The 300 islands that cost US$12 billion and were abandoned by millionaires

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Towards the end of the last century, the United Arab Emirates began an ambitious project to build luxury artificial island complexes. Although it was not a revolutionary solution – in Lake Titicaca there are artificial islands with several centuries of history – the project attracted attention, among other things, because it had a design of elaborate and symmetrical figures that could be appreciated from the air.

One of those projects, and perhaps the most ambitious, was “El Mundo”, a archipelago of almost 300 artificial islands that recreated the shape of the seven continents as seen on the maps. The plan was launched by the UAE’s own Sheikh, Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, in 2003.

The idea is that interested buyers could choose an island that simulates the shape of a country, from the United Kingdom and the United States to Greenland. With an investment of US$12 billion and the use of almost 321 million cubic meters of sand and 386 million tons of stone, the objective was to create islands that could be converted into luxurious properties for the world’s wealthiest.

“The vision of the United Arab Emirates was to find a way to replace its dependence on oil as the main source of resources. And the choice was the real estate business“, he explained to BBC World Professor Alastair Bonnett, geographer at the University of Newcastle and author of the book “A Journey into the Age of Artificial Islands”. “And the artificial islands model, which was copied by other countries like Nigeria, had its successes and failures,” he noted.

And the business in the emirates seems to be one of those that did not prosper as planned: The Top Luxury web portal has just declared “El Mundo” as the “most useless mega project in the world”. The reason is simple: 21 years after it began, only a couple of islands have been completely built and from the sky they look like a series of deserted and abandoned points that form a world map. “None of the planned plans have been realized yet. As things stand, the islands that make up ‘The World’ are mostly deserted, they are empty sectors of sand,” the portal states.

The prognosis is even bleaker. With 60% of the project sold, and although the developers themselves indicated that their plans continue, several investigations have already indicated that the islands have signs of erosion. But how did a project that had the support of a buoyant country end up becoming a ghost complex?

In 1999, the United Arab Emirates presented itself to the planet as a modern and international country. Precisely that year, the Burb al Arab hotel opened, which would redefine the concept of luxury in the world. That same year, the Sheikh of the UAE also announced the construction of the “La Palma Jumeirah” project, a residential and hotel complex that would rise on an artificial island that would have, precisely, the shape of a palm tree.

The project performed well in sales and led to plans to build other similar endeavors beginning to take shape.

Thus, in 2003, Al Maktoum himself gave the green light for the construction of “The World,” the network of 300 islands off the beaches of Dubai that attempted, on a much larger scale, to replicate the success of the “Palm Jumeirah.” ”.

There are only a few islands with developed projects.GETTY IMAGES

“The project was much more ambitious: it was a complex of islands called The Universe, where spaces like the Milky Way, the Sun, the Earth were designed,” said Bonnett. The plan was broad, yes, but at the same time simple: install nearly 300 artificial islands, so that wealthy people who could acquire a “piece of the world” here could then build whatever they wanted.

As The Guardian reporter Oliver Wainwright noted, “the projects on each island were also quite eye-catching: a Chinese billionaire had drawn up plans to remake the Shanghai skyline on his island, with a copy of the iconic Television Tower. ”.

And a company called Opulence Holdings had acquired Somalia, “with the ambition of sculpting it into the shape of a seahorse, where residents could hit golf balls from their balconies,” Wainwright added. The truth is that only a couple of complexes were built. One of them was the one in the shape of Greenland, where a kind of “model house” was installed and everything that the project was going to include was displayed, which not only promised residential spaces but also resorts and restaurants.

This is how the project was presented in 2003 by the Sheikh of the United Arab Emirates.GETTY IMAGES

This is its current status.GETTY IMAGES

Another was the house that was donated, fully built, to the seven-time Formula 1 world champion driver, Michael Schumacher. However, the 2008 financial crisis helped the project collapse. Many of those who had committed to buying the homes were left without resources to continue. Thus, the plan continues, although without much progress.

“One of the big problems of ‘El Mundo’ is that, unlike La Palma, it does not have a physical connection with Dubai, there is no bridge that one can reach by car nor is there a connection between the islands,” he noted. academic Bonnett.

The current developer, the company Nakheel Propertiespointed out on several occasions that the “El Mundo” project continues and that they are looking for resources to carry it forward.

The Palm Jumeirah, one of the most striking urban projects in Dubai.GETTY IMAGES

But just because the “El Mundo” project has not progressed as expected does not mean that the idea of ​​turning Dubai into a real estate business hub has not worked. Currently, the Palm Jumeirah, another set of artificial islands, contains about 4,000 homes where about 25,000 people reside. Dozens of hotels and other attractions also operate there.

But despite the good performance, the business of artificial islands to create space for commercial urban developments is risky. “Rising sea water levels make investing in an island risky. But if there is one thing that has characterized Dubai, it is that it takes risks, even if they are costly.”added Professor Alastair Bonnett.

Furthermore, the construction of Jumeirah and other complexes such as “El Mundo” or the enormous “Deira Island” – whose construction was stopped also due to lack of resources – had an environmental impact that received strong criticism. The environmental organization Greenpeace noted that the project is not environmentally sustainable and that the construction of the artificial islands seriously affected the coral reefs near the coast of the emirate.

In this sense, Nakheel Properties, although it accepted that some marine ecosystems were affected by the development of the project, insisted that a team of marine biologists had been hired to reconstruct and rehabilitate the affected reefs.

BBC World

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