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Sun 2 Sep 2007 04:00 AM

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Desert dreams

Dubai World Central's Abdulla Al Falasi on future of global logistics hubs and the phenomenon being built in Jebel Ali.

"In a couple of years, or even next year, I'm going to be standing there and I'm going to see the first aircraft landing, and I'll think to myself ‘when we started five, six years ago, all this was nothing'," Abdulla Al Falasi, Dubai World Central's marketing and corporate communications director tells me halfway through the interview, almost as though even he cannot quite believe the pace and scope of the development. "I used to go there when there was nothing there, you'd go around in a four-wheel drive in the middle of the desert and no one thought there'd be an airport here; that instead of camels roaming around you'd be watching jets land."

Dubai World Central (DWC) is the name for the giant development already well underway out by the Jebel Ali Port and Free Zone (JAFZA) in the desert almost halfway between the Emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Encompassing several ‘mini-cities' including a Residential City, a Logistics City, a Commercial City and Aviation and Golf cities, all built around the main focal point of the Dubai World Central International Airport, the group considers this a unique new style of development. With infrastructure costs alone estimated to be as high as US$33bn and the project being run without government funding, each development will support the building of the central airport, following blueprints that are planning as far ahead as 2050. It is already being estimated that as many as 1 million people could live and work there in the future, making it a city in its own right.

Al Falasi is as fascinated by Dubai aviation's past - there is a family connection holding the threads together - as he is by its future, and his enthusiasm is contagious: "My father was the first local person to work for Dubai airport and he worked there for over 39 years." Al Falasi then leaves the room before reappearing with a mock up of one of the very first British Imperial Airways schedules dating from the 1930s to have Dubai listed as a destination. "I found one letter from when they were just starting to operate from here, the management were asking for two cars whose job it would be to scare the camels away. You see the history?"

"I have a letter from one gentleman that's dated 1939, the first time we began building a runway here, from the British Government to the Government of Dubai," Al Falasi continues. "He's writing a book on Dubai's history and the economy, tourism, aviation it's all linked in to where Dubai is now. If you look at Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid Al Maktoum]'s strategy it's all in one basket, it's all related. When Sheikh Rashid started building Dubai airport he was thinking about this airport at the same time. He set the land [about a third of what is being built on currently] aside, at the same time he asked them to build Jebel Ali port."

This prescience is now coming into its own. Excluding Dubai airport's new extensions the annual amount of passengers, including those transiting, is expected to reach 30 million in the next couple of years, soaring to almost 70 million once the new terminals are completed. With real estate in the centre of the city being so sought after, the decision to create an even larger complex with as much space for expansion as could ever be needed in its own designated zone seems self-evident.

"When we set the land aside he [Sheikh Mohammed] told us to increase it. He told us to double it," says Al Falasi. "If you go and look at the official map at Dubai Municipality you can see that it used to be three separate plots that have become one, with a red line designating the future airport. This is the concept of the airport as his vision. If you look 50 or even 100 years into the future this might be the only land left in Dubai on which you can build an airport, that's why we're using the most we can. If you go anywhere in the world you'll see that it's difficult to just add one runway, like what's happening now at Heathrow, that's why we're building six."
Al Falasi is keen to emphasise the importance of Dubai's strategic location as a trade and travel hub as one of the primary reasons for DWC's projected success: "We are at the centre of the world, hence the name Dubai World Central! It's the point of connection between Asia and Africa, between the CIS and Africa, Asia and Europe." A feeling that is reflected in the logos of the various departments, showing arrows heading out in all directions from a central point.

The location is not the project's only selling point, to Al Falasi the added allure for developers and airlines looking to participate is the amalgamation of facilities for commercial travel and logistics straight from the inception. The port at Jebel Ali will be linked to the airport's logistics hub by a direct road, meaning that no customs duty will have to be paid by companies moving cargo from one area to the other. The airport will also have it's own transport links straight to the current Dubai airport.

With a section for commercial travel, cargo transportation and executive hangars the first full time operational activity will be for the 2009 Airshow. Indeed development is proceeding so quickly that the first runway is already over 30% complete and set to be ready by the end of October this year. "I have lots of pictures of Dubai taken from the air just to record it, but taking a picture's just not enough, you're recording history here," he enthuses. "Last week one of our consultants gave me a picture of the control tower, two weeks ago it was 32.5 metres high, now it's 50 metres."

With the runways being laid out to specifications encompassing the biggest models currently available (the runway is built to A380 specifications) the first temporary terminal will cater for 6 million passengers annually to "take the load off Dubai airport." Taking the load off is a very apt phrase, Dubai airport is currently increasing 16% year-on-year and the hundreds of aircraft orders placed by Emirates are due to come online over the coming decade, meaning that the ‘run off' area needs to be operational, and it needs to be large. "By 2015 you will really see the big picture, it's huge, really, it's huge." The current projection for the development has it coming in at double the size of Hong Kong island.

As well as the corporate marketing department for the whole project, each section has its own ‘identity' marketing and business plan, from the logistics to the real estate to the airport. "Each focuses on a different area and target market," explains Al Falasi. "To be honest with you, what you see here [on the blueprints] is changing most of the time. We're not going to say ‘right, you're stuck with it'. We have to sit with each client and see what they need, what area they want - if they want a whole plot it has to be redesigned for them. You have to constantly update it. If we're designing something over the next 50 years you have to keep upgrading."

Part of the constant upgrade is the fit of the real estate developments to the airport itself. The idea behind DWC is for a ‘city around a city': "If we have 150 million passengers passing through how many people actually need to work here to support it? Where will they stay? We know they need to be close so we're projecting the concept that all, the workers, the middle classes, the executives will live around here. We've got two metro lines just running around the project itself, that's already 140 kilometres!"

Despite the cutting edge nature of the project, the fact that nothing similar has been attempted before and the scope that it encompasses, the group has not encountered much difficulty when trying to sell it abroad. This, Al Falasi thinks looking back to his position with the emirate's department of tourism trying to promote it overseas, is linked to the reputation that Dubai and the region has built up over the last few years: "People know that when a project is announced in Dubai it is completed. I remember showing people the plans for the Palm and the islands and no one believed it, then taking them to actually stand on it a few short years later!"

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