Dubai and the chessboard-shaped city

Portrait-Chess.jpg

Whatever happened to the Emirate’s weirdest mega-project?

Those of you who remember Dubai prior to the financial crash will recall a time when there was a new “mega-project” launched on what seemed like a weekly basis. Chess City was perhaps the strangest of them all.

In October 2004 it was announced that a $2.6 billion chess themepark was to be built in Dubai. The 64,000-square-metre development was to include 32 buildings, each in the shape of a chess piece. Pawn-shaped three-star hotels would sit alongside bishop-shaped five-star hotels. Two King towers (at 64 storeys apiece) were to be categorised as “seven-star” hotels, which was a ranking that people thought actually existed back then. Amid the hyperbole of that era, people just shrugged and accepted it as normal.

The people behind it were Sulaiman Al Fahim, Chief Executive of Dubai Projects, and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of The Republic of Kalmykia (Europe’s only officially Buddhist state) from 1993 to 2010 and also the World Chess Federation president at that time.

“It is Dubai’s destiny to become the centre of such a magnificent game,” said President Ilyumzhinov. “Dubai will play host to over 60 million amateur and professional chess followers from around the globe annually. They will have a permanent venue where they can congregate and play 24-hour championships throughout the year, while some other 500 million lovers of the game will have the chance to follow the excitement via interactive screens.”

The figures seemed optimistic, considering that the World chess Organisation has just 2,500 members, but the media at the time ran with the story. After all, anything seemed plausible back then. And Ilyumzhinov had already built a $50 million chess complex in his own country, albeit not chess-piece shaped.

More like a university campus, it was built in the late Nineties, but the central “Chess Palace” was described in 2013 as “a gradually decaying building decorated with photos of Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris.” It was seen as a waste of money by locals in his homeland, which is also the only place in the world where learning to play chess was mandatory at school, starting at the age of six. Ilyumzhinov had also once claimed he was abducted by aliens in yellow spacesuits on the night of September 17, 1997. That is a different, though equally strange, story, as is the fact he believes that chess (and sweetcorn) came from outer space.

Back in Dubai, detailed plans were never released, but the above illustration was the one that accompanied the announcement in the local media. President Ilyumzhinov also revealed his intentions to relocate the headquarters of the International Chess Association from Lausanne in Switzerland to the new International Chess City in Dubai, with the cornerstone due to be laid the following January when Garry Kasparov and Uzbek chess master Rustam Kasimdzhanov held a match in the UAE.

Everything then went quiet until February 2006 when news broke that President Ilyumzhinov was no longer involved in the project. The whole thing was also going to be shifted from Dubai to another, as yet unnamed, emirate.

That was not to say that these plans were going to be scaled down. “It will be a much bigger project. Bigger in size and bigger in budget. We are ready to go. The contracts have been sorted, and we are just waiting on approval of the master plan,” Al Fahim declared.

“We cannot reveal confidential details at this time but the project is being moved from Dubai. We want this project to be special, therefore we have negotiated a deal to move it to a prime location in another emirate,” he added.

That was as far as it went. Esquire contacted Mr Al Fahim by email to find out more but he simply replied “ask Mr Kirsan”. Mr Kirsan, however, didn’t respond to Esquire’s numerous attempts to reach him.

Chess City, it seems, has been quietly forgotten, a strange relic from the era of crazy mega-projects.

For Esquire magazine

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