Burj Dubai, World's Tallest Tower, Is 'Last Hurrah' To Dubai's Age Of Excess

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When work began in 2004 to build the world's tallest tower, Dubai's confidence also was sky high with a host of mega-projects on the drawing board or rising from the sands.

That swagger seems positively old school these days. It's been tripped up by a debt crunch that has humbled Dubai's leaders and exposed the shaky foundations of the city-state's boom years – leaving the planned Jan. 4 opening of the iconic Burj Dubai with a double significance of hello and goodbye.

It will be both a debutante bash for a new architectural landmark and a farewell toast to Dubai's age of excess.

The Burj Dubai – a steel-and-glass needle rising more than a half-mile (800 meters) – may be the last completed work from Dubai's time of the giants. Most other of the unfinished super-projects announced in recent years, such as a second palm-shaped island or a tower to surpass the Burj Dubai, are either recession roadkill or being considered on a far smaller scale.

If they are still considered at all.

Dubai last week dropped what amounted to a financial bombshell – announcing its main government-backed development group, Dubai World, needed at least a six-month breather from creditors owed nearly $60 billion.

World markets had known a day of fiscal reckoning was creeping up on what was once the world's fastest-growing city, swelling from about 700,000 in 1995 to more than 1.3 million today. But the depths of Dubai's red ink seemed to surprise everyone, rattling stock exchanges from Hong Kong to New York and adding exclamation points to obits-in-progress on the death of Dubai's golden years.

The Burj Dubai gala is now a welcome diversion. And one without a direct political sting: the building was developed by Emaar Properties, a state-backed firm not linked to the current debt meltdown.

"This tower was conceived as a monument to Dubai's place on the international stage," said Christopher Davidson, a professor at the University of Durham in Britain who has written extensively about the United Arab Emirates. "It's now like a last hurrah to the boom years."

It's not the first time a skyscraper has gone up as the economy swooned.

New York's 102-story Empire State Building was designed as the world's tallest building just before the 1929 stock market crash and opened in 1931 as the Great Depression was taking hold. In 1999, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, officially opened to claim the world-tallest crown – two years after the financial meltdown of the once-soaring Southeast Asian economies.

But the Burj Dubai, or Dubai Tower, occupies a special niche. Few cities have grown so far so fast – pushed along by runaway property speculation and the boundless ambitions of Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

The recession barged in last year and quickly dried up the cash flow.

The brakes also were slammed on hundreds of Dubai projects – from residential towers that stand half-finished to a desert Xanadu that included a Universal Studios theme park and a "city of wonders" with full-size replicas of the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal and other famous sites.

Sheik Mohammed even has grown a bit testy over Dubai's dimming star power. In a meeting with international investors in November, he switched from Arabic to English to tell naysayers in the media to "shut up."

Dubai's boosters hope the opening of the Burj Dubai – which include offices, residences and a hotel _will give them at least some respite from the bad news. The Dubai PR machine is working overtime.

A barrage of statistics – vital and trivial – are pouring out as the $4.1 billion building gets its finishing touches: more than 160 stories topped by a spire that reaches a reported 2,684 feet (818 meters), well above the runner-up skyscraper, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, at 1,671 feet (508 meters). The Burj has even pushed past other giant structures taller than Taipei 101 such as the CN Tower in Toronto and the KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota.

The Burj – designed by the Chicago-based architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill – is billed to have the world's fastest elevator at up to 40 mph (64 kph) and can be seen as far as 57 miles (95 kilometers) away. It takes three months just to clean all the windows.

But there's some facts that are still closely guarded, including how much of the office and residential space is leased and whether the financial meltdown will make the Burj another tower of debt.

The current price for purchase or rent, too, is also unclear. It's certain, though, that it's gone down along with property prices across Dubai in the past year. A report in October by the Investment Boutique, a real estate advisory firm in Dubai, said asking prices in the Burj Dubai area had slumped by 77 percent since the peak a year earlier.

"Buildings like the Burj Dubai are born from the optimism of the moment," said Carol Willis, director of The Skyscraper Museum in New York. "That may not necessarily be the mood when the project is finished."

The Burj Dubai also faces some location drawbacks that didn't burden Dubai's other signature structures, such as the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel and the Palm Jumeirah island that fans out into the Gulf. The Burj Dubai rises above a new annex of the city that was originally designed as a cluster of towers – which is now put on hold because of the economic crunch.

That leaves the Burj soaring above what amounts to high-priced empty lots.

But – for a moment at least – it will shift the spotlight back on Dubai from its oil-rich cousin, Abu Dhabi, the new boomtown of the UAE.

Abu Dhabi has already bailed out its debt-ridden neighbor once this year and is now watching from the wings as Dubai pleads for time with its global creditors. Dubai – without any oil resources – bankrolled its growth as a financial hub and a Mideast version of Las Vegas.

The rulers in more conservative Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, moved in other directions in their campaign to put the city on the world map in a generation.

In the past few months, Abu Dhabi hosted its inaugural Formula One race, won a global competition to host the headquarters of the new International Renewal Energy Agency and announced a $1 trillion plan to upgrade the city's roads, transportation and public venues. Also in the works are plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums and a New York University campus.

Suddenly, Dubai is playing the unfamiliar role of second city.

Dubai opened its elevated metro line in September, but with only about a third of the stations opened. Last January, the state-owned builder Nakheel – which is part of the current debt crisis – said the fiscal crunch forced it to suspend plans for a Dubai skyscraper designed to top the Burj Dubai.

As Dubai's leaders try to calm markets and investors, Abu Dhabi planned a party.

A fireworks show on Wednesday for the UAE's national day was billed as the world's largest display, with 100,000 devices exploding over Abu Dhabi's biggest hotel.

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