Castle Made of Sand – The Burj Khalifa Tower in Dubai


As Asian politicians, business elites and even the region’s poor are dreaming of turning their cities – from China to Cambodia – into futuristic Bladerunner-style neon ghettos, the United Arab Emirates appear to be well ahead in creating superlative anti-people environments.

On January 4th  2010, Dubai gave the world a fantastically absurd New Year’s present by opening the world’s tallest building, the 828 meter high Burj Khalifa Tower. Yes, the Guinness Book of Records will have to expand its next edition.

Once upon a time, the Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest building in the world, until England’s Lincoln Cathedral was built in 1311. More recently, several buildings in Asia held this record. Now, the Middle East once more leads the pack. The Dubai Burj Khalifa Tower is 300 metres higher than the next highest building, the Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan. It’s as tall as the two World Trade Center towers stacked on top of each other. The steel, glas, chrome and concrete monstrosity cost some US $1.5 billion. It has the longest elevator and the highest open-air swimming pool in the world. On more than 160 floors, fivestar hotels, flash apartments and flasher offices wait for guests and buyers. More than 12,000 people are projected to live and work in this vertical city. But enough boring consumer statistics.

All’s not well in Babylon and the world’s highest building is already throwing the world’s longest shadows. Sheik Mohammed bin Raschid al-Maktum, the brainchild behind the tower (I use this term very loosely, as the architects and builders were all foreigners) famously said that ‘many people brag, but we get things done.’ A bit embarrassing when the leader of Dubai did not have the money to complete his dream in the sky and had to borrow cash from his neighbor in Abu Dhabi, after whom the mega-project is now named. It seems that the oil money has long separated the Emirates’ leaders and their people from reality and the 160-floor sky shed is but a facette of the Dubai in Wonderland lifestyle, the region has gotten used to.

Hardly anyone one works here – from training the military, installing the oil technology, providing sex services or construction projects – most jobs are done by foreigners. Ever been to one of the discos that the locals frequent, crammed with hundreds of virtual slave prostitutes or talked to the builders who surface roads in 50 degrees heat for a couple of hundred bucks a month? The thousands of workers from South Asia who constructed the Burj Khalifa Tower were paid between 5 and 10 US dollars a day, lived in inhuman conditions, had their passports confiscated by their employers and even had their peanut-pay withheld. Many employees died due to the substandard safety conditions on the site. Thousands rioted over the abysmal conditions they had to endure.

Still, the sheiks of this world know that enormous towers are distractions designed to prop up bloated egos, project wealth and hide totalitarian mindsets. It’s always been that way. From the Taj Mahal in India to the Olympic Games in China, the world just loves to be comforted or impressed by bright lights and huge structures. In the midst of global recession, mass unemployment, climate change, hunger and widespread war, not to mention the UAE’s own financial incompetence – property prices in Dubai have recently dropped by 50% – the financial ineptitude of men like Sheik Mohammed bin Raschid al-Maktum appears to be little more than a minor highlight (excuse the sad pun) of the rapacious global consumer frenzy we find ourselves in at the dawn of our most unsavory millennium yet.

International observers don’t think that the Dubai Burj Tower will make any money, though it might help to stop and think just for a second what could have been done with the cash. The air-con bills alone should be enough to lift several impoverished African nations out of misery. In Europe, experts are laughing and crying at the same time. The German Architects’ Association called the building ‘an economically senseless prestige model for the power of money’. Elsewhere, the media reports have been as damning as this one, though not as serious.

For now, the building is virtually empty and is likely to stay that way. Dubai has been planning to diversify its oil-based economy into service-orientated tourism. Yet virtually everything a holiday maker wants – except for golf courses – is illegal in the Emirates: alcohol, sex, drugs and good times hardly go with current local precepts. Why would anyone go on holiday in a country where the taxi drivers will take their passengers straight to the nearest police station if they appear to be inebriated?

Perhaps the sheiks should have gone to see a couple of catastrophe blockbusters like 2012, before embarking on the construction of the world’s latest symbol of human hubris. As for the rest of the world, and especially boom or bust Asia, we’ll have to wait and see whether the construction of the Dubai Burj Tower will have an impact on the lofty ambitions of developers in the region. One does not have to look far in order to spot related spurts of architectural boasting. The gigantic Olympic structures across China are already falling into disuse while the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh has recently been celebrating its first high rise, which houses a bank, with a second on the way. It seems unlikely that Asian real estate dreamers will take note of a Castle made of Sand, when contemplating future beautification of their urban landscapes.

This story was published in South East Globe.

Postscript March 2010:

The Burj Khalifa Tower has closed, apparently due to electrical faults in the elevator system rather than bad taste, but not before the troubled lifts entrapped and traumatised a number of tourists.

A few days later, an aquarium located in a shopping mall in Dubai (imaginatively named Dubai Mall) began to leak, frightening more tourists and raising the question once again whether wild animals should be kept in retail outlets.

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