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Why Dubai's Man-Made Islands Are Still Empty- Explained

In 2003, the construction of the multi-billion dollar project “The World” was announced. The man-made archipelago shaped like a map of the earth was planned to feature luxurious houses and tourist-resorts located all within just a short boat ride from Dubai. But today, more than 10 years after the completion of these islands, there is hardly anything built on them. What happened here?

Friday, July 3, 2020

/ by Avishek Bera
Why Dubai's Man-Made Islands Are Still Empty

The News Cover: In 2003, the construction of the multi-billion dollar project “The World” was announced. The man-made archipelago shaped like a map of the earth was planned to feature luxurious houses and tourist-resorts located all within just a short boat ride from Dubai. But today, more than 10 years after the completion of these islands, there is hardly anything built on them. What happened here? 

In the early 2000s, Real estate developers saw an enormous opportunity in creating artificial land off the coast of Dubai. The real estate boom in the Emirate seemed unstoppable. And the demand for ocean properties was huge. Dubai had already expanded along most of its coast. 

Why Dubai's Man-Made Islands Are Still Empty

So Nakheel Properties, a real estate company owned by the government of Dubai made plans to radically change the region, all within just two decades. Between 2001 and 2006, a number of plans were announced. 
The company planned three different island projects that when viewed from space should represent the shape of palm trees. Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali and lastly Palm Deira, by far the largest one. In addition, “The World” was announced. Different areas were planned, from low density housing, high density complexes and islands that can be used commercially. In a second phase, “The World” was planned to be supplemented by another even bigger project: The Universe. Man-made Islands were planned, that resemble the shape of the sun, the moon as well as the planets of the solar system, the milky way and a distant galaxy. 

Dubai's Man-Made Islands

Next to Palm Jebel Ali, another gigantic project was to be created: the Dubai Waterfront. These islands should be formed like a star and crescent, an important symbol in Islam. And the construction project was advertised as the largest man-made development project worldwide. 

The shape should also serve as a shelter to protect Palm Jebel Ali from erosion. With all these projects, most of the coast of Dubai would have been transformed as on one side the Emirate of Abu Dhabi begins, and on the other side there is the Emirate of Sharjah. In retrospect, the level of confidence with which these projects were advanced is astonishing. 

But the islands were seen as prestige projects that serve the larger goal of developing Dubai into a major tourist hotspot, and thereby creating new income sources for a place that gained most of its wealth through the extraction of oil. Now let’s take a look at what happened to these ambitious plans. In 2001, Nakheel Properties started building the Palm Jumeirah. 
This project alone would double the length of the coastline of Dubai. In 2006, the land reclamation was completed and the first apartments were already handed over. The strands of the palm mainly host private houses. 

While a number of large luxury hotels were built on the breakwater ring around the palm, that protects the Palm from storms. While Palm Jumeirah was still under construction other projects started to take shape. The 21st century seemed to have reached a new peak in the rate of growth of Dubai. 

The real estate market experienced a rapid boom. And a number of prestige projects, such as the Burj Khalifa, the largest building in the world, were built. In September 2008 the Atlantis Hotel on Palm Jumeirah celebrated it’s opening with a firework show on the entire Palm. But the celebrations couldn’t change that the international financial crisis started to affect Dubai. 

Reporter:"Just last week Dubai spent 20M Dollars for a party to open the Atlantis Hotel. The headline was: Dubai parties as the rest of the world reels from the economic crisis. Perhaps not anymore." 

Reporter: "Dubai has been hit by the global financial crisis. Especially in real-estate. Megaprojects like the artificial islands off the coast are in danger of collapse. Many construction sites are shut down." Due to a declining demand, the price of the plots of land fell rapidly. And the development of Palm Jebel Ali came to a standstill. In 2011, Nakheel Properties offered investors refunds and the project has been on hold ever since. 

The empty sand banks that reach 7km or 4.3 miles into the sea appear strangely forgotten. The Palm is located behind the Jebel Ali Port with no city development near it. And most of the visions dreamed up by the project planners seemingly evaporated in a puff of sand. 

The land reclamation of the Dubai Waterfront is nowhere near as advanced. But you can already see the shape of some of the islands on satellite images. This project as well has been discontinued. A similar situation exists with Palm Deira. 

The land reclamation had already progressed but is far from complete. In 2013, Nakheel decided to try to save this project by re-branding it. Instead of continuing to create new land, the project was scaled down and is now just called Deira Islands. 

And there is current construction work underway, with a planned mall, two high-rise buildings and a shopping street. Finally, “The World”. The land creation was mostly completed and a large part of the islands had already been sold before the financial crisis. But the islands were just not developed further as many of the investors that bought them were facing their own problems in the aftermath of the financial crisis. 

And although investment into new projects in Dubai increased after the crisis. The “World” project couldn’t benefit from this, as there was less confidence on the return on any such investments. 10 years after the initial project reveal, “The World” already seemed to no longer fit in the current time. 

Many concerns about the longevity of the project arose as news reports stated that the smaller channels between the islands started to sand up. And the rising sea levels are a growing danger for a project like this. In general, growing concerns around land reclamation projects came up. 
Residents at Palm Jumeirah criticised their water quality. While the breakwater is necessary to protect the palm from erosion, it also hinders the natural tidal movement. And the seawater within the palm became stagnant. Additionally environmental concerns got more attention. Pilling up hundreds of thousands of tons of sand on a seabed that previously had been almost evenly flat has an impact on the marine ecology. 

The islands are composed mainly of sand that was dredged from Dubai’s shallow coastal waters. And there are concerns that this leads to a destabilisation of the coastal soil, which can lead to an erosion of the natural coastline In addition, the coastal soil is destabilised, which can lead to an erosion of the natural coastline. Even if these consequences have been known for a long time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to market projects that are considered environmentally harmful. 

Many of the projects promoted in recent years are therefore trying to incorporate environmental compatibility. In addition, the difficult living conditions of migrant construction workers in Dubai is a topics that is receiving more media attention. Nevertheless, there are development projects on these Islands, that are starting to take shape Initially, there was only one island that had been developed. The villa served as a show house to promote the project. 

In summer 2012, the Royal Island Beach Club opened on Lebanon island. The club hosts daytime tourists that can get there by boat. The biggest project however was announced in 2014. An Austrian real estate investor plans to develope a number of projects on the European islands. The project is called “The Heart of Europe”. And the goal is to create kind of a mini version of Europe. 

With luxurious hotels that are inspired by places like Venice or Monaco. In addition to a number of restaurants with European food, the investor also plans to build a plaza on the Swiss island where there will be artificial snow falling. The project is currently under construction and time will tell whether it will bring the desired economic success. 

There are risky development projects almost everywhere in the world. And everywhere in the world, some of them fail. In Urban development, prestige projects often serve a greater role than being financially successful by their own as they can attract tourists to a region and therefore support the greater local economy in a variety of ways. In addition to attracting tourism, such prestige projects also often serve as national pride. 

Or they intend to symbolise the start of a new era, for example by using new construction methods or by breaking world records. Now if Dubai is questioned for creating planned landmarks, then the same criticism must certainly be applied elsewhere as well. But still the question remains, how these projects that changed the coastal landscape of Dubai will be viewed in retrospect. At a time when Dubais growth slows down and when the ambitious dream that this city represents stops being built and just has to be just lived.

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