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The Enigma of Ain Dubai: Unraveling the World’s Largest Dysfunctional Ferris Wheel


[July 9, 2023 at 1:00 a.m. EDT

The Ain Dubai, the world’s largest Ferris wheel, on July 1 as it stands inoperative on Bluewaters Island in Dubai, as it has for more than a year. (Andrea DiCenzo for The Washington Post) Comment on this storyComment

DUBAI — It has been over a year since the tallest Ferris wheel in the world ceased to rotate, and officials here refuse to disclose the reason.

With more steel than the Eiffel Tower and almost twice the height of the London Eye, the Ain Dubai was initially planned to shut down for just one month. Then it became another month. And another. Finally, in April, operators discreetly announced an indefinite closure.

The colossal structure’s legs remain covered in dust, while burlap-covered scaffolding conceals the main axle.

The feeling of abandonment is eerie, given its position as the centerpiece of an artificial island featuring some of Dubai’s most expensive real estate. Luxury apartments, fine dining establishments, retail shops, a mall, and even a Caesar’s Palace, where it is expected that gambling will be allowed one day in this Islamic jurisdiction, were all built around this gigantic wheel. Yet, nothing has been publicly stated about its fate. This only highlights the wider culture of secrecy surrounding high-profile projects in the United Arab Emirates, endeavors that are often halted or demolished without any explanation. (Dubai is one of the seven emirates constituting the UAE.)

Dubai’s residential real estate market is currently flourishing, fueled by an influx of capital from wealthy foreigners, including Russians seeking refuge from international sanctions since the onset of the war in Ukraine. According to recent estimates, more homes priced at $10 million or more were sold here in the first quarter of 2023 than anywhere else in the world.

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

However, the story of the wheel brings to mind memories of past property collapses. Critics describe a development scene built on hype and headlines, highly speculative, opaque, and often overleveraged. These projects are overseen by officials who refuse to admit to any mistakes and try to distract from failures with shiny new ventures, often leaving investors to bear the consequences.

In a city known for its superlative structures, including the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, the Ain fit right in when it was unveiled in October 2021. It quickly dominated the official skyline, showcased in advertisements, road signs, and promotional materials for tourists. However, its home on Bluewaters Island now only attracts small crowds on most weekend nights. The island’s multi-level underground parking garage is seldom filled, and its shopping mall is primarily a gathering place for bored store clerks.

“The challenge with constructing the largest anything in the world is that once you exceed a certain scale, you enter into uncharted territory where problems that are typically minor can suddenly become major,” said Aled Davies, the director of postgraduate teaching in Cardiff University’s engineering program. “But since there is no information available, who knows — it could be structural issues, or unexpected additional stresses on the bearings caused by wind or structural movement beyond its intended capacity.”

In the absence of official information, residents of Bluewaters Island are left to speculate. Some claim that the Ain started vibrating loudly during the five months it was operational. Others assert that the enormous structure shook the ground when it turned. A shopkeeper said the shaking even shattered windows. There are concerns that the foundation may have been compromised. However, all those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions from the UAE’s authorities, who are deeply concerned about their public image.

“I’ve been living here for two years, and I haven’t received any notification about what’s going on,” said one resident with an apartment facing the Ain.

“We don’t hear anything official,” added another resident. “Some building management representatives say that something broke inside the main axle mechanism, while others say it is sinking. I’ve heard hotel managers in the beach area facing the wheel saying that they are assessing the risks and estimating the damages in case the wheel collapses.”

Standing over 800 feet tall, the Ain was designed to accommodate 1,400 passengers in private cabins, catering to dinners, corporate events, and extravagant parties. The revenue it will generate, together with the surrounding area, is now unclear.

The Ain Dubai was constructed by a consortium that includes South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering, Canada’s WSP, local developer Meraas, and Netherlands-based observation wheel specialists Starneth. Dubai Holding, the investment portfolio of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, owns this grand structure. Despite numerous attempts to contact each of the involved companies over several months, they have all declined to comment on the status of the Ain or its repair plans.

Germany’s Technical Inspection Association (TUV) has confirmed its involvement in the Ain’s construction but has since withdrawn its certification for the structure. However, due to a nondisclosure agreement, the group, responsible for testing and providing independent safety certifications for various technical systems, has refrained from offering further comments. The Ain’s media office has not responded to requests for comment either.

Last winter, another waterfront location developed by the same consortium abruptly closed and is currently being demolished to make way for a new hotel. Several other recent developments, some already completed and others unfinished, remain in a state of official limbo, with their idle cranes and exposed rebar reaching hopefully toward the sky.

Just a short distance away from the Ain, lies the site of the Dubai Pearl, a $4 billion project consisting of four residential and commercial towers connected by a massive, multi-story platform. After two decades of sporadic construction work, it, too, is being demolished. When parts of the structure were recently blown up using explosives, nearby residents mistook it for an earthquake.

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

“Numerous failed projects have occurred long after the 2008 crisis,” said Frederic Schneider, an economist who recently published a paper highlighting Dubai’s overreliance on luxury real estate. “Given the porous relationship between Dubai-based developers and the Dubai government, a difficulty for one becomes a difficulty for the other. This whole situation underscores the risks that the singular focus on high-end real estate development brings to the entire Dubai economy.”

But for a city that has established its global reputation on being at the forefront of innovation, there is always an incentive to keep building. In May, authorities announced the completion of a new master plan for a long-stalled second Palm Island, following in the footsteps of the world-famous Palm Jumeirah.

Meanwhile, the Ain still dazzles each night with LED light shows visible from miles away. Information booth attendants maintain a vague smile and assure visitors that it will reopen soon.

“I don’t think the sheikhs would want to relocate it, so as not to lose face,” said Oleg, a resident of Bluewaters. “After all, it is a landmark, so I expect it will remain here.”

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