Sink or swim: Why is the Gulf so fascinated with underwater projects?

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever,” the famous French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once said. Whether it is as pearl divers or seafarers, the ocean has certainly cast a spell over life in the Arabian Peninsula.

With the advent of modern tourism and the property boom, mammoth manmade projects such as The Palm Jumeirah and Dubai Marina have seen UAE developers really think big and reimagine the country’s coastline. But going under the water has long been a fascination for developers and is yet to be fully conquered.

“No aquarium, no tank in a marine land, however spacious it may be, can begin to duplicate the conditions of the sea,” Cousteau also said. Dubai has already embraced aquariums, from the giant one at The Dubai Mall to the hotel rooms in The Atlantis, The Palm, with exclusive views of its marine life. Restaurants such as the Ithaa Undersea Restaurant in the Maldives have also proved attractive for diners but Dubai has always wanted to go one step further and build an entire hotel under the sea.

Over the years, many projects were pitched, but soon faded in the wake of the 2008/2009 global financial crisis. In the past few years, though, underwater projects have suddenly come back into vogue and, while plans have been just as sketchy, a lot of work is allegedly going on behind the scenes. With new technology also making the construction process more efficient, many sources have told Arabian Business big announcements are imminent. Will 2015 finally be the year one of these ambitious projects finally conquers the sea?

The deep sea craze made global headlines in April when we revealed that a Polish architect was pitching designs for an underwater tennis centre off the coast of Dubai and was seeking investment from local backers to make the ambitious concept a reality. Krzysztof Kotala, who has a Master of Science in Architecture from Kraków Polytechnic and is the owner of the 8+8 Concept Studio in Warsaw, has completed the initial designs, but admits he has yet to persuade investors to come on board to launch the proposal.

“There is not an investor but I would like to get interest as I think it is a good idea,” he told us in April. “This will be something original. This should be somewhere where there is the tradition of tennis. Dubai is perfect for this idea,” Kotala added, referring to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which has been staged in the emirate since 1993. Kotala claims the idea has strong commercial potential and will combine the best of “technology, ecology and sport”.

Kotala’s designs for the Underwater Dubai Tennis Centre involve seven arenas, with a carbon-glass glazed dome above the court and located in the seabed within a reef off the coast of Dubai, near the famous Burj Al Arab hotel.

The stadium idea quickly went viral, but many were dismissive or sceptical about its chances of becoming a reality. However, Kotala claims the “project is going forward” and he has been in contact with companies in Europe and the US “which are interested in the building process”.

Patric Douglas, CEO of LA-based Reef Worlds, who is currently working on a number of underwater projects in the Gulf and further afield, is rather dismissive of the likelihood of the tennis stadium ever becoming a reality.

“We don’t think it’ll be built but it is remarkable it is being suggested and it is not out of the realms of possibility,” he says. “There are two types of projects here: total pie-in-the-sky, where you have airships and swimming pools with sharks in them, or there is stuff like this that could be done.”

Douglas believes the reason some proposals were mothballed in previous years was because the technology at the time meant they were not commercially viable. However, he says advances in acrylics have meant these projects are now more plausible.

Like most things nowadays, China has led the way. The Hengqin Ocean Kingdom near Macau opened in March 2014 and was confirmed as the world’s largest aquarium by Guinness World Records. The attraction also boasts the largest underwater viewing dome, largest aquarium tank, largest aquarium window and largest acrylic panel.

“We are seeing a lot of these coming to the table and people dismiss them that they’ll never happen but the Chinese have made huge advances to create acrylic to scale. The ability to hold back water with acrylic has made leaps and bounds. It is one of the major advances that has happened,” he claims.

“None of this would have been possible ten years ago, even six years ago. Sonic welding is the one true amazing advance in acrylics, the ability to knit big sheets of acrylic seamlessly so you don’t see the seams is the ‘ah ha’ moment and allows us to put the world underwater and under pressure. You don’t know where the glasses connect until you run your fingers along it. We have come a long way.”

On the back of the advances in acrylics, Douglas has a number of pitches currently on drawing boards across the Gulf. Qatar is considering building an underwater broadcast studio for use during TV coverage for the FIFA World Cup in 2022. “The project we are in the process of designing for is an underwater broadcast centre [and] is quite a real possibility,” he says.

Douglas claims Qatar’s World Cup authorities “like the design” and “they like the notion of doing the World Cup underwater with sharks swimming around”.

“They want to be the first and to be the first to hold underwater weddings and conferences,” he says. “This one is a little unique as it is in a land-based saltwater aquarium and they have carved out an acre that they will turn into a giant aquarium, as the ocean there is foggy at best so they will use the salt water and filter it out into this giant pool.”

The project is likely to cost about $30m to build and Douglas says he is confident the funding could easily be underwritten by broadcasters eager to use the unusual venue as a broadcast base when the Gulf state hosts the FIFA World Cup in 2022. A final decision on whether to green light the project will be made this summer, Douglas says.

US-based Reef Worlds became active in the Middle East market last year when Douglas announced plans to build “sustainable underwater tourism sites” in the UAE and the wider Gulf. He is currently working with a Dubai-based developer on plans for an underwater theme park on one of the islands that make up The World, the manmade archipelago in the shape of the globe, off the emirate’s coast.

Branded the ‘Pearl of Dubai’, plans announced last year said it would be based around scuba-diving and snorkeling and is being designed to look like an ancient lost city and being worked on by teams who were also involved in the Hollywood blockbusters Avatar and Pirates of The Caribbean.

Douglas says he is waiting for confirmation of funding for the project to proceed. The Dubai developer believed to be behind the project has told Arabian Business it will “have something to announce very soon”, without elaborating.

Kleindienst Group, the developer behind The Heart of Europe, on six of The World islands, also is tapping into the popularity of underwater concepts, unveiling a range of underwater villas it plans to build as part of its master development. The Austrian group says it will build 42 ‘floating seahorses’, a cross between a villa and a boat, with a level underwater, another at sea level and an upper deck. The master bedroom and bathroom will be totally submerged, with views of the surrounding coral reef and marine life.

While tennis stadiums, theme parks and TV studios are one thing, an underwater hotel would be the real crown jewel for Dubai. Plans for such a development were unveiled in May 2012 by the shipbuilding arm of Dubai World, Drydocks World (DDW). Dubbed the World Discus Hotel, it was reported in January 2013 that a Swiss contractor had signed an agreement with DDW to develop the hotel and the first prototype was being built in the Baltic port city of Gdynia.

The prototype had reportedly received European Union funding of €16m ($21.3m) and is being developed in cooperation with the Gdansk University of Technology and specialists from the private company Deep Ocean Technology.

The prototype for the hotel will consist of two elements: a 20-room unit submerged 10 metres below sea level and a twin disc above the water. As well as providing leisure facilities, the project would also include a laboratory for ocean environment protection and research.

In July 2013, DDW issued a statement saying construction on the World Discus Hotel would begin “very shortly” — but little has happened since. However, sources in Europe told Arabian Business “the talks with partners in Dubai are continuing and we are on track to start the project… Talks had slowed down, but we have prepared all the concepts and preliminary environmental analysis and localisation. Therefore, a lot of work has already been done but we are waiting to finalise our discussions with the highest representatives from Dubai”.

The comment coincides with a report earlier this month by theFinancial Times, suggesting DDW has hired American banking giant Citigroup to help it refinance its $2.3bn of debt. DDW negotiated a deal in 2012 to push back debt repayments in two tranches. The first repayment, thought to be around $800m, is due in 2017; the second matures in 2027. Should DDW’s finances finally be sorted out, observers will be waiting to see if the World Discus Hotel finally becomes more than a series of fancy graphic designs.

As sources surrounding the various ambitious projects begin to talk up their plans, Sarah Fray, director of engineering and technical services at the Institution of Structural Engineers in London, says these projects will always be potentially problematic due to the constraints of building any structure underwater.

“Doing anything underwater is hugely challenging. The argument that acrylic will make this easier is debatable,” she says. “The fundamentals are having people underwater, how you keep them watertight and how you cope with the unexpected. I am thinking of minor Earth tremors, which you do have in the region.”

Fray says developers have two options when it comes to construction: they can push the water back and then flood the site, similar to how Dubai Marina was developed, or build the structure on land, pull it out to sea, sink it and then anchor it to the seabed.

“There is also a scale issue. The tennis arena would be a huge structure to construct and then bring out and sink… You are talking about enormous investment, even if you are constructing on land and bringing it out to sea. This is high cost construction, as once you are in a marine environment you also have to match corrosion… So you need high quality construction and high accuracy levels.

“It also has to be deep enough to avoid sea traffic, and there is a lot of sea traffic in the Gulf area… What if a boat needs to drop its anchor in an emergency? Obviously you do not want a heavy boat’s anchor landing on the glass roof of an underwater structure. The easiest place to do it is within the tidal range, but the amount of sea coverage would then be quite low.

“I think in general terms, [underwater projects] by nature are very expensive. But there is a thought that anything is possible if you have the right money.”

Anything is certainly possible in this region but whether the plans currently afoot sink without track or developers’ wonder with the sea become a reality is all to play for. Watch this space.

Words by Shane McGinley