SEPT. 20 2006



SEPT. 20 2006
SEPT. 20 2006
Scene: A montage zooming in from
space to the Palm, with some
profound words about how it’s the
most ambitious project in the history
of the world.
Script: A manmade structure,
visible from space with the naked
eye. The most ambitious
construction project ever
undertaken. A costly project
providing thousands of jobs for
international craftsmen. A luxurious
playground for the affluent and
well-connected under the tropical
sun. An environmentally invasive
construction site with profound
impact on both land and sea
ecosystems. What is the Palm
Source: Google Earth image
Scene: A map of the overall
construction vision.
Script: The Palm (or, the Palm
Jumeirah) is actually one component
of a grand vision of manmade
islands in the Arabian Sea off the
coast of Dubai in the United Arab
Emirates. The physical size is
staggering: the coastline will
increase by over 70 miles, the
islands will contain more than
10,000 living units—some
representing the height of
luxury—as well as dining,
entertainment, shopping, water
sports, diving, and a wide range of
other leisure and tourism activities.
Perhaps the most ambitious member
of this artificial island family is
“The World”, a 300-island unit
shaped to look like a map of the
Earth, with each island sold to and
marketed by private developers for
exclusive homes and resorts.
shaped to look like a map of the
Earth, with each island sold to and
marketed by private developers for
exclusive homes and resorts.
Sources: image (TEN real estate),
data (TEN real estate), the World
photo (
Scene: background on the UAE
population, economic, and social
Script: The United Arab Emirates
has been a sovereign nation for over
30 years since gaining independence
from the United Kingdom in 1971.
With a population of about 2.5M
and a labor force about half that
size, the UAE hardly seems a likely
candidate for the sustained
economic growth it has enjoyed in
the past few decades. However, oil
has fueled the economy, as it has
many other economies in the region.
But the UAE has recognized that
their oil supplies are drying up, and
their new national revenue source
will be tourism. This partially
explains all the construction
designed to attract international jetsetters and trend-setters. But
building man-made islands—this
seems like an extraordinarily
ambitious tourism plan. Why not
take advantage of the sandy beaches
and temperate climate by building
more tradition resorts? Because
Dubai has a long history of what
some would call design and
architectural excess. In addition to
its Guinness World Records for the
“largest” of many things, its best
known architectural achievement
before the Palm was probably the
architectural excess. In addition to
its Guinness World Records for the
“largest” of many things, its best
known architectural achievement
before the Palm was probably the
Burj Al Arab hotel, designed to look
like a sailing ship.
Sources: map (CIA Factbook,, data
(, records (),
hotel image (
Scene: artist’s rendering of the
Script: The Palm, however, is a
construction project well beyond
consideration even a decade ago.
This artist’s rendering shows the
broad shape—that of a date palm
with a trunk and fronds, plus a
circumferential breakwater
boundary at its perimeter. These
islands were made from nothing,
and started with over 7 million
metric tons of quarry rock used as a
supportive base for the islands.
Sand was dredged from the
surrounding Arabian Gulf and
deposited in the prescribed geometry
using an approach called
“rainbowing”, essentially spraying
the sand through massive nozzles.
Large vibration machines are used to
ensure good packing of the sand,
and this is important because Dubai
lies essentially on the Western
Coastal fault line and very near the
Dibba fault line, both of which are
known to be active.
Sources: palm rendering
(, data
(, fault line
map (
(, fault line
map (
Scene: an exclusive villa for sale
Script: The light construction
which is being built on top of this
quarry rock and sand foundation
represents the best in modern
seaside living. With sale prices in
the millions of dollars for villas and
apartments, this clearly caters to a
luxury clientele. But as is often the
case when humans attempt to
improve upon the genius of nature,
this project has not been without its
critics and problems.
Source: image (
Scene: real estate listings, plus
images of marine life
Script: First is the cost. Tens of
billions of dollars for each of the
three Palm projects, with a similar
cost for The World. There is a
legitimate complaint that wealthy
individuals and land developers
make all the profit from land and
home sales, while the only jobs
generated are in the tourism and
service industries—employment
which offers notoriously low wages
the World over. So the question
remains, what are the financial
ethics of undertaking such a project.
The second primary criticism of the
work is the environmental impact.
Environmentalists have forcefully
argued that the construction has
disturbed the marine habitat
irreversibly through destruction of
coral habitats and severe disruption
of the natural state of the sea floor.
The primary construction contractor,
Nakheel, of course paints a much
more rosy picture, but it’s safe to at
least be skeptical about the
ecosystem’s recovery from this
serious and invasive blow. This
says nothing of the environmental
impact of the operation of the island
itself, where homes and resorts will
generate large amounts of waste and
pollution which again have the
potential to negatively impact the
local marine environment.
Sources: listing
environmental impact
(, image
Scene: The fronds.
Script: The balance of costs and
benefits for a project of this
unprecedented scale is difficult to
resolve. Of course, as engineers, we
are all impressed by this stunning
achievement in planning and
execution. But we also ask the usual
question about our relationship to
society. Why is this money being
spent in this way? Who will really
benefit from the construction and
operation of these manmade islands?
What is our responsibility to
ourselves, our neighbors, our
environment, our children? As
engineers, we sometimes face
massive questions which place us in
serious ethical limbo, and for me,
this project is one of those times.
What if, faced with an impending
economic crisis due to decreasing
oil revenues, the UAE chose to
funnel their resources not into
tourism, but into alternative energy
sources? Surely a $20B investment
in energy R&D would yield
amazingly valuable advances in
energy which would potentially
revolutionize our lives and make a
hefty profit. But the choice has
already been made. The Palm and
World projects will be completed
before the end of the decade, and we
are left to ponder—as we
often—what might have been.
Source: image (