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Palm Islands: World's Largest Artificial Islands

Palm Islands: World's Largest Artificial Islands

One of the most audacious construction projects of Dubai, the Palm Islands are considered to be the eight wonder of the world by locals and foreigners alike. This article discusses the history, building process, and various features of these beautiful islands.
Anuj Mudaliar
Last Updated: Jan 15, 2018
Quick Fact!
The Palm Islands of Dubai are technically not islands, as all of them are connected by bridges to the mainland.
Located around three miles into the Persian gulf from the mainland of Dubai lie the Palm Islands. These are the largest man-made islands in the world, and also one of the few man-made structures that can be seen from space.

Twice the size of London, Dubai is a large part of the United Arab Emirates, and is one of the economically richest places in the world. However, in recent times, the city has faced with a massive problem: all of its oil reserves are expected to be consumed by 2016. Therefore, Dubai now needs a new source of income. To solve this issue, the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Muhammad bin Rasheed Al Maktoum, came up with a USD 2 billion plan, which involved turning Dubai into the world's most prominent, luxury holiday spot. To do this, he has so far created golf courses, the world's tallest buildings, and a number of artificial islands, such as the Palm Jumeirah.
Why Were the Palm Islands Built?
With its numerous high-profile malls, hotels, resorts, and beautiful beaches, Dubai has always been a popular holiday destination for the rich and affluent. This city was visited by around 5 million tourists each year. The Sheikh wanted to increase this number to 15 million. However, there was a flaw to this plan. Dubai has only 45 miles of coastline, which is nowhere enough for so many people. To circumvent this issue, an island that looked like a palm tree was built in 2006, and named the Palm Jumeirah. Being 3.5 miles in diameter, the island increased Dubai's coastline by 35 miles.

The plan for the island was extraordinary. It was to host several premium luxury hotels, shopping malls, restaurants, and homes. Although the initial plan was to build the island from concrete, a decision was taken to create it from sand and gravel, so as to give it a natural look. Nearly 100 million cubic meters of sand was required to build the island. 5.5 million cubic meters of rock was then used to create the breakwater, protecting the Palm Islands from tidal forces.
Construction of the Islands
To make sure that this extravagant project was a success, the best engineers from across the world were employed. Engineers from Holland formed the majority in this group, as Holland was already known to have increased its land mass by 35% through land reclamation. To begin with, the engineers calculated the strength of storms at sea, and also the expected amount of rise in water levels due to global warming. The research team found that, the proposed location for the island was neither very wide nor deep, a lucky coincidence which greatly reduced the risk of tidal waves, and construction of the 7-mile long breakwater commenced in 2001.

Although tourism to Dubai took a massive hit after the 9/11 attacks, the project showed no sign of slowing down. Several units of construction machinery, such as barges, dumpers, dredges, cranes, and other land-based machines were put to work. The frond-shaped branches of the island provided maximum beach-front property, which is why is the island was designed in the shape of a palm tree. Finally, in 2003, the construction was complete. It was now time to start construction of homes and other buildings there.
Difficulties Encountered
The first challenge encountered by the engineers was to put sand on the sea bed to create the breakwater. Finding the right sand for the project was a daunting task, as the sand from Dubai's deserts was too fine. Instead, sand from the sea was used, as it was coarser and more water-resistant in nature. Dredgers excavated large amounts of sand from the Persian Gulf bed, and dumped it at the construction site, waiting for the time when the sea was at its calmest. Following this, to keep the sand in place, rubble was dropped over it. While the sand and rubble is at the base, the real protection of the islands is done through another layer of large rocks, each weighing at least 6 tons, sourced from numerous quarries across the UAE, making the breakwater rise 4 meters above sea level.

Once the breakwater was built, construction of the island began. Sand dredgers dumped sand at a rate of around 8,000 tons per hour. To ensure that the sand was sprayed in the correct place and shape, a private satellite was used along with GPS technology to create the shape of a palm tree with exact accuracy.

The engineers encountered another problem, when they realized that fresh seawater was unable to circulate properly within the inner fronds of the palm tree, which led to the danger of the water becoming stagnant. So, a decision was made to cut the outer ring of the island at two places, allowing water from the outside to enter and flush the system.
Building Houses in Palm Jumeirah
The plan was to build 4,500 houses, along with several hotels, malls, resorts, and an efficient transport network. This task was not at all easy, as sand is a very difficult foundation to build on when loose and uncompacted. Besides, loose sand was also prone to liquefaction in case of an earthquake, potentially making the entire island sink. To solve this issue, engineers used the vibro compaction method (a technique involving a vibrator machine, which is lowered with the help of a crane into the soil under its own weight) to increase the density and stabilize the sand up to a depth of 12 meters. This compaction process took around 8 months to complete, which made the land stable enough for over 100,000 people who were to work on the construction of the buildings.

The workers installed gas lines, water pipes, telephone and electric wires, roads, etc., along with the houses, hotels, and shopping centers. All the houses built on the Palm Jumeira Island were completely sold out within three days of going on sale. Initially, the island was to house only 60,000 people. However, due to its popularity, the capacity of the island was doubled, despite the high prices (cost of houses in Palm Jumeirah can go up to 2,000,000 AED or USD 550,000). Some of the famous residents of Palm Jumeirah include David and Victoria Beckham, and Indian actor Shahrukh Khan. Happy with the success of Palm Jumeirah, the Sheikh commissioned two more islands that were to be bigger in scale. As of now, the Palm Jebel Ali is structurally complete, while the Palm Deira, the largest of the three, is still undergoing sea reclamation.
Interesting Facts About the Palm Jumeirah
  • Over a hundred different studies were undertaken just to determine the feasibility of the project.
  • It has over 12,000 real palm trees growing in the area.
  • The rocks used in creating the breakwater would be enough to construct two of the great pyramids of Egypt.
  • Tourists can experience a number of leisure activities here, such as snorkeling, scuba diving, immense shopping malls, numerous restaurants, an underwater zoo, theme parks, ice rinks, etc.
  • The breakwater of Palm Jumeirah is the first ever curved breakwater to be constructed in the world.
  • The amount of material used to create the island and the breakwater could create a 2-meter high and ½-meter wide wall circling the world, three times.
  • Besides a monorail, the Palm Jumeirah also has a sub-sea tunnel to allow passengers to move to and from the mainland.
As you can see, the Palm Islands are really an impressive feat of engineering. However, these mega-projects are so large, that they may have changed the ecology of the region irreversibly. Also, an immense amount of money and resources go into sustaining the islands, which is a major concern at the moment. Only time will tell if building the Palm Islands was actually a good decision.