You could (as Alain Robert did in 2011) climb up the outside of the building, all 828 m (2,717 ft) to be exact. That would take you about 6 hours (if you were crazy). Or you could take the stairs to the 160th floor, all 2,909 steps to be exact. That would take you about 1.5 hours (if you were fit). Personally, I prefer to take one of the fastest elevators in the world to the top. That takes me about 1.5 minutes. You see, the tallest building in the world is a building of extremes, it defies description. It is a building of superlatives, a building that celebrates human achievement at the same time as it pushes the envelope of what is possible. It is also a monument to opulence and materialism.
At an estimated cost of 1.5 billion, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (Burj = tower; Khalifa = name of United Arab Emirates’ president) has broken 17 world records during its construction from 2004 to 2011. As the centerpiece of Dubai’s new city core, it represents the ambition of a city and country that is trying to wean itself off a declining oil based industry (7 % of Dubai’s economy) by pushing tourism, financial and technological services, aviation industries and real estate.
There is no doubt: the Burj Khalifa is an impressive structure, and not just the dimensions and specs are extraordinary. The finish and the quality of the workmanship are spectacular, too. No expense has been spared. But, as with so many things in Dubai, one has to ask: “why?” Why does everything in Dubai have to exude wealth, success and prosperity? Why does Dubai have the largest shopping center in the world? Why build a snow park to go skiing in the middle of the desert? Why create artificial islands in the ocean when Dubai has such a beautiful coastline? Why does the police in Dubai drive Ferrari and Lamborghini? When I asked those questions to our driver, he responded: “It is not because we need these things or because our police have to give chase to speeding drivers. It is because we want to show the world how rich we are.”
But the dream has stalled during the past few years and much of what the tourists see is facade. With a foreign debt of US$80 billion, Dubai, as a city, is broke. Driving through the outskirts of Dubai I pass building project after building project – half finished and deserted. The economic slowdown from 2008 to now has made investors nervous and left its mark on the city. The idea that lightning speed progress and growth can go on forever has definitely been dampened. Now that property values have dropped sharply (some by over 60 %), the city has to catch up to itself. The surplus residential and commercial real estate has to be occupied first before new giant construction projects (like the Burj Khalifa) can be instigated or the half - finished projects can be completed. But as one of seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Dubai enjoys the financial backing of its oil-rich neighbours. So, US$ 80 billion of debt are peanuts when your country’s oil and gas exports represent 85 % of the economy.
The overall wealth of the country is staggering, which makes one contentious issue even more puzzling: the poor treatment of migrant workers. At the peak of the construction boom in Dubai 95% of the city’s workforce consisted of migrant workers from other countries, mostly India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. When asked about the city’s population, our driver pauses. “I can’t give you a definite number” he said, “people from other countries come and go. The number fluctuates. We estimate it to be around 2,000,000 for Dubai.”
Many claim that the success of Dubai has been built on the backs of the poor and impoverished. The accusation of modern slavery has stained Dubai’s image as a playground for the hip, rich and famous. The construction of the Burj Khalifa became a focal point when the BBC, NPR and Human Rights Watch drew the world’s attention to the misery of migrant workers. Their findings were disturbing and their criticism was scathing. It left a country that wants to be seen as sophisticated and modern, scrambling to find excuses for its negligent treatment of workers and blatant disregard for some of the most basic human rights.