Today, the islands look almost exactly like they did then, with one notable difference: Some of the islands are merging. Images taken from space and posted on NASA's Earth Observatory Web site last month showed distortions in the original map of islands released by Nakheel.
The pictures highlighted fears that the islands would disappear, subject to erosion, as they sat undeveloped, while environmentalists warned rising sea levels would eventually sink the million-dollar sandplots.
Eco-activists at Greenpeace say The World's own environmental impact would contribute to its vulnerability. The group denounced the project and others like it that popped up across the region, from Bahrain's Two Seas project, shaped like a seahorse, to Beirut's Cedar Island, a massive project similar to Dubai's Palm Island, but in the shape of Lebanon's signature tree.
"These projects destroy the marine ecosystem. They disrupt the nursery areas and migration patterns, and they create a great deal of pollution," said Raefah Makki, from the Greenpeace regional office in Beirut.
Environmental officials in the UAE also quietly expressed reservations about the islands and their sustainability, though they declined to be quoted, given the sensitivities around a state-backed real estate project.
Nakheel responded to environmental concerns by launching a initiative for coastal sustainability called Blue Communities. As suggestions surfaced that The World islands were eroding, it issued a firm denial.
"Speculative reports suggesting that The World islands are sinking are wholly inaccurate," company spokeswoman Amina Grimen said last month.
As for the distortions seen from space, she said the islands "were merged purposely to create land for specific developments, and the shape of other islands was changed at the request of owners."
Owners themselves have had concerns about the islands' sustainability, with engineering designed to protect against the elements.
"I don't believe the islands can be [undeveloped] left for long, there will be natural erosion," said de Miese, the owner of Greece.
"I plan to circle the island with a hard edge, like wrapping a ribbon around a cake to keep it from falling apart. Builders who don't do that may have problems in the long-term."
One upside to the slowdown, he says, is that with fewer projects going up on The World, each project is more distinct. Already The World offers something unique, all the best of mainland Dubai without the bustle of tourists and excess skyscrapers.
"The World can't be overbuilt like the mainland," said de Miese. He said it would have to be "low-density," unlike other luxury developments, like Nakheel's Palm Island, which have become a frenzied crush of homes and apartment buildings.
"If only 10 islands are built it will be a success," de Miese said. "If all of the islands are built it would be a disaster."
"If you look at Dubai, everything is here," Josef Kleindienst, owner of Heart of Europe, told the UK's Telegraph. "It is like going to a bar where there is wine and beer but no champagne. This is the champagne."