Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Burj Dubai Tall promises unfulfilled

With the opening today of the Burj Dubai, at 160 stories the world's tallest tower, we are reminded of regional promises unfulfilled.

The crown jewel of the United Arab Emirates, a high-rise that surpasses all high-rises in the world, opens with many vacancies among the 1,000-plus luxury apartments, Armani hotel and 37 floors of office and retail space in the spire designed by a Chicago-based firm. It's a symbol of the credit crunch that stalled the world's economy even as developers in exuberant Dubai were erecting the $1.1-billion tower.

Burj Dubai.jpg

It's also a reminder that just two years ago, the former American president started a hopeful tour of the Middle East in these environs - calling on Arab leaders throughout the region to rebuke Iran for its nuclear ambitions, and also calling on them to support a renewed peace initiative in Israel.

Former President George W. Bush, who passed through Dubai in January 2008 and deliivered a challenge to the region in Abu Dhabi, hoped to see Israeli and Palestinian leaders sign the framework of a peace agreement by the year's end.

The Burj Dubai is 26 percent vacant. With its residential quarters featuring fitness facilities, a residents' library, a cigar club, valet parking and a gourmet market, it was to provide "an unparalleled lifestyle.''

The "two-state solution'' is even emptier.

Designed by Adrian Smith of Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the Burj Dubai has overtaken Taipei 101 as the world's tallest. It includes 37 floors of office and retail space, 1,044 apartments and 160 hotel rooms designed by Giorgio Armani. It also holds the world's highest mosque and swimming pools on the 158th and 76th floors.(The tower is pictured here with laser beams lighting it Sunday, on the eve of its opening, in a Tribune photo by Kuni Takahashi.)

The ground where it stands serves as a reminder too of a still elusive promise of peace in the Middle East, which Bush outlined in an address at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi in January 2008 as he was beginning his tour of the Middle East. That also is the world's most expensive hotel - it cost $3 billion to build. In Dubai, And Bush had lunch with leaders atop another symbol of U.A.E. excess, a high-rise built in the shape of a sailboat. (This is a nation with an indoor ski slope.)

"A great new era is unfolding before us,'' Bush said in his address in Abu Dhabi. "This new era is founded on the equality of all people before God. This new era is being built with the understanding that power is a trust that must be exercised with the consent of the governed -- and deliver equal justice under the law. And this new era offers hope for the millions across the Middle East who yearn for a future of peace and progress and opportunity. ...

"For most of the world,'' Bush said then, "there's no greater symbol of America than the Statue of Liberty. It was designed by a man who traveled widely in this part of the world -- and who had originally envisioned his woman bearing a torch as standing over the Suez Canal. Ultimately, of course, it was erected in New York Harbor, where it has been an inspiration to generations of immigrants. One of these immigrants was a poet-writer named Ameen Rihani. Gazing at her lamp held high, he wondered whether her sister might be erected in the lands of his Arab forefathers. Here is how he put it: "When will you turn your face toward the East, oh Liberty?''

The U.A.E. address was the centerpiece of an eight-day tour of the Middle East in which Bush promoted his vision of a lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians and exhorted Arab leaders to pressure Iran to stand down from its nuclear ambitions.

The ruler of Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, who met and dined with Bush, called the American's initiative in the Middle East "a historical opportunity'' for "the realization of your vision for the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state, side-by-side with Israel, at a time such a vision being demanded by word's conscience.... We are hopeful that these aspirations will be realized.''

Yet, with the opening of the world's highest high-rise today - a symbol, in its own right, as emblematic of one nation's aspirations as the Statue of Liberty - the vacant quarters of the tower remain as empty as the promise of peace in the Middle East, which looms large in an agenda of unfinished international business.

President Barack Obama has vowed to take up the challenge of Middle East peace, embracing the two-state solution that his predecessor pursued. But, with renewed American focus on terrorist threats stemming from the al Qaeda-sponsored attempt to attack a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day, the ability of the U.S. to get those Middle East peace talks back on track appears as elusive, for now, as full occupancy for the soaring new Burj Dubai.

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