Could one woman convert the Dubai landscape into a sustainable green haven? Award-winning landscape designer Kamelia Bin Zaal talks to Vision about using her global business to transform the local cityscape
Kamelia Bin Zaal is never afraid to subvert the narrative. Over coffee at a local establishment, the landscape designer gestures to the spanning greens that surround us: “We’re sitting at a golf course, in the middle of the desert…it’s unnatural. It’s beautiful, but it’s unnatural.”
In an instant she envisions a different environment for the course, more in tune with the local area. “I think our landscape should be desert,” she says, insisting, “We are in the desert!”
Bin Zaal life’s work has been dedicated to understanding and embracing her surroundings. After leaving her job of eight years as creative director of the ecological development Al Barari, Bin Zaal started her own landscaping design business, ‘Kamelia’, where she develops a number of garden projects – thought-out, sustainable, and always encompassing both her Emirati heritage and local surroundings.
She rose to prominence after presenting her design ‘Beauty of Islam’ at the 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, becoming the first Arab to do so. The design embraced the harmonious relationship between humanity and the earth – an important Islamic principle that runs through all of her work. Elements of her culture were dotted throughout the design – from local poetry and calligraphy textures to allusions to the Spice Route. The design was dreamlike, but firmly rooted in her culture, and earned her a silver gilt medal.
Since then, business has bloomed for Bin Zaal, who was subsequently invited to the Japan World Gardening Championships, where she showcased her contemporary Islamic garden ‘The Seal of the Prophets’. Though the project also focused on principles of Islamic design, it was adapted to its Japanese urban setting; Bin Zaal envisioned the garden as a sanctuary for people in the city. The design won her a second silver gilt medal, and an award for best lighting.
Bin Zaal explains that a successful landscape design is far more intricate than meets the eye. “It’s not only about aesthetics,” she says, “People use space differently.” A designer must take into account everything from functionality to irrigation, resources, and access to the space, she says.
Here in Dubai, she explains, the practical aspect of her work is particularly fascinating. The city uses a large amount of seasonal flora for public landscaping, on roundabouts and traffic islands. The plants require a large amount of water to survive the UAE’s climate, and only have a limited lifespan. When it comes up in conversation, Kamelia sighs, then jokes: “Seasonals are nice, they’re lovely – but they’re mainly great for composting.”
Though her comments about the golf course were said half in jest, she is serious about incorporating her own brand of sustainable design into Dubai. Passionate about her Emirati heritage, Bin Zaal champions the native flora of the UAE.
“Right now I’m learning about the indigenous plants of the UAE and the Middle East.” She says, insisting that this is fascinating not only for cultural reasons, but for sustainability’s sake too. “You just have to go out a small drive from the city to see these magical plant-life thriving. The point for me is to create public spaces, and landscape that is indigenous and wouldn’t need maintenance.”
Bin Zaal hopes to grow her business organically, maintaining Kamelia’s status as a boutique in order to “stay true to [her] designs”.
But this doesn’t mean that the projects she takes on will be small. In 2017, Bin Zaal hopes to work with the Dubai government, helping to create functional designs for the city’s public spaces.
“My dream is to create a contemporary Islamic garden,” she says. “The world is full of Islamic heritage, but there’s nothing [contemporary]. We see it more in architecture; why can’t that be done in landscaping?”
Indeed, it is Bin Zaal’s dedication to her culture and faith in her ideas that have forged a path for her success. Her plans may seem ambitious, but from this initial seed, the designer is sure to have her ideas blossom into a global garden.