It is not yet complete and won’t be for at least two years. But Palm Jumeirah, Dubai’s first artificial island, came of age on 20 November when Kylie Minogue performed to a celebrity audience at the opening of the Atlantis Hotel.

It has more than 1,500 rooms, a huge aquarium and the largest water theme park for more than 3,000 miles in any direction. But the biggest marvel is that the Atlantis exists at all. Little more than seven years ago, where the hotel now stands was a stretch of water three miles off Dubai’s coast.

Palm Jumeirah has been mocked as a folly and criticised for its impact on the environment. But the truth is that the first palm island has failed to meet either the lowest expectations or the highest aspirations expressed when work started on the project in June 2001.
Reclamation took longer and cost more than forecast.

The palm’s trunk has been widened and houses packed onto its 17 fronds. The project has spoilt the view from the Jumeirah coast and changed currents so much that sand has been stripped from beaches to the north.

Nakheel, the government real estate firm that built the palm, has probably spent more money than it earned on getting the project to where it is today.

But apparently insuperable technical challenges have been overcome. Though still unfinished, it looks amazing.

Every one of its houses and apartments has been sold. Despite the Dubai housing slump, Palm Jumeirah homes still sell at a premium. They have made some villa buyers millionaires.

Palm Jumeirah is the world’s largest artificial island. But its real significance is that it proves that turning sea into land on an unprecedented scale is technically feasible and economically attractive.

The Dubai coastline has been permanently altered and, with it, the course of construction industry history.

Attention from Palm Jumeirah has been deflected by news that work has largely halted on Palm Deira, Nakheel’s third and largest artificial island. But the offshore narrative was already shifting towards Nakheel’s Palm Jebel Ali which lies five miles to the south.

If Palm Jumeirah is amazing, Palm Jebel Ali is mind-boggling. The project’s director Ali Mansour told MEED’s Coastal Projects Conference in Dubai on 17 November that it involved moving 20 million tonnes of rock and 220 million cubic metres of earth and sand.

When complete, Palm Jebel Ali will have 100 kilometres of usable beaches, almost twice the original length of Dubai’s coast. Palm Jumeirah’s permanent population could be about 100,000 people. Palm Jebel Ali will have 300,000.

Most of the reclamation is complete on the second palm, which is twice the area of the first. Construction of buildings will start next year and residents are scheduled to start moving in at the end of 2011.

Learning from the problems building the first palm, Nakheel increased the number of channels allowing the free circulation of water within its protective breakwater crescent, now the world’s largest artificial reef.

Its 12 million square metres of land have been subjected to vibro-compaction, a mechanical process that makes it possible for earth dredged from the Gulf floor to support multi-floor buildings. The need for compaction on Palm Jumeirah was only addressed after dredging was complete.

There are other differences. Palm Jumeirah has a single road connection to the coast which reaches the crescent at the Atlantis through a tunnel. On Palm Jebel Ali, there is a road up the trunk and spine, but no connection to the crescent. This is reached by road from the coast that crosses a bridge at the crescent’s northeast extremity, runs around its perimeter and then returns to the mainland at the southeast. The new palm will eventually have 125 kilometres of roads.

Due to the credit crunch, work is being slowed on parts of Palm Jebel Ali. But it is a blueprint that others are likely to follow.

The economics are compelling. It costs about Euros 250 ($200) to reclaim a square metre of land in the UAE. Existing land costs more than seven times that figure. Homeowners are prepared to pay up to 50 per cent more for a house or an apartment near water. Reclaimed offshore land might, therefore, justify a price 10 times that of its onshore equivalent.

Dubai’s island gamble has worked. A new way of increasing living space and making money for government and business seems to have been devised. Others are following suit: huge reclamation projects are taking place the length of Arabia’s Gulf coast.

New technology allows land to be reclaimed at depths exceeding 100 metres. That means practically every coastline on earth could be subject to the Palm Jumeirah treatment.

The irony is that world finance has turned against Dubai at the moment of its greatest modern triumph. It may never return in the amounts that made the palm islands possible. But the horizons of probability have been pushed out for everyone.

Perhaps Kylie should have sung about that.