England football stars' palm-island paradise is promoting 'eco-disaster'

As oil reserves run low, Dubai is building a series of exclusive resorts to attract the super-wealthy. But, as Severin Carrell hears from local experts, the natural world is already taking a battering
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The Independent Online

When David Beckham and Michael Owen stroll out on to their private beaches to gaze over the azure seas of the Arabian Gulf, it will seem as if they own a little slice of Eden.

Like nine other members of the England World Cup squad who visited Dubai on their way to Japan last summer, Beckham and Owen are the proud owners of luxury five-bedroom villas under construction on the Palm Jumeirah, the world's largest man-made island.

However, naturalists claim this exclusive earthly paradise, shaped like a vast palm tree, is threatening the marine environment it exploits.

They argue that this retreat, now rising from the sea, is wrecking fragile coral reefs, devastating local fish stocks that support endangered sea birds, and destroying the seabed. The tiny oil state's last breeding ground for endangered hawksbill sea turtles is threatened by a second identical resort, the Palm Jebel Ali.

"These projects are really worrying and potentially disastrous," said one leading naturalist in the area.

Another expert, Dr David George of the Natural History Museum in London, warned that the dredging alone would "completely wreck" the seabed.

They believe the England players who signed up, including Joe Cole, David James, Paul Scholes, Kieron Dyer and Gary Neville, are unwittingly promoting ecological damage.

Although one of Beckham's PR advisers was sceptical that he had signed up, the publicity last month about the sale of 11 "signature villas", worth about £900,000 each, to these players gave the Palm a huge PR boost in Britain, helping it to sell out. The developers refused to deny reports that the players had received hefty discounts.

To the concern of Greenpeace, local naturalists say the islands are being built without any proper environmental-impact assessments and that dissent is being stifled by Dubai's rulers. As a result, many experts asked not to be named. "It is completely unacceptable to consider a marine project of this scale without a highly complex environment assessment," said Greenpeace.

These extravagant schemes are just the beginning. The southern Gulf is about to be transformed into a vast playground for the ultra-rich. Further mega-resorts planned include the World - 200 man-made islands shaped like continents - and the world's first underwater hotel.

This programme of resort building is being pushed through by the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the autocratic, 54-year-old son of Dubai's current ruler.

Unlike those of its oil-rich neighbour Abu Dhabi, Dubai's oil reserves are running out, forcing it to diversify aggressively into luxury tourism, free trade ports and duty-free shopping. By 2015, Dubai hopes to attract 40 million tourists a year - eight times the current figure.

In Abu Dhabi there is great concern about the damage these resorts are causing. Abu Dhabi's Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency (ERWDA) revealed earlier this year that "habitat degradation" such as coastal building had helped cause "major declines" of local fish populations by exacerbating other environmental problems. It said total stocks of 20 local species, such as the twobar seabream and silver pomfret, had fallen by more than 80 per cent since 1978. It has also raised the alarm about local hawksbill turtles - a globally endangered species - and green sea turtles.

The plight of marine life in the southern Gulf is made more acute, say scientists, because of damage caused by climate change. In 1996 and 1998, Dubai's last coral reefs were nearly killed off by high sea temperatures, a phenomenon called "bleaching". Their recovery is in severe peril thanks to the Palms and the World, they warn.

However, they admit that these resorts will provide new homes for local sea life. Artificial reefs - reportedly including an old airliner - are being built to attract coral and fish and will simulate "famous dive destinations" such as the Maldives and Bali, the marketing literature claims. The developers, Nakheel Corporation, refused to reveal whether a proper environmental-impact study had been commissioned. But they insisted that the Palms had been very carefully planned and used "extensive" sea life surveys.

"We have witnessed a tremendous blooming in the sea life surrounding the island, in particular in the area around the breakwater known as the Crescent. The protection and enhancement of both the marine and land environment is a key priority for Nakheel," it said.

But independent experts fear the oil, noise and disturbance caused by yacht marinas, pleasure craft and jet skis will increase that pressure.

"The mere fact that they're putting in so much human development means they will be changing the habitat for all the species living there," said Dr George. "Any coastal development will degrade the natural environment."

Changing the face of the Dubai desert

The Palms

What is it? Two vast islands constructed off Dubai, each made up of 17 "palm tree fronds" surrounded by a reef up to 25km (15 miles) long. Each needs 120 million cubic metres of sand and rock. Will cost more than £2bn to build.

What does it offer? Due to be finished by 2007, the Palms will have 100 luxury hotels, 4,000 villas, many with private beaches, and 5,000 apartments, plus shopping centres, aquariums, marinas, restaurants and health spas.

The World

What is it? A constructed archipelago of 200 islands with canals and lakes, 5km off the coast of Dubai, covering 25sq km (9 sq miles). Shaped like the earth's continents.

What does it offer? Due to open in 2008, this "elite" residential and holiday resort is accessible only by sea or air. To have private villas, hotels, watersports and restaurants.

Hydropolis

What is it? Claimed to be the world's first underwater hotel. Shaped like a submarine, to be built 482km off the coast of Dubai near the Palm Jumeirah. Will cost £322m.

What does it offer? More than 200 private suites on the seabed - under 20 metres (65 feet) of water - connected by a tunnel to the hotel's reception desk onshore. Will feature lightshows and marine life.

Burj Dubai

What is it? Predicted to be the world's tallest tower, the glass and steel Burj Dubai will be built near Dubai city for at least £730m.

What does it offer? A "city within a city", 140 floors high, and including hotels, offices and apartments, plus vast shopping mall at ground level. Design based on a six-petalled desert flower.

Arabian Ranches

What is it?A resort close to Dubai city, covering 1,214 hectares (3,000 acres) of reclaimed desert. Labelled as a "cosmopolitan community inspired by the rich heritage of the Arabian horse".

What does it offer? A "desert paradise" with 18-hole golf course, equestrian centre, polo fields, desert riding trails, a spa and restaurant complex, and more than 3,800 flats and villas. Opens late 2004.

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