Indebted Dubai puts on brave face for tower opening

Mon Jan 4, 2010 3:13pm EST
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By Thomas Atkins

DUBAI (Reuters) - Dubai opened the world's tallest structure in a glitzy ceremony meant to put a brave face on crushing debt woes, leading some to wonder whether the tower is the emirate's crowning glory or its last hurrah.

The $1.5-billion tower reaches up 828 meters (2,717 ft), 200 storeys into the sky. It surpasses the next highest inhabited building, Taiwan's Taipei 101, by more than 300 meters (1,000 ft).

Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, renamed the tower Burj Khalifa in honor of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, ruler of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, which has bailed Dubai out to the tune of $25 billion in the past year.

The bailout has fueled expectations that Dubai will make concessions or cede some commercial power to its wealthier neighbor, whose ruler is also president of the United Arab Emirates.

Concerns about Dubai's $100-billion debt pile, which has made Dubai's stock exchange one of the world's worst performing, overshadowed both the ceremony and boasts by the builder, Emaar Properties, that the Burj heralds a new dawn.

"The worry for Dubai is that the event will be remembered as a second bout of hubris," said David Butter, regional director for Middle East and North Africa at Economist Intelligence Unit.

The first bout was in November 2008, two months after the collapse of Lehman Bros., when Dubai spent $24 million on the opening ceremony of the Atlantis Hotel, an event that did more to highlight a taste for extravagance than assuage fears that the economic crisis was not being taken seriously.

Emaar says property prices have now stabilized, confounding wider expectations for stress in the sector.   Continued...

<p>Fireworks explode around the Burj Dubai, the world's tallest tower, during the opening ceremony in Dubai, January 4, 2010. REUTERS/Ana Marin</p>