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Dubai's The World wasn't built in a day

In the middle of The World, Lebanon is showing signs of life.

When you arrive by boat you are met by the sound of bulldozers moving sand around what will become a small beach resort with palm trees.

It is just one of a string of desert islands off the coast of Dubai arranged in the shape of the continents.

Near Lebanon, in Europe, you can pick out a large blue fence where holiday homes are planned.

At times, it has been slow going at The World project, which was launched in a blaze of publicity by Nakheel back in 2003 during the five-year property boom. Since then, the global financial crisis has pushed back plans for construction, but two more developers are expected to start construction this year.

Taiwan and Kazakhstan, made of up five islands, are quietly mobilising, according to a source familiar with the developments.

Within a year, there could be some form of development on The World for visitors to experience. Greenland, formerly the site of a sales office for Nakheel, features a completed private villa, but the island is not open to visitors just yet.

Naturally, because of the sheer scale of the project, there will be challenges ahead.

Developers have said construction on The World may cost as much as 25 per cent more than originally estimated because the islands are remote and everything must be ferried from the mainland. All materials and staff have to be transported out to the site on barges and personnel carriers.

It cost Dh60,000 (US$16,336) just to get a machinethat packs down the sand in preparation for building on an island.

And that is just the beginning. Josef Kleindienst, the developer of Heart of Europe on The World, says the complex regulations to protect the environment of the islands also pose multiple challenges.

Nothing is allowed to be discharged into the sea, including irrigation water that may contain fertilisers. Because of this, he has had to rethink his original plan to plant coconut palms.

“Zero-discharge is a very difficult thing,” Mr Kleindienst has said.

Brendan Jack, the head of sustainability and environment at Nakheel, said last week that the tough green standards were necessary to protect the marine life that was starting to thrive at The World.

Trakhees, the health and safety arm of the Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation, has been developing regulations for the string of islands.

“That’s been part of the reason we’ve been taking it slow,” Mr Jack says. “This is not building on the mainland. There are some different things that you need to plan for here.”

Another challenge facing The World is purely financial. In the aftermath of the global economic crisis, some developers have sought discounts on their islands or delays in paying for them.

Ali Rashid Lootah, the chairman of Nakheel, said last week the company had fulfilled its obligations to the purchasers of islands.

But there are suggestions there could be some assistance available, according to developers. Mr Kleindienst has said he is negotiating over outstanding payments in the hope of a discount in exchange for moving ahead with the project.

Nakheel collected billions of dirhams from buyers of the islands, but many of them are facing their own difficulties. The largest buyer of islands was The Investment Dar, a troubled Kuwaiti company. The company’s 22-island Oqyana project is on hold.

Safi Qurashi, who bought Britain, is in a Dubai prison serving a seven-year sentence handed down after he failed to honour cheques.

One owner of several islands, Gulf Global Group, is suing Dubai World alleging breach of contract and asking for a refund on its island purchases.

But the evolution of the islands into a world-renowned collection of resorts and holiday homes was never going to be easy.

To illustrate that point, the project has become the centre of a dispute in the Dubai World Tribunal. Last month a lawyer for a marine transport company claimed the islands were “gradually falling back into the sea”. Nakheel denied that at a press conference last week. “The World is definitely not sinking, washing away or eroding,” said Chris O’Donnell, the chief executive of Nakheel.

What is clear from a visit to the islands last week is that Nakheel’s most extravagant project to date may take a generation to complete.

“This is a long-term project,” Mr Jack says, as the boat passes between islands and out into the Gulf. “It has to be looked at from that perspective.”

The National

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