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In fast-changing Dubai, once-isolated village to be razed

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — From the front porch of their cinderblock home, Garry and Amanda James gaze over Dubai’s soaring skyscrapers and massive malls.

It’s a skyline that in their young days had seemed impossibly far off. Outside Amanda’s childhood home in the same spot three decades ago were just miles of empty desert.

Throughout Dubai’s meteoric rise from tiny pearling town to booming financial hub, Jebel Ali Village, a collection of cottages built in the late 1970s for European port workers, largely stayed the same.

It’s a relic of another time. Expat residents still amble along quiet, windswept roads and play Christmas bingo at the clubhouse.

But now, the bulldozers are coming.

Nakheel, the state-owned developer of Dubai’s signature palm-shaped islands, unveiled plans to demolish the neighborhood to make way for a gated community of luxury two-story villas. Residents found 12-month eviction notices stuck to their doors.

“We’re just gutted,” said Amanda James, 53, whose British father first moved the family to the village in 1984. “I arrived here during the Iran-Iraq War. I stayed through both Gulf wars. … We’ve had three generations. There’s a history of people growing up, meeting each other, having their families right here.”

In response to a request for comment, Nakheel said it informed residents of its plans and complied with legal requirements.

“We recognize Jebel Ali Village’s importance to Dubai’s history and its residents and, for this reason, have taken the decision to redevelop the community to preserve and enhance its longevity for many more generations to come,” the company said, arguing that the planned pools, parks, sports courts and bike trails would bring residents together in new ways.

As oil boomed in the 1970s, American and European employees of international oil conglomerates, lured by generous cost-of-living allowances, descended on the dusty towns of the Persian Gulf. Expats settled with their families in well-guarded communities across the region, transforming outposts like Saudi Arabian Oil Co. compounds into meticulously landscaped replicas of California suburbia.

Dubai didn’t have much oil, but used what it had to build Jebel Ali, the region’s first major shipping hub and dry dock. Dutch and British port workers moved into houses made from concrete breeze blocks. As the neighborhood grew, a school sprouted up. So did horse stables, a pool and clubhouse where residents gathered to swap stories over brunches and beers.

“That sense of community is quite unique to this place,” said Donna Dickinson, a 40-year-old from Norfolk, England, who spent her teenage years in the village and moved back with her family last year “to replicate for my children the childhood that I had.”

Residents recalled the city’s rapid changes that climaxed in 2002, when Dubai’s ruler allowed foreigners to buy property in areas of the emirate. That unleashed a real estate frenzy fueled by speculators.

Extravagant housing developments, sprawling golf courses, luxury resorts, elaborate water parks and gigantic shopping malls crammed into the land around the James’ home. Over time, the coral stone homes of the emirate’s rulers along the Dubai Creek were gutted and leveled.

“A lot of the history was demolished and replaced,” said Todd Reisz, the author of “Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai,” rattling off razed treasures. “Change is inevitable for a city always trying to meet market demands. But there are still places of culture and places where we understand our history.”

Nakheel announced plans to revamp Jebel Ali village and evicted residents ahead of demolition. But the real estate bubble burst in 2008. The company, struggling with billions of dollars in debt, abandoned its vision for the site.

As Dubai’s property prices plunged and oil-rich Abu Dhabi rescued the emirate from default, village homes sat empty. Years later as the economy perked up, Nakheel allowed residents old and new to trickle back, ready to spend to restore the scruffy community to its former glory.

“When you’re an expat, having a sort of history to a place is quite a difficult thing,” Dickinson said as her 7-year-old son bounced on a trampoline. Behind him loomed Dubai’s mammoth aluminum smelter near the port.

In a transient city where foreigners on short-term visas with no route to citizenship far outnumber locals, the village “was always home, really, in my heart,” she said.

Yet hints emerged that one of the last bastions of 1970s Dubai may soon be no more.

In 2017, Nakheel transformed the rustic clubhouse into a sleek pub with suede chairs and added a dine-in movie theater bearing the name of Food Network star Guy Fieri — in stark contrast to the dilapidated village homes. Even as kids on bikes returned to the winding roads, some houses remained abandoned, drawing raucous teenagers searching for secret party venues to residents’ chagrin.

The village crackled with rumors about Nakheel’s plans to tear it all down. But it wasn’t until last week that residents’ worst fears were confirmed. Flyers declaring “the past has a new future” blanketed their cars and gates, advertising modern villas of glass and steel.

The remaining Jebel Ali residents won’t be offered property in future villas, which many can’t afford, and all will have to try to find homes elsewhere. Some said they’d consider leaving Dubai altogether.

Monique Buitendag, a 37-year-old South African who spent a fortune on renovations just months ago, is seething.

“They knew this was coming, and they still sold us the dream,” she said. ”It’s just going to look like the rest of the swanky villas. … You’re losing that little bit of old Dubai.”

Cory Rhodes, a 43-year-old from Oregon whose cozy cottage also functions as his business and daughters’ home school, is heartbroken.

“The emotional feeling you get from living here you’re just not going to get it anywhere else,” he said grimly.

Amanda James has felt the whiplash before. Reflecting on the stubborn allure of the old village, she wonders if Dubai may lose more than it gains.

“My hope is that young people today don’t think Dubai is Disneyland — because it’s not,” she said, staring out across the city’s tapering towers illuminated in the haze. “It had so much depth.”

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