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."

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