From the 106th floor of the Burj Khalifa Tower, we can see the world sinking. Not the entire world, but at least the $14 billion real estate project called The World, a fake archipelago of over three hundred man-made islands, shaped into the earth’s seven continents, which linger precariously along the coastline of the Persian Gulf. Sheikh Mohammed first conceived of the idea in 2003, but the project was never fully completed, its development plagued by instances of newly constructed islands slipping back into the sea.
My classmate Ash and I regard this scene from the perch of his uncle’s two-bed, two-bath, $3 million apartment. The building concierge let us in. Ash’s uncle isn’t in town, hasn’t in fact been to the apartment for over a year. Yet, somehow, the rooms are pristine, as untouched as the promotional photos in the lobby. The only sign of life is a cargo bag in the closet, concealing his uncle’s casual affinity for arbitrage: Ash says it’s filled with designer clothes, sunglasses and purses, duty-free liquor and cigarettes, which are all roughly 30 percent cheaper in Dubai than his hometown of London.
We have been studying Dubai’s heroic development as part of our week-long Business of the Middle East course, based at New York University’s nearby campus in Abu Dhabi, the country’s political capital. Ash is doing his term paper on Ski Dubai, the world’s largest indoor ski resort, and the only ski resort ever built in the middle of a desert. My obsession has been the Burj Khalifa, the towering centerpiece of Downtown Dubai, and the most symbolic of the city’s many gaudy displays of material ambition.
Luxurious high-rise buildings have adorned urban centers for decades, housing rich individuals and their families, or serving as a semi-frequented, “nonprimary” residence. But the Burj Khalifa is emblematic of a new breed of skyscraper, an ultra-high-end residential tower whose singular characteristic is that no one actually lives, or spends much time, inside of them.
Ash and I encounter few people while touring the upper floors of the Burj Khalifa, often finding ourselves alone while traversing its chic hallways, the sand-colored carpet rippled with delicate streaks, like dark ridges in a flat dune. The building’s construction during the Great Recession embodies many of the era’s misguided ambitions, claiming the world’s highest restaurant, nightclub, and observation deck; the world’s second-highest swimming pool; several full-fledged fitness facilities, outfitted with tennis courts, yoga studios, spas and massage centers; and an endless menu of room service amenities.
When Ash and I try entering the At.mosphere cigar club, which is empty like most every room we visit, the manager kindly turns us away, explaining that the space is reserved by an absent VIP owner. The only non-building attendant we meet along the way is a young woman in the residential library, reading Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty and sipping from a cappuccino speckled with gold flakes.
Prolonged exposure to this unworldly realm can begin to resemble a kind of limbo or afterlife, a tranquil sphere suspiciously devoid of human bodies and movement. If the occasional window overlooking Dubai didn’t remind me that I was atop one of the tallest buildings in the world, I could have convinced myself that I was submerged legions under the sea inside a submarine, circling the planet from inside an opulent space station, or at sail on a remarkably steady cruise ship.
Such rarefied spaces can be found in many of the world’s premier cosmopolitan capitals—cities like New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Moscow, Shanghai, and Melbourne—whose downtown centers are marked by the familiar dazzling towers. Research from brokerage firm LuxHabitat finds that roughly 25 percent of luxury condos in major cities around the world are empty, including one in five apartments in Dubai, and nearly half of the apartments in Midtown Manhattan.
Why are people building elaborate residential towers for no one to live in? Who would want an expensive apartment they never use? A string of tantalizingly titled investigations—like “ Towers of Secrecy ”( New York Times), “ Stash Pad ” ( New York magazine ), and “ Ghost Apartments ” ( Newsweek )—identify a multitude of reasons, but they all follow the same inevitable logic of capital.
In a hypothetical luxury skyscraper, maybe half of the apartments are owned by aspirational members of the upper-middle class; these are long-term investments for people like Ash’s uncle—successful, “self-made” lawyers, surgeons, and entrepreneurs. The other half are owned by a smaller and less savory group of wealthier individuals, Russian oligarchs and oil-rich Arab sheikhs, who buy multiple million-dollar apartments in the same high-rise to operate as a kind of “safety deposit box in the sky” where they can hide money with minimal tax or oversight. Standing atop everyone else is the lone billionaire who buys the building’s exorbitantly priced penthouse as a speculative investment, akin to a work of art, which will sit in a “discretionary spending” portfolio, alongside a $40 million Picasso painting and a $15 million yacht that resides permanently in Miami Beach. (Last year, hedge fund manager William A. Ackman described his $90 million, Midtown Manhattan penthouse as “the Mona Lisa of apartments.”)
These empty towers can generate significant tax revenues, lift a city’s physical skyline and intangible prestige. But they also displace the actual human beings and more fundamental economic activity that previously took place in those spaces, when they were populated by actual human beings. Critics argue that the influx of luxury skyscrapers ultimately hollows out a downtown center by upending the most powerful benefit a city has: the physical communion of its people. Describing the situation in Dubai, one mother of two explains that: “It’s like you have to move house every two years. You feel no stability in where you live and you’re always at the mercy of landlords whose sole interest is making more money.”
The Burj Khalifa stands at the heart of Downtown Dubai, anchoring a multi-tiered plaza consisting mainly of luxury skyscrapers, hotels, restaurants, and the largest shopping mall in the world, almost three times larger than the Mall of America. When Ash and I step out onto its highest outdoor lounge deck, nestled into the clouds, we can see glimmers of spotlight across the sky, signals from below that the world’s largest dancing fountain is about to perform its nightly routine. We hear the beat of the soundtrack rising up, but the melody remains muddled.
Beyond the waterfront, the panoramic view reveals neighboring towers, the haphazard grid of the city, twelve-lane highways stretching towards the horizon, swallowed up by the expanse of the Arabian Desert. Such stratospheric heights can be intoxicating, inspiring feelings of invincibility, the twisted thrill of what falling might feel like. Ash rushes towards the edge, presses his forehead against the glass barrier, and spreads his arms as if about to leap. He turns to me and smiles, says that we could probably see a thunderstorm coming before anyone else, but I don't immediately find the thought comforting.
Reflecting upon the city from its highest point is a jarring experience, inflicting in me a kind of motion- or sea-sickness even though we are on solid land. Steam rises from vacant hot tubs. Wind whips against both sides of our faces. Mist crowds the protective barrier and leaves the city opaque, our only clear sight the dark blanket of sky around us. After a few moments, the expansive view begins to feel stifling, like I might choke on all the atmosphere, or suffocate from a lack of oxygen. We are at the top of the world, but we are alone. We can see everyone, but no one can see us. I feel deflated, but Ash is ecstatic.
My spirit gradually restabilizes during our three separate elevator trips back to ground level. By the time we join the crowd in the plaza, the dancing fountain is beginning its next routine. Thousands of tourists, expats, and local Emiratis surround the crystal-blue lagoon, which wraps around the base of the Burj Khalifa. This time, Ash and I can hear the soundtrack, an eclectic mix of Arab dance numbers, Swahili orchestral pieces, and international pop hits like Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”
For several minutes, the pulse of activity across Downtown Dubai comes to a relative halt, and I’m moved by the possibilities: that a communal spirit can persist amongst the vacuous dream-land-in-the-desert that we’ve been wading through; that a public still yearns for connection even within a city characterized by private excesses.
And then the illusion breaks: The square has become congested. Security guards shout at a group of migrant workers to vacate the area, like they should have known better, an apparently routine discriminatory practice to ensure sufficient “public” space during busy times of the day. Pedestrian glares remain fixed on the dancing fountains, mostly ignoring the commotion, which is the stuff of satire—the very people who built the city are being denied the right to live there.
It continues to paralyze me—every time I witness a fresh example of how little the conversation around wealth and inequality have changed over the past decade, despite the Great Recession and several popular movements of dissent. The prevailing world order can make both sides feel powerless: Dissidents condemn an amoral system that operates without regard for human life or dignity; defenders uphold the capitalist system as inevitable, the only viable and most efficient option. Meanwhile, the ever-rising skylines of financial centers like Dubai and New York and Hong Kong represent a physical manifestation of the abstract wealth that both holds the world together and is tearing it apart.
In my hometown of New York, Manhattan’s West 57th Street has been unofficially renamed “Billionaire’s Row,” and local residents are protesting the block’s development of luxury skyscrapers that are poised to cast shadows over Central Park, one of the few remaining vestiges of public space on the island, for vast swathes of the day. Writing for the New York Observer , advertising executive Richard Kirshenbaum empathizes with the controversy the only way he knows how: by relating it to a broader trend of “billionaire buzzkill,” which he describes as a feeling of normalcy overcoming previously “ultra-wealthy” millionaires as the number of billionaires multiply around them.
“It all goes back to what I think Plato said,” one anonymous billionaire tells Kirshenbaum, who himself owns a measly multi-million-dollar duplex on the Upper East Side. “In order to be truly happy, you have to surround yourself with people less successful than yourself.” Of course, Plato never said that—and as with any unflinching defense of inequality, I immediately wonder what kind of extreme reality needs to set in before Kirshenbaum and his friend can begin questioning their assumption.
Next year, William A. Ackman’s $90 million “Mona Lisa” of a penthouse will be eclipsed by the Tour Odeon Monaco’s $300 million “sky penthouse,” which will occupy the top five floors of the building, its own private elevator system, and a water slide that flows into an exclusive “infinity pool.” In Mumbai, India’s richest family currently lives in a twenty-seven-story, $2 billion tower that serves as a private residence for six people, sporting three helipads and a mysterious “ice room” where it is always snowing.
As the top of society becomes ever-more stratified from the rest of the world—physically, socioeconomically, psychologically—there is an urgent need to demystify the aura that surrounds wealth, exposing its reality as not primarily a measure of power, or ingenuity, or hard work, but rather a function of inherited variables. In his book, Einstein’s Dreams , physicist Alan Lightman describes a series of alternate realities that Albert Einstein may have considered while formulating his theory of relativity, including one reality where scientists have discovered that time flows more slowly the farther away one is from the center of the earth.
In this world, everyone lives in the mountains, well-off individuals build their houses on stilts, and height has become the universal status symbol. “In time, people have forgotten the reason why higher is better,” Lightman writes. “Nevertheless, they continue to live on the mountains . . .” Man-made towers have always represented our longing to leave this world, or at least rise above it. Their sights inspire our shared sense of wonder, but they also fuel our delusional egos, stirring us to reach higher, work harder, move faster, get richer—but to what end? The voyage to the top of the world eventually reveals itself to be a mirage: We arrive and find ourselves alone, peering into the empty space above the clouds.