George Efstathiou was wondering if, after the building was finished, you'd be able to see Iran on a clear day. “I mean, it's really not that far over the Gulf,” he said. “Seriously—standing at the top, at the final height, how far do you think you'll be able to see?”

“I think you'll be able to see until the curvature of the earth stops your line of vision,” said Eric Tomich, laughing a little.

In fact, if the evening had been clearer, spotting Iran might already have been close to possible. Efstathiou and Tomich, both architects at the Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), were standing on a wooden platform floating more than 1,300 feet above the ground. Below them, the Persian Gulf lay a few miles to the north; about 60 or 70 miles on the other side of it, the coast of Iran.

  • Credit: Getty Images

The platform was balanced on 115 floors of the half-built Burj Dubai—which means in Arabic, simply, “The Tower of Dubai”—an ultra-tall tower that, when it is completed, will be the tallest man-made structure in the world. At 1,335 feet, or 406 meters, it is already taller than the Empire State Building and a few weeks from rising above the Sears Tower.

And this is only somewhere around half the height it will ultimately reach. The Burj sits on a three-legged, Y-shaped base and spirals up into the sky, tapering as it goes, its cross-section decreasing as it rises, with setbacks at different levels. There's a bit of a rocket look to the renderings, as if at any moment the building might fire its engines and just launch itself into the atmosphere.

And in effect, it will. The height is already slightly dizzying, but when you consider where it's going—take the Sears Tower and stack another Sears on top of it, and you'll have the idea—it seems as if it might just touch the edge of space.

The small patch of desert land that sits under the Burj has, of late, conducted one of the most remarkable (and most exhaustively publicized) overhauls of national reputations in the history of the world. It is the capital city of the emirate of Dubai, one of the seven states that make up the nation of the United Arab Emirates, a place that has learned the most efficient lessons of modern advertising: Once a tiny, practically unknown spot, with only a tradition of pearl-diving and piracy and a bit of oil to recommend it, Dubai has thrust itself to the center of international consciousness by constantly insisting on attention.

It is now, of course, the West's favorite example of its own simulation, the Orient appropriating the economic blueprints of the Occident. (Not to mention being the only spot in the region that has appropriated certain cultural particulars: If you find yourself in the Middle East wanting a whiskey at an Irish bar, it's not advisable to try Riyadh.) After 15 years of explosive development, Dubai now outdoes Las Vegas in strange spectacle, from its indoor ski range in a mall to man-made islands that replicate the earth's landforms; from the sail-shaped, “seven-star” service Burj Al Arab to the world's first underwater hotel.

  • Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum
Ruler of Dubai

    Credit: Stefan Zaklin/Corbis

    Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Ruler of Dubai

Because Dubai's oil reserves are far, far smaller than its neighbors' (and predicted to run out within the decade), the emirate has hit on a different strategy for a sustainable economy, based in tourism and spectacle, with the aim of holding a prime spot at the table of international trade. Dubai is betting that, by remaking itself as a garden spot, a financial center, and a gateway to the Middle East, it will become a nexus of the global economy.

  • Mohamed ali Alabbar
Founder and chairman, Emaar Properties; director general of Dubai's Department of Economic Development

    Credit: Emaar/Asda'a

    Mohamed ali Alabbar Founder and chairman, Emaar Properties; director general of Dubai's Department of Economic Development
The tower being built, thus, is an announcement. It is meant to say: Here we are. You've watched us coming, and now we have arrived. We have reached the center, drawn the center to where we are. Man has come closest to the heavens here. You cannot possibly choose to look away.

At least the tower itself will be something worth looking at. Its final height is a closely kept secret—mostly in order to prevent competitors from trying to beat it, though probably also to encourage breathless speculation—but it is likely to go up at least 2,300 feet. Many guesses go well above 2,600; one website, based on a report by a subcontractor that had so far supplied 170 tons of aluminum to the project, has estimated more than 3,000 feet; one particularly excitable guesser, at www.dubaimegaprojects.com, has estimated 1,011 meters, or more than 3,300 feet.

Whatever the final height turns out to be, one thing is clear: The Burj Dubai will rise far, far above the tip of the current title holder, Taipei 101, which hits its apex at 1,667 feet. (The construction schedule calls for it to pass Taipei on July 4, Tomich says.) The initial plan, however, didn't start with an idea to make a building almost twice as high as the tallest buildings in the world. The original conception for the Burj, in fact, was a paltry 1,800 feet.

Mark Amirault, a Canadian who is group senior director for development at Emaar Properties, the developer of the Burj, says the company had considered a tall tower as early as 2000, but in a different location, a few miles down the coast at the Dubai Marina. It was in February 2003 that the concept for the Burj Dubai—and its enormous attendant development—came into full being when Amirault, along with another Canadian, Robert Booth (who is now executive director at Emaar), and Mohamed ali Alabbar, Emaar's founder and chairman, held a late-night meeting to hammer out the idea.

  • Robert Booth
Executive director, Emaar Properties

    Credit: Emaar/Asda'a

    Robert Booth Executive director, Emaar Properties
“We looked at the success of KLCC [Kuala Lumpur City Centre],” Amirault says. “Not only did they build the Petronas Towers, but they added in a major shopping center, a large man-made lake and park, [and] a hotel, and created the new center of Kuala Lumpur.” Emaar hired the master planner who had designed the Malaysia project, David Klages of RNL, and began to envision a new city center for Dubai on essentially the same model.

Emaar was founded in 1997 and is still run by Alabbar, a former chief of Dubai's Department of Economic Development. Its reported profits for 2005 were just under $1.3 billion. This, obviously, has made Emaar a significant player in the extraordinary free flow of money driving the emirate's growth. But the development of Dubai has hardly been a capitalistic dance solely choreographed by entrepreneurs. These are projects directed from the top: Alabbar is not only a private businessman, but also director general of the Dubai Department of Economic Development and a member of the Dubai Executive Council, the supreme government body that coordinates all growth initiatives in Dubai. He is also very close to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, who is generally credited for the massive expansion and new directions the emirate has taken.

  • Mark Amirault
Group senior director, development, Emaar Properties

    Credit: Emaar/Asda'a

    Mark Amirault Group senior director, development, Emaar Properties

What's more, Emaar—valued at $25 billion dollars two years ago, and surely worth more today—recently exchanged 27.9 percent of its stock in return for land from the massive Dubai Holding. Dubai Holding is owned by the emirate itself, and thus, since Sheikh Mohammed's government already owned 32 percent of Emaar stock, the state now controls a majority 51 percent of Emaar. This wasn't the case when construction began, obviously, but that hardly matters. The direction of development has always had a clear guiding hand. And that guiding hand has directed development to go up, up, up.

“Whatever I presented to the sheik, he said to make it bigger,” Farhan Faraidooni, a leading Dubai architect, has said. When Alabbar was negotiating with SOM, the sheik made sure Alabbar kept him informed. What he wanted to know above all, again and again, was: Is it the tallest?

The soon-to-be-tallest building in the world sits on a concrete-and-steel podium with 192 piles that go down about 150 feet into the earth. The bottom floors will house a hotel designed by Giorgio Armani; above that will be a thousand apartments, as well as restaurants, pools, fitness areas, cigar lounges, and, toward the top, office space. (Sheikh Mohammed has reportedly reserved five floors.)

The gigantic development gathered around the Burj, built on land that was formerly a military base, is clearly intended to shift the focus of the whole city. Called Burj Dubai Downtown, it will draw considerable commerce and attention from the Sheikh Zayed Road, a prestigious chain of massive, luxurious hotels and office buildings that stretches along the city's main highway thoroughfare, as well as from the swank resorts and malls along the coast, not to mention from what is essentially the older version of a downtown, known as Bur Dubai.

The new downtown around the Burj will include a built-from-scratch man-made island (in a man-made lake) hosting a new “Old Town,” a low-rise development that will blend traditional and modern styles, according to the Emaar website. It will also include the world's largest mall—covering 12 million square feet, with 16,000 underground parking spaces, it will have an ice rink and a “world-class aquarium”—as well as 30,000 homes, nine hotels, six acres of parkland, and 55 residential towers. The 500-acre development is well under way, to be completed at the same time as the Burj itself, in late 2008. All in all, the entire thing will cost about $20 billion.