How the £1bn, ‘seven-star’ Burj Al Arab defined Dubai

Burj Al Arab
The Burj Al Arab's sail-inspired shape is instantly recognisable – adorning surely every UAE holiday brochure ever printed - Dubai Tourism

As if the hotel’s daily upkeep wasn’t challenging enough, the Jumeirah Burj Al Arab’s maintenance team has another rather unusual task to contend with: replenishing its stolen gold. “People like to scratch off a souvenir,” says the concierge Simone Dovalli, gesturing to the suite’s light switches, Dyson hairdryer, bedside lamps – all covered in 24-carat gold leaf, at least for now. “We wish they wouldn’t, but I understand why they might… and what can we do, but add more?”

In a city famed for its opulence, the Burj Al Arab still out-shines its competition. For this is a hotel that excels in excess, whose interiors are lavished with Swarovski crystals, marble from the same source as Michelangelo’s David, and an astonishing two square-kilometres of gold leaf. It doesn’t have rooms, only 198 duplex suites, priced from £1,283 per night, whose lounges have sea views visible from their velvet sofas and bathrooms featuring Hermès perfumes.

This is a hotel that excels in excess – with interiors lavished with Swarovski crystals, marble and gold-leaf
This is a hotel that excels in excess – with interiors lavished with Swarovski crystals, marble and gold-leaf

But what makes the Burj Al Arab really sparkle is its presence. Its sail-inspired shape is instantly recognisable, adorning surely every UAE holiday brochure ever printed. According to Time Out Dubai, it has graced 2.5 million Instagram posts, making it the most-snapped hotel in the world. On my visit, a 100-strong crowd lingered on the perimeter, simply to catch a glimpse: an everyday occurrence, apparently, even in the 50-degree heat of summer.

2024 marks 30 years since its construction began, an anniversary that for “regular” hotels would pass without comment – but the Burj Al Arab doesn’t do ordinary. Its name means “Tower of Arabs”, though its design came from the pen of a British architect, the Surrey-born Tom Wright, whose firm WS Atkins was briefed in 1993 by Dubai’s royal family.

Wright made his first draft on a paper napkin, over lunch; now, the flimsy sketch is displayed at Inside Burj Al Arab, the hotel’s dedicated museum on its uppermost floors. “Within a few lines, you could see it has all the elements of an iconic building,” says Wright, via a video featured in the museum. “It is instantly recognisable. We knew from the start that we would have the opportunity to produce something startling, and I really think we achieved that.”

One of the hotel's 90-plus swimming pools
One of the hotel's 90-plus swimming pools

Despite my prying, the Burj Al Arab’s management wouldn’t reveal its construction cost, but according to Forbes it was $1 billion (£800 million): hardly pocket change, even with the UAE’s vast wealth. It took just five years to build, two of which were spent creating the artificial island on which it sits – connected to the “mainland” by a bridge.

Up close, its 56-storey scale is almost too much to take in: you enter the lobby at the base of its 180-metre-tall atrium, the world’s largest for a hotel, with the “sail” soaring above you. I found it exhilarating – and that’s without the leaping indoor fountains, the millions of mosaic tiles, the swirling hand-woven carpets and the gold, gold, gold. It was this lavish look that, in 1999, inspired a journalist to erroneously dub the Burj a “seven-star” property; the rating stuck, though it is “only a five-star in official terms.

“The hotel set the tone for Dubai’s development,” said Davron, a dapper concierge who, with two decades of service, is one of its longest-standing employees. “It inspired the city’s architecture: others have tried to outdo it, but it is unsurpassed.”

Development in Dubai has entered another stratosphere since the Burj began welcoming guests at the turn of the millennium, leading up to last year’s opening of Atlantis, The Royal. This sequel to Atlantis, The Palm, which opened at a cost of $1.5 billion back in 2008, enjoyed a launch party headlined by Beyoncé. It is home to more than 90 swimming pools and 17 restaurants, including an outpost of Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner. Both of those hotels opened at particularly challenging times economically, but while the proliferation of such properties in such circumstances may seem distasteful to some, the demand for them is clearly there.

It is the most-snapped hotel in the world on Instagram
It is the most-snapped hotel in the world on Instagram - Dubai Tourism

Remarkably, the Burj Al Arab’s interior is unchanged since Davron’s first day. While he has swapped the Yellow Pages for Google, and faxes for emails, his surroundings are identical: constantly refreshed and repaired to keep them just as designer Khuan Chew of KCA International first conceived of them in 1994 – down to the last silk tassel. Regardless of your own taste, you have to admire the hotel’s unbending faith in its own perfection. Indeed, the building reminds you of its design at every turn: rooms are odd shapes, thanks to its unorthodox floor plan, and light cascades through the sail’s fibreglass fabric.

Through my suite’s window, I examined the nuts and bolts of its exoskeleton, which is designed to contract and expand in extreme temperatures, and withstand strong coastal winds. On my final morning it was put to the test, with the arrival of Dubai’s biggest storm for 75 years, which brought the city to a standstill. Breakfast was relocated indoors to the atrium, its smoked salmon and cinnamon swirls served beneath that magnificent void. The wind howled, the rain lashed – with nothing but that thin fabric between us and the squall. There were only a few drips, the staff mopping tiny puddles beside golden “wet floor” signs – absolutely nothing compared to the ingress at Dubai’s modern-built malls and metro.

With no taxis to be found, and my budget not stretching to the hotel’s Rolls Royce transfers, I chose to wait it out with a 24 carat-covered cappuccino – a more modest splurge, at AED120 (£26). The gold dust doesn’t add a flavour, but it did get everywhere: my face, my phone, my jacket. A souvenir, I smiled to myself – and no need to scratch it from the picture frames. So lavish, so ludicrous, so Dubai.

Hazel Plush travelled as a guest of Jumeirah Burj Al Arab (00 971 4 301 7777; jumeirah.com), which offers suites from £1,283, including breakfast.

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