New world emerges from Dubai's waters

About 300 islands looking like a blurred vision of the planet’s nations are slowly emerging from the waters of the Gulf, forming an exclusive and sandy world of their own just off the coast of Dubai.

The World is one of the most ambitious projects yet launched by this tiny emirate, one of seven that make up the United Arab Emirates, and arguably the one developing at the most breakneck speed.

Less than two years after work began, 60% of the islands have been raised from the sea floor, says James Wilson, CEO of Nakheel, the company behind the project.

On a rare visit, the boat cuts through the waters between these desert islands with a maximum of 100m between them.

Nakheel’s task is simple: bring the islands up from the Gulf’s shallow waters. Then it’s up to buyers to develop them, with an exclusive villa for oneself or a luxury tourist complex to make yet more money.

But for now, the only building visible is on one of the 26 islands that will make up Greenland. Here, Nakheel has built a two-storey show complex among palm trees to whet prospective buyers’ appetites.

“We have sold 40 already,” says Wilson, including the 14 islands that form Australasia that was bought by a Kuwaiti consortium to house a $3,5-billion real estate and tourism development.

For an average $25-million, the discerning buyer can acquire a small island of not more than a couple of hectares.
And that’s before you’ve even started paying the architect to design your building.

“We have refused more offers than we have accepted, because we are very selective,” says Wilson.

“We ask for the masterplan… if someone wants to build a 15-storey building, we say ‘go to the mainland’.”

The idea is for The World to be a luxury holiday destination for a select and wealthy clientele.

Construction of the islands, which is being carried out by a fleet of 30 ships dredging the Gulf’s seafloor, is set to be completed in 2008.

Once finished, the project will cover 63 square kilometres, but the image of the world will be visible only from the air.

According to Nakheel, the islands will triple Dubai’s coastline.

And while some islands will be bought and used by individuals, most will be commercially developed to draw yet more visitors to Dubai, a city of 1,2-million people—including one million foreigners—whose leaders want to see it transformed into a world-class tourist capital.

Looking at the figures, the emirate seems well on its way: from 630 000 tourists in 1990 to 3,4-million in 2000 and 5,4-million in 2004—with the average length of stay also growing steadily.

The aim is to reach 15-million visitors a year by 2010. By comparison, the Middle East’s number one tourist destination, Egypt, currently has eight million tourists a year.

Nakheel is controlled by the emirate’s leaders and is at the vanguard of the mega-projects strategy for luring tourists, which includes The Palm, another batch of islands currently under construction in the shape of… palm trees.

Yet another ambitious project under construction is the Dubai Waterfront—promised by brochures to be “bigger than Manhattan and Beirut”—which this time will see a city of half a million people built on artificial islands.

So what next? Wilson says that Nakheel is already working on another project, top secret for the time being.

Meanwhile, the company has begun selling its expertise to other nations around the globe, based on its own homegrown worldly experiences in Dubai. - Sapa-AFP

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