Saturday, February 28, 2009


This is an Arabic word that has pretty much crossed over to the lexicon of English speakers in the UAE. Meaning tower, it first came into popular use with the opening in 2000 of the Burj Al Arab--the famous, or notorious, 7-star hotel. More recently the Burj Dubai, the soon to be completed 162-floor super tower, has both added further popularity and a good amount of confusion to the term. It is funny that it is usually the local Arabic speakers who translate the word into English for English speakers when referring to either of the towers.

Although I know quite well that one is the Burj Al Arab and the other is the Burj Dubai, my tongue quite regularly mixes the two up. The situation could easily get worse as other tower builders are often inclined to add Burj to the name of their towers.

Beyond the symantics, the Burj, as in the 162-floor tower, is quite an amazing addition to Dubai's already amazing skyline. It isn't just a super-tall structure, but rather quite a beautiful edifice, especially when seen gleaming in the shining sun. Interestingly as well, it has been constructed as not a single, lonely monument but as part of a larger development which includes numerous other towers, an artificial lake and the so-called Old Town, which provides an artful contrast of old and new architecture. It is very much a job well done by its developer, Emaar.

It has been noted that when previous tallest buildings in the world have been built, their completion has ushered in a serious economic crises of one sort or other, as though there is a jinx associated with such feats. Perhaps we could call it the curse of the Tower of Babel. I came across this observation a couple of years ago, before any signs of the current global meltdown. At the time I thought, interesting coincidence, but surely the Burj Dubai will be the exception.

The economy of Dubai after all had been booming for years and the only hint of a slowdown was the forecast eventuality of over-supply in the local property market. No one would dare suggest that this was not going to happen at some point with the massive scale of construction going on. But the conventional wisdom was that, with rampant project delays and overly ambitious predictions of project completions, the day of reckoning was still a couple of years off and slipping.

Alas, come September 2009 the Burj Dubai too would seem to be headed toward the same fate or curse as the super-towers which preceded it. In 2004 the Tapei 101 tower was completed--no recession or dramatic economic events then. But the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, completed in 1998, seemed to usher in the Asian flu, the Chicago Sears Tower and New York World Trade Center towers in 1974 and 1973 respectively saw the emergence of the first world oil shock, and perhaps most notorious of all, the Empire State building witnessed the start of the Great Depression at its completion in 1931.

Certainly, it is not coincidence but rather symptomatic of great booms that they spawn builders to reach for the stars, while as a matter of course, they eventually engender their own bust. In the years that it takes to go from vision, to plan, to realization of a world's tallest tower, the boom will have crested and then begun its hasty retreat. So it is again for the Burj Dubai.

In this instance, there is perhaps a silver lining. The severity of the bust is as spectacular as the great feat represented in the construction of the tower. The Burj Dubai is the first super tower since the Empire State building to rise to such elevation as to leave any challenger far in its stead. It is probably now destined to hold onto the title of world's tallest tower for decades to come.


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