Not the end of The World: the return of Dubai’s ultimate folly

The long speak: A decade after it was scuppered by the financial sound, the imagination archipelago of 300 artificial island countries is back in business. Has anybody learned anything?

I had the whole of Palestine to myself that day. It was simply a short swimming from Lebanon but, as I slogged ashore out of the shallow, soupy irrigate, it became clear that I was the only visitor the island had witnessed for some time. Clambering to the top of the hill, over a lunar terrain inhabited by the occasional part of driftwood and the peculiar discarded beer bottle, I could see the sandy mounds of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia beyond, rising out of the high seas like bobbing croutons. The flashing skyscraper of the Burj Khalifa twinkled through the smog on the distant horizon.

A decade since it was dredged from the seabed, The World is a forlorn sight. It was the most ambitious intention of Dubai’s pre-crash bubble, exceeding the process of developing peninsulas influenced like palm trees and the construction of the tallest be built upon countries around the world, dreamed up as the ultimate award is planning to trump them all. In pastime of the world’s attention, the oil-rich emirate would remake the world itself.” The Palm situates Dubai on the map ,” exclaimed the marketing material at the time.” The World leans the planned on Dubai .”

Conceived in 2003, the project was to be an exclusive offshore playground for film stars, royalty and celebrity tycoons: an artificial archipelago of 300 islands specified two miles off the coast. Invitations to” Own the World” were sent to a targeted group of 50 potential purchasers each year, offering tours of the area by ship or helicopter, with costs for small island developing arraying from $15 -5 0m( PS10-36m ). Richard Branson posed for photos on little Britain in a Union Jack suit; Karl Lagerfeld propelled a blueprint for a fashion-themed island; reports swirled that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had acquired Ethiopia for their ever-expanding tribe of adopted children.

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Sir Richard Branson in 2006, in a notoriety stunt strengthening the’ Britain’ island of The World, two years before the slam. Photo: Dan Chung for the Guardian

After five years of dredging, which considered 320 million cubic metres of beach and 25 million tonnes of stone drag into locate, the final stone in the breakwater was laid in January 2008- on the eve of the global financial crisis. The dream collapsed just as quickly as personal computers returns had been made. Dubai World, the government investment weapon in charge of the project, was revealed to have debts of $60 bn.

Surveying the barren smudges of beach that scatters the sea today- which, in aerial portraits, make it look as if the Gulf is suffering from a nasty event of acne – it’s hard to shake the sense of an Ozymandian break. Shielding more than 5,000 hectares- almost seven eras the dimensions of the Venice- and encircled by a 20 -mile-long breakwater, the remains of The World lie as a mind-boggling shrine to the spectacular hubris of a moment in time when anything seemed probable. The owners of Ireland were planning to rebuild the Giant’s Causeway, together with conventional Irish streets, pubs and flattening dark-green countryside. A Chinese billionaire had drawn up plans to remake Shanghai’s skyline on his island, terminated with a duplicate of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. A corporation announced Opulence Retention had acquired Somalia, with aims to sculpt it into the shape of a seahorse, where residents could touch golf pellets from their balconies.

Overnight, thousands of millions of pounds in building contracts molten in a puff of sand, leaving a path of insolvencies, suits and unpaid debts. The owner of Great Britain, Safi Qurashi, was prison, accused of committing rebounding PS50m of cheques( for which he was later absolved, after helping three years ), and the owner of Ireland, John O’Dolan, killed himself in early 2009. After years of being hounded by irate investors wondering where their money had gone, the British co-owner of Thailand, Imtiaz Khoda, was lately jailed for an unrelated forgery, as part of a group that conned NHS hospitals, committees and both governments out of more than PS12m. Dogged by associations with shell companies and criminal handles, the entire project became toxic, damned by rumours of money-laundering, pyramid strategies and reports that small island developing were settling into the sea.

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An underwater bedroom on the Floating Seahorse villa in 2018. Photo: David Levene for the Guardian

Lebanon was the only island that opened to the public, and it still battles on today. For 200 dirham( PS40 ), you can spend the day at its world-weary beach organization, paddling in the consortium and dining wagyu beef sliders on a faded fibreglass sun lounger. The island plays multitude to champagne-fuelled jamborees by night, as a venue for fashion demoes, DJ parties and debauched corporate occurrences. It seems like an appropriate plaza for a little bit of end-of-the-world hedonism, surrounded by a scene of post-apocalyptic desolation.

So it comes as some surprise to learn that construction is back under way. Resting on Lebanon’s beach alongside a small few of other bewildered tourists, I determine diggers in the distance, changing sand beneath what looks like the formulate of a substantial brand-new be built upon an island next door. Trucks are trundling from a concrete batching plant on Monaco over towards Sweden, where a series of villas are under interpretation, designed in collaboration with Bentley Home. On Italy, the Portofino Hotel is rising out of the sand, statute as the first family-oriented five-star hotel in the region. The soil is being prepared for the appearance of a sprawling Alpine-themed complex on small island developing of Switzerland, while a speedboat returns got a couple of Emirati buyers to deem a swim appearance home, and to marvel at the view from its glazed underwater bedroom. After a decade in limbo, The World is back- with most ambitious schemes than ever before.

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The Burj Khalifa as seen today from The World, Dubai. Image: David Levene for the Guardian


” I am going to make it snow all time round ,” says Josef Kleindienst. He is sitting in a grey leather armchair in his office at the top of a pillar in Dubai, from where he can inspection the fronds of the Palm Jumeirah elongating out into the sea below. In the apartment next door sits an enormous sit of his image for the Heart of Europe, a fantastical concoction of Austrian castles, Swiss chalets and Russian palaces( and, curiously, Polynesian huts) designated across a group of six islands, connected via weave walkways and baroque connects.” Rain and snow might not be so alluring if you live in northern Europe, but to person in Dubai they are supernatural thoughts ,” he says.” Party here dance in wall street where reference is rains .”

With his heavy Austrian accent, prescribing stature and chilly demeanour, Kleindienst has the aura of a Bond villain, and I half expect him to unveil a monstrous laser gun for shaping it snow on his desert islands. He explains how he has been working with scientists at the Fraunhofer Society in Germany to develop outdoor cooling engineering consuming cold water. It has the same energy consumption and uses the same principle as conventional air conditioning, he says, except that the liquid will fall from a network of pipings in the form of flood. On a plaza in the Swiss-themed resort, the temperature is likely to be cranked down a few notches to clear snowflakes, which he says will settle on the soil thanks to cooling tubes submerge beneath the surface.

As a onetime police chief inspector, who set up his property development business in 1998 and moved to Dubai in 2002, Kleindienst makes an unlikely salvation of The World. He bought small island developing of Austria in 2006, before catching the fault and acquiring three more islands, then another three. Owners received access to their spots of beach from the original make, Nakheel, in September 2008, a few months before the full force of the financial crisis hit Dubai.” There was a chance, and there was a risk ,” he says.” All the others looked the risk and left. We encountered the fortune and remained .”

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Construction continues at Sweden Island, part of the Heart of Europe, a assemble of six islands. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

As we walk around the big-hearted model, Kleindienst clicks off his countries and entertainments, like God inspecting his handiwork on the seventh era.” Saint petersburg is our honeymoon island ,” he says, said a globule of ground that they have remodelled in the shape of a heart, flecked with thatched rooms, from which long quays extend to provide mooring posts for ” Floating Seahorse” villas, on sale for 12 -1 5m dirham( PS2. 3m-PS2. 9m ).” Then we have the prime Europe island, with our Ibiza party hotel and four city hotels- Munich, London, Amsterdam and Scandinavia, connected by a circular, glass-bottomed swimming pool on the roof- and the Ikaria wellness inn, appointed after the Greek island where people live longer and healthier than anywhere in the world .” It is a exhilarating world-wide smorgasbord, with little fear for geographical accuracy or architectural vernacular.

Germany has been set aside for higher-end inmates-” the second largest or third residences of your median millionaire”- while Sweden is billed as the pinnacle of exclusivity, boasting 10 “palaces”, whose rooftops are sat on the upturned hull of a viking carry. They come ended with infinity reserves, private coasts and furniture labelled with the winged B of Bentley. Kleindienst claims they have all been sold to members of the Gulf governments’ finding class, the last one for 75 m dirham( about PS15m ).

Just as Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed, offering one of The World islands to Formula One endorse Michael Schumacher in 2006, as a ruse to encourage others to come here, so Kleindienst hopes to use the presence of royals as bait.” We are well aware that where the royals are spending their summer vacation, many other beings likewise want to be ,” he says. But would privacy-seeking rulers genuinely want to tighten anywhere near hundreds of other beings holidaying in an Ibiza-themed resort?” One of our customers is likely to be render to buy a entire island of his own ,” says Kleindienst,” but he wants to be part of our campaign so he can experience the snow plaza and enjoy all of the presentation we will be laying on. We will have a restaurant from all the countries of the Europe, and a different culture fete each night .”

With distances of just a few metres between small island developing, it doesn’t feel like a particularly exclusive locate. You’ll be able to curve at your neighbouring billionaire across a shallow channel.” We are working on moving landscaping for privacy ,” says Kleindienst.” We have already experimented hovering palm trees .”

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The World, freedom, and its fellow artificial archipelago the Palm Jumeirah, is evident from space. Image: Nasa/ Rex Features

Trees won’t be the only things bobbing in the ocean. Payed the high-pitched fee on district, his firm is developing plans for part floating islands, beginning with Venice. Gondolas will weave between modern palazzos, provided around a wading pool proportioned to competition St Mark’s Square, while underwater bedrooms and restaurants will provide views on to a new coral reef. He says they have already established a coral nursery on one of small island developing, and plan to cultivate oyster couches extremely, with pearl-diving added to the roster of allures on offer.

Wading through the murky water today, it is hard to believe the Photoshopped imaginations of parties cavorting among shoals of exotic fish in a crystal-clear lagoon, lounging in their underwater nests or playing in the snow. Kleindienst says the part change and its 4,000 bedrooms will be completed in time for the Dubai Expo in 2020, which seems impossibly tight. He insists that most of the Floating Seahorse villas have been sold, promising investors a guaranteed yield of 8% over five years; but these figures are hard to take seriously when current prime residential belonging furnishes in Dubai rest at around 5 %. Nor might it be of particular backing to investors that one of Kleindienst’s designs recently sank following a New Year’s Eve party.

For all the hype, manufacture insiders parent their eyebrows at the relevant recommendations that The World is back on track.” When you go into these marketing suites, it is like 2007 all over again ,” says Dubai-based architect Sara Anwar, who was involved with Karl Lagerfeld’s plans for a fashion island, Isla Moda, before the financial crisis hit. The job, developed by Dubai Infinity Holdings, was to include a mode recourse, themed suburban villas, haute couture shops and indulgence cordiality equipment, all aimed at ultra-high net worth souls( or UHNWIs as they are known- an acronym that, when pronounced, chimes appropriately like “unwise” ).

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A prototype of The World in Josef Kleindienst’s offices. Image: Oliver Wainwright for the Guardian

” Every five minutes a bus would arrive at the sales office full of potential buyers, and parties would pilot now on their private planes for “the worlds largest” lavish start gatherings imaginable ,” Anwar says.” Everyone now on the floor had a real notion in what was happening, but there was obviously a sense of agnosticism from outsiders when they arrived .”

Others dismiss the new intentions outright as a fiscal loser, but Kleindienst’s bullish attitude believe that there is rubbing off. After a decade of melancholy, some other island owners have been buoyed by the company’s endeavors. Emirati make Seven Tides are set out in September that it plans to complete a 100 -villa recourse on one of its 10 islands in the South America cluster by the end of 2018.

” This will be the first resort of its nature anywhere on The World ,” said the company’s CEO, Abdulla Bin Sulayem.” The blueprint is beautiful, which is important, because if we don’t have a’ wow’ cause, there’s no level in doing it .” Mentioning on the unlikely acceleration of such projects, he supplemented:” When you’re building lots of[ same organizations ], everything is like Lego ,” which doesn’t bode particularly well for the high quality of the plans. It’s not the first time Seven Tides has announced its intentions to be the first to have a used open on The World. In 2009, it promised a planned of chalets on stilts “wouldve been”” opening soon” on small island developing of Buenos Aires, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and the Falklands, ended with swimming pool and tennis fields. Nothing has materialised.

As if to terminated the sense of deja-vu, producing back a touching of luminary shine, Mean Girls star Lindsay Lohan, who lately relocated to Dubai, has announced that she too is designing her own island on The World.” I “ve got a lot” of little projects[ in Dubai] because I like to keep busy ,” she told a US talkshow in January, describing her swelling straddle of branded enterprises, from a brand-new makeup string to nightclubs in Athens and Mykonos, and now” Lohan Island “.” I’m out Trump-ing Trump with the list Lohan !”

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Loungers on’ Lebanon ‘, ogling across to’ Palestine’ and the Dubai skyline. Picture: Oliver Wainwright for the Guardian


These daytimes there is no sign of The World in the sales office of Nakheel, the government-owned evolution fellowship that was founded in 2000 to head up the offshore projects. Crossing a bridge over an azure pond, I arrive at their composite of domed houses set a in lush humid garden-variety, to be welcomed into a marketing suite beneath a soaring pavilion ceiling cancelling a bedouin tent, where polished sword palm trees tower over a pose of the Palm Jumeirah.

” People ask why we improve brand-new arrive in the high seas when we have so much empty-bellied desert ,” says Mohammed Rashed Bin Dhabeah, Nakheel’s managing director of growing, adapting his crispy lily-white keffiyeh. A vitrine of miniature sports cars digests against one wall of his office, and a signed Lionel Messi football shirt hangs made on another.” We only have 60 km of sea passing along the coast of the Emirates, but we have 14 million tourists a year who come here for the coasts. So we needed to create more beach .”

It all began with the Palm Jumeirah, new ideas ascribed to Sheikh Mohammed, who is said to have sketched out the form of the stalk and fronds as the most effective determine to maximise the amount of beachfront. Each frond would be like a street, with a sequence of assets on either side, backing on to their own unfold of private beach. The novelty determine and the promise of beachfront homes was a prevailing formula: the plots sold out in two days.

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The Floating Seahorse luxury villa. Image: David Levene for the Guardian

Walking up the hard shoulder of the roaring roadway of the Palm today( “were not receiving” sidewalk; everyone drives ), the notion is less one of an exclusive private region than that of a generic slice of American suburbia. The homes have been carried in cheek by jowl, at three times the original plotted density, leaving sequences of McMansions ogling across at one another between thin deprives of depressed water.

In the sales brochures and news reports, this new anatomy of Google Earth urbanism was intoxicating, especially given that much of the intended audience would never see it in reality. The media frenzy generates the Palm was enough to convince Nakheel to propose a further two palm-shaped islands of even greater immensity: the Palm Jebel Ali, significantly south along the coast towards Abu Dhabi, and the monumental Palm Deira nearer Dubai’s aged town core, seven and a half days the size of the original. Together, they would lend more than 250 miles of coastline to the shores of Dubai, and support an additional 6,000 hectares of land- an area larger than the whole of Manhattan. In a move that now seems like daring demise, the Palm Jebel Ali was to facet a halo of calligraphically influenced islands, spelling out the lines of a poem written by Sheikh Mohammed: ” Take insight merely from the wise men,/ Not all persons who travels a pony is a jockey./ It takes a adult of vision to write on liquid,/ Great beings rise to great challenges .”

In this case, current challenges proved too great. The contour of Jebel Ali was formed, but the project has been on hold ever since. Meanwhile, Palm Deira got as far as the basis of the case before the rest of the tree was cancelled, its sorry stump since rebranded” Deira Islands “.

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The plans for Karl Lagerfeld’s’ fad island ‘, Isla Moda. It never materialised

Caught up in a delirium of shape-making, before the palms reached the buffers, The World was the self-evident next pace.” After the success of the Palm Jumeirah, people wanted their own private islands ,” says Bin Dhabeah.” The World was a way of creating a arrange where all the persons could do their own stuff .”

On the alley outside its term of office hangs a satellite view that testifies not only The World and the three palms, but a cacophony of other swirly chassis that replenish the entire area of ocean between the two sides of the strait and the existing islands. “Theres” moon-shaped crescents, planetary starbursts and jiggling snakes, arranged in an indiscriminate mystify, as if someone had spilt a bowl of spaghetti conditions in all the regions of the map. This is The Universe, an aborted plan for an additional 3,000 hectares of fantasize islands influenced like the Milky way system and the solar system. It was announced in January 2008, just as The World was ended, but was swiftly sucked into the great black hole of the financial crisis, never to be seen again.” We don’t talk about that one ,” says the PR, chivvying me out of the office.


Sitting at home in Miami, the designer of these crazed dreams recalls a era when Nakheel couldn’t have been keener to roar the business plan from the rooftops, relating a rose-tinted era when nothing was deemed too outlandish.

” They was completely unfazed by anything ,” says Luis Ajamil, chairperson of design monstrou Bermello Ajamil& Partners, business practices whose CV boasts the momentous accomplishment of masterplanning The World and The Universe.” The Universe would have been longer than Miami Beach in its entirety. It even had its own airfield, and would have needed 1 or two million people to make it successful. They said:’ So what ?’ If you said no to them, it was their journey to say:’ OK then, we’ll do it .'”