Even those who don’t suffer from vertigo are likely to let out an audible gasp the first time Tom Cruise steps out from an open window high up in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol. As the camera slowly pans over the top of the actor, playing the seemingly indestructible superspy Ethan Hunt in the franchise’s fourth installment, the hundred-plus floors of this glistening glass-paneled tower, currently the tallest manmade structure in the world at some 2,716 feet (that’s almost two Empire State Buildings), are revealed below to heart-stopping effect. It’s an astonishing sight, and one that kick-starts arguably not just the most impressive series of stunts in this film, but of any recent live-action movie.
Cruise casually climbs, Spider-Man–like, up about 65 meters, or 213 feet, abseils down again, swings from one side to another and falls some 10 floors before crashing back inside. And it is the man himself who performs the stunts too, as the amateur footage shot by visitors inside the tower while filming was taking place in 2010 proves.
While Cruise is no doubt relieved at his return to box office glory, with Ghost Protocol sailing past $250 million in box office receipts as it topped most international charts over the Christmas weekend, Dubai is reveling in the attention. The Burj Khalifa was designed to put the city on the map and draw global recognition. And now, thanks to a few minutes of daredevil antics on big screens around the world, it is doing so. But for those who have lived in this futuristically skylined city in the United Arab Emirates for the past few years, it’s the culmination of a development they’ve watched grow, little by little, for almost a decade.
Work on the project, which was originally to called Burj Dubai (“Dubai Tower”), began rapidly in September 2004, a point at which much of the city was expanding at a ferocious rate as its real-estate market soared. At the peak of the building’s development, some 12,000 workers—mostly low-waged migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent—were thought to be on-site, with a new floor added every three days.
Finally, on Jan. 4, 2010, after several delays a display of around 10,000 fireworks heralded the Burj Dubai’s opening. But amid the excitement came the surprise announcement that the name was to change. Unfortunately, the launch of this $1.5 billion tower had arrived during a rather sticky period for Dubai. The financial crisis had plunged the emirate into debt, with numerous ambitious developments consigned to the “indefinite postponement” bin and property prices having almost halved. In the end, it was the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi that came to the rescue with a $25 billion bailout package, and it was its ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who was being honored in the name Burj Khalifa.
The change came as a shock to almost everyone, not least the traffic department, which quickly had to change the road signs, and those working in the brand new souvenir shop selling Burj Dubai T-shirts.
But while it may have been an embarrassing moment for Dubai, two years later nobody even remembers that the tower was meant to have another name. The Burj Khalifa might not be to everyone’s tastes, a twinkling megalith that literally dwarves everything around it, but it has instantly become a centerpiece, a rather handy landmark for directions. And for a city that prides itself on superlatives, the tower has added numerous others.
In the predictably overpriced Atmosphere on the 122nd floor, we have the world’s highest restaurant, a mere 36 floors lower than the world’s highest mosque on the 158th. Taking visitors to the world’s highest observation deck, on the 124th floor, is the world’s fastest elevator, at 37 mph. In front of the Burj Khalifa sits the Dubai Fountain, the world’s largest musical fountain spraying water 150 yards into the air, which sits next to the world’s largest shopping center, the Dubai Mall.
And should shopping or dancing water tire you out, there’s the five-star Armani Hotel and Armani Residences, the subtly shaded luxury abodes apparently designed by Giorgio himself, that take up the first 39 floors of the Burj Khalifa. Earlier in 2011 two-bedroom residence units were going for $8.1 million, roughly $3,675 per square foot, while a room in the hotel is now available for around $650 per night.
While prices are indeed thought to have dropped across the whole tower—some figures putting rental prices down by 70 percent just nine months after the opening—it seems that for many, owning a set of Burj Khalifa keys is simply another badge of honor in a town where a line of Ferraris barely raises an eyebrow. One millionaire Indian businessman recently admitted that he uses the two floors of the tower he purchased for $12.7 million only to host parties.
The success of Ghost Protocol and the Burj Khalifa’s impressive role in the movie could well serve as a timely boost to Dubai’s tourism industry. But the city needs to act quickly to take advantage. Rumors of a Mission: Impossible 5 are already surfacing, and just next door Saudi Arabia is thought to soon be breaking ground on the Kingdom Tower, set to be at least a kilometer (3,280 feet) high. And if anyone’s going to start leaping from the top of that in the name of box office ratings, it’s Cruise.