As I speed down Sheikh Zayed Road, a perilous 12-lane highway that slices through the heart of Dubai, the view is a surreal spectacle of outlandish skyscrapers, each of which tries to outdo the other in cash, flash, and dash. It is a shameless show of unbridled ambition, a dizzying display of hubris and chutzpah that recalls the boomtown years of Miami and Manhattan, Houston and Las Vegas...Seoul and Shanghai. There is an unforgettable sequence of striking juxtapositions, of $400,000 Rolls-Royce Phantoms cruising confidently along the highway past sweating construction workers in dirty blue coveralls, who wait in packs by the side of the road for the buses that take them deep into the desert each night to the camps they call home.
Amid the visual cacophony, one tower stands high above the others—elegant, aloof, Oz-like. It is Burj Khalifa, and at 2,717 feet it is more than twice the height of the Empire State Building. Which, much to the glee of the powers that be in Dubai, makes it the tallest building in the world. One of the first tenants is the Armani Hotel Dubai, occupying the underground level through floor 8 and floors 38 and 39, and representing designer Giorgio Armani’s debut as a hotelier.
Some 10,000 fireworks helped mark the topping-off of the $1.5 billion reflective-glass tower designed by Adrian Smith of Chicago-based architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Originally named Burj Dubai, it was rechristened Burj Khalifa on opening night, in honor of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates and the emir of Abu Dhabi, the neighboring oil-rich emirate that came to Dubai’s 11th-hour rescue last November, when the emirate was unable to make payments for its $59 billion debt. A decade of profligate spending and impossible-to-sustain development had finally undone Dubai, as the flashy emirate had very publicly treated itself to posh trinkets (CityCenter, Las Vegas, $5.1 billion; Barneys New York, $942 million; the Queen Elizabeth 2, $100 million) and endless construction projects, including the $20 billion development Downtown Dubai, home to the Burj Khalifa. The 500 acres house a massive aquarium, an Olympic-size ice-skating rink, the $12.1 million Dubai Mall, the world’s largest indoor gold souk, a 30-acre man-made lake and, at the center of that lake, a kinetic $218 million fountain that shoots water more than 500 feet into the air while lights flash and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli is heard singing an impassioned rendition of “Con te partirò.” It is being billed, in the hyperbolic spirit of Dubai, as “the most prestigious square kilometer on earth.”
“Downtown Dubai is our flagship project,” says Mohamed Ali Alabbar, who is chairman of the multibillion-dollar Dubai-based development company Emaar, which is responsible for the venture. “The jewel at the center of this neighborhood is Burj Khalifa, and Armani Hotel Dubai is a sterling value addition to the world’s tallest building.”
Wearing khaki trousers, white tennis shoes, and a navy-blue T-shirt, a relaxed and tanned Giorgio Armani strolls into the hotel’s ballroom to meet the press. It is April 27, the long-awaited opening of the Armani Hotel Dubai, and the designer is flanked by Alabbar and his ever-present interpreter. (Armani does not speak English.) Though Alabbar was educated in the United States, like most traditional Emirati men he is wearing a kandura, a white, ankle-length cotton garment, and a guthra, a white head scarf held in place by a black rope called an egal. Armani confirms that when first approached by Alabbar to design a hotel, he declined. “Dubai was described as a Las Vegas in the desert,” says Armani, who was not interested. But Alabbar’s charm and perseverance (not to mention deep pockets) ultimately prevailed. After two years of wooing and negotiating, Armani signed a contract with Emaar—for 10 hotels, resorts, and villas to be built over 10 years. “I wanted something not just for the present, but for beyond the present,” says Armani, who celebrated his 76th birthday in July. A reporter asks a question about the impact of the world financial crisis on the project. Alabbar is not only very cool but very crisp. “Cycles come and go,” he says, indulging in the luxury of the long view. “What you see here today is much better than what was originally designed,” he says, noting that at every stage of the project, the materials, furnishings, and finishes for the hotel were all upgraded, as per the ever-evolving specifications of “Mr. Armani.” In short, no corners were cut during the five-year process. There were, however, delays. At one point, there was an on-site riot by dissatisfied construction workers, who did substantial physical damage. Then, shortly after it opened last February, At the Top, the observation deck on the 124th floor of Burj Khalifa, closed for two months. It seems a group of sightseers got stuck in one of the elevators for 45 minutes. No one quite knew why. Finally, in April, just as the Armani Hotel Dubai was set to open, airborne ash from a volcano in Iceland caused air traffic to grind to a halt. The opening was postponed a week.