burjdubai2The 2,717-foot Burj Dubai, which opened for business today, is without a doubt the tallest and most opulent skyscraper ever built. It reaches 1,000 feet higher into the sky than Earth’s now distant second-place building, the Taipei 101. Placed in the center of a 30-acre lake, the Burj — it means “tower” in Arabic — is designed to evoke a desert flower blooming in an oasis. They don’t do small in Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates at the southern tip of the Persian Gulf.

But the Burj, a $1.5 billion project begun in 2004, has become an ironic metaphor for Dubai’s even-crazier-than-America financial roller coaster. The country, whose revenue comes from tourism, real estate and financial services — oil is only 5 percent of the economy — has gone from early-2000’s superboom to 2010 superbust as all three of those sectors were undermined by the global financial crisis. The former shining star of the gulf is now a delinquent debtor with lots of empty office space. The state’s government had to beg a $25 billion bailout from neighboring Abu Dhabi last year. Wikipedia’s entry claims the building has, at the last minute, been renamed Burj Khalifa after the current ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan.

EFG14266The head of the company that built the Burj said at a pre-opening ceremony last night, “Crises come and go. We must have hope and optimism and we must move on. I hope that this is the beginning of the gradual move forward.” He’s got a great future as an analyst.

The Burj is nearly twice the height of America’s tallest, the 1,400 foot Willis Tower in Chicago or the former 1,400-foot World Trade Center towers. The 1,776-foot Freedom Tower at 1 World Trade Center won’t come anywhere near it. There are 168 stories, including a public observation deck — also the world’s highest — on the 123rd floor.

(For San Franciscans, the Transamerica pyramid is only 850 feet high. The new, tall-looking One Rincon Hill isn’t quite 500 feet.)

The building’s website is unreachable this morning, probably due to international traffic.

The Associated Press video clip below has some breathtaking views of the building.