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Discover what went wrong with the ambitious island project - as well the hopes for its future.
By Kim Ayling | May 26 2021
Since launching in the early 2000s, the World Islands, Dubai has been subject to much speculation. From rumored celebrity purchases to outlandish hotel projects culminating in eventual abandonment, the development’s life has been a storied one.
Now, what was once one of the United Arab Emirates’ most ambitious projects more closely resembles a sandy ghost town, acting as the embodiment of the global financial struggles that so heavily impacted Dubai in the late 2000s.
So, what exactly happened to the World Islands, what does it look like nearly twenty years later and is there hope on the horizon for it to reach its imagined potential?
Sitting around 2.5 miles off the coast of Dubai in the Persian Gulf, the World Islands are a collection of smaller islands designed to replicate the world in miniature, with each island named after its corresponding country. First announced in 2003, the World Islands promised to be the next big thing in the luxury travel realm, with members of the global elite, including Richard Branson and the late Karl Lagerfeld, clamoring to have a piece of the action.
As is standard in the glittering city of Dubai, the World Islands are, of course, not a naturally occurring phenomenon; the man-made archipelago was created by Dubai-based development firm Nakheel Projects, a name associated with many high profile projects across the region, including St. Regis Dubai, The Palm.
The artificial islands were created by dredging sand from the Gulf and transporting it to the designated spot, with several millions tons of rocks used to keep it in place. In total, there are 300 islands in the World Islands, with each ranging from 250,000 to 900,000 sq ft. The entire collection covers some 5.4 miles across.
However, despite the buzz caused when the World Islands were first announced and the numerous individual island sales, the 2008 financial crash saw work on the ambitious development grind to a halt. At this point, it was estimated that almost $15bn had already been spent, but just one island development was finished with the rest at varying stages of completion. Amongst the chaos of works halting, developers were also forced to deny rumours that the World Islands were sinking back into the ocean.
Since work on the development halted in 2008 there have been multiple reports of the project recommencing, but none more convincing than the Heart of Europe project which is currently underway. Imagined by the Kleindienst Group, the Heart of Europe development will see a small number of the islands in the World transformed to replicate the continent of Europe – to the extent that fake weather conditions including rain and snow have been created in some areas.
Kleindienst was one of the original island owners having purchased Austria when the hype around the project was at its height. While other investors understandably abandoned ship when trouble hit, the group held on to its purchase – but it has taken nearly 20 years for it to be nearing completion.
The Heart of Europe project includes the building of a series of luxury hotels, private mansions and floating villas, each of which is designed to transport guests to different European destinations, including Monaco, Venice, Sweden and Germany. While much of the ambitious project is still under development, it is thought that the hotels may be welcoming guests as early as this year.
Although Heart of Europe is yet to fully open, guests can still visit the archipelago Lebanon Island – which was the only island to be completed when work on the project initially stopped back in 2008. Dubai visitors can take a day trip to Lebanon Island where they can enjoy its beach club, swimming pool restaurant and beaches.
The island is also available for exclusive hire for corporate events, weddings or private gatherings. However, for a super-luxe getaway, we’d recommend holding out until the Heart of Europe’s hotels begin to take reservations. It is also possible to organize boat tours around the deserted islands, with private yachts available.
For the most part, the development and purchase opportunities at the World Islands are a closely guarded secret. An old listing on Private Islands Inc for the entire collection harks back to when the World Islands was just an exciting concept, but at the time of publishing, there is only one individual island listed for sale.
Which island it actually is is not disclosed, but the listing advertises it as being 505,925 sq ft and undeveloped, with an asking price of $16m. While this may feel hefty considered the baggage associated with the World Islands project, if the Heart of Europe project delivers on its lofty promises, the island could quickly increase in value.
Anyone wanting to own a slice of the World Islands can also look into private purchase opportunities within the Heart of Europe. The project is offering investors the chance to purchase either a second home on one of the resort islands, including luxury villas and mansions, as well as a highly exclusive selection of completely private islands, all of which will have the extensive amenities of the European-inspired hotels on their doorstep.