October 26, 2005

Dubai’s man-made islands anger environmentalists

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI (Reuters) - Billion-dollar islands being built off
the coast of Dubai offer wealthy tourists a chance to leave the
world behind, but environmentalists say the Gulf's delicate
marine ecosystem is paying the price for this perfect escape.

Government-owned developer Nakheel is building three
islands in the shape of palm trees -- one surrounded by more
islands spelling out an Arabic poem -- and a fourth group of
300 private islands shaped like a map of the world.

"The perfect place to leave the world behind" touts
Nakheel's Web site, which features pictures of the verdant
isles and their white beaches, being built at a cost of $20

The luxury resorts and homes on the islands have already
attracted celebrities like English footballer David Beckham,
who bought a villa in advance. The map of the world development
offers a golf island and an African safari island.

Dubai, one of seven semi-autonomous states of the United
Arab Emirates, is the leading commercial center in the Gulf
region and has ambitious plans to boost its thriving tourism
industry to prepare for when its low oil reserves run out.

But environmentalists say the futuristic island
developments have taken a heavy toll on the present ecosystem.

The only known coral reef off the shores of Dubai was
destroyed during the dredging work, turtle nesting sites have
been destroyed, natural currents rerouted and silt has muddied
what were crystal-clear waters, they say.

"It has been detrimental for the natural environment of the
Dubai coast, especially at the place and location of the first
Palm island," said Frederic Launay, director of the World
Wildlife Fund's office in the United Arab Emirates.

"That is a little bit of a shame because there were very
good habitats there. There were possibilities of recovery and
protection, and there were possibilities of using that natural
asset to make something," he told Reuters.

"This opportunity has been lost and now we are only talking
about remediation and mitigation."


Dubai, once a tiny trading post in the Gulf, wants to
attract foreign cash and investment into an economy that is
weaning itself off rapidly-dwindling crude oil reserves.

The city of modern skyscrapers, which has no historical,
natural or religious sites of note, wants to make sure its 1.4
million residents and 5 million plus tourists get everything
they want -- and this has made it an architect's playground.

For now, record high oil prices are stoking a construction
boom in the city, an oasis of park-lined highways in the
blistering heat and suffocating humidity of the desert.

Nakheel disputes environmentalists' claims that building
the islands has damaged the ecosystem, saying that most of the
coral was already dead.

The property developer, which is in partnership with the
Trump Organization to build a $400 million luxury hotel on the
man-made Palm Jumeirah island, says it will use revolutionary
techniques to stimulate coral growth by placing electrically
charged meshes underwater.

"I don't see any problem with this technology. We still
have to wait and see when we start really doing it at a much,
much larger scale, when I say a larger scale I mean a mega
scale," said Imad Haffar, Nakheel's head of research and

The remains of two fighter planes, jumbo jets and seven
barges have been dropped onto the sea floor in a bid to attract
marine life and create an underwater theme park for divers.

Nakheel says the silt and sand will eventually settle down.

Launay said the coral recovery effort was a good thing.

"But that's not what nature conservation and preservation,
and respect of the environment, is all about," he added, saying
the UAE authorities failed to study Nakheel's plans beforehand.


Sultan bin Sulayem, chairman of Nakheel, says the projects
will create a marine ecosystem from scratch.

"The bottom of the sea in Dubai is like a desert. I used to
scuba dive there and there's no real significant amounts of
coral, few rocks. It's flat and sand, with no life basically
and not a habitable area for fish," bin Sulayem said, speaking
in his office at the top of a Dubai high-rise overlooking the

"Turtles only rested on remote islands, and we are planning
to build an island for the natural habitat where turtles will
return to the area," he added.

Bin Sulayem says the projects, which many Dubai residents
say are too showy, are a necessity because the emirate has only
a small stretch of coastline on the Gulf.

"It will be 1,200 km (746 miles) (of beach when finished)
as compared to the 60 km (37 miles) ... now," he said.

The building work has involved shifting a massive 1.65
billion cubic meters of sand and 87 million tons of rock.
Nakheel's multi-billion dollar Dubai Waterfront project
involves moving 1 billion tons of rock, bin Sulayem said.

The first Nakheel project to be completed will be the Palm
Jumeirah, which has been plagued by delays and reports --
denied by Nakheel -- that it is sinking. Nakheel are now
building on the island, with the first residents due to move in
next year.

And the concept has taken off, with similar islands planned
in other UAE emirates and Gulf countries, where economies are
also booming because of the rise in world oil prices.

(Additional reporting by Hala Salman)