Planting the Soul of Lyon in the Dubai Desert


A scene from Lyon, France, a city which Buti Saeed al-Ghandi, an entrepreneur from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, hopes to replicate in part in his homeland. “I also fell in love again with my wife there,” he explained, “and that’s also why I love Lyon.”

Published: January 28, 2008

LYON, France – Strolling the streets of Lyon with his wife last October, Buti Saeed al-Ghandi was suddenly overcome by a double wave of love, for the city and for his spouse.

So Mr. Ghandi, a 40-year-old entrepreneur, decided to capture the magic of the moment by building a little Lyon – back home in Dubai.

“I travel all around the world, and Lyon is one of those places that make you feel different,” Mr. Ghandi said in a telephone interview. “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. I also fell in love again with my wife there, and that’s also why I love Lyon.”

Certainly Lyon – with its two rivers, its Gallic-Roman ruins, its 300 Renaissance merchant houses and its gastronomic reputation – is special, even in France.

In early January Mr. Ghandi, chairman of Emirates Investment and Development, signed a deal with Lyon’s mayor and several local entities to embark on a grand architectural adventure for Dubai, one of the seven principalities that make up the United Arab Emirates.

The project, temporarily called Lyon-Dubai City, will include a university; museums; housing, hotel and office space; cafes, restaurants, pedestrian malls, town squares, courtyards, a film center, maybe even a church, all inspired by Lyon, France’s third-largest city with a population of about 450,000. As of now, little Lyon will cover 300 to 400 hectares.

The Paul Bocuse Institute is hoping to set up a branch to train young chefs and restaurant and hotel managers. The Museum of Textiles is poised to open a silk museum. Research is under way to cool outdoor spaces naturally to make strolling bearable during dust storms and 40-degree heat.

What the project must not do, its participants insist, is clone Lyon.

“This will not be Disneyland or Las Vegas,” said Jean-Paul Lebas, the project’s planner, who helped rebuild Beirut after Lebanon’s civil war. “We have to make people feel that they are there without copying the architecture of Lyon – that is the challenge. The social will be more important than the physical. The smiles seen on the faces of others will come first. I know it’s a bit virtual, but if one succeeds. ...” Mayor Gérard Collomb was more direct. “We will give Dubai the soul of Lyon,” he said.

Then there is the issue of alcohol and pork, both forbidden under Islam. Pork-based charcuterie is a staple of Lyon’s traditional gastronomy, while wine is crucial to French dining.

For Mr. Ghandi, there should be no gastronomic or alcoholic censure. “It’s not an issue,” he said. “We are an international city in Dubai. You give people the freedom to do what they like to do.”

Not everyone in Lyon is convinced of the wisdom of the project, though.

“It’s hard for me to imagine how you can capture the soul of the city,” said Jacques Lasfargues, an archaeologist and the chief curator at the Museum of Gallic-Roman Civilization.

Mayor Collomb will not be deterred. “Dubai already has built ski slopes and islands,” he said. “And if you can do that, you can make rivers.”
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