The Tower of Dubai
Above the Fold
Dubai–When the world’s tallest tower was inaugurated last week, the lavish ceremony began with bag pipes and seven precision parachutists, each one jumping from the top of the 2,717 foot tower into the same small spot just in front of the VIP area, which was populated by hundreds of local residents in turbans and flowing white robes, and an equal number of business-casual-attired Westerners.
What bridged the cultural divide between the suited and the robed? Everyone from Judy Miller–yes, that Judy Miller–to the Sheikh of Dubai was texting, almost all the time.
The new building, nearly twice the height of the Empire State, features the world’s
highest swimming pool, (76th floor), the highest observation deck, (124th floor) and the highest–and probably smallest–mosque (158th floor). It’s a mix of offices and apartments, with an Armani Hotel at the base (the designer’s first). Some days the temperature is 15 degrees warmer at the base than it is at the top. When the building went on the market two years ago, it sold out within two days, although Dubai now has a glut of office and residential space all over the city.
The big news of the inaugural evening was the building’s exact height (a state secret until then) and the name change announced by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.
What had been known during construction as the Burj Dubai had suddenly become the Burj Khalifa, in honor of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, and the head of oil-rich emirate Abu Dhabi, which so far has provided $25 billion to prop up its over-extended neighbor. “Abu Dhabi has the oil, Dubai has the chutzpah,” a local expat explained.
That meant the $1.5 billion glass and steel structure designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had set another record–the highest naming fee for any structure in the history of the planet.
After the bag pipes, the parachutists, and the Sheik’s speech, the tower exploded from top to bottom in a spectacular fireworks display, echoed in the moat in front of it by the world’s largest fountain, whose geysers pulsated and swayed in time to an Arabic Ode to Joy.
Drowning in bad publicity since last November, when the state-owned Dubai World group succumbed to the worldwide credit crunch and requested a six-month freeze on $26 billion of debt repayments, Dubai saw a chance to use the opening of the spectacular new structure to improve its image.
“Brand Dubai” is a new government office headed by Mona Al Marri, a dazzlingly attractive former journalist who was previously president of the Dubai Press Club. Created five months before the crash to coordinate all media affairs, Brand Dubai invited three dozen journalists and architects from around the world to a conference on sustainable architecture, which was thrown together just three weeks before the inaugural ceremony for the stunning new Burj (“tower” in Arabic.) New York’s Cooper Union was recruited to be the co-sponsor of the all-expenses paid junket, to which FCP was invited.
Besides Judy Miller, conference members included Marie Brenner of Vanity Fair, and Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, as well as former Clinton White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis, who carried a personal message of congratulations from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Also present was the architect of the 38-story monstrosity at Broadway and 99th Street, which is twice as tall as its neighbors, and could well be the worst building erected in Manhattan in the last forty years. Its violation of the scale of the neighborhood was so severe, it inspired a change in the zoning law to prevent any future imitators.
That architect’s presence was appropriate, because Dubai is one over-the-top skyscraper after another. Oddly, the only one which seems understated is the world’s tallest, because its elegant, set-back design makes it fit perfectly on top of its gigantic base.
The city has exploded from a sleepy port just thirty years ago into a center of tourism, commerce and American-style consumerism, featuring 12-lane highways and a brand new (mostly above ground) Metro with wi-fi. It boasts twenty-eight shopping malls (including the world’s largest, with a gigantic aquarium with sharks and barracudas) and a panoply of man-made islands. Streets filled with hundreds of Mercedes, Bentleys and Rolls Royces, and the presence of Tiffany’s, Cartier, Bloomingdales, Galeries Lafayette, and just about every other major Western brand you can imagine, combine to give the desert city something of the feel of a crowded East Hampton on a July afternoon.
It’s a strange mix of ultra-modernism, and medieval instincts, the latter leading to zero tolerance for gays and drugs, and the periodic seizure of foreign newspapers, whenever they get a little too harsh towards one of the sheiks. Two years ago a Canadian changing planes at the Dubai airport was caught with .6 of a gram of hash and two poppy bulbs. The fact that he had been working as a consultant for the U.S. State Department’s Afghan poppy elimination program did not prevent him from receiving a four-year prison sentence.
There is one under-the-radar gay bar, but half of its patrons are apparently undercover policemen.
It’s also a place where the “properties” section of the Gulf News features ads for villas, hard by another one offering “Labor Camp For Rent–183 rooms, generator provided; water + electricity extra.” The labor camps are for the foreign workers who do virtually all of the construction, and are kicked out of the country as soon as their jobs are over. Last year, 27,550 were arrested for over-staying their welcome. In 2007, the US State Department estimated that less than 20 percent of the UAE’s population of 4.4 million are citizens–and 93 percent of its workforce is foreign.
The big question is whether the Burj Khalifa will mark the end of Dubai’s glory days or the beginning of its resurrection after the financial bust. The betting here is that the oil money of its neighboring emirate and the undaunted ambitions of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed will gradually lead to the city’s financial revival. But the plan for a massive new seawater canal through the center of the city to create waterside properties in the desert hinterland is probably on hold– forever.