Chris O'Donnell: Mister Palm
Curiosity over how constructing an artificial island is done was one reason Nakheel's CEO left Australia for Dubai.
It has been just over a year since Chris O'Donnell took up the reins of one of the world's most noted property developers. Few companies globally can claim to be shaping a country's future, but Nakheel, with its audacious Palm trilogy, Dubai Waterfront and The World is attempting just that.
Leaving a managing director position in Sydney, prompted as much by curiosity over how constructing an artifical island in the Arabian Gulf is done, as Dubai's quality of life, O'Donnell has overseen the continued growth of the company responsible for putting HH Sheikh Mohammed's vision into practice.
Accepting a job and finding your office based in Nakheel's sales offices at the foot of the Palm Jumeirah is one thing, but what is it like operating in an environment where land is given to the company, and how does the relationship work with the two other government arms responsible for moulding new Dubai: Emaar and Dubai Holding?
"We don't spend a great deal of time talking to Dubai Holding and Emaar, certainly not at the company level," says O'Donnell. "We have a good relationship with them, but we operate as three separate entities."
"In effect, it is quite different to Australia or the UK, where you look at a piece of land, you bid for it, and you either win it or you don't. Here there is a bigger picture to consider, there is the growth of Dubai that requires infrastructure and needs tourism assets developed; and that is what Nakheel and the others are charged with doing."
The Palm Jumeirah is progressing steadily, with its major tourist attraction Atlantis scheduled to open in November 2008 and its main transport link, the Palm Monorail, in December 2008.
At the Arabian Travel Market in May, Nakheel announced the re-design of Palms Deira and Jebel Ali, with both undergoing significant design changes, specifically to target infrastructure issues.
O'Donnell was quick to quash rumours that Dubai Waterfront has impacted on Palm Jebel Ali's ongoing development, rather, it has slowed down only due to the necessary re-design. "You need a main road to connect through Dubai Waterfront to Palm Jebel Ali. Therefore a number of infrastructure issues have to be looked at, taking into consideration the connectivity."
Palm Jebel Ali differs significantly to Palm Jumeirah, incorporating residential and commercial properties and hotels. It will also feature far more satellite commercial properties at different locations on the fronds. This hasn't just been driven by reaction to Palm Jumeirah, says O'Donnell, but due to the size of the project itself, reflecting a 'city within a city', and cultural and social requirements, from nurseries and schools to medical stations.
Infrastructure design is currently being finalised around the new masterplan and O'Donnell says that a lot more activity will be seen on Palm Jebel Ali over the next three to six months. "Reclamation is complete and we are working on the bridges being built. And there is some further reclamation on the tips of the fronds as part of the new masterplan, where we will be extending them. This new reclamation means we can get on with our main infrastructure right through the trunk and up the spine."
Dubai Waterfront has also undergone a small redesign, confirms O'Donnell, mainly with the corridors, road systems and electrical reticulation. Currently 30% of the first island (there will be eight in total) has been reclaimed.
While happy to divulge details on the Palm Jebel Ali, when questioned over the finer details of the Al Burj tower, O'Donnell deflected any question that might give any specifics away and merely alluded to the importance of building an icon; be it super tall or otherwise. "Look, height isn't everything and biggest isn't best. What you have to do is come up with a building of real consequence and relevance. Look at the Sydney Opera House or Tower of London, they aren't the tallest, but they are iconic."
Regardless of the suggestion that iconic doesn't always equal tallest, the fact remains that if Nakheel is keen to put a marker down in its prestigious CBD district of Dubai Waterfront, and with the Burj Dubai a mere 10km away, the temptation to supersede it must be huge? "The technology of building a tall tower is something that is quite different to ordinary structures. For every metre of additional height you add to a building, it has an exponential impact. So we have to take that into account."
O'Donnell's tenure has also coincided with a forceful demonstration from Nakheel of its responsibility as a leading developer with a greater onus on sustainability in every sense - from the environmental impact of its projects to Nakheel as a complete organisation, looking at its overall impact on the community. The company recently signed two key partnerships with DEWA and the RTA, in a move designed to ensure the best possible infrastructure works, enabling the projects to integrate with the wider development of Dubai.
"Like any relationship, if you don't talk to them for six to 12 months, then it is probably not that strong. Therefore ourselves, the RTA and DEWA have come to grips with the fact that we need to meet on a regular basis."
In this case, quarterly meetings have been set up.
"We are looking at being very open with them and understanding their issues, and by doing that I think we will manage our way through the various challenges we will have."
Perhaps this shift is not so surprising when you consider O'Donnell's previous company - Investor Property Group - was ranked No 1 on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index worldwide.
In May, Nakheel also revealed plans to build new accommodation for its workforce that the company claims will set new standards.
This accommodation will be in the form of two-storey prefab cabins with an emphasis on the quality of common spaces, facilities and catering, with a long term aim to set new standards for workforce accommodation. It will be located in the Madinat Al Arab at Dubai Waterfront. Work began in June and Nakheel aims to have 10,000 beds in place by late 2007. "It will cost more, but it is worth doing, and from a production point of view, we will get benefits from it."
At the other end of the spectrum, O'Donnell is confident that Dubai is well placed to implement this initiative onto the city's emerging housing, noting that while other country's building stocks are 30 to 40 years old, Dubai has the opportunity to build from scratch, applying modern day principles. "The new level of standards we are talking about puts Dubai in a very strong position."
Coping with Dubai's frantic development as a resident can often feel tough enough, but to be in charge of the company that is estimated will house three million people on its islands, World and Dubai Waterfront projects once complete, as well as develop around 600 million m2 of land in the next 20 years, it is clear that a relaxed approach and assured hand is imperative. Fortunately, that is exactly what Nakheel appears to have.