The world's tallest building is set to open in early 2010. Amid Dubai's financial crisis, is it a symbol of megalomania—or a stroke of genius?
The view is clear, the air is soft and silky, and only a thick strip of red separates the sky and the sea at sundown. The boundary between grandeur and kitsch becomes blurred here, halfway up the Burj Dubai, the world's tallest tower.
It smells of paint, varnish and new leather, and the steps of female visitors on parquet and marble produce an elegant-sounding echo that suddenly disappears when they step onto soft carpets. An artificial island in the shape of a palm tree is visible to the southwest, and farther to the north is a man-made archipelago that looks like a map of the world.
But only the furniture, the carpets, the smells and the sounds are real. The rest is an illusion. The visitor isn't gazing out at the Persian Gulf from 400 meters (1,312 feet) up in the air; in fact, he or she is standing at ground level—in a model apartment with an enormous mural stretched outside its floor-to-ceiling windows—at the foot of a hermetically sealed building.
The model apartment is located at the recently closed sales office of Emaar Properties, the real estate development company behind the Burj Dubai, which has over-extended itself—with projects from India to Morocco—and is now selling some of its condominiums at half the list price. After falling by 32 percent in last two weeks, Emaar's stock price gained 15 percentage points again last Thursday. Emaar, like the entire city, is on the brink of ruin, and yet it behaves as if nothing has happened.
Dubai, like no other place in the world, epitomizes globalization, "innovation" and "astonishing progress," as US President Barack Obama said admiringly in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June. But it also stands for mind-boggling excess. In Dubai, utopias almost feel real sometimes, and reality is sometimes nothing but a mirage.
The tower, at any rate, is real. With its 160 habitable stories, it juts 818 meters (2,683 feet) into the sky. Tourists have to kneel down on the sidewalk to photograph the building in its entirety, from base to tip.
The Burj Dubai is so tall that Bedouins can see it from their oases 100 kilometers (63 miles) inland and sailors can see it from their supertankers, 50 nautical miles out in the Gulf—at least on the few winter days when the air is as clear as it's portrayed on the mural in front of the model apartment window.
The tower is so enormous that the air temperature at the top is up to 8 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) lower than at the base. If anyone ever hit upon the idea of opening a door at the top and a door at the bottom, as well as the airlocks in between, a storm would rush through the air-conditioned building that would destroy most everything in its wake, except perhaps the heavy marble tiles in the luxury apartments. The phenomenon is called the "chimney effect."
An Army of Immigrant Workers
An army of immigrant workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who make up about two-thirds of Dubai's residents, built the Burj. Only one in five residents is considered a "local" entitled to a United Arab Emirates passport. Scores of marketing strategists take steps to ensure that no one scrapes away at the silver varnish of this architectural marvel.
Security guards quickly remind anyone who comes too close to the construction site of the meaning of the word "unauthorized." Those who are invited to tour the building, or even just the grounds, are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, the terms of which are to be obey "finally, irrevocably and unconditionally." Anyone who violates the terms can expect to face a judge in Dubai.
All of this will apply for only a little more than two weeks, until Jan. 4, 2010, the official opening date—already rescheduled several times—when the developers hope that the tower will begin serving its purpose as a magnet for a two-square-kilometer new development zone, where the wind was still blowing empty plastic bags across the desert sand only five years ago. And when the Burj Dubai opens, it will likely be one of the last major projects for some time in a city that has risen to dizzying heights and now faces the prospect of a precipitous fall.
On a single day, Tuesday of last week, prices on Dubai's stock exchange fell by an average of 6 percent. The Islamic bond issued by real estate developer Nakheel fell to 52 cents a share, at a face value of $1 per share. The rating agency Moody's downgraded six other government-related firms to junk status. Hardly anyone believes that Dubai World, the largest of these companies, will be able to refinance its $26 billion debt within six months, as originally scheduled. The US bank Morgan Stanley (MS) predicts another drastic increase in the debt restructuring needs of Dubai's government-related firms to double the current level, or about $47 billion.
"Within a year, Dubai went from being the best-performing real estate market to one of the world's worst," writes the International Herald Tribune. Has the Persian Gulf emirate, once praised for its seemingly dazzling future, bitten off more than it can chew? Is the role model for a future-oriented Arabian Peninsula, with aspirations to become a hub of globalization between the East and the West, nothing less than a model for the future—a failure?
Ironically, it was the Wall Street Journal, standard-bearer of the West's brand of conservative capitalism, that warned against American and European arrogance and the tendency to write off the upstarts in the Gulf region and in the Third World in general. "The old centers…view the Dubais, the Shanghais and the Rios with suspicion and with errant conviction that their models are built on foundations of sand, ready to collapse, when it was their own foundations that have proved to be weak," the paper writes. "Judging from the misguided reaction to Dubai's challenges, the past year hasn't changed those attitudes. That should make us worried, very worried, but not about Dubai."
It is too early to sound the death bell for Dubai. That, at least, is the impression the sheikhs will try to make when they open the Burj Dubai in early January.
A Supremely Elegant Edifice
Still, it would be condescending to dispute that the tower is an impressive, supremely elegant edifice, or that it is nothing less than graceful compared with the plain, cuboids from the age of functionalism or the gaudy, modern towers in places like Kuala Lumpur and Taipei.
According to the tower's US architect, Adrian Smith, the floor plan, a central core surrounded by three lobes, is patterned on the blossom structure of the Hymenocallis flower, a shape that simultaneously creates more visible surface area and reduces the wind pressure acting on buildings this tall. As it tapers upward, one of the three lobes is shifted slightly backward about every eight floors, an effect that is reminiscent of an Islamic spiral minaret and provides the tower with 26 terraces. There will be an outdoor pool on one of the terraces, on the 78th floor, and the 124th floor (at 442 meters, or 1,450 feet, above sea level) will feature the world's third-highest observation deck.
Uwe Hinrichs, 68, a native of the northern German city of Bremen, had already been involved in the construction of another Dubai landmark, the sail-shaped Burj-al-Arab Hotel, when he arrived on the construction site of his life in late 2004. The concrete foundation had already been poured, on top of 850 piles, driven up to 55 meters into the desert floor to support a load of 230,000 cubic meters of concrete and 31,000 tons of steel.
"From a construction standpoint," says Hinrichs, "the Burj Dubai is a relatively simple structure." One of the biggest challenges, according to Hinrichs, was the logistics of the project, an around-the-clock effort that lasted five years—five years during which people, machines and material always had to be in the right place at the right time, 24 hours a day. Coordinating the whole thing was Hinrichs' job. His level-headed northern German disposition proved advantageous in his position as chief coordinator, as did the fact that the people he reported to had no objection to the fact that he occasionally leaves Dubai to attend a concert in Vienna or a Rembrandt exhibition in Muscat in the neighboring country of Oman.
Bailouts from Abu Dhabi
In 2004, a crew of about 2,000 people began building one floor at a time, completing an average of one per week. When interior construction entered its final phase in the fall of 2009, there were 14,000 people working on the project, people from 45 nations, speaking 35 different languages—engineers in white helmets, security personnel in red helmets and laborers in blue helmets—and yet there was no Babylonian linguistic confusion on the site. The workers completed a total of 95 million working hours, many at starvation wages. A skilled carpenter earned no more than €12 a day, while ordinary laborers made even less.
Façade components were shipped from China, marble panels from Italy and veneers from Brazil. German companies were also involved in Burj Dubai's construction: Lopark, from the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, supplied parquet flooring, entire football fields of it. The German branch of the US firm Guardian, based in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, provided 174,000 square meters (1.8 million square feet) of solar glass. Dorma, from Ennepetal in North Rhine-Westphalia, supplied hinges and fittings. Duravit provided approximately 4,000 bidets and toilets. And Miele delivered 7,650 household appliances—the biggest single order in the company's history. Designer Giorgio Armani bought 15,200 plates and cups from Bavarian porcelain maker Rosenthal for his hotel on the first eight floors of the building.
German companies also played important roles in the development and processing of the basic core material of the Burj Dubai: concrete. Because concrete dries too quickly at daytime temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the concrete was poured at night. German chemical giant BASF developed a special chemical to make the concrete more malleable initially and later rigid. Putzmeister, a maker of concrete pumps near Stuttgart, provided special high-performance pumps to pump the concrete up to the 160th floor.
Quietly and uneventfully, which was entirely to Hinrichs' liking, the tower grew, floor after floor—until June 6, 2007, when the weather service at the airport e-mailed Hinrichs a satellite image showing a cyclone that had developed over the Indian Ocean, the biggest storm ever recorded in the region, which was heading directly for the Strait of Hormuz. "That was the only day in five years," says Hinrichs, "when we had to close the construction site."
The Dubai tower had already surpassed all superlatives in building history. It had overtaken the 509-meter Taipei 101 Tower as the tallest inhabited building in the world, as well as Toronto's 553-meter CN Tower as the tallest freestanding structure. Dubai had arrived at what had become the most ambitious of its goals. The city, a village of pearl divers only a generation earlier, had brought a world record back to the Middle East. For almost four millennia, the Great Pyramid of Giza (138.8 meters) was the world's tallest man-made structure, before it was overtaken by Lincoln Cathedral in England (160 meters, at the time) in 1311.
What could now unhinge this economic miracle on the Gulf? A terrorist attack? A new Gulf war, this time against Iran? Another earthquake, even stronger than the one that hit the region on Sept. 10, 2008?
On the day of the cyclone on Sept. 10, 2009, a crane operator working 700 meters above the ground had called Hinrichs to report that it was "shaking" where he was standing. Tremors had shaken the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas, but in Dubai, few (other than the crane operator) had even noticed.
Five days later, Dubai was struck by another sort of tremor, but this one had its epicenter in New York, another city of skyscrapers. On Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers, the world's fourth-largest investment bank, filed for bankruptcy.
Not just Dubai, but the West, too, had been building a tower in the years of the real estate boom, a tower of debt, which now came crashing down. But despite the vast sums of money involved in the crisis in the West, it was and largely remains a strangely abstract phenomenon. Not so in Dubai, however, which reflects the financial debacle more vividly than any other city in the world.
"Classic megalomania seems to have migrated from people's minds to the system itself. Nowadays the system is crazier than the people," says German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. "That's why we, as human beings, are terribly disappointed by the course of the crisis. There was not a single colorful individual (in Europe) to make the crisis more interesting. I've never seen such an enormous conspiracy of petty bourgeoise people than at the moment."
Sloterdijk may be right when it comes to the bankers, analysts and finance ministers of the West. But he apparently has never heard of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 60, a horse breeder and poet, a lover of fast powerful cars, an avid falconer and a juggler of billions. Maktoum is the ruler of Dubai and the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. "Many leaders make promises," he said in February 2008, when the Free University of Berlin awarded him its medal of honor, "but we deliver."
Maktoum had artificial islands built in the waters off his city, with names like The Palm, The World and The Universe. Not just the Free University, but the entire West was fascinated by his energy and optimism. Like the thoroughbred horses in his racing stable, he sent the most capable of his lieutenants into the orbit of globalization, and along the way they built new towers, bought ports and sent airliners out into the world.
'Crisis? What Crisis?'
One real estate company after the next was founded—Dubai Holding, Dubai Properties, Tatweer, Meraas, Sama—and it soon became difficult to keep track of who was building what and with whose money. Apparently not even the sheikh himself was always in the know.
Only about a year ago, investors were still crowding into the "CityScape Dubai" real estate convention. Former race-car driver Michael Schumacher was there, touting a skyscraper with a covered yacht berth. Nakheel, which is now in very dire financial straits, was seriously talking about the possibility of building a 1,000-meter tower. And, on the palm-shaped Jumeirah island, Dubai spent $20 million on fireworks to celebrate the opening of the fairytale Atlantis Hotel. "Crisis?" the city seemed to ask, "what crisis?"
A year few weeks later, one of Sheikh Mohammed's officials presented the bill: Dubai had amassed $80 billion in debt, $50 billion of which, or about two-thirds of its gross domestic product, was scheduled to mature by 2013.
For a few days, the sheikh suddenly disappeared from the scene. Rumors emerged he was ill and that he was "melancholy." Then he reappeared and began to whitewash the situation, claiming that the crisis had not affected Dubai, that Dubai had actually overcome the crisis, and that Dubai and its wealthy neighbor, Abu Dhabi, were as close and inseparable as brothers.
But the "brothers" from the neighboring sheikdom, with whom the Dubaians form the bulk of the United Arab Emirates, no longer wanted any part of Dubai's excesses. Abu Dhabi has 7 percent of worldwide oil reserves, and its 64-year-old emir, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, is the president of the UAE, while Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed is only its premier—and Abu Dhabi now views the prestigious activities of his relative in the neighboring emirate with growing mistrust, and probably some envy.
At the beginning of the year, Abu Dhabi rescued Dubai from the worst of its problems with a $20 billion cash injection. The emirate stepped in again earlier this week, providing Dubai with an additional $10 billion in financial aid. The emirate may have abundant assets in its $500 billion sovereign wealth fund, but how much longer will it be willing to bailout its neighbor? The sheikhs of Abu Dhabi seem to prefer to spend their money on sounder, more sustainable projects, such as an emissions-free eco-city called Masdar, where the emirate plans to conduct research on projects for the post-petroleum age.
In the last four weeks, the sheikh has revealed—not always voluntarily—how serious the crisis is and how deeply it affects him. At first, the normally restrained sheikh lost his composure and told the critical Western media to "shut up," and then he dismissed three of his closest advisers on the emirate's central financial council. A short time later, he waxed poetic when he described the crisis as "the fruit-bearing tree that becomes the target of stone-throwers."
A Symbol of Earthly Temptation
In truth, Sheikh Mohammed, the poet-prince, has good reasons to look forward to the day when the Burj Dubai opens its doors. With one snip of the red ribbon, he will be taking up the thread of a great epic, a saga of humanity that goes well beyond the financial problems of a debt-ridden Gulf emirate. Once before, the Eastern World is said to have been the home another groundbreaking tower, in Babylon, the legendary Mesopotamian city between the Tigris and the Euphrates.
Archeologists have confirmed that the Tower of Babel did indeed exist in the 3rd century B.C. They estimate that the skyscraper of antiquity was 90 meters tall, a marvel of the day, and was constructed on a platform that was 90 meters square. If this were true, the tower would have been one-ninth as tall as the latest wonder of the modern world. According to the Bible, the Tower of Babel was much more than a building, but rather a symbol of earthly temptation. "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." These words, which sound strikingly like a motto of today's rulers of Dubai, are in fact from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Even today, many of the faithful believe that endeavoring to be like God is a presumption that must invariably lead to punishment.
Megalomania or a Grand Achievement?
Nevertheless, the excessive building of cities and towers seems to be a cross-cultural constant, a dream and nightmare alike for mankind, from the Babylonians to the heroes and villains of the present. The ruler of Dubai isn't the only one who has carried out his plans in reinforced concrete and gleaming facades.