of the development, above and beyond the central thread of the canal, Kinder Baumgardner, principal of SWA Group explains.

While the project is titled the Arabian Canal, we feel strongly that we should not limit the character of water to a simple canal form...smaller canals inform the design of streetscapes and shopping districts; lakes and streams meander through public parks and gardens; ornamental fountains take their place next to storm water basins and treatment wetlands.

Water, in all its forms, permeates the project," SWA Group says in a written description of the project.


It will create a feeling of life within the desert, of green areas in the desert and really expand the boundaries of the city.

"What we didn't want to have happen is to go in, build this beautiful thread of park and open space along a canal and then that's it," Baumgardner tells COD.

We are looking at building other canals that would be set into a streetscape theme so that this whole idea of water moves away from the main body of the canal and gets expressed deeper into the community that surrounds it.

"The big thing about the canal is that it would be very easy to come in and design a very protypical edge condition, which might have a seawall, a pathway, some nice trees and it's a development beyond that.

We didn't want that, we want the canals to be a series of experiences, some very micro experiences, and some very overarching grand experiences," continues Baumgardner. Beaches, piers and marinas are expected to be some of the potential attractions.

Open space is another key element of the development, says Raine. "This is eventually going to create a city for up to two million people so it is important that we make sure that when we are designing something on that scale, that we provide facilities for everyone and one of the things that we need to provide are more open areas," he says.

"A number of the developments that have gone on so far, although they provided some open areas, there is not the level of public space that we wanted to see in this," he adds.

A rich variety of parks and open spaces ranging from formal parks and plazas to desert reserves are envisaged.

The design of the open space will take its inspiration from urban models, Baumgardner explains, with the application of mixed use model, so a park may, for example, feature a café, or have a civic use such as a library rather than simply serving as a green space.

Working landscapes will form another part of the development including wetlands, agriculture, and habitat features.

Construction on the canal began at the start of last month, but it will be three years before it is complete, and up to 15 years for the development of the inland section.

Raine said that Limitless is expecting to award contracts for the major works on the canal over the next few months, and that the firm is also in the process of appointing consultants on the project.

The biggest challenge from a design perspective in working on the project is understanding scale, says Baumgardner. "We would constantly be looking at other cities and trying to overlay them on top of our site plan to try and get a sense of the scale of this place.

Trying to get your head around the fact that we have to create a lot of variety, how do we go about doing that, that's the number one challenge," he says.

"The canal is definitely the largest project that I've worked on. I think it's the largest that I've seen. We do work all around the world, all the places where mega projects are happening and I've never seen anything quite like this," he adds.

Designing the development so as to optimise the outdoor space during the hotter months will be the major climate challenge, he says, explaining that the focus will be adapting the micro climate using, for example, shade trees instead of palm trees and through careful selection and use of water features and paving systems to maximise use of the outdoor space.

Carving a 75-kilometre long canal out of the desert cannot be done without huge expense and many, many hours of work, but what will be achieved through the realisation of the project is immense.

Not necessarily in economic terms - Raine refused to be drawn on estimates of a potential return on investment save to say that the project had received a ‘tremendous' amount of interest from investors - but rather in terms of its contribution to the new Dubai.

"It is something that is completely different in many ways," says Raine. It's going to bring water into areas that at the moment have very little in terms of their overall amenities and it will bring various forms of life in the desert.

It will create a feeling of life within the desert, of green areas in the desert and really expand the boundaries of the city."

Who knows, perhaps 20 years from now Dubai could be as famous for its flowing waters as for its golden sands.

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