The opening last week of the world’s tallest building, the half-mile-high Burj Dubai, has largely been greeted with guffaws and groans. The Daily Telegraph labeled it “the new pinnacle of vanity”–“a purposeless monument to the subprime era.” The Wall Street Journal compared it to the Tower of Babel. (When the Empire State Building was completed in 1931, in the throes of the greatest financial crisis of the 20th century, it was met with similar jeers. The then-tallest building in the world was called the Empty State Building, and it remained vacant for several years.)
Yet the Burj’s completion–indeed the whole wild enterprise known as Dubai–could signal a potential opportunity to the global community: turning the place into the headquarters for that other misguided ship, the United Nations.
Let’s spell out the logic. The United Nations is a pain in the butt. It pays no taxes and annoys hard-working New Yorkers with its sloth, pretensions and cavalier disregard for traffic laws. The place is a sinkhole dominated by anti-American, anti-Semitic and authoritarian fantasies. It is far from the elegant crown jewel that celebrated the U.S.’s global ascendancy after the Second World War.
Today the U.N. building is a mostly empty shell–water dripping through its roof, asbestos lining its ceiling and an erratic heating and cooling system have forced most UN workers to new facilities. The building is in the midst of a $1.87 billion overhaul–of which the U.S., which could use the cash for myriad other things, would be on the hook for $437 million.
And the U.N. may be leaving anyway. A relocation committee has recommended that the organization move temporarily to Singapore by 2015. It will be hard to vacate Asia again for New York, which is far away from the bulk of the world’s largest population centers.
Singapore might make a fine world capital, since it does work like a fine watch. But it’s already crowded, expensive and highly regulated. You have to wonder if hard-working, rational Singaporeans would want to drive up costs and lose their ability to run things as they see fit to accommodate the U.N. bureaucracy.
In contrast, the al-Maktoum family has transformed a once vast, empty landscape into a Star Wars-like capital city of the future. There is no skyline more arresting than the one built over the past 15 years by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Absolute Ruler of the tiny Emirate. In just 500 square miles, about half the size of Orange County, Calif., the sheikh has created a monument to modern architectural engineering.
Sheikh Mohammed could offer to build a United Nations City to house the U.N. in any number of vacant office towers. Business Bay has 65 million square feet of office space under construction in more than 200 high-rises. Dubai already has thousands of newly constructed apartments that await the international delegates. More than 2 billion people in Africa, Europe and Asia are within a six-hour flight from Dubai. Travel connections through the world’s largest airport would be a breeze. Dubai has 55 five-star hotels to accommodate every regal and royal delegation, as well as the Harvard Medical School Dubai Center, a $1,400,000,000 facility branded with the Harvard crest, just in case one of the U.N.’s elite workers breaks a gasket.
Questions of taste and timing aside, you have to admire the sheikh’s chutzpah. The al-Maktoums, descendants of the Bani Yas clan, have ruled Dubai since 1833, first under the protection of the British. The United Arab Emirates was founded in 1971 with big brother Abu Dhabi, the emirate with 96% of the confederation’s oil reserves.
Like New York, Dubai aimed first to be a capital of capital. Recognizing that oil revenues at $70 a barrel brought immense cash flow to the Persian Gulf, Sheikh Mohammed set out to create a setting where Arab pride and excess oil revenues could be comfortably parked. His boldness caught the attention of the world financial community and soon the tiny emirate employed more construction cranes than any site on Earth.
For now flying so close to the sun has resulted in a painful and somewhat humiliating fall. With the financial market collapse of 2008 to 2009 international buyers disappeared and property values plummeted. Half of the $300 billion in construction projects screeched to a halt. The Dubai government, with $80 billion to $100 billion of debt, was in trouble, and Dubai World, its investment arm, announced suspension of interest payments on its loans. Enter Abu Dhabi. The neighboring emirate wrote kid brother Dubai a check for $25 billion. What does $25 billion get you in 2010? On Jan. 4, at the grand opening of the Burj Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed announced that the tower would forever be known as Burj Khalifa, named after the Emir of Abu Dhabi.
Let’s look a bit longer term. Right now there’s 33.6 million square feet of mostly state-of-the-art office space in Dubai. More than 8 million square feet is vacant with millions more in the pipeline. There’s a great airport–as opposed to that aerial dumpster, JFK–that is hours closer to the emerging economic powers of the new century, notably the oil states, India and China. The workforce is skilled and open to foreigners, since the vast majority are foreigners. In Dubai 83% of the 2.2 million residents are from somewhere else. Talk about cosmopolitan.
But how about New York? “Moving the U.N. to Dubai would be a boon for New Yorkers who have to put up with traffic jams created by the likes of Colonel Qaddafi, scofflaws protected by diplomatic immunity and the loss of real estate revenue they would gain if the U.N. building were turned into something far more useful–condos with a view,” suggests urban historian Fred Siegel, a visiting professor at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn and a fellow at New York’s Manhattan Institute.
Liberating New York from the United Nations, in fact, would open up some of the best situated real estate in the world. A treasure trove of great apartments and offices right along the East River would suddenly become available, bringing a potential revenue windfall to New York City, which could use it. None of this would threaten the city’s—or the country’s–economic and political status. That grows out of economic and military power, which the U.N. does little or nothing to augment.
What would Dubai get? It’s an ideal opportunity to refurbish its tarnished image on the world stage in a way that plays to its infrastructural and geographical advantages. The Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean are increasingly the focal point of the world economic and political systems. Some of the biggest challenges facing the U.N. are concentrated in the south in Somalia and Yemen, to the west in Israel and Palestine, and to nearby Iran and Pakistan. Dubai would have to reconcile itself to a permanent Israeli presence, but that may not be as difficult as many think. Jews, and even Israelis, do business today in Dubai with perhaps less worry about running into manifestations of anti-Semitism than in London or Paris.
Bringing the United Nations to Dubai makes sense. New York gets rid of one of its worst welfare cheats, and Dubai finds new tenants to fill its vacant towers. Dubai has already built something that looks the part of a 21st-century world capital. Let it get a cast appropriate for its glittering set.