Burj Khalifa’s size does not reflect economic power

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Earlier this month, the tallest building in the world opened in Dubai to a sparkling ceremony of pomp and circumstance in the Middle Eastern emirate — and to skepticism from the rest of the world. The Jan. 4 opening was no small affair: The Burj Khalifa was opened to 6000 guests and framed by 10,000 fireworks (but presumably no cocktails). But behind this pomp and circumstance was little more than a desperate plea to keep Dubai thriving.

The Burj Khalifa, formerly termed the Burj Dubai or the Dubai tower, was recently renamed in honor of Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates and emir of Abu Dhabi, one of the seven emirates. This name change follows a $10 billion bailout by Abu Dhabi on the part of Dubai in December, when it became clear to the country — and to the world — that even this supposedly booming center of real estate growth was not immune to the global economic downturn.

Safely surpassing the former tallest building in the world, the financial center called the Taipei 101 in Taiwan, the Burj Khalifa stands 2717 feet tall, features views of up to 60 miles away (of the desert, sure), and cost $1.5 billion to build. When the construction of the soaring structure began in 2004, parcels were quickly sold to groups from all around the Middle East, Eastern Asia, and the United States — although many of those are still for sale.

They say that if you build it, they will come. But with this global economic climate, in which citizens around the world are seemingly making a permanent change in their spending and travel habits, bragging rights about having the tallest building in the world might not travel far.

And nor should it: The Burj Khalifa is simply a symbol of being a symbol, much like Dubai itself.

That is, the building is no more than a symbol of “merely the Emirates’ once-deep pockets,” as Witold Rybczynski wrote in a Jan. 13 article on titled “Dubai Debt: What the Burj Kahlifa — the tallest building in the world — owes to Frank Lloyd Wright.”

There is an increasingly persistent argument in the media that says that even as the recession recedes, consumers’ spending habits may be permanently altered. There are predictions that we really have become less wasteful, less inclined to throw down large sums on money on fleeting, flashy goods. This is a good thing — but certainly not for Dubai.

Dubai has branded itself as a better — read: hotter — Las Vegas. But while Las Vegas has somewhat bounced back from the worst part of the beginning of the recession, it’s done so largely because of its residents. There is no income tax in the city, and residents are largely working in service industries — but they are indeed employed, and are usually American citizens.

In Dubai, a huge proportion of the population of the emirate is that of migrant workers. Stories of the horrendous conditions in which these largely South Asian migrant workers live and work — and were injured and killed during the construction of the Burj Khalifa — certainly dampen the image of the supposedly luxurious urban center.

Moreover, the cultural and social differences between Dubai and Las Vegas mean the former cannot necessarily mimic the success of the latter — nor should it. The disregard for environmental sustainability — or for the physical environment at all — is one element that the two regions have in common. However, that is nothing to be proud of.

Las Vegas still exists as the by-product of an earlier age in which environmental degradation flew under the radar — no longer is this disregard acceptable in burgeoning urban environments.

Additionally, will a rocket ship-shaped building designed by a Chicago-based architectural firm, and with what some call strong inspirations from the skyscraper work of the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, strengthen the culture of the Middle Eastern city?

To have staying power, a city or region must have some cultural element that is all its own that makes it shine. Simply being a conglomeration of Western and worldwide consumption habits — reflecting what has been done elsewhere already, and emerging first as an airport stopover point — might not be enough to make Dubai last.

As Nick Maclean of the real estate firm CB Richard Ellis in Dubai told The New York Times, the Burj Khalifa “is a unique building and symbolically important but it is not going to stimulate demand.”

The tallest doesn’t necessarily signal an epicenter of cultural, economic, or political power anymore. It just signals the most likely to fall.