Dubai's Islands Lie in Wait for Visitors

The World is a lonely place.

As a speedboat takes you two and a half miles off the coast of Dubai, across stunning views of the city skyline, you arrive at a quiet unlike anything in the city. The islands, mounds of sand rising at most 10 feet high, nearly all look deserted.

In truth, they're lying in wait. Since the global economic downturn, and its hard hit on Dubai, it hasn't been worth the owners' economic while to build on their million-dollar sandlots.

While more than two thirds of the more than 500 islands have been bought, only 33 have been handed over to developers. Nakheel, the real estate development branch of Dubai World, confirmed that only two projects are currently under construction, one called the Heart of Europe, on Germany and the Netherlands islands, and a beach club on Lebanon island.

One other island, Greenland, hosts a model villa that is believed to belong to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, though Nakheel would not confirm the identity of its owner.

Another reason The World looks lonely: It was supposed to have a neighbor in The Universe, a similar project with man-made islands mapping out the solar system, but that project, along with the $3.5 billion Dubai Waterfront, were slowed as Dubai's economy, particularly its linchpin real estate sector, took a sharp dive.

Developers on The World have suffered a range of fortunes, from bankruptcy to suicide to simply sitting back until financial conditions and access to credit improve.

"I'm probably not going to build this year. ... Right now I don't have the financing," said Baron Jean van Gysel de Miese, a Belgian aristocrat planning a boutique hotel on the island of Greece. He told ABC News he hopes to build in 2011.

A spokesman with Select Property, the company behind the billion-dollar Aquitania project on the islands of Spain and France, echoed the sentiment.

"We're reviewing our business plans in light of the economy, and waiting to see what happens with other developers," the Select Property spokesman said.

After a star-studded launch featuring actress Hilary Swank, Select Property halted sales in hopes the economy would pick up.

As an upside, the global downturn has reduced the cost of building. The decreased demand for concrete and steel have led to lower prices, which has in turn made it easier for developers to reduce their own prices; de Miese said starting units on Greece island, styled as an elegant, contemporary Greek village, would come down from their pre-crisis price of $2 million each.

The fact that construction on The World has slowed to a crawl contrasts sharply with its speedy start.

Nakheel, creator of the islands, announced its ambitious project in 2003. By late 2006 an estimated 90 percent of the islands and their surrounding breakwater had been reclaimed, contractors pulling up soil from the seabed and combining it with rocks from an inland quarry.

A local newspaper wrote at the time that "in excess of 300 workers have been working in shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week." The work of creating the islands was complete in 2008, though finishings and utilities like electricity, and waste management would all be left to the island's owners.

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."