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Peak of Megalomania

The Tower of Dubai

By Erich Follath and Bernhard Zand


Part 2: Bailouts from Abu Dhabi

In 2004, a crew of about 2,000 people began building one floor at a time, completing an average of one per week. When interior construction entered its final phase in the fall of 2009, there were 14,000 people working on the project, people from 45 nations, speaking 35 different languages -- engineers in white helmets, security personnel in red helmets and laborers in blue helmets -- and yet there was no Babylonian linguistic confusion on the site. The workers completed a total of 95 million working hours, many at starvation wages. A skilled carpenter earned no more than €12 a day, while ordinary laborers made even less.

Façade components were shipped from China, marble panels from Italy and veneers from Brazil. German companies were also involved in Burj Dubai's construction: Lopark, from the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, supplied parquet flooring, entire football fields of it. The German branch of the US firm Guardian, based in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, provided 174,000 square meters (1.8 million square feet) of solar glass. Dorma, from Ennepetal in North Rhine-Westphalia, supplied hinges and fittings. Duravit provided approximately 4,000 bidets and toilets. And Miele delivered 7,650 household appliances -- the biggest single order in the company's history. Designer Giorgio Armani bought 15,200 plates and cups from Bavarian porcelain maker Rosenthal for his hotel on the first eight floors of the building.

German companies also played important roles in the development and processing of the basic core material of the Burj Dubai: concrete. Because concrete dries too quickly at daytime temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the concrete was poured at night. German chemical giant BASF developed a special chemical to make the concrete more malleable initially and later rigid. Putzmeister, a maker of concrete pumps near Stuttgart, provided special high-performance pumps to pump the concrete up to the 160th floor.

Quietly and uneventfully, which was entirely to Hinrichs' liking, the tower grew, floor after floor -- until June 6, 2007, when the weather service at the airport e-mailed Hinrichs a satellite image showing a cyclone that had developed over the Indian Ocean, the biggest storm ever recorded in the region, which was heading directly for the Strait of Hormuz. "That was the only day in five years," says Hinrichs, "when we had to close the construction site."

The Dubai tower had already surpassed all superlatives in building history. It had overtaken the 509-meter Taipei 101 Tower as the tallest inhabited building in the world, as well as Toronto's 553-meter CN Tower as the tallest freestanding structure. Dubai had arrived at what had become the most ambitious of its goals. The city, a village of pearl divers only a generation earlier, had brought a world record back to the Middle East. For almost four millennia, the Great Pyramid of Giza (138.8 meters) was the world's tallest man-made structure, before it was overtaken by Lincoln Cathedral in England (160 meters, at the time) in 1311.


What could now unhinge this economic miracle on the Gulf? A terrorist attack? A new Gulf war, this time against Iran? Another earthquake, even stronger than the one that hit the region on Sept. 10, 2008?

On the day of the cyclone on Sept. 10, 2008, a crane operator working 700 meters above the ground had called Hinrichs to report that it was "shaking" where he was standing. Tremors had shaken the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas, but in Dubai, few (other than the crane operator) had even noticed.

Five days later, Dubai was struck by another sort of tremor, but this one had its epicenter in New York, another city of skyscrapers. On Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers, the world's fourth-largest investment bank, filed for bankruptcy.

Not just Dubai, but the West, too, had been building a tower in the years of the real estate boom, a tower of debt, which now came crashing down. But despite the vast sums of money involved in the crisis in the West, it was and largely remains a strangely abstract phenomenon. Not so in Dubai, however, which reflects the financial debacle more vividly than any other city in the world.

"Classic megalomania seems to have migrated from people's minds to the system itself. Nowadays the system is crazier than the people," says German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. "That's why we, as human beings, are terribly disappointed by the course of the crisis. There was not a single colorful individual (in Europe) to make the crisis more interesting. I've never seen such an enormous conspiracy of petty bourgeoise people than at the moment."

Sloterdijk may be right when it comes to the bankers, analysts and finance ministers of the West. But he apparently has never heard of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 60, a horse breeder and poet, a lover of fast powerful cars, an avid falconer and a juggler of billions. Maktoum is the ruler of Dubai and the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. "Many leaders make promises," he said in February 2008, when the Free University of Berlin awarded him its medal of honor, "but we deliver."

Maktoum had artificial islands built in the waters off his city, with names like The Palm, The World and The Universe. Not just the Free University, but the entire West was fascinated by his energy and optimism. Like the thoroughbred horses in his racing stable, he sent the most capable of his lieutenants into the orbit of globalization, and along the way they built new towers, bought ports and sent airliners out into the world.

'Crisis? What Crisis?'

One real estate company after the next was founded -- Dubai Holding, Dubai Properties, Tatweer, Meraas, Sama -- and it soon became difficult to keep track of who was building what and with whose money. Apparently not even the sheikh himself was always in the know.

Only about a year ago, investors were still crowding into the "CityScape Dubai" real estate convention. Former race-car driver Michael Schumacher was there, touting a skyscraper with a covered yacht berth. Nakheel, which is now in very dire financial straits, was seriously talking about the possibility of building a 1,000-meter tower. And, on the palm-shaped Jumeirah island, Dubai spent $20 million on fireworks to celebrate the opening of the fairytale Atlantis Hotel. "Crisis?" the city seemed to ask, "what crisis?"

A year few weeks later, one of Sheikh Mohammed's officials presented the bill: Dubai had amassed $80 billion in debt, $50 billion of which, or about two-thirds of its gross domestic product, was scheduled to mature by 2013.

For a few days, the sheikh suddenly disappeared from the scene. Rumors emerged he was ill and that he was "melancholy." Then he reappeared and began to whitewash the situation, claiming that the crisis had not affected Dubai, that Dubai had actually overcome the crisis, and that Dubai and its wealthy neighbor, Abu Dhabi, were as close and inseparable as brothers.

But the "brothers" from the neighboring sheikdom, with whom the Dubaians form the bulk of the United Arab Emirates, no longer wanted any part of Dubai's excesses. Abu Dhabi has 7 percent of worldwide oil reserves, and its 64-year-old emir, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, is the president of the UAE, while Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed is only its premier -- and Abu Dhabi now views the prestigious activities of his relative in the neighboring emirate with growing mistrust, and probably some envy.

At the beginning of the year, Abu Dhabi rescued Dubai from the worst of its problems with a $20 billion cash injection. The emirate stepped in again earlier this week, providing Dubai with an additional $10 billion in financial aid. The emirate may have abundant assets in its $500 billion sovereign wealth fund, but how much longer will it be willing to bailout its neighbor? The sheikhs of Abu Dhabi seem to prefer to spend their money on sounder, more sustainable projects, such as an emissions-free eco-city called Masdar, where the emirate plans to conduct research on projects for the post-petroleum age.

In the last four weeks, the sheikh has revealed -- not always voluntarily -- how serious the crisis is and how deeply it affects him. At first, the normally restrained sheikh lost his composure and told the critical Western media to "shut up," and then he dismissed three of his closest advisers on the emirate's central financial council. A short time later, he waxed poetic when he described the crisis as "the fruit-bearing tree that becomes the target of stone-throwers."

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