Ain Dubai: The Mystery of the World’s Largest Broken Ferris Wheel

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The Dubai Ain, the largest Ferris wheel in the world, on July 1 as it is inactive on Bluewaters Island in Dubai, as it has been for more than a year. (Andrea DiCenzo for The Washington Post)

DUBAI – It’s been more than a year since the world’s tallest Ferris wheel stopped turning, and officials here aren’t saying why.

With more steel than the Eiffel Tower and almost twice the height of the London Eye, the Dubai Ain was supposed to be closed for just one month. Then another month. And another one. Finally, in April, operators quietly announced that it would be closed indefinitely.

The massive legs of this engineering marvel are gathering dust, and there is scaffolding in burlap around the main axle.

As the epicenter of an artificial island that houses some of Dubai’s most expensive buildings, it feels abandoned. Luxury apartments, fine dining, retail shops, a shopping mall, Caesar’s Palace where it is assumed that gambling will one day be allowed in this Islamic jurisdiction – they were all built around the titanic disk. Nothing has been said publicly about the wheel, highlighting a wider culture of secrecy surrounding high-profile projects in the United Arab Emirates, which are often halted or destroyed without explanation. (Dubai is one of seven emirates that make up the UAE.)

Dubai’s residential property market is red hot these days, riding high on an influx of capital from wealthy foreigners, including Russians who have flocked to the Persian Gulf in large numbers since the war began. in Ukraine, seeking refuge from international sanctions. More homes priced at $10 million or more were sold here in the first quarter of 2023 than anywhere else in the world, according to one recent estimate.

In UAE, Russians fleeing war in Ukraine seek success in ‘Dubaisk’

But the story of the wheel brings memories of bodies of property in the past. Critics describe a development vision built on hype and headlines, highly speculative, vague, often over-hyped, and driven by officials who refuse to accept mistakes and glimmers of failure with shiny new projects – often leaving investors on the hook.

In this city of magnificent structures, including the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, the Ain was appropriate when it was released in October 2021. It quickly dominated official skyline – displayed in advertisements, road signs, and tourist promotion areas. Now, his home on Bluewaters Island attracts a small crowd on most weekend nights. The island’s underground multi-level parking garage rarely fills up; his shopping center is mostly a hangout for bored store clerks.

“The problem with building the biggest thing in the world is that when you go beyond a certain scale, you enter the unknown, where things that are usually small suddenly become big,” said Aled Davies, director of postgraduate teaching in Cardiff University’s engineering programme. . “But there’s no information on this, so who knows – it could be material issues, it could be a surprise of added stress in terms of wind or structural impact.” beyond what was intended to be managed. “

Without official information, residents of Bluewaters Island are left guessing. Some say that the Ain started shaking a lot during the five months it was working. Others say the massive structure shook the ground when it turned. A shopkeeper said the windows shook. Others fear that the foundation has been compromised. They all spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions from the UAE’s image-sensitive authorities.

“I have been living here for two years, and I have not received any information about what is happening,” said one resident with an apartment opposite the Ain.

“We don’t hear anything official,” said another resident. “Some of the building’s management say something broke inside the main axle mechanism, while others say it’s sinking. I’ve heard hotel managers in the beach area opposite the wheel say they’re working out risk and damage estimates for what could happen.”

Over 800 feet high, the Ain was built to carry 1,400 passengers, offering private cabins for dinners, corporate events and fancy parties. Now, it is not clear what income will come from the wheel and the surrounding area.

Built by a consortium including South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering, Canada’s WSP, local developer Meraas and Netherlands-based observation wheel specialists Starneth, the Dubai Ain is owned by Dubai Holding, an investment portfolio the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum . Contacted several times over several months, each company involved refused to comment on what happened to the Ain or how it would be repaired.

The German Technical Inspection Association, or TUV, confirmed that it was involved in the construction of the Ain but had withdrawn its certification for the structure. The group, which tests and provides independent safety certificates for several technical systems, did not comment further, saying it was bound by a nondisclosure agreement. Ain’s media office did not respond to requests for comment.

Last winter, another waterfront area built by the same developers suddenly closed and is being demolished to make way for a new hotel. Several other recent developments – some fully built and others unfinished – are still in official limbo, the unused cranes and exposed rebar still reaching hopefully towards the sky.

Just down the road from the Ain is the site of the Dubai Pearl, a $4 billion project to build four residential and commercial towers connected at the top by a large, multi-story platform. It is also being demolished after two decades of on-and-off construction; when explosives were recently used to blow up parts of the structure, some nearby residents thought there was an earthquake.

The run of high-profile failures has raised memories of the years following the 2008 financial crisis, when Dubai’s real estate market collapsed, plunging the city into debt and requiring a bailout from the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

“A lot of projects have failed long after the 2008 crisis,” said Frederic Schneider, an economist who recently wrote a paper describing Dubai’s economy as overly dependent on luxury real estate.

“Because the relationship between Dubai-based developers and the Dubai government is very fraught, pressure on one is pressure on the other,” he said. “This whole story highlights the gamble that the laser focus on high-end real estate development is creating for the entire economy of Dubai.”

But for a city that has won worldwide acclaim for the next big thing, there’s always incentive to build: At the end of May, authorities announced a new master plan was completed for a long-stalled second Palm Island – modeled after the world-famous Palm Jumeirah.

Meanwhile, the Ain continues to shine every night with LED light shows that can be seen from miles away. Reporters at information booths laugh and say, vaguely, that it will open soon.

“I think the sheikhs wouldn’t want to move it, so they don’t lose face,” said Oleg, a resident of Bluewaters. “It is, after all, a landmark, so I think it’s here to stay. “

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