It is an image reminiscent of a bygone era. Just off the coast of Dubai, near Port Rashid, a ship is shooting an arc of sand into the ocean to build a new island. This is the Pearl Jumeirah, a property project being sold off-plan by Meraas Development.
The building of the island by land reclamation should be finished by the end of next month and the development could have its first residents by late 2012.
Sina al Kazim, the chief business development officer at Meraas, said the sudden emergence of the island in the public eye was part of the new "art of marketing" in Dubai, whereby projects are not publicised until significant progress has been made. "We're not putting advertisements in newspapers or on billboards," he said. "Marketing is now a much more quiet tool." The construction of the island comes as Nakheel, the famed builder of artificial islands, struggles to find a way to finance construction on its stalled island developments the Palm Jebel Ali, the Palm Deira and The World.
Mr al Kazim says the construction of the Pearl Jumeirah island shows Meraas's willingness to move forward with "unique" projects that cater to a niche customer base in the Emirates despite the decline in property prices and a generally depressed market. The 350 villa plots on the 929,000 square metre island are already 45 per cent sold - mostly to Emirati buyers but also increasingly to Iranians and Indians.
"The people who are buying want to live here," Mr al Kazim said. There were, so far, no speculative investors in the project, he said. "We realised there was a demand for unique villa living in 2009 and redid our master plan for the area," he said. Prices for land on the island range from Dh550 (US$149) a square foot for plots in the interior to Dh850 a sq ft for beachfront plots. The island is expected eventually to include a five-star hotel.
When Meraas, a Dubai Government-owned company, came to the public's attention, it did so under much grander circumstances. At Cityscape Dubai in 2008, it unveiled an immense model of its Dh350 billion Jumeirah Gardens project to be built in Dubai's Al Satwa and Al Wasl areas. Not only did the original plans include reclaimed islands - with towers - but they also included striking designs by the renowned architecture firm Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill. One part of the development would be dominated by three "supertall" buildings connected by multiple sky-bridges at different heights, and another would feature a hanging garden supported by six buildings.
Those plans, Mr al Kazim said, had not been abandoned but would move forward only when demand for that type of property increased. For now, Meraas is focusing on smaller projects such as a joint venture with Dubai Real Estate Corporation (DREC) to build a small number of villas in Al Wasl. The villas would be held by DREC as rentals. Meraas has also started work on an industrial project near the Dubai Creek extension in Nad al Hamar. The company has already sold 65 per cent of planned showrooms and warehouses in that project.
"We are a market-driven developer," Mr al Kazim said. "Today, that means building an industrial project. But that could change at any point as the market stabilises."