Dubai has made a virtue of the building’s distinctive shape. A sail-like structure built on a man-made island, 280 metres offshore, the building dominates the horizon for miles around. The world’s first seven-star hotel is depicted on the emirate’s car registration plates, Tiger Woods has played golf off it, and it has become an enclave for the rich and famous.

The Burj al-Arab is a tough act to follow. But if any project is going to steal its mantle it will be the Burj Dubai. The tower is the first of a new breed of super skyscrapers. It is expected to be at least 850 metres tall, some 350 metres taller than the current world record holder, the 509-metre Taipei 101 in Taiwan. More will follow.

The cities of the Gulf are defined by such icons, although good or distinctive design usually trumps height. The Liberation Tower is the tallest structure in Kuwait City, but articles on the country are usually accompanied by a picture of the city’s golf-ball shaped water towers, designed in the 1970s.

Increasingly, architects are opting for eye-catching designs over statistics. Even before completion, the Bahrain World Trade Centre is receiving worldwide attention. The 240-metre-tall towers will be the first in the world to feature wind turbines, designed to generate an alternative energy supply for offices inside. The three turbines, measuring 29 metres in diameter, will deliver only 11 – 15 per cent of the building’s energy needs, but they have the added advantage of being a talking point for the rest of the Gulf.

Proving that not every landmark has to be a tower is the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, due to open in 2007. Located on a man-made island, the five-storey stepped structure is a blend of whitewashed Mediterranean architecture punctuated by grand courtyards and arched gateways.

Like the simple adobe structures and courtyards of the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh, the architecture harks back to traditional Islamic design and could herald a new direction for a region exhausted by the relentless skyscraper race.