UPDATE – the name of the building is now officially the Burj Khalifa, named after the ruler of neighbouring Abu Dhabi, to honor the bailout made by its sister emirate during the financial crisis.
The Burj Dubai is officially open for business – a bold statement for a new year, but also haunted by the economic failure of the past one:
Crews rushed to complete preparations for the official opening of the tower, which stands at least 160 stories high. The exact height will only be revealed at the evening inauguration. The developer’s chairman said it cost about $1.5 billion to build the tapering metal-and-glass spire billed as a “vertical city” of luxury apartments and offices. It boasts four swimming pools, a private library and a hotel designed by Giorgio Armani.
(…) Burj Dubai opens in the midst of a severe financial crisis in the city-state – one of seven tiny sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates.
Dubai was little more than a sleepy fishing village a generation ago but it boomed into the Middle East’s commercial hub over the past two decades on the back of business-friendly trading policies, relative security, and vast amounts of overseas investment.
Then property prices in parts of sheikdom popular with foreign buyers collapsed by nearly half over the past year, and firms owned by the government struggled to pay their massive debts. Dubai had to turn to its richer neighbor and UAE capital Abu Dhabi for bailouts totaling $25 billion in 2009 to help cover debts amassed by a network of state-linked companies.
Now Dubai is now mired in debt and many buildings sit largely empty – the result of overbuilding during a property bubble that has since burst.
As a technical achievement, Burj Dubai is just flabbergasting. I was in transit through Dubai earlier this year and I was utterly captivated by it the moment I stepped off the plane at the airport (it loomed in the distance beyond the field). As we drove through downtown Dubai I really only had eyes for the Burj and nothing else – my photos, pathetic as they are, are below. There are far better photos at the NPR story or the official Burj Dubai website, of course, but none of these capture the utter magnificence of this superbuilding. The height of the building’s top floor (the only real measure of height that matters) is estimated at 636m, which means even it’s closest contender, the Chicago Spire won’t be able to displace it from it’s throne as world’s tallest (though at 609m to the roof, it will be the tallest in the Western hemisphere). This comparison page at SkyScraperPage.com shows just how dramatically the Burj blows away it’s competition (and incidentally, demonstrates how the Petronas Towers cheated to get “officially” listed as higher than the Sears Tower, but nevermind that…)
Of course the dark side of Dubai means that this feat was accomplished at blood cost of virtual indentured servitude, of laborers from Pakistan who are still fighting for their rights in this insular Arab city state. I have some new optimism however that the economic gulf between labor and the elite in the Gulf will yet be bridged by gradual progress. As a liberal, it is my hope that President Obama will use his own bully pulpit to exert pressure for human rights and labor rights in the Gulf to help that process along. If he does, then someday the Burj might not just be a monument to Dubai’s excesses, but also it’s future and potential.
My photos of the Burj: