There have been hundreds of articles written about the Palm development in Dubai. You've probably heard of it -- an artificial island off the coast of the U.A.E. covered in palm trees and luxury homes.
But this article in the Telegraph is the first I've seen that isn't full of fawning praise. It's the first to take a hard look at what might not be the development of the century after all.
Here's a picture of the development taken from space:
Palm before a storm?
In an attempt to launch itself as the new Caribbean, Dubai is boldly building an artificial, palm-shaped island, and the British have flocked to buy. But, are there too many homes for too small a space, asks Catherine Moye
Like the genie in Aladdin's lamp, a model of Palm Jumeirah sat crammed into a glass case at the Savoy Hotel this June. The representation of the huge, six by five square kilometre man-made island forming the shape of the tree off the coast of Dubai was certainly beguiling. "Give me a little rub," it seemed to entreat its dozens of dreamy onlookers, "and pure profit will pour out." But, as with genies and jinns, are things quite as straightforward?
Eastern promise: the builders of Palm Jumeirah have had little difficulty attracting investors who want a stake in Dubai's famous luxury facilities
Palm Jumeirah is the first of three such islands being created in the Gulf by Nakheel, the property development company owned by Dubai's government. Scheduled to complete in 2008 and visible from space, it is a remarkable feat of engineering. The model was helping to launch one of the few schemes upon it not being constructed by Nakheel: a collection of 558 apartments, penthouses and townhouses by Fairmont, the Savoy Hotel's parent company.
This self-styled "eighth wonder of the world" captured worldwide attention when David Beckham, Michael Owen and nine other members of the England squad bought "signature villas" there when they visited Dubai en route to Japan and South Korea's 2002 World Cup. The developers declined to comment on rumours that the players had received hefty discounts but the subsequent hype helped Palm Jumeirah to sell out, with more than 25 per cent of properties going to British buyers.
Since then, Britons have continued to pour money into it like City boys stuffing notes into a dancer's garter. Units have been resold four or five times and completion is still some years away. However, a hazy cloud of obfuscation hanging over Palm Jumeirah has started to darken many investors' thoughts.
According to Nakheel's website (www.nakheel.com) and original Palm Jumeirah "project fact sheet" - still on view - "From the exclusive Signature Villas to beachfront townhouses, residents can choose from the 2,000 villas and 2,500 apartments in a variety of styles and surroundings." Later the website mentions 750 apartments on the palm's "trunk", which is known as the Golden Mile.
Logically, these seem among that total of 4,500 units but even adding them on, the total number of homes initially to be on Palm Jumeirah, including the so-called hotel-residences such as at the Fairmont, would be 5,250. The current most conservative estimate of homes and so called hotel-residences, sold on it is closer to 8,000.
That's before umpteen hotel rooms and 220 plus retail outlets are taken into consideration. Is the much-vaunted cluster of paradise islands in danger of becoming a congested, heaving, nightmare?
Aerial images passed to The Daily Telegraph showing construction of the first homes on the fronds of the palms seem to render Nakheel's claim that "whatever your dreams they will be fulfilled at this graceful and tranquil destination", somewhat doubtful. These photographs and the latest computer-generated images indicate that Palm Jumeirah could resemble the rush hour tube on a Monday morning rather than Robinson Crusoe.
David Beckham in 2002: he secured a home on the Palm when England spent a few days in Dubai
A former Nakheel construction worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, claims that Nakheel grossly underestimated the cost of construction of Palm Jumeirah and has since increased the housing stock.
"The current master plan is for about 150,000 people in apartments, villas and hotels plus daily labour getting on and off," he says. "But a lot of the people that are buying there are retirees, yet there are no medical facilities and no casualty evacuation plan in place." The source says that when they first designed Palm Jumeirah, "they didn't even bother with fire fighting equipment because they thought they could call the inadequate fireboat out from the port at Jebel Ali".
Moroever, with no fixed master-plan, and the goalposts continually moving, he reckons "Nakheel doesn't really know how many power cables they need to lay or the actual water requirements."
Investor Matthew Lorne, who bought three apartments on the Palm at the original launch, nearly three years ago, has a theory. "At that time there was supposed to be around 5,000 apartments and villas on the island," he explains. "No one actually guaranteed anything so Nakheel cannot be said to have defaulted but since that first release various other developments and apartment buildings within the palm have been added."
Mr Lorne attributes the increased units to both overwhelming demand and poor mathematics by Nakheel. He paid £90 a square foot for his apartments. Three years on, the newly launched Fairmont Palm sells at £225, a jump of 150 per cent.
"The maths just doesn't add up. You simply cannot pull that thing out of the ground and put in the kind of infrastructure it requires for £90 per square foot," Mr Lorne says. "They got their sums wrong so they've added stock to make it stack up."
Back to Nakheel's website and those hotels. "In addition to the world-class hotels on the trunk and 22 boutique resort hotels on the crescent [the 12 km outermost rim that acts as a breakwater from the sea], the Palm Jumeirah is pleased to feature the Atlantis on the expensive beaches of the crescent."
Originally declared to be a hotel of 1,000 rooms, recently the Atlantis was doubled in size. Moreover, the original literature speaks of 22 boutique hotels on the crescent, not of an additional 3,600 hotel residences, bringing the total number of rooms on that part alone to around 12,600. Four more boutique hotels are scheduled for the trunk - about 2,000 rooms. And what about Nakheel's plans for the trunk's centrepiece, the Palm Tower?
"The number of apartments at Palm Tower has yet to be finalised," says a Nakheel spokesman. As for the original figures, "the 2,400 apartments on the website refers to the shoreline apartments, but others were released later". Do some number crunching and alarm bells ring. The trunk is effectively a narrow peninsula along which all road traffic for the palm must pass. Even leaving aside maintenance workers, the hotels' 3,000-plus staff and thousands of guests coming and going each day, getting residents on and off looks like trying to pass a camel through the eye of a needle.
Granted, there will be numerous marinas for water taxis, but in Dubai, where the sea is too hot to swim in most of the year, comfortable travel means an air-conditioned car.
On a recent trip to Dubai, William P Kistler, European president of the Urban Land Institute, an international research body advocating best practises in land use, met with both public and private sector representatives. Generally, he was impressed by what he saw but had serious reservations about Palm Jumeirah.
"Palm Jumeirah is a peninsular, with one way in and out," he observes. "The question of how the road provision is going to connect into the transit infrastructure is something that we got a not very satisfactory answer to."
He predicts bottlenecks just exiting each of the 18 fronds of the palm, the longest of which has 154 homes. Then all that traffic has to get on to the trunk, where more vehicles will join, and then ashore. Though the five lanes in each direction leading to and from Palm Jumeirah appear generous, this connects to Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai's main highway where traffic moves as slowly as water down a blocked drain.
Two further major road projects are to be built behind the Sheikh Zayed Road - but so are 100 proposed residential towers housing up 40,000 people, right at the head of the palm. "People were wondering if the infrastructure was sustainable, even before they announced the construction of the Palm Jumeirah," says Mr Kistler.
Despite this, foreign exchange dealers Moneycorp reports that British investment in Dubai rose 700 per cent last year and thousands of Britons are still eager to buy there. Even Matthew Lorne remains bullish about his Palm Jumeirah investment. "Where else in the world can you buy beachside property for just £90 per square foot?" The rate of development in Dubai is truly intoxicating. In property terms, it has gone from being a nobody to an Olympic contender in a few years. With casual extravagance, skyscrapers are going up (215 are under construction), and remarkable leisure attractions, such as Dubailand, with its real snow ski-slope and Dubai Sports City which will encompass 8,000 homes alongside stadiums.
Property is Crown Prince Mohammed's imaginative answer to oil stocks that will run out in 10 years' time. This is development on a heroic scale, designed to attract 15 million visitors a year to Dubai come 2010 and to increase massively its population. The result should provide the Middle East with what it lacks: a city with the charisma of New York, Hong Kong or London.
To that end, the Crown Prince has already overseen the construction of majestic works like the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Hotel, which has drawn critical acclaim from around the world. The world's tallest tower, the Burj Dubai, will be at the heart of a mixed residential scheme that will also house the world's first Giorgio Armani hotel - a big coup for Dubai.
Then there's Le RÍve, a 50-storey apartment building overlooking Palm Jumeirah, designed by Atkins, the firm responsible for the Burj Al Arab. Le RÍve has already proved a magnet for the international super-rich, whose presence will determine whether Dubai attracts the kind of tax-exempt glamour that currently makes for Monaco. Two presidents and a Formula One racing driver have bought there.
If Palm Jumeirah looks in danger of becoming a high-density human squash, Le RÍve goes to the opposite extreme. It is possibly the only apartment building in the world where most of its 50 floors are dedicated to single, 13,400 square feet apartments. "We didn't want to go for the Toyota Corolla market - just the Bentley," explains developer Rami Mallhas. "So we stuck 50 Bentleys on top of one another."
Watching the logjam of cars and water taxis trying to reach Palm Jumeirah should make for entertaining viewing from the 300-person capacity terraces at some of Le RÍve apartments. Even at the Savoy, there was muttering about the impact of development on traffic and services already.
"It used to take me 25 minutes to get into the city of Dubai but now it takes me an hour and a half," says a British investor who owns a villa at Emirates Hills.
"It's scary. I'm concerned about water desalination and the infrastructure," says another. A third points to Dubai multi-billion dollar projects, "It's like building 100 of our Millennium Domes at one time."
Palm Jumeirah has become synonymous with the triumphalist expansion programme that is Dubai. But stuffing the palms like sardine tins, which may or not bear up to the traffic, is surely a questionable move. Nakheel did not respond to efforts by The Daily Telegraph to discuss concerns raised about this project. However, let us hope that, unlike the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, this self-declared eighth wonder of the contemporary one doesn't end up at the bottom of the ocean.
Fairmont Palm Residences (00 971 4 391 2022; www.fairmontpalmresidence.com).
The Palm islands through Nakheel (00 971 4 390 3333; thepalm.ae).
Le RÍve is being sold through Colliers international homes and investments (020 7487 1978; www.ccreinternationalsales.co.uk).
Burj Dubai tower and other property in Dubai is for sale through Cluttons (020 7408 1010)