British architecture’s voice in the Gulf

Nick Ames meets Sumaya Dabbagh, architect and RIBA committee member who emphasises the positive aspect a high standard of design can have on everyday life

An understanding of culture and the nuances of daily life in the Middle East is fundamental to the work of architect Sumaya Dabbagh.

The current Hon Sec of the Gulf Chapter of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) she runs her own practice, based in Dubai.

“I set up on my own after working for a series of large companies,” said Dabbagh. “I wanted to break free from the limitations I was encountering. I felt there was a shortfall in the understanding of the region. There was a gap in what people though the Middle East needed and what is really necessary.

“Architecture should be something that makes a difference and makes a positive impact on people – the satisfaction of the end-users is what makes a project complete.”

Born in Jeddah, Dabbagh moved to the UK at the age of 13 and studied architecture at Bath University. After a series of placements in nearby Bristol, she worked in London for international companies such as Arup and in Paris, before returning to the Middle East.

“I had adapted to British culture at quite a young age, but I wanted to find the answers to certain questions concerning my own identity, – who I was ” she said.

“I chose to live and work in Dubai because it offered a diverse mix of Middle Eastern and western culture
“In my work I like to explore the intangible element of space – what makes a building what it is?

“I am fascinated by how concrete, bricks and mortar can affect the feeling of a building. For instance – how can an entrance create a feeling of either welcome or intimidation ”

Sumaya Dabbagh chose architecture because it combined art and science in a way that was relevant to people. She was one of the founding members of RIBA because of its commitment to high standards. “Anything built can last 50 years,” Dabbagh said. “It will have an impact on people, on the street, on the city and on the environment. That is a responsibility which should not be undertaken lightly.”