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 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 levelheaded 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 occassionally leaves Dubai to attend a concert in Vienna or a Rembrandt exhibition in Muscat in the neighboring country of Oman.