By Guy Gabriel www.globalarabnetwork.com
On 4 January 2010, the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, opened in Dubai, attracting a sizable amount of media interest. Between 2 January and 8 January 2010, 20 articles appeared in the British press on the subject.
The number of articles by newspaper was as follows:
Although only around a quarter of these were op-ed pieces, the news articles also contained journalists’ opinions.
What did the developers intend?
In the recent coverage of the inauguration of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, journalists’ opinions were plentiful on what the tower was supposed to represent. In addition, a few comments by Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties, the developer behind the project, were reported:
“The tower embodies Dubai’s determination and optimism of being a truly world city and a positive symbol of the whole Arab world…”
“…a great achievement of a successful global collaboration and that is what Dubai is all about. We live in a globalised world and through collaboration we can push the boundaries and achieve the impossible.”
“…another demonstration of Dubai’s ability to achieve what few people thought possible.”
“We must have hope and optimism…”
“You have to ask why we are building all this? To bring quality of life and a smile to people and I think we should continue to do that. Dubai is where our life is. We have beautiful, long-term plans for development in Dubai.”
Only on one occasion (Sunday Times, 3 January) was someone from the Chicago firm of architects that designed the tower quoted. Bill Baker, the chief structural engineer, was reported as describing the Burj as an affirmation of the power and importance of tall buildings following the 9/11 attacks: “It’s a symbol of optimism. It says, ‘We believe in the future’.”
It was very common to provide descriptions of the tower, many of them quite similar:
“…the culmination of Sheikh Mohammed’s vaulting ambition for the emirate.” (John Arlidge, Sunday Times, 3 January)
“This majestic silvery structure…is seen as the culmination of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s extravagant ambitions.” (Matt Roper, feature writer, Daily Mirror, 4 January)
“…a colossal reminder of the hubris that brought the emirate crashing in November.” (David Teather, chief City report, Observer, 3 January)
“…a glass and glitz superscraper symbolising a decade of excess in Dubai.” (Daily Mail, anonymous, 4 January)
“It wraps up all the fantasy and excess, the hubris, recklessness and spectacle of the past 10 years into a single, glittering, photogenic, headline-friendly package…a pratfall on a heroic scale.” (Rowan Moore, columnist, Evening Standard, 5 January)
“…a beautiful monument to [the approach] that says it’s enough to build anything extreme, and people will come. No: architecture is important, but it doesn’t half help to have a culture to back it up.” (Hugh Pearman, architecture, interiors and design correspondent, Sunday Times, 3 January)
“…blasphemously vertiginous…propaganda…Vast in size but small in meaning, Burj is a lot more stuff, but less idea.” (Stephen Bayley, Daily Telegraph, 5 January)
“…may be the tallest building in the world. It is certainly the ugliest, a totem to human folly.” (Paul Routledge, columnist, Mirror, 8 January)
A number of journalists suggested what the intentions behind the tower were:
“The Burj could become the ultimate symbol of Dubai’s recklessness.” (Hugh Tomlinson, Gulf correspondent, Times, 2 January)
“…to be the city’s jewel in the crown…a symbol of Dubai’s wealth.” (Dan Townend, Daily Express, 4 January)
“Dubai’s government obviously hopes the Burj Dubai will be the key to the revitalisation of the country’s economy.” (Hazel Davis, Daily Mail, 5 January)
“The inauguration of the tallest building on Earth was supposed to be a show of defiance by Dubai’s rulers after a property crash which threatened to shatter the Gulf emirate’s reputation as a global economic power.” (Robert Booth, news reporter, and John Hughes, Guardian, 5 January)
A few journalists noted some implications resulting from the tower:
“The city may have the tallest building in the world but there is no doubt where the balance of power now lies in the United Arab Emirates.” (Hugh Tomlinson, Gulf correspondent, Times, 2 January)
“…the emirate’s neighbours in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, which provided Dubai with a £15bn bailout last year, are…understood to be unimpressed at the ostentation of the building.” (Robert Booth, news reporter, Guardian, 4 January)
“…Dubai’s achievements are not its own so long as Abu Dhabi is picking up the tab.” (Tomlinson and David Robertson, business correspondent, Times, 5 January)
A few commentators had predictions for the future of the tower:
“I have a vision of it now, several years hence, its glossy surfaces dulled by sandstorms, embarrassing stress-fractures in its shiny, arrogant face. It will be an ancient monument surprisingly soon. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” (Stephen Bayley, Daily Telegraph, 5 January)
“…destined to become a monument to the emirate’s decade of excess.” (Hugh Tomlinson, Gulf correspondent, Times, 2 January)
“Only time will tell whether [it] will be seen a triumph of man’s technological supremacy – or an irresponsible financial folly, taken to new heights.” (Matt Roper, feature writer, Daily Mirror, 4 January)
A number of writers drew explicit conclusions about the tower as a result of the financial slump:
“As the global debt-fuelled property boom came to an end, Dubai’s vision has turned to nightmare and…the Burj took on a deeper symbolism.” (Richard Spencer, Dubai correspondent, Daily Telegraph, 2 January)
“The Burj’s owners are struggling to present their architectural achievement as anything but a pyrrhic victory.” (Robert Booth, news reporter, Guardian, 4 January)
“After the credit crunch…it looked like the only record the Gulf city state would claim is the biggest boom and bust.” (John Arlidge, Sunday Times, 3 January)
“[The tower’s opening is] overshadowed both by the collapse of the emirate’s economy and the fact that the building isn’t even finished.” (Daily Mail, anonymous, 4 January)
The reporting of the inauguration following the event itself was noticeably more circumspect – largely because by comparison, the reporting before the opening needed to be more speculative, as it was reporting something that had not yet taken place. Exactly half (10) of the articles appeared before the opening of the tower.
However, one angle adopted by some reporting the opening was to lead with the changing of the name of the tower from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa, after Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, President of the United Arab Emirates.
Dubai “was forced to swallow its pride…and rename the world’s tallest building after its financial rescuer,” which was said to be “humiliating” (Hugh Tomlinson, Gulf correspondent, and David Robertson, business correspondent, Times, 5 January).
The name change turned what was “supposed to be a show of defiance…after a property crash which threatened to shatter the Gulf emirate’s reputation as a global economic power” into “a moment of supplication” (Robert Booth, news reporter, and John Hughes, Guardian, 5 January). “The concession is likely to deflate Dubai’s triumphalism.”
The change was merely “a surprise” (Richard Spencer, Dubai correspondent, Daily Telegraph, 5 January).
There was some disagreement over whether Sheikh Khalifa attended the ceremony or not; Booth and Hughes suggested he did, while Tomlinson and Robertson reported that he “did not grace the ceremony with his presence.”
What did it cost?
Various figures were given for the cost of the building. These were quoted, variously, in US dollars or British pounds, and ranged from $1 billion to $4.1 billion, or from £600 million to £2.5 billion.
The Daily Express downgraded its estimate from £2.5 billion (4 January) to £1 billion (5 January).
What do the neighbours think?
Only news reporter Robert Booth and John Hughes in the Guardian (5 January) suggested what Dubai’s neighbours thought of the tower: “a blend of disdain, amusement and a little jealous admiration.”
Will it be used?
Many journalists had opinions on the extent to which, if at all, the building will be used. Drawing a link with the state of the depressed economy was very common.
The “new owners [of residential and office space in the tower] will begin to move in throughout this year but it remains unclear when or if the tower will be full…the building will stay largely empty” (Hugh Tomlinson, Gulf correspondent, Times, 2 January).
It is “a mystery who is going to live and work there, which is said to be a matter of client confidentiality” (Richard Spencer, Dubai correspondent, Daily Telegraph, 2 January).
However, the Guardian (5 January) reported someone they read about in a local paper who bought an entire floor: Indian healthcare entrepreneur Bavaguthu Raghuram Shetty.
Some journalists commented that none of the flats or office space is occupied yet (Sunday Times, 3 January, Daily Mail, 4 January), although others reported a statement from the developer Emaar that 90% of the residential properties have been sold already (Observer, 3 January, Guardian, 5 January).
News reporter Robert Booth (Guardian, 4 January) reported that 12,000 people are expected to live and work in the tower, although the Daily Mail (4 January) disagreed, suggesting that “even when it is finished, much of the tower will stand empty, a testament to the years of debt-fuelled spending that have almost bankrupted Dubai.”
Global Arab Network
Arab Media Watch adviser.
Outlets monitored were: Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard, Guardian, Independent, Independent on Sunday, Mail on Sunday, Observer, Sun, Sunday Mirror, Sunday Telegraph, and Times.