Dubai prepared to inaugurate the world's tallest skyscraper on Monday, hoping to shift international attention away from the Gulf emirate's deep financial crisis and rekindle the optimism that fueled its turbocharged growth.
Crews rushed to complete preparations for the official opening of the tower, which stands at least 160 stories high. The exact height will only be revealed at the evening inauguration. The developer's chairman said it cost about $1.5 billion to build the tapering metal-and-glass spire billed as a "vertical city" of luxury apartments and offices. It boasts four swimming pools, a private library and a hotel designed by Giorgio Armani.
Dubai's ruler will open the skyscraper with a fireworks display and light show in a celebration that also marks four years since his ascension to power. Security is expected to be tight with more than 1,000 security personnel including plainclothes police and sharpshooters, local media reported. Cleaning crews were busy scrubbing windows and sweeping the plaza at the tower's base just hours before festivities began.
Burj Dubai opens in the midst of a severe financial crisis in the city-state — one of seven tiny sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates.
Dubai was little more than a sleepy fishing village a generation ago but it boomed into the Middle East's commercial hub over the past two decades on the back of business-friendly trading policies, relative security, and vast amounts of overseas investment.
Then property prices in parts of sheikdom popular with foreign buyers collapsed by nearly half over the past year, and firms owned by the government struggled to pay their massive debts. Dubai had to turn to its richer neighbor and UAE capital Abu Dhabi for bailouts totaling $25 billion in 2009 to help cover debts amassed by a network of state-linked companies.
Now Dubai is now mired in debt and many buildings sit largely empty — the result of overbuilding during a property bubble that has since burst.
Burj developer Emaar is itself partly owned by the government, but is not among the companies known to have received emergency bailout cash.
Despite the past year of hardships, the tower's developer and other officials were in a festive mood, trying to bring the world's focus on the Dubai's future potential rather than past mistakes.
"Crises come and go. And cities move on," said Mohammed Alabbar, chairman of the tower's developer Emaar Properties, told reporters before the inauguration. "You have to move on. Because if you stop taking decisions, you stop growing."
Alabbar said the landmark tower is 90 percent sold in a mix of residential units, offices and other space, offering a counterpoint to Dubai's financial woes.
The developer has only said the spire stands more than 2625 feet (800 meters) tall. Alabbar said Dubai's ruler will announce the height at the inauguration ceremony.
At a reported height of 2,684 feet (818 meters), the Burj Dubai long ago vanquished its nearest rival, the Taipei 101 in Taiwan.
But the tower's record-seeking developers didn't stop there.
The building boasts the most stories and highest occupied floor of any building in the world, and ranks as the world's tallest structure, beating out a television mast in North Dakota. Its observation deck — on floor 124 — also sets a record.
"We weren't sure how high we could go," said Bill Baker, the building's structural engineer, who is in Dubai for the inauguration. "It was kind of an exploration. ... A learning experience"
Baker, of Chicago-based architecture and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, said early designs for the Burj had it edging out the world's previous record-holder, the Taipei 101, by about 33 feet (10 meters). The Taiwan tower rises 1,667 feet (508 meters).
Work on Burj Dubai began in 2004 and moved ahead rapidly. At times, new floors were being added almost every three days, reflecting Dubai's raging push to reshape itself over a few years from a small-time desert outpost into a cosmopolitan urban giant packed with skyscrapers.
The tower is more than 50 stories higher than Chicago's Willis Tower, the tallest building in the U.S. formerly known as the Sears Tower.
At their peak, some apartments in the Burj were selling for more than $1,900 per square foot, though they now can go for less than half that, said Heather Wipperman Amiji, chief executive of Dubai real estate consultancy Investment Boutique.
Besides luxury apartments and offices, the Burj will be home to a hotel designed by Giorgio Armani.
It's also the centerpiece of a 500-acre development that officials hope will become a new central residential and commercial district in this sprawling and often disconnected city. It is flanked by dozens of smaller but brand-new skyscrapers and the Middle East's largest shopping mall.
That layout — as the core of a lower-rise skyline — lets the Burj stand out prominently against the horizon. It is visible across dozens of miles of rolling sand dunes outside Dubai. From the air, the spire appears as an almost solitary, slender needle reaching high into the sky.
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