This 95-year-old Emirati has swum through Dubai's history

Zakaria Doleh makes a splash at sea daily and his quaint Chinese pagoda-shaped house is now a landmark


Mazhar Farooqui

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Visuals: Rahul Gajjar
Visuals: Rahul Gajjar

Published: Tue 24 May 2022, 5:37 PM

Last updated: Fri 27 May 2022, 5:08 PM

A daily dip in the deep end could add years to your life. And who would know this better than Zakaria Doleh? The 95-year-old Emirati has been swimming in the open sea every day for more than 70 years.

“Swimming is the best exercise. It’s the secret to my longevity and good health,” said the father-of-three as he got down to his swimming trunks on a balmy Monday afternoon and effortlessly waded into the waters at the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club.

The nonagenarian’s love for the sea is also reflected in the many dolphin-themed water features that adorn his quaint Chinese-Pagoda inspired villa on Dubai’s Al Wasl road.

Zakaria’s company is named after dolphins as well and has an interesting story behind it from the Emirati's days in Kuwait. “The Americans working on the oil rigs there flew back and forth daily across the sea. One day, they saw me in a local coffee shop. One of them came to me and said: ‘Hey, you remind us of a dolphin because we see you swimming and we see the sharks, but they don’t attack you!’ The name stuck,” he recalled. Dolphin Holdings Limited now has a diversified portfolio that includes real estate, general trading, and energy solutions.

Zakaria continues to actively run the businesses, but with greater involvement of his kids, has time to listen to his customary BBC news and classical songs by Umm Kulthum.

By late afternoon, he’s ready for his swimming ritual.

Zakaria came to Dubai in the mid-60s, when the city was still a provincial town.

“I worked in Kuwait for 17 years but couldn’t buy land there. I had been told there were greater opportunities in the Emirates, so I came to Dubai and bought this 400,000 square foot plot of land in what then looked like the middle of a desert. Guess how much I paid for it?” he asked before answering himself. “One Indian paisa per square foot. The UAE dirham had not yet been introduced so we had to use the Indian currency,” he explained.

Zakaria said he originally planned to build an English bungalow on stilts but ended up constructing a five-storey pagoda-style house after chancing upon a picture of a pagoda in a travel brochure.

Construction began in 1965 but it wasn’t until 1981 when he moved in with his family.

“It was around my 11th birthday. The pool had not been filled so we used it as a dance floor to celebrate,” recalled Ranya Doleh, daughter of the patriarch.

Ranya said she has many fond childhood memories of the house. "We used to walk from the house to Baskin Robbins on Al Diyafah Street and mum would count the sand dunes on the way.”

Zakaria’s eldest son Rany, 54, said their house used to serve as a navigation landmark for ships, but evoked curiosity and fear among residents, particularly children.

“They used to pelt stones at the villa, thinking it was inhabited by giant snakes. We got several windows smashed,” he said.

“Gradually, people realised that their fears were unfounded. New Year’s Eve parties hosted by us for seven consecutive years also helped. The gates would be thrown open and just about anyone could attend and enjoy the evening with unlimited shawarma, pizza and Dixi Cola. It was a lot of fun.”

Years later, Zakaria’s unusual house in Al Bada’a neighbourhood still holds its own due to its distinctive red roofline and upswept eaves. The view outside is rivalled by its stunning interiors that include a lily pond and a massive outdoor swimming pool.

“Our house is just a reflection of my father’s personality. It’s eclectic, warm and very detail-oriented. Every nook and cranny has a story. It was built by trial and error without maps and is still a work in progress. As a result, it’s got a unique character. We have received many offers to sell, but we are never going to do that” said Rashid Doleh, the youngest of the siblings.

All of Zakaria’s children and grandchildren live in the villa's immediate vicinity.

His wife Wedad Azhari passed away seven years ago. She was the first female member of parliament of the erstwhile United Arab Republic (UAR), which was founded in 1958 as a political union between Syria and Egypt.

Zakaria fondly remembers how he proposed to Wedad.

“I was visiting Beirut when I first saw her. I wanted to marry her but was advised to meet her three brothers to ask for her hand as her father had passed away. I travelled to Damascus where she lived and worked. I went to her place to see her. However, when her brothers turned up, I requested them to allow me a private audience with their sister. As soon as they left, I introduced myself to Wedad and asked if she would like to be my wife. She was startled but nodded in affirmation. I thanked her and we shook hands as if we were closing a deal,” he said laughingly.

The 1927 born, who was granted UAE citizenship by the late Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, said he is indebted to the love and affection showered on him by the founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (seen below left with Doleh).

"I learnt important life lessons from Sheikh Rashid too. He was my mentor and I am indebted to him. I used to listen to the BBC English news on the radio and then translate it to him at His Highness’s request. One day, we were on site at the Jebel Ali Palace and I was sitting just to the side of the small entourage in a tent. I was tuning into the BBC World Service, when suddenly Sheikh Rashid called out to me: ‘Hey you, Zakaria, you are one of us.' This was the greatest compliment of my life; money comes and goes, no problem, but your value and your worth is for life."

More news from