The Gulf does not have a long tradition of constructing tall buildings. With convention dictating that buildings should not be higher than the local mosque, many Arab states have stuck to low-rise architecture.

The recent economic boom turned that tradition on its head, with skyscrapers being built all around the Gulf. The most impressive, the 818-metre-high Burj Dubai, was due to open as MEED went to press.

The project was launched in 2003, the same year the 1-kilometre-tall, 120-storey Nakheel Tower in Dubai was announced. Kuwait’s proposed 1,001-metre Mubarak al-Kabir tower was unveiled in 2006. In Qatar, the 570-metre Doha Convention Centre Tower was announced the same year. Jeddah’s mile-high Kingdom Tower was launched two years later.

The downturn has led to the Nakheel Tower being cancelled and the Doha and Kuwait projects being put on hold, while the Kingdom Tower project has been scaled back. So it is all the more surprising that it is Dubai – the Gulf economy hit hardest by the downturn – that has managed to complete a record-breaking tower.

The lack of progress on the rival projects puts the achievement into perspective. Having modified the design after construction had already started, to make the tower more than 100 metres taller, engineers had to overcome unprecedented technical and logistical challenges, from pumping concrete higher than ever before to ensuring that up to 12,000 workers could be on site on time every day.

When it was conceived, the Burj Dubai was to have been a celebration of the emirate’s transformation into a world-class financial and commercial hub. But its official opening on 4 January is now more about Dubai trying to regain its previous optimism and ambition.

Having been hit hard by the global financial crisis in 2009, the tower’s developer, the local Emaar Properties, will be hoping the celebrations offer a chance to forget the past 12 months and start afresh.