The Universe, Brought to You by Dubai

Dubai's state development arm pushes forward with yet another luxe coastal plan.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 21, 2008 — -- Nakheel, Dubai's state-owned real estate developer that brought you the World, has announced plans to follow that project with the Universe, a series of man-made islands in the form of the sun, stars and planets of the solar system.

"Dubai has always been a city that looks forward and the planned development of the Universe will satisfy the future demand for further waterfront investment opportunities and development in Dubai," said Nakheel executive chairman Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem in a statement released by the company.

Construction on the World was completed earlier this month; its 300 islands are made from reclaimed land — sand and rocks placed in the gulf waters off the coast of Dubai. The project's most expensive property, a chain of islands in the Asia plot, is to go on sale for $263 million. Sir Richard Branson reportedly bought England. Rod Stewart is said to have looked at property. Late last year Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were rumored to be buying Ethiopia.

Roughly half of the World islands have reportedly been sold either privately or commercially — the islands shaped for Ireland, Shanghai, and Thailand, for example, will be developed into resort hotels. Other islands will be developed into private homes and entertainment centers, furthering Dubai's ambitions to become the tourist hub of the Middle East. Whether there is enough demand to fill the islands is of secondary concern.

"These kinds of projects are important to the whole brand of Dubai. The Palm, the World and the Universe are three big reasons while people know Dubai. And I know for a fact there will be two more major announcements coming from Nakheel," said Anil Bhoryol, editorial director of Dubai-based publisher ITP, which owns Arabian Business.

"It's not about the market, it's about what we can do to put Dubai on the map. … It's all about building a brand."

According to Nakheel, islands on the World are sold only by invitation. Yachts will be the primary mode of transportation between the properties and the Dubai waterfront.

In addition to the eye-popping World and the forthcoming Universe, Nakheel has taken on construction of three man-made archipelagos in the shape of a palm tree. The first project, the Palm Jumeirah, is already home to villas, apartments and hotels.

"Nakheel has helped transform Dubai from a sleepy fishing village to a leading international hub for business and tourism, attracting worldwide attention for its extraordinary vision," said one company statement.

There have been concerns about the environmental impact of Nakheel's projects — specifically that they lead to beach erosion, damage coral reefs and endanger biodiversity.

"At sea level, significant changes in the marine environment are leaving a visual scar … as a result of the dredging and redepositing of sand for the construction of the islands, the typically crystalline waters of the gulf of Dubai have become severely clouded with silt," wrote the nearby Abu Dhabi Environment Agency in a 2006 report.

"Construction activity is damaging the marine habitat, burying coral reefs, oyster beds and subterranean fields of sea grass, threatening local marine species as well as other species dependent on them for food."

The developer maintains that its projects are ecologically sound and that it has invested responsibly in sustaining the marine environments around its coastal developments.