The credit crunch has finally hit Dubai but the emirate continues to grow - in size and in maturity.
Part 1 of a five-part series by Christine Murray
‘We are building history,’ says Marwan Al Qamzi, managing director at developer Nakheel, steering his white Lexus over a vast expanse of limestone-coloured sand.
It’s 11 November, the day before Dubai’s property-market crash, but if Al Qamzi knows what’s about to happen, it doesn’t show. By 30 November, Nakheel had announced 500 job cuts, 15 per cent of its workforce.
He’s giving me a tour of the construction site of Palm Jebel Ali, the second palm-tree-shaped island to be grafted on to Dubai’s shoreline. There isn’t much to see out here yet, just a dead seabird or two and a dredging boat in the distance spitting a rainbow of sand from the seabed into the air.
As we drive around the palm tree’s outer crescent, Al Qamzi points out the thin fronds in the distance, 18 curved fingers of land that will house 250,000 people in hotels, apartments, villas and 500 water homes set on stilts. When the palm is finished, a poem in Arabic by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, will be spelled out in floating islands, illuminated at night and legible from space.
The scale is epochal, but Palm Jebel Ali is typical of the kind of outrageous, tacky über-developments that have become synonymous with Dubai over the last 10 years – all of them conceived and executed by Sheikh Mohammed, named crown prince of Dubai in 1995 and ruler in 2006.
‘Everything changed with Sheikh Mohammed,’ says Peyman Mohajer, director at Ramboll Whitbybird, who founded the engineering firm’s Dubai office three years ago.
‘He had a vision from the beginning.’ This vision has been certainly been good for UK firms such as Ramboll Whitbybird, RMJM and Atkins, with hundreds of employees working on flagship projects.
‘They were like kids in a candy store,’ says Lee Morris, an architect at Atkins in Dubai who designed the Trump International Hotel and Tower for Palm Jumeirah. ‘Developers would say, here’s the plot, here’s the development brief – I want something fantastic.’ It was a dream scenario for architects that lasted until the credit crunch hit last month, with a market correction that many believe long overdue.