But an oil boom in the United Arab Emirates produced unprecedented wealth for the small Gulf nation. Dubai's rulers, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his successor Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, put into effect a plan to turn the city into the world's top tourist destination. The building of outlandish landmarks - like the Burj Khalifa - was key to the plan.
Towering over the city at 830 metres tall with 160 floors, the Burj Khalifa became the tallest tower in the world when it opened in 2010. It is also holds the Guinness World Records title for the tallest man-made structure, the highest restaurant, and the highest observation deck in the world.
Dubai's strategy of building extravagant landmarks is paying off. The city is climbing in the ranks of the most visited cities in the world - it's currently fourth, with a projected 16.7 million visitors this year, according to Mastercard's Global Destination Cities Index. The Burj Khalifa has been a major part of that growth, ranking as the No. 5 attraction in the city, according to U.S. News & World Report.
When I visited the city for the first time in November, I knew I had to visit. But after spending the equivalent of R550 and a couple lacklustre hours at the observation deck, I was wishing I had skipped going inside and just enjoyed the view from below.
Here's what it was like.
Source: Construction Weekly
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