Where does Chicago Beach Sand come from

Jumeirah Beach in Dubai: biography of a dream beach

Half an hour after dark, only the dreamers are left on the beach. Those who sit in silence on a lounger or in the warm sand, look at the bright moon, wait for the stars - and wait for the Burj al-Arab 400 meters away to start changing the color of the illuminated Teflon facade every minute. To the fact that it first shines in orange, later in purple and soon in green. The others who have spent the day in the sun here have already gone - to where life is now: to the bars with the loud music, the lounges with the chilled-out sounds, the restaurants with and without belly dancers 150 meters further in the hotels.

That evening, a father is still on his knees next to his little son at the very front in the sand, just a hair's breadth beyond the reach of the gentle waves of the Persian Gulf. They no longer build castles like they used to, they build towers inspired by their surroundings. In sand. Made of sand. Decorated with stones and seashells. And the little one apparently believed that his newest tower was not completed on time for sunset and now continues to work in the dark - as befits Dubai, a booming city like this one.

Accommodation for newcomers

It's the beach where it all started. The beach where Dubai's first coastal hotel stood. Chicago Beach, it was called, was initially mainly a place to stay for newcomers who had something to do with the offshore oil industry - and at that time it was still about twenty kilometers outside of the city center: as a seemingly pointless fixed point at an arbitrarily chosen place where the desert met the Gulf. Where the terms blurred: the last two hundred meters of desert to the edge of the waves called strangers who came here, "beach". They praised it as beautiful, long and clean.

For the locals, it remained the desert: the area in which they live. The one they come from. The one they grew up in. It made no difference to them sitting in the sand here or seventy kilometers further inland. And they will never have suspected that the building site of the Chicago Beach Hotel has now merged with what Dubai was thirty years ago and that was twenty kilometers away.

People here tell each other a story that the Emirates' career as a vacation destination began with a chance encounter. Sheikh Mohammed bin-Rashid, one of the sons of the ruler at the time, was driving his off-road vehicle on this beach and saw people in the sand in the distance. They only wore bathing suits. Nothing to protect them from the merciless sun - a man, a woman, their child. They were about to go swimming in the golf when the ruler's son stopped his Land Rover and asked them where they come from, how they liked it here in his homeland and what they were up to. He apparently found it strange that they went swimming here of all places.

They came from Germany on vacation because of the glorious sun, even the heat. You are here because there are no clouds in the sky. Because the sea slopes gently and is wonderfully warm with a water temperature of 27 degrees and because Dubai is only five and a half hours by plane from your home, hardly further than the Canary Islands. They raved about his homeland to the stunned son of the ruler in a way he had never seen it before.

Area for ships and boats

Locals only went to the beach long after dark to make a fire, to sing and chat together. For them the sea was a surface on which fishing boats and merchant ships moved, but not a bathtub. In this conversation, Mohammed bin-Rashid recognized the potential to be exploited. His father's country could become a tourist magnet.

Today the same Mohammed bin-Rashid al Maktoum is ruler of Dubai. And today there are almost 95,000 hotel rooms in his home country, billions of overnight stays, hundreds of daily flights in all directions. Dubai made a lot of what was there. But Jumeirah Beach is still the most beautiful beach in this emirate. It's the beach where it all began.

The Chicago Beach Hotel was demolished in 2001 and shortly before it was replaced by the considerably larger Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which was built in the immediate vicinity. A little later, the Burj al-Arab followed, in 2004 the Madinat Jumeirah complex, again directly on this beach, and in autumn 2016 another, fourth hotel will be added. The operator is the hotel group Jumeirah, whose name alludes to that beach and in which the ruling family holds 99.67 percent of the shares. The real estate belongs to the man who apparently had foresight - at least since a chance encounter with a couple of beach holidaymakers.

44 raised seats on two kilometers of coastline

Late at night it is as quiet as it used to be on this beach: only the sound of the sea can be heard, only in the morning the one or other cry of a sea bird. And the crunch of your own steps. 53 employees are responsible for the cleanliness of the sand, the first shift starts at five o'clock in the morning and removes algae or any floating debris. Even before the sun rises again and dips the horizon in a milky red light for a few moments, the first joggers are already out and about - at 22 degrees instead of the over 40 that the thermometer will climb to at lunchtime. Just minutes later, the lifeguards in their red and white uniforms move into the 44 high seats on two kilometers of coast.

Ravel's Bolero can soon be heard from the boxes of a beach bar, and it quickly becomes busy, children splash around in the water, adults throw balls at each other, and bathing beauties swim their laps. And Mattheus Lotter looks relaxed: his muscles seem to be made for a two-size-larger T-shirt, with his bald head and broad grin he looks like a good-humored mixture of Hollywood star and cartoon character.

Lotter from Cape Town is the boss on the beach and responsible for ensuring that everyone returns from the beach to the hotel with a satisfied face. What does he like himself? "The morning on the beach. In winter, when it's still fresh in the morning and warm again during the day. A coffee here with a view of the Gulf." He's been here for more than five years, and he hasn't lost the joy of this place, of "his" beach in all that time.

Fish with a Confucius mustache

Late in the afternoon there is suddenly the old Chinese man in swimming trunks who seems to attract everyone around him and has to feel stared at himself for a moment: because he looks different from the others. His swimming trunks may have been fashionable a few decades ago, and it seems like he was moving a little unsteadily in this setting. This is only for a moment. Then the man with the Confucius mustache plunges into the water and swims like a fish.

The Chinese hardly need to move in order to hurry away from everyone else in the greatest elegance and suddenly belong so much as young, old, fat, thin or even very thin young beautiful people. There are German speakers, English, Russians, Arabs, Latinos, Asians. Everyone laughs the same laugh, has the same joy across all cultural boundaries for a few days of vacation in the warm water, on the beach, and also in the cocktails. On vacation and in longings, everyone is the same - at least everyone who can afford to be here.

Sitting in the sand together

Amna Hassan al-Jallaf works at Madinat Jumeirah, sees this beach every day - and when she meets up with friends after work, they go to the beach together: not to this section, but to a public one that is not managed and to herself connects to the north. They do it as always, like their ancestors. "We're used to sitting in the sand. It's part of our culture," she says, straightening her black veil, which she wears like a headscarf. They come at sunset, bring food, spread out a large piece of cloth, picnic together late into the night, talk to each other and enjoy the refreshing sea breeze that almost always comes up.

What is new is that they are typing WhatsApp messages into their smartphones. But when it comes to bathing, everything is as usual. You don't care and leave it to strangers a few hundred meters away on the hotel beach. Where Chicago Beach once stood. (Helge Sobik, January 26, 2016)

Arrival & Info

Getting there: Flight from Vienna to Dubai e.g. non-stop with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from around € 450. Accommodation: Double room in the Mina A’Salam beach hotel from € 274, in the Jumeirah Beach Hotel from € 298 per night (www.jumeirah.com), cheaper as part of package tours.

Tourist information: The Dubai Department of Tourism in 60325 Frankfurt am Main is now also responsible for Austria: www.dubaitourism.ae.

Literature: Helge Sobik's volume of reports "Persian Gulf: Sand to Gold, Desert to Money" has been published by Picus Verlag Vienna.

This trip was partly at the invitation of Madinat Jumeirah.