WITH 14,000 labourers toiling day and night, the first of Dubai's three palm-shaped islands is finally about to get its first residents.
The Palm Jumeirah, a 31-square-kilometre (12-square-mile) island group, is part of what's billed as the largest land-reclamation project in the world, involving the hauling of millions of tonnes of Gulf sand and quarried rock over five years.
On Nov. 30, the palm will open to some 4,000 residents, said Issam Kazim, a spokesman for Dubai's state-owned developer Nakheel.
When fully complete by 2010, the Palm Jumeirah will be an offshore city, with some 60,000 residents and at least 50,000 workers in 32 hotels and dozens of shops and attractions, according to Nakheel.
Observers say they are surprised that the fledgling developer has been able to build such a complex project more or less as planned, albeit with several snags that delayed the opening from last year.
"The project has captured people's imagination," said Colin Foreman of the Middle East Economic Digest. "Nothing like it has been done anywhere else in the world."
Nakheel's four island projects, the world's largest land reclamation effort, are reshaping Dubai's stretch of the Gulf coast.
The US$14 billion (euro10.9 billion) project is a key part of this booming city's ambitions to rival Singapore and Hong Kong as a business hub and surpass Las Vegas as a leisure capital.
The frenetic pace of development has utterly transformed Dubai from a sleepy trading and pearl-diving village in the 1950s to a flashy metropolis of 1.5 million.
The island's construction has not all been smooth, and most buyers were supposed to get keys to their island homes a year ago.
Some of the new land sank and Nakheel needed an extra year to add more sand and pack it with vibrating land compactors, Kazim said.
Reports from those who have wandered through the island's giant homes describe them as cheaply finished and set uncomfortably close to one another. Nakheel rejected an Associated Press request to visit the island.
Overburdened roads in Dubai's Jumeirah Beach neighbourhood are expected to clog further as people begin moving onto the island, accessible, for now, by a single bridge. Mainlanders have already put up with years of road works and innumerable trucks hauling boulders to the island.
Those moving onto the Palm Jumeirah this year will have to live with construction for another three years, and then an influx of tourists. Most of the owners are foreigners, with Britons making up the largest group, Kazim said.
Many observers believe Dubai's frenetic home-building will soon outstrip demand.
"We've still got a shortage of properties in Dubai, but that's likely to become an excess in next six or 12 months," said Steve Brice, an economist with Standard Chartered Bank in Dubai.
Brice said year-old estimates that 50,000 housing units would hit the market in 2006 will be more than doubled. Nakheel, one of three big developers here, has said it will release 60,000 units in the second half of 2006 alone.
Nakheel's two copycat Palms, the Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira, have also been delayed by design changes and other factors, Kazim said. A nearly finished fourth Nakheel archipelago, shaped like a map of the world, has attracted few buyers and remains mostly unsold.
Kazim said The World's sales trouble stems from simple economics:
Nakheel is selling empty islands for tens of millions of dollars (euros) only to builders promising low-density luxury.
Dubai's government expects the Palm Jumeirah to become a signature tourist attraction, bringing in as many as 20,000 daily visitors, Kazim said.
Meanwhile, labourers living in a cruise ship moored offshore are scrambling to finish enormous concrete houses that are crammed together on the palm island's 17 "fronds."
The fronds are narrow peninsulas as long as 1.6 kilometers (a mile), attached to the island's main trunk. Nakheel will hand keys to owners of 1,350 homes by Nov. 30, Kazim said.
Also nearing completion are 2,650 apartments in 20 high-rises that have sprung up on the island's trunk. T
he hulking complexes are visible from shore, where the sprawling island, with its dredges, highway overpasses and construction cranes has become a major eyesore for resort hotels on Dubai's once idyllic natural beaches.
Even after the handover in November, less than half of the island's construction will be finished. Kazim said the project won't be done until nearly 2010, if things go according to Nakheel's current schedule.
The 1,500 room Atlantis Hotel is already under construction by South Africa and Dubai-owned Kerzner International, and is expected to be finished in 2009.
The hotel will be similar to its Atlantis hotel in The Bahamas.
A redesigned Trump Hotel and Tower on the island is also expected to open sometime in 2009, Kazim said.