Nothing sums up Dubai more than size and superlatives. The world's tallest building, biggest mall and largest man-made island are all due to be completed next year. Expected to be populated by hundreds of thousands of residents and seasonal tourists, these developments - and the estimated 2,837 under way in the Gulf project pipeline, mainly in the UAE and Saudi Arabia - are said to be worth more than US$2.4 trillion (Dh8.81tn). Crucially, however, they will generate billions of dirhams in revenue to safeguard the emirate's financial future away from the oil that has enabled the rulers to realise their dreams.
But as so often happens here, ambitions will only continue to grow and grow to new heights. And this week's Cityscape property show, itself the biggest of its kind on earth, will see those projects already built and under construction transcended by some of the most ambitious the planet has and will probably ever see. But 36 years ago, the landscape was completely different. Dubai and the UAE had virtually nothing to show for the trillions of barrels of black gold that lay underground and undiscovered. Every day survival was more important than success: the nearest hospital was a two-day camel trek from most tented Bedouin encampments, petrol pumps were installed only in the early 1970s and biggest, tallest and largest were words not heard of until two decades later.
Fly over the emirate today, however, and you will see a different picture. Horizon-piercing stretches of roads spear through the desert linking all seven emirates; millions of villas within mass master-planned communities can be seen rising through the sand; hundreds of new office buildings tower skywards; while space for hundreds of hospitals, schools, theme parks and hotels has been meticulously planned and allocated on and off shore. The emirate has done more in almost four decades of existence than most countries could wish for in a millennium.
Dubai has 100 world records to its name, including more than a dozen in Guinness World Records. The world's biggest buffet, longest car parade, and, fittingly, for a place that spends more on construction each week than the gross domestic product of several African nations combined, the planet's largest wallet - a record set last year. But it is the sheer scale, both physically and in terms of individual ambition, that has driven Dubai to become the envy of the architectural and business world in the past 10 years.
"It's not just a canal, it's a big idea," said Saeed Ahmed Saeed, the chief executive of Limitless and mastermind behind the $11 billion Arabian Canal, a 75-kilometre long stretch of water set to become one of the biggest engineering feats yet undertaken. Developers have already dubbed the project the "Venice of the Middle East", with thousands of people expected to take to the water every day of the week to commute to work or simply for pleasure, in anything from gondolas to multimillion-dollar super yachts.
But it does not stop there. Dubai would not be Dubai without superseding all expectations and topping an already unimaginable feat. When constructing the canal, Limitless also has plans to build an entire city housing 1.5 million people along its man-made waters. This would more than double the emirate's current population. But the canal is made to look like a trickling stream compared with some of the other "big ideas" that are rapidly shifting from the blueprint to the newsprint stage faster than you can say man-made archipelago. When finished in several years time, Palm Deira, one of three man-made islands under way on the shorelines of the Gulf will be half the size of Paris, one of Europe's largest cities. Located between the mouth of Dubai Creek and Hamriya Port, the development will have an estimated 166km of waterfront for a population of 1.3 million people. So, as you sit and read this, just imagine today's entire population of Dubai moving on to one single island at once. Within the completion of a trio of huge projects, the number of people in the emirate at any one time will soon outsize the population of the entire country.
Nakheel, the developer behind the Palms, says Deira is destined to be the largest man-made island in the world, five times bigger than The Palm Jebel Ali and seven-and-a-half times bigger than the almost finished Palm Jumeirah. Nakheel's other incredible venture is, of course, The World, a project that has become synonymous with foreigners when identifying the emirate abroad. Made up of 300 individual islands, The World is, well, the world's largest man-made archipelago, with each plot of reclaimed land formed to appear as a miniature continent, and sold to invitation-only wealthy individuals or consortia for between $15 million and $50m. With all of the islands virtually sold, building work will soon begin with each stretch of land being individually designed and transformed into either luxury tourism developments or private getaways for the rich and the famous.
An obvious sign that Dubai is constantly in search of being the biggest and the best is the Burj Dubai. Since 2004, the project has been speedily rising skywards. Every day, commuters who drive along the emirate's main highway, Sheikh Zayed Road, will have noticed its progress. And on Sept 12 last year, the tower officially set the record as the world's tallest free-standing structure, surpassing the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada. Seven months later, it surpassed the KVLY-TV mast to become the tallest man-made structure on earth, while only three weeks ago it was announced that the Burj's height was more than 688 metres, making it the tallest man-made structure ever built. The Burj will also feature the world's fastest lift, rising and descending at 18 metres per second with about 56 lifts carrying roughly 40 people at a time. Outside, it will boast a record-high fountain, at a cost of Dh800m. Designed by Wet Design, the California-based company that came up with the gigantic jets of water at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, it will shoot gallons of water 150 metres into the air to the sounds of contemporary and Arabic music.
Malls are equally big business to Dubai. And when it comes to shopping giants, the bigger and the more world firsts you can cram into your gross leasable area the better. Dubai has redefined this concept in recent years, as malls spring up across the country to serve not only as shopping destinations, but equally and, perhaps, more importantly as all-inclusive entertainment centres. Where else in the world could you ski down the world's largest real indoor ski slope (located in the heart of the desert, do not forget) one minute and continue spending your hard-earned cash in some of the world's most exclusive boutiques?
But it is not the Mall of the Emirates, previously the world's largest mall, that is grabbing the interest of retail enthusiasts. It is the next big thing, the Dubai Mall. Standing at the foot of the Burj Dubai in the emirate's new Downtown district, the mall, due to open on Oct 30, will surpass all of its rivals by some distance. Sizing in at a remarkable 1.12 million square metres, the building will feature 10 to 15 smaller malls within its walls as well as the world's largest aquarium nestled in between its vast array of 1,200 shops. On top of all this, it will also house the world's largest gold souk with more than 200 retailers, a 79,000 sqm fashion island with 70 outlets dedicated to high-end clothing, a Galeries Lafayette department store - the first outside Europe - and an Olympic-sized ice skating rink.
Dubai Mall, however, is only expected to temporarily hold the title of the world's largest mall, with Ilyas and Mustafa (I&M) Galadari Group's new Mall of Arabia and Nakheel's Palm Deira Mall, one of 100 the company plans to build in the next 20 years, soon set to outsize Dubai's newest retail sensation in the years to come. But the biggest of them all is the as yet unannounced Dubai City Tower - which is said to be funded by Meraas, the private equity venture of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai - the highlight of which will be a 2.41km high tower, which architectural experts are already calling "buildable".
Until the money stops flowing, the biggest, longest, fastest and highest are all records that Dubai will continue to chase forever - forever challenging ambition, forever challenging the laws of gravity and forever challenging themselves. As Mohammed Zaal, the chief operating officer of the region's largest plant nursery with 800 never-before-grown species in the Middle East, says of his Dh15bn venture set in the sandlands: "It's a city built in the desert, where water is so rare. It's a plan to create a new topography and to bring a new definition to Dubai."