The World's your oyster

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 December, 2004, 12:00am

Have you ever dreamed of owning your own desert island? What about your own country? Now you can have both courtesy of the government of the United Arab Emirates and its latest ambitious development project, The World.

The man-made archipelago, located off the coast of Dubai, is the brainchild of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and features 300 islands arranged over approximately 54 square kilometres. To put it in context, Hong Kong Island covers 78.33 sq km. The islands are arranged to form a world map and are separated by a series of waterways, so the only way to access your piece of paradise is by boat.

The catch? With prices starting from about US$6.5 million for a 2.6-hectare secluded patch of sand (before the cost of building your dream villa or buying your own luxury water transport), a piece of The World falls outside most investors' price range. Dubai-based property developer the Nakheel Corporation is clear what sort of market it is targeting. When the company's second-in-command, Wahid Attalla, was asked what sort of people were showing interest in the project, his response was unequivocal: 'Rich people.' However, he would not reveal what percentage of the project had sold to date.

The World is the latest luxury residential project in Dubai as the tiny Middle Eastern kingdom strives to portray itself as a major centre for business, tourism and multicultural living. This luxury island complex joins a growing list of landmark developments that includes the five-star deluxe Burj Al Arab hotel, the iconic Emirates Towers and The Palm project situated along the coast from The World. The Palm comprises two palm tree-shaped islands, which are also under construction by Nakheel.

The World will be 5km off the coast of Dubai and includes 900,000 sq metres of beach. Considered a first of its kind, the development is expected to cater specifically to the elite residential and tourist market. There will be no road access to the islands, and to protect the development, two types of breakwater will surround it: an above-water sand bank and a submerged reef.

To ensure the island ambience is maximised, restrictions have been placed on the height of developments. Out are gaudy theme parks and mass tourist accommodation; in are golf courses, luxury spas, private residences and eco or culinary resorts. Also acceptable are historic-style resorts where 'rolling lawns, graceful manors, fields of wild flowers [and] centuries of history bring old Europe to life in the middle of the Arabian Gulf'.

With completion of The World slated for 2008, speculation has already begun over likely buyers of

the secluded island outposts 'where the only footprints in the sand are your own'. Stud marks could certainly be destined for the beaches of The Palm after it was reported England football captain David Beckham and his wife Victoria had bought a plot for US$1.5 million. The celebrity couple may even be considering a replica of their infamous 'Beckingham Palace' for a kitsch resort.

One English tabloid claimed gravel-voiced crooner Rod Stewart had put down a deposit on the 'Britain' island of The World, until his people denied it.

Alex Croucher is an agent with London-based property consultant FPD Savills and is helping to market the development. He says parts of Australia and New Zealand have been sold, as have Britain, Ireland and Singapore. As far as he knows, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Shanghai are still available, as are many of the 20 or so islands that make up mainland China. When asked if he has had any interest in the project from local investors, Croucher replies: 'I wouldn't know.'

Calls to various Hong Kong celebrities, developers and hoteliers bring forth similar responses. A spokesman for the Peninsula Group owner Michael Kadoorie says: 'While Mr Kadoorie appreciates the approach, he has no comment to make.' Aron Harilela, head of the hotel and entertainment dynasty, is a little more forthcoming. 'I would certainly have a look at something like this.'

Kai-bong Chau, one half of the irrepressible socialite duo with wife Brenda, clear local contenders for the Beckhams' kitsch crown, is concerned about having to start from scratch. For this couple, paradise begins at home.

'We'd consider joint ownership, yet the trappings we're used to are lacking,' says Chau from his pink and gold mansion on Mount Davis Road. 'And there's not even a hospital or police station. Perhaps if it was already developed, we'd consider it more. But the actual development process requires too much energy, and we don't like to suffer in primitive surroundings.'

Chau has a point regarding security. Peter Churchouse, a director of financial-planning firm LIM Advisers, believes the security issue could discourage local investors. 'I think the main concern is about security in the region,' says the veteran property analyst. 'Despite the fact that Dubai is making huge strides towards becoming the primary duty-free and shopping retreat it aims to be, there is a security issue that may affect an investor's decision.'

Would Churchouse be interested in investing in some secluded Middle Eastern real estate given he already has a boat? 'I wouldn't dismiss the idea completely. It's worth taking a look at, at least. After taking all the factors into consideration, I'd make my decision.'

Much of the marketing of the project has been done in Dubai, which could explain the lack of Hong Kong or mainland Chinese names circulating on the buyer rumour mill. Attalla, his entourage and their papier mache models have been promoting The World at a limited number of upmarket locations and events such as Newbury Racecourse and the Monaco Super-Yacht show (where else?). This strategy could change if much of the project remains unsold.

According to the Dubai-based organiser of next year's Worldwide Property Show at the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre in March, Nakheel Corporation has 'shown interest' in attending the event. That could give local buyers the opportunity to assess what is essentially a pile of sand and rock in the middle of the Arabian Gulf.

The US$1.8 billion project uses a global positioning system to map out cookie-cutter island shapes, which are then filled with sand and rock. The project will look impressive from space, but with the distance between islands reduced in some instances to less than 100 metres, the effect will be lost on its Earth-bound owners. The real test for prospective buyers will be in designing residences that stay within the planning rules and not only keep up with, but eclipse, the Joneses, Beckhams and Chaus of this world.

Architect James Law of Cybertecture Inter-national has embraced the eco-resort theme with his 'Cybertecture Sri Lanka Tree House Island'. The World's Sri Lanka is a cosy 1.4 hectares (almost three soccer pitches), just south of Mumbai and west of Sumatra. There is a large expanse of water between it and one of the 12 more isolated 'celebrity' islands dotted strategically throughout the development.

Law plans to have the island covered in lush tropical greenery, providing a canopy for gardens below. The tree-house will consist of three hi-tech glass spheres supported on large 'tree trunks' made of steel. Its position above the trees will provide a panoramic view of the surroundings.

The largest sphere will feature an observation deck with spa, a dining room with library and observatory (for star-gazing) and a kitchen.

The second sphere will contain a meditation chamber, private study and theatre. The smallest sphere will contain the bedrooms, outdoor showers and walk-in wardrobes.

'In the forest will be vegetable and fruit gardens to supply the inhabitants with food [and] the water will be supplied by wells and recycled through the forest. Monkeys will be allowed to roam from the trees to the house,' explains Law. Inhabitants will also be able to make use of the piped gas, telecommunications network and domestic water and sewage system that will link every island.

While Law's ideas are commendable, the reality is those who can afford their own paradise island are unlikely to want to spend the day chasing monkeys away from their vegetable patch.

The World offers the opportunity to invest in a ready-made island paradise, but for those on a budget there are many more affordable (though less developed) pieces of real estate on the market. Private Islands Online (www.privateislandsonline.

com) features seven islands in the Philippines at less than US$1 million for up to 60 hectares, a 12.8-hectare island in Greece for US$800,000 and four hectares near the real Sri Lanka for US$200,000.

Miami-based Tropical Islands has two hectares in Nicaragua for US$230,000 and 60 hectares with two beaches in Panama for US$1.5 million. The facilities may be basic but the point is clear: you don't have to be mega-rich to realise there is more to the world than a man-made beach.

Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers.