Interview With Ahmed AlHatti, Twist In The Tale By CEO Middle East Magazine.
At a gala event at one of Dubai’s plushest five-star hotels, investors wait outdoors in the sweltering summer heat for a glittering fireworks and light show to mark the completion of the latest addition to the emirate’s crowded skyline.
Technical hitches have led to a delay of one-and-a-half hours to the opening ceremony, but when you have already been waiting eight years for the iconic Infinity Tower, what is another 90 minutes?
It has been a long and winding road for the project. Since its launch in 2005, the 75-storey residential development has faced numerous setbacks — not least due to the structural challenges posed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s architectural decision to have the building twist 90 degrees from its base, giving the tower the appearance of a distressed Coke bottle.
The collapse of one of Dubai Marina’s walls in 2007 led to the site’s foundations turning into a 27-metre deep swimming pool, subsequently taking nearly two years to fix. Various completion dates have come and gone since — the most recent in October 2012 — while Infinity has also been subject to an eleventh-hour name change to Cayan Tower, in honour of the project’s developer Cayan Group.
Dave and Ann Whiteling*, both from Britain, paid nearly AED2m for a two-bedroom property when Cayan first launched sales in 2005, having already handed over 100 percent of that sum to the developer. They plan to use their apartment in the distinctive building, which overlooks the Arabian Gulf, as a holiday home.
“We’re just relieved that it’s finally done,” Ann tells Arabian Business. “Some people have been waiting just as long for apartments that will probably never see the light of day,” she adds, referring to the bursting of the emirate’s real estate bubble in 2008, which saw prices plummet by up to 65 percent overnight and countless projects delayed or scrapped altogether.
The couple says that they almost gave up on the development ever being built when the site was flooded in 2007, an incident which they claim they only became aware of via online news articles, rather than from Cayan itself. At one point they were offered the chance to take delivery of their property minus a functioning electricity connection.
The couple says that they were not aware of the tower’s last-minute name change from Infinity until the new moniker was beamed up the side of the building in 300 metre-high lights at the opening event.
In light of all the setbacks over the past eight years, Cayan’s chairman and president seems understanding when asked, half jokingly, if the building’s protracted construction schedule is finally at its end. “The building is finished, and if you don’t believe us we have a certificate of completion from the government to prove it,” Ahmed Al Hatti beams.
Al Hatti says that the most of the tower, which contains 495 apartments and is said to be the world’s tallest ‘twisted’ building, has long been sold, although there are no immediate plans to launch sales on remaining units. “It’s more than 80 percent [sold] so far. We are planning to open the rest for sale, but not soon, maybe after summer. It depends on the market. If we can see there is lots of hype, and lots of demand, then maybe we will open it. But there’s no rush to open it now,” he explains.
The Cayan boss accepts that delays in completion of the tower — which was built by contractors including Dubai’s Arabtec and MEP firm Drake & Scull — have been frustrating, but says that the more recent delays to the project were out of his hands. “We are not building this project by ourselves, other related aspects like the connection of the electricity from the authorities — all of this has taken more time,” he explains. “From October to June we were talking with officials to get DEWA connected, and to get other services connected, and to get the completion certificate [from Dubai Municipality]. It was almost completed at the end of November — 95 percent, but to have it officially completed, so we could announce it — we had to go through officials, and paperwork, and lots of approvals.”
Still, Al Hatti claims he has no regrets over choosing the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill ‘helix’ design back in 2005. Some of those closest to the project have even criticised this aspect of the building. Dr Montasser El Raie, senior resident engineer at contractor Khatib & Alami, last month told ITP publication Middle East Architect that the building’s unusual structure had its “disadvantages”, such as awkward interior spaces “that might seem redundant”. It is also the only building in Dubai where the client has had to fork out for its own airspace, due to a ten-metre protrusion caused by the tower’s twist.
Al Hatti claims that it was necessary for Cayan to choose a unique concept for the skyscraper when it was first dreamt up, in order for it to stand out among the other ostentatious developments that were being announced in the emirate at the time. “Even though the location itself is outstanding, we wanted to do something different,” he recalls. “We wanted to be on the map, we wanted to be recognised. This building, we thought it would be the top dog, and during the last few years, even though it wasn’t completed, it was the top dog.”
According to a Deutsche Bank report published in 2013, in March this year property prices rose for the sixteenth month in a row, indicating something of a recovery following the 2008 crash, albeit with prices remaining somewhere below that peak. Al Hatti believes that the upward trend will continue in the emirate’s real estate market, particularly if it is successful in securing the rights to host World Expo 2020, with the winning bid due to be announced later this year.
“I’m always a believer in Dubai. Dubai has grown as a safe investment haven, even during the financial crisis I continued with all of my projects and did not think for a second of quitting any of them,” he says. “Dubai is changing now — it’s not just a normal city in the region, it’s not just a hub, it’s a world city.”
Among Cayan’s other projects are Silverene, The Jewels and Dorrabay residential developments in the emirate’s Marina district, all of which have been completed and handed over to buyers.
Cayan also has two compound housing projects in areas near the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Al Hatti says that Cayan’s next project will also be in the Gulf’s most populous kingdom, but is coy about revealing many details. “We always enjoy doing a unique high-rise, and we’re studying [more opportunities],” he explains. “We’ve started one, and we’ll be announcing one in Riyadh before the end of this year, and it will be a unique design.”
There is one design decision, however, that Al Hatti says has already been taken, and given the upheaval, delays and mishaps that have dotted the road to completion at its flagship project, you can probably understand why. “It will be a unique design — just not twisted,” he insists.