Operation Desert Lyons

When Buti Saeed al-Ghandi visited France's second-most influential city, he fell in love with it – so much so that he decided to build a full-scale replica in Dubai. John Lichfield reports

In the Tales Of The Arabian Nights, Aladdin wooed the sultan's daughter by using his magic lamp to conjure up an opulent palace from thin air. Shortly afterwards, a jealous Moorish rival peevishly ordered another magician to airlift the building to north Africa. "In an eye twinkling ... the pavilion, with all therein, were transported to the African land."

The city of Lyons is to undergo a similar flight of fantasy. France's second-most influential city, the capital of the Gauls and epicentre of French gastronomy, is to be teleported to Dubai in the Gulf. On this occasion, the miracle will be accomplished by the magic lamp of oil wealth. The transformation will be accomplished, not "in the twinkling of an eye" but over a leisurely seven years.

Of course, the original city of Lyons will remain rooted where it has been for the last two millennia, at the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône. An immense copy of the city, covering an area twice as large as the principality of Monaco, or three times the size of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, will be constructed in the desert.

The project is the latest, most imaginative – or some say most preposterous – of a string of vast cultural building sites which will transform the Gulf states over the next decade. The City of Lyons has agreed to provide the knowledge and cultural support to help create a €1.8bn (£1.37bn), 1,200-acre French city 3,000 miles away in Dubai, one of the seven statelets of the United Arab Emirates.

The idea is not to copy Lyons stone by stone and certainly not river by river. Lyons-Dubai City will be cloned from the architectural and cultural DNA of the French version, capturing its look and its spirit but not precisely reproducing any of its buildings. There will be 3,000 apartment homes in winding cobbled streets or on broad boulevards. There will be cafés and bistros, offices and hotels, trams and buses resembling those in Lyons (but will the cafés be allowed to serve wine in a Muslim country?). There will be branches of the Lyons fine arts museum and the Lyons textile museum. There will be a French-speaking university and a business school. There may be a football training centre, managed by Olympique Lyonnais, the French champions for the past six years.

There will be a film museum and institute, run by the Institute Lumière of Lyons, which commemorates the Lyonnais brothers who invented cinematography. There will a restaurant and hotel school, run by the Lyons-based chef Paul Bocuse (but will the school be allowed to use pork, one of the indispensable ingredients of Lyons cuisine?). The Aladdin-like plan to create a mini-Lyons for the Gulf was dreamed up by a Dubai businessman, Buti Saeed al-Ghandi. But why Lyons? Why not Paris? Or London? Or Rome?

"I travel all around the world and Lyons is one of those places that make you feel different," said Mr Ghandi, 40. "The people do not live at a fast pace of life. There is an intimacy with visitors. There is so much history and culture – the small streets, the small shops, the old houses."

Mr Ghandi also says that, while strolling through Lyons last October, he and his wife fell in love again. "That's also why I love Lyons." He, and the City of Lyons, insist this will be no vulgar Las Vegas or Disneyland. The idea is not to pastiche Lyons but to recreate its atmosphere and spirit and culture, even its soul.

Dubai is engaged in an intensely competitive drive with the other emirates to convert immense but ephemeral oil riches into a permanent reserve of cultural, educational and touristic wealth. Positioned handily between Asia and Europe, with permanent sunshine and boundless space, they – especially Dubai and Abu Dhabi – plan to become a kind of high-class, cultural playground and global meeting place for the rich and super-rich. Dubai already has more visitors per year than Egypt.

Questions are beginning to be asked, however, about the sheer scale of the 18 large projects now proposed or already under way in the UAE. Is such rapid transformation in such a politically fragile part of the world sustainable? Are the investments, like flowers poked into the sand, doomed eventually to wither and die?

In Abu Dhabi, the richest emirate, plans are already going ahead to build a kind of international city of knowledge and culture on Saadiyat island in the Gulf. There will be three large arts museums, including branches of the Louvre in Paris and the Guggenheim in New York. There will be a vast theatre and concert complex with five auditoriums. The total cost will be £1.5bn. Abu Dhabi's next-door neighbour, Dubai, plans to build an opera house and concert hall and a desert home for the globally popular art-circus, le Cirque du Soleil (which will merit its name in the Gulf rather more than in its native Quebec).

Qatar is building a half dozen museums, including a futuristic museum of Qatari art, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. A much larger museum of Islamic arts, designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte and Ieoh Ming Pei, who created the pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, opens in Doha, the capital of Qatar, this spring. Even tiny Bahrain is building three museums and a theatre for its population of 640,000. "They all know that oil is not eternal and they want to create an economy of knowledge," said Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, head of a French Middle East research body. "Unlike Western nations, they have decided that culture is a good investment."

A large number of the 4 million people living in the emirates are foreign-born. They range from wealthy Arabs and Europeans to Fillipinos and Pakistanis in mostly menial jobs. The new "knowledge and culture" economy is expected to attract tourists and business conferences from all over the world but also to help recruit an educated, resident elite from Europe and elsewhere. Doctors, engineers and university professors are attracted by the high salaries and sunshine of the Gulf but put off by the impression that the emirates are a cultural, as well as geographical, desert. In theory, all that will now change rapidly.

Some Western businessmen and consultants involved in the projects envisage the emirates of the future as a kind of global, multicultural crossroads, a "New York with permanent sunshine". Others admit, privately, that some projects could end up as multibillion-pound white elephants.

In Lyons, the notion of a sister city in the desert has been welcomed by almost everyone The Lyonnais hope that Lyons-Dubai City will bring Middle Easterninvestment into their original city, as well as the new one. Others are dubious, however, and fear Lyons could be cheapened by association.

"It is hard for me to imagine how you can capture the soul of the city," said Jacques Lasfargues, the chief curator of the Lyons Museum of Gallic-Roman Civilisation. "The colour of the light here is tender, soft, sweet, like a painting by Turner. In the desert, the light is hard, brutal." He told The New York Times he would prefer the cloned city in Dubai to be a frank pastiche like the Las Vegas Eiffel Tower. "At least there's sincerity there," he added. "One knows clearly what it is."

Jean-Paul Lebas, the French urban designer hired to plan the Lyons-Dubai project, says his challenge is to make people feel they are in Lyons, even though the new city will not be a "cut-out copy". "We want to create a world which does not exist in the emirates as they have developed until now," he said. "We want to create an authentic urban atmosphere, with cultural sites and shops in the heart of the town, with public transport instead of private cars, with a mingling of classes in streets and back streets. There will be no direct reproduction of the (old) Saint-Jean quarter of Lyons but we will organise the town in a European way. The bistros will have the same atmosphere as bistros in Lyons."

M. Ghandi, the originator of the project, accepts that this will be difficult without alcohol but says that there is no reason why both wine and pork should not be sold in the neo-Lyons. "It's not an issue," he explained. "We are an international city in Dubai. You give people the freedom to do what they like to do."

Several sites are under consideration. One possibility is that the eastern Lyons would be built in the shadow of the Burj Dubai tower, which will be the largest inhabited building in the world. Alternatively, the new Lyons may be constructed in the desert beside a projected second airport or close to "Dubailand", a sprawling complex of theme parks.

Lyons is celebrated, among other things, for its rivers. How can the Rhône and Saône be recreated in the desert? Officially, there are no plans to do so. However, the Socialist mayor of Lyons, Gerrard Collomb, says that a Lyons without water is unthinkable. "Dubai already has built ski slopes and islands. If you can do that, you can make rivers."

Others, dazed and unconvinced by the sheer mass of the new investments in the Gulf, might refer Mayor Collomb to Aladdin's experience. His palace, conjured up in the desert, disappeared soon afterwards. Or if not Aladdin, then the promoters of the cloned Lyons might consider the fate of another powerful man who built on sand, Shelley's "Ozymandias":

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

Nothing beside remains: round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
filmReview: In the face of all-round devastation, even Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson appears a little puny
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk
books
Sport
Harry Kane makes Paul Scholes' Premier League team of the season
footballPaul Scholes on the best players, managers and goals of the season - and the biggest disappointments
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor