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Wednesday, June 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dubai sprouts a forest of building cranes, but still needs more

The Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — New York has the Statue of Liberty. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Dubai's symbol, for now, is the construction crane.

This Persian Gulf boomtown is more accurately described as an enormous construction site, rather than a finished city.

Cranes cram the skyline and line the highways, marring the view from almost any window. Their latticed booms wheel over hundreds of half-finished skyscrapers, hauling up gray slabs of prefabricated wall, buckets of wet concrete and bundles of steel reinforcing rod that resembles rust-colored spaghetti.

Building analysts say Dubai has emerged as the world's fastest-growing city, as well as its largest repository of building cranes.

"Dubai is the biggest market for tower cranes," said Klaus Binder, who heads tower-crane production for German manufacturer Liebherr. "No other city in the world has such a number. Maybe Shanghai did three or five years ago. There are growing markets in Russia, but they not as big as Dubai's."

The frantic growth is the fruit of oil-rich investors plowing record profits into luxury real estate in this liberal and cosmopolitan city.

Dubai groans under some $200 billion in projects that are either under way or slated to begin shortly, said Colin Foreman, a Gulf construction expert with Middle East Economic Digest.

No one seems to know how many building cranes have been aiding the city's sprawl across miles of sweltering desert dunes. But inevitably, when one of Dubai's newspapers or pundits seeks to describe the scale of the city's building boom, a crane statistic is mentioned.

Earlier this month, Dubai's Gulf News daily claimed the city harbors 24 percent of the world's construction cranes — 30,000 of 125,000 cranes worldwide. Less ambitious estimates range from 6 to 10 percent.

Binder believes there are between 1,100 and 1,200 tower cranes in the Emirates, mainly in Dubai, which is roughly 5 to 10 percent of the world's active tower cranes — one of three varieties used in construction.

Dubai harbors many thousands more mobile cranes and crawler cranes — those on wheels or tracks.

And it needs far more to complete its projects. Problem is, manufacturers can't make cranes fast enough, and the secondhand market has been largely cleaned out, those in the industry say.

Rental companies here are booked solid. Gallagher International, which rents 53 mobile cranes to developers here, had leased its entire fleet last week.

"You have to say no to your customers. You cannot find cranes anywhere," said Arty Wartanian, Gallagher's general manager. "People are going to China to buy them because sources in Europe have dried up."

A recent article in Construction Week magazine said crane prices have jumped 30 percent this year, while the two major European manufacturers — Liebherr and Potain — were so backlogged that Italian and Chinese cranes were taking a growing share of the Gulf market.

A new Liebherr tower crane costs $100,000 to $1.9 million, depending on the size.

It's not just cranes in short supply. The simultaneous building booms in the Emirates capital, Abu Dhabi, and in nearby Qatar and Bahrain, have swept the market of bulldozers, excavators, pile drivers and other machinery.

Prices of raw materials like concrete, glass, steel and aluminum are soaring, as is demand for laborers and engineers.

All this is driving up building prices. "It's a classic supply-and-demand problem," Foreman said.

The 2006 Gulf Construction Yearbook estimates that $4 billion is spent each week on projects in the six Gulf Arab countries.

"I guess it's going to be like this for the next five years," Wartanian said.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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