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Dubai Reaches for the Sky

Khalifa Bin Zayed, president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi, no doubt was honored when Dubai decided to put his name on the tallest skyscraper in the universe.

But President Zayed can be forgiven if he was somewhat distracted as the 168-story Burj Khalifa tower officially was opened this week. That’s because he was busy averting a new international financial crisis by bailing out Dubai to the tune of $10 billion, the first installment of an estimated $60 billion in overdue bad paper the tiny emirate has piled up during the real estate boom.

As the new decade arrived, Dubai unveiled it crown jewel of excess—all 828 meters (about 2,800 feet) of it, 319 meters higher than the previous record-holder, Taipei 101, and almost twice as tall as New York’s venerable Empire State Building.

The $1.5-billion Burj Khalifa is the centerpiece of a decade-long construction boom that has transformed Dubai from a desert outpost to a futuristic city that sits like a luxury mirage amid the sand dunes. The mammoth structure, which looks a bit like a telescoping sewing needle, took six years to build. It can be seen for almost 100 miles, meaning oil workers in Abu Dhabi will have something to gape at as they put in overtime to pay off Dubai’s staggering debt. Late last year, Dubai sent shock waves through the world’s battered financial capitals by asking for a freeze on payments owed on $26 billion in debts.

The skyscraper’s architects, Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, have called the Burj Khalifa “a bold global icon that will serve as a model for future urban centers.”

However, Dubai’s latest status symbol is getting some mixed reviews.

Jim Krane, author of “City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism” told CNN: “If you look at it, it’s a really bad idea. It uses as much electricity as an entire city. And every time the toilet is flushed they’ve got to pump water half a mile into the sky.”

The telescopic shape also is problematic, Krane noted. “The upper 30 or 40 floors are so tiny that they’re useless, so they can’t use them for anything else apart from storage. They’ve built a small, not so useful storage warehouse half a mile in the sky,” he said.

Sounds like a good place to put all those predictions from the early 2000s that the real estate boom would never end.

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