The World Islands are Slowly Coming Back to Life
Nearly a decade since Dubai’s man-made archipelago “The World Islands” — a 300-island chain laid out in the shape of the Earth’s continents — stalled in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a six-island cluster could bring the project back to life.
“The Heart of Europe” is an ambitious development that will be home to dozens of luxury resorts and lavish restaurants, surrounded by half-submerged, half-skylit floating homes called “floating seahorses.” Although the project was slow to get started when first announced in 2009, it appears to have speeded up recently.
Notably, more than 60 floating seahorses were sold in 2015, even before the first structure has touched down in the Persian Gulf, according to Kleindienst Group.
Impressive in its own right, The Heart of Europe is something of a miracle given the history of The World — which by all accounts should have flatlined years ago.
In 2003, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum unveiled his plans to build a sprawling archipelago that recreated the world map in the Persian Gulf. His idea: entice the planet’s wealthiest investors and real estate moguls into scooping up an island or two and build up Dubai’s status in the process.
At first the island properties were expected to sell for upward of $20 million apiece. And some people did buy — mostly investors and real estate tycoons. Within several years of the islands’ completion, master developer Nakheel Properties claimed 70% of the 300 islands had already been purchased. Richard Branson, for example, quickly nabbed the islands representing Great Britain in 2006.
For people who just wanted a taste of luxury, Nakheel announced it would begin offering boat tours around The World islands and the nearby Palm Jumeirah.
But following the global financial crisis, The World ran into trouble.
Nakheel, once a part of the state-run investment group Dubai World, broke off in the years after construction began. Dubai World had racked up $25 billion in debts prior to 2009, and when the economy tanked, Dubai needed a way to restructure.
Many investors have opted not to finance future developments on their islands, fearing Dubai’s struggling real estate market won’t net them a return on the investment. In 2012, for instance, the owner of an Asian atoll put his island back on the market for $29 million, which included debts to Nakheel from the original purchase. And unlike the 2012 call for cruises, the current advertisement on Nakheel’s site no longer mentions a tour around The World, just Palm Jumeirah.
Past the model homes built on Greenland to entice initial buyers, the only property that has seen much development is the island representing Lebanon, where Nakheel opened a luxury resort called The Island in 2012. It boasts a beach club, bars, lounges, and restaurants, and offers day visits or corporate events.
But even this project has run into problems, as the original owner of the property, Indian entrepreneur Wakil Ahmed Azmi, sold the island in 2013 at a reported loss of $6.8 million.
On top of these economic challenges, The World poses a logistical problem for buyers.
For one, The World is constantly losing its beaches. Each year, between 4 and 16 inches of sand recede into the Persian Gulf due to normal erosion, Kleindienst reported in 2014. So far, the only way to combat this erosion is to replace the sand outright.
Each island is also a different size. Some are tiny, just 6 acres in total, while some cover more than 20 acres of space. The only way to reach your own private island or any of the others is by boat or seaplane from the shore, more than two miles away. For wealthy investors, this may not pose a problem. But for the portion of residents simply intended to make up a community on the islands, the limited transportation options could be a deal breaker.
With his sights set on a 2020 grand opening, Kleindienst envisions high-end shopping and dining options across multiple countries.
Just like Epcot in Disneyworld, visitors will only be a short boat ride from the country of their choosing. “Our goal is to have from at least each European country one food and beverage outlet,” Kleindienst told The National in 2014. “This will allow you to have dinner in Germany, breakfast in France, and lunch in Italy.”
For Kleindienst, those are obstacles better suited to addressing further down the line. The Heart of Europe is happening. That much is certain. Smaller details, like how people will get to their islands and whether the general population wants them at all, are of less concern.
“There’s dreams and hopes for the islands,” Ahmed says.
Less-ambitious firms might need more than that. But the ever-opulent Dubai lives and dies by a different creed. Hopes and dreams are what turn billions into beaches.