DUBAI, United Arab Emirates There is no stronger belief in the saying, “If you build it, they will come” than in Dubai.
Because it has the smallest oil holdings of the seven United Arab Emirates, Dubai has chosen to diversify by building itself into a tourist and trading mecca. In the past decade, development has exploded, from the ultra-luxury Burj Al Arab hotel to business zones like Dubai Media City and attractions bordering on the surreal, like Ski Dubai, an indoor ski slope 400 meters, or 1,300 feet, long.
Now, on the emirate’s last remaining undeveloped land fronting the Gulf, the government is building a city called Dubai Waterfront. At the moment, it is a vacant beachfront dotted with cranes. When it is finished, it will be a self-contained community larger than Manhattan, with housing for 700,000 people.
“People think it is a dream, but people are wrong,” said Khaled Issa Al Huraimel, general manager of the project for the developer Nakheel. “What we start here, we finish.”
Dubai’s population of 1.2 million is projected to grow to 4 million by 2020, and tourist arrivals are expected to grow to 22 million a year from 8 million. “At the moment, we don’t have the capacity to handle that,” Huraimel said.
Planning for the new city began in 2002, and a master plan was developed last year with the New York architectural firm Gruzen Samton. Development of the infrastructure has begun, and the entire city is expected to rise from the sand – and the water, on a series of artificial islands – over the next 10 years.
When it is finished, the city will form a giant crescent arching around The Palm, a palm- tree-shaped island resort and residential project so big it is visible from space. The city will comprise five major sections, with the centerpiece being the Madinat Al Arab, a city center with businesses, shopping and one of the world’s tallest buildings, Al Burj.
Huraimel said Al Burj might end up being the tallest building in the world – it will be competing with the Burj Dubai, a mixed-use building already under construction.
The planned heights of both buildings have not been disclosed.
“We won’t know until they are finished which one will be taller, but we do know that the two tallest buildings in the world will be in Dubai,” Huraimel said. (The world’s tallest building now is Taipei 101 on Taiwan, at 509 meters.)
Dubai Waterfront will have 12 kilometers, or 7.5 miles, of natural beachfront, 10 kilometers of canals and a harbor two kilometers wide. There will be 10 mixed-use zones, ranging from residential areas to commercial and retail space, resorts and areas for schools and recreation. As many as 200 hotels are planned.
“It’s a blending of a city into communities,”‘ said Jordan Gruzen, a partner at Gruzen Samton.
The residential zones will include housing aimed at middle-income brackets as well as luxury homes, Huraimel said. “We do have to protect the lower-income levels,” he said.
Luxury sales in the emirate have declined in recent months, with some real estate specialists saying prices had reached unsustainable levels.
In the first phase of the project, Dubai Waterfront Co., a division of Nakheel, is spending about $4 billion on the infrastructure of the new city, including roads, a sewer system, desalination plants to ensure the water supply, electricity and a light rail system. Huraimel said the value of the land alone, before any improvements, was $30 billion.
Once that work is done, private developers will be sold individual plots in the city, of which 70 percent will be residential and 30 percent commercial. The first sites, prime areas along the downtown beachfront zoned for residential and resort purposes, sold for $13 million in 48 hours in December. More will be sold this year.
The new city will be an equidistant 35 kilometers from the existing Dubai city center and Abu Dhabi, and just a few kilometers from the new Jebel Ali airport, which, with six runways, will be the largest in the world.
Huraimel was confident that Dubai would attract the business and residents to make the city work. “In 15 years, the perception of the Middle East will change,” he said. “We are a modern, diverse society in Dubai. The city is safe, there are no taxes, the weather is perfect for at least nine months out of the year.”
Also, in March the emirate said it would allow foreigners limited freehold ownership and formal 99-year leases, just one of the property law changes being made across the UAE to attract investment.
But Huraimel conceded that Dubai had a big job to do in overcoming the West’s negative image of Arab countries. “Some have said that Islam and the West is a clash of civilizations,” he said. “Dubai is like a city of dreams. This is not a clash of civilizations. This is the opposite.”
Gruzen and his team are already convinced.
“Dubai has absolutely amazed us,” said Joe Navarro, another senior associate at the New York firm. “Each time we go there’s a higher degree of confidence. This isn’t just a flash in the pan.”
Huraimel said that the new city would mesh with existing projects; the city’s own light rail, for example, will link to the Dubai metro trains now being built.
While the Gruzen architects have been involved with other large-scale projects, including building a smaller city from the ground up in Iran, the Dubai project is unique.
“They’re building their own factories to make products,” Navarro said. “Anything you need is provided for. This is more than hype. It’s got real money behind it.”
Related links: Detailed Master Plan of Dubai Waterfront