Despite its many kilometres of glorious coastline, the UAE’s beaches are becoming a more sophisticated draw and the battle for this prime waterfront is warming up.
You could, if you squint, be in Ibiza. We’re standing at the foot of an Iberian-looking restaurant with a stucco exterior and the loose shape of a lighthouse. But look closer and you’ll see inspiration taken from across the world, from a rustic terrace to parasols emblazoned with Aztec suns. In the shallows there’s a bright, white superyacht, bobbing in the calm blue water.
Only this isn’t the Balearics but a beach club called Tagomago on the trunk of the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. In keeping with this city’s zeal for constantly reshaping itself, a corner of the club’s sugar-white sand is being hollowed out by a digger to make way for a pool. “It’s not usual for a restaurant to reclaim some of the Palm in this way,” says Rizwan Kassim, the French co-founder of the Rikas Hospitality Group, which owns Tagomago and several other beach clubs along the coastline. “We enjoy the business of creating a destination.”
Tagomago opened earlier in 2023 to some fanfare. It is among a crop of new Mediterranean-inspired beach clubs setting out their stalls – and loungers – around the uae. A spirited competition is under way for who has the most elegant lunchtime service or the best (read biggest) sound system and accompanying sundowners. Rikas already holds four sun-and-sand clubs around Dubai – including St Tropez-esque Twiggy on the city’s Creek – but now has its sights set on building more in the years to come and is looking at other emirates. “Since the pandemic, there has been a lot of people moving to the uae from Russia, China and Europe, which has brought a new mentality into the market,” says Kassim. The beach is big business, he explains; seeking inspiration, he has looked to the south of France, Spain and Italy, where a rich culture of water-going exists. “The idea is to create something that makes you forget that you are in Dubai.”
That might sound like an odd sentiment but independent beach clubs were until recently a fairly niche pursuit in the Emirates. The now-defunct Jumeirah Beach Club was the original expat hangout before it closed in 2007 and, since then, much of the coastline has become a tussle between hotel groups and real-estate developers. The actual public beaches, like the windswept Kite Beach in Dubai, are much-loved but left fairly wild.
“There has been a major shift from nightlife to more day-life in this city”
The past few years have seen emphasis placed on giving more people access to the water. That’s not just for hotel guests or apartment owners; new infrastructure has been built on several public beaches, such as the lights and showers on Dubai’s Night Swimming Beach, a popular spot for evenings during the hot summer months. On the Palm Jumeirah, West Palm Beach is a row of privately run beach clubs of varying quality that promise to whisk visitors away to Mykonos, Bodrum or maybe even Sochi in the summer.
When Dubai leans into a new trend, it tends to fall hard. A swathe of its Jumeirah waterfront is currently being demolished to make way for multiple new beach clubs and restaurants opening next year. The area will be rebranded “J1”, and the likes of Italy’s Gigi Rigolatto promise to bring a bit of the Riviera to Jumeirah.
“There has been a major shift from nightlife to more day-life in this city, perhaps because a lot of the nightclubs closed during the pandemic,” says Jacob Kane, the Aussie manager of Kyma, a Rikas-run beach club on the Palm that has a Grecian vibe. “People are looking for somewhere they can dine and stay until sunset.”
The temperature on Kyma’s stretch of sand might nudge over 40c on the day that monocle visits but the chilled infinity pool soon fills up. On a weekend, Kane says, they can get as many as 800 guests a day and the crowds don’t fall away entirely in the punishing summer heat. The influx of Russians buying up properties on the Palm has supercharged the industry. “At one point, we were looking at putting Russian wine on the menu,” says Kane.
With their tasselled parasols and striped beach towels, many of the uae’s new clubs take visual cues from somewhere else entirely. They have become a place where a very international clientele can feel at ease; somewhere to kick back a bit in a city that has emerged as a crossroads of doing business. It’s no wonder that overseas beach-club operators are looking to move in. Yet there is only so much beachfront up for grabs and the Rikas Hospitality Group is not the only entrepreneur eyeing up other emirates to plant a flag in the sand.
Five beach clubs to try
West Palm Beach, Palm Jumeirah
Offers a hearty Greek lunch with a good wine list.
Twiggy by La Cantine
Park Hyatt – Dubai Creek Club Street, Port Saeed, Dubai
A St Tropez-inspired spot on a bend in the Creek.
The One&Only Royal Mirage, Dubai
A hotel club that is open to walk-ins and has character and good service.
Mina Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi
The capital’s original beach club, which has been in business since 1962.
Kite Beach Centre
Umm Al Quwain
A low-key escape on a breezy out-of-town stretch of unspoilt sand.
Ras Al Khaimah (rak) is due to host the Emirates’ first casino when Wynn Resorts opens in 2027 and this is expected to reposition what is often thought of as a quieter corner of the country. Several beach clubs are getting in early; Ula, for instance, opened first in Dubai but has now franchised with an opening on rak’s manmade Marjan Island, where the Wynn will one day stand.
“Dubai is oversaturated and the Palm is built up but in rak you have a sense of nature,” says Fabien Chesnais, the general manager of the Mövenpick Resort that hosts Ula’s new rak outpost. He shows us around: palm-tree fronds rattle in the delicate Gulf breeze, there’s the insistent thud of Balearic house music and someone on a lounger is popping open a beer at 11.00. “It’s a land of opportunity out here.”
Case study: Night swimming
In the shadow of the “seven-star” Burj Al Arab hotel, surrounded by some of the most sought-after property in Dubai, is a public amenity that is accessible to all and very particular to life in the uae. The Night Swimming Beach is a floodlit patch of sand and sea in Umm Suqeim where people can splash around, swim and soak in the cooler evening water by moonlight. It is a peaceful, elegant place – there are no pumping sound systems here, no clamour of advertisements or revving cars. An almost reverential hush settles over the place as day turns to night, with only the gentle murmur of a multitude of accents and the occasional whoop of enjoyment coming from the waves.