Week of August 30, 2004
Snapshot from the Field
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Big Move: Dubai Backing
$2.6-Billion International Chess City
by JACK LYNE,Site Selection
Executive Editor of Interactive Publishing
ABU DHABI, Abu Dhabi Let's face it, folks. It may be high time to just say, "checkmate, already" in the non-stop tussle to build the world's biggest projects. If any country qualifies to rank unrivaled as The Land of Really Humongous Projects, it's
got to be little Dubai
(http://web-vgn.dubai-e.gov.ae) in the United Arab Emirates
(UAE at www.uae.gov.ae).
The latest example, astoundingly enough: the US$2.6-billion International Chess City (ICC) in Dubai. The honest-to-God plan for the ICC calls for building 32 separate facilities, each one actually shaped like a single chess piece, the tallest standing 64 stories.
And you thought Bobby Fischer was a bit - OK, a whole lot - strange. The ICC sounds like some very late-night idea from the 1960s, hatched inside a smoke-choked crash pad, man. Only now, the loopy thing's escaped, having somehow managed to gnaw through its restraining bonds.
So, are these guys trying to rook us?
Apparently not. In fact, there's little doubting that the ICC's supporters are dead serious about turning the plan into a reality. That was obvious on Aug. 7th, when the project's one-man driving force, flanked by Dubai government officials and a prominent investor, loosed the idea on the world.
"It is Dubai's destiny to become the center of such a magnificent game," said Kirsan Ilumjinov, the president of the small southwest Russian republic of Kalmykia - and a man with a strange history even before he dreamed up the ICC.
"Dubai will annually play host to over 60 million amateur and professional chess followers from around the globe," Ilumjinov asserted at the announcement in Abu Dhabi, the UAE's federal capital.
Sixty million? Kinda sounds like a gigantic Woodstock for chess geeks.
OK, maybe part of that horde will be coming from the World Chess Federation (WCF), of which Ilumjinov is also president. WCF - or FIDE, Federation Internationale des Echec, as it's properly known in French - will relocate its headquarters to the ICC from its current base in Lausanne, Switzerland, said Ilumjinov.
But then again, WCF only has about 2,500 members.
Ilumjinov: Dubai Picked for Reputation
For 'Bringing Imaginative Projects to Life'
But hold the chuckles for a moment, if you will (or can).
After all, one major supporting player positioned on ICC's board is none other than Dubai's government. And that's a huge edge in trying to pull off a project this bodacious.
"This is the beginning of a massive real estate project to add to the existing marvelous high standards of architecture in Dubai," said Sulaiman al-Fahim, chief executive officer of Dubai Projects, part of the Dubai Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation (www.dpa.co.ae). "We have had prolonged discussions with His Excellency President Kirsan Ilumjinov on issues relating to the possibilities of future economic cooperation between our two nations. This has culminated in the historical announcement we are making today."
The 711,111-sq.-ft. (64,000-sq.-m.) ICC will also include a group of hotels ranging from three to seven stars, Dubai officials explained. The King and Minister towers will house the seven-star lodging.
The ICC site decision came "after much deliberation," Ilumjinov explained. "We chose Dubai to host this gigantic undertaking precisely because of its international reputation as a place where imaginative projects such as the International Chess City can come to life."
And that's true. Dubai's has helped create a host of jumbo-size projects. The small desert nation has a total land mass of only about 960,000 acres
Details Remain SketchyBut even with Dubai's track record, will the ICC really happen?
That's hard to say, since project details are pretty sketchy at this point. There aren't even any preliminary artist's renderings yet.
"All the buildings that will make up [the ICC] will be shaped like chess pieces and have the traditional black-and-white colors of the game," explained Ilumjinov in one of the few announced specifics. "The King buildings will be the highest [at 64 stories]."
But a more fully fleshed-out design is coming, he maintained.
"Work is now underway to collect all building plans, as well as deciding the location of the project," Ilumjinov said.
Particulars at this point are also cloudy vis-à-vis Dubai's role. In some of the projects it's supported, such as the $500-million underwater Hydropolis Hotel, Dubai has helped find private-sector investors.
The biggest hard-money investor thus far seems to be Dubai-based developer Armada Group, which recently completed the high-rise Armada Towers residential development.
"We are now finalizing plans for the International Chess City and are convinced that Dubai is the perfect location for it," Armada Group Chairman Mohammed Raheef Hakmy said at the project announcement. "His Excellency President Kirsan has been an invaluable asset to the project because of his enthusiasm to invest in innovative real estate projects in Dubai."
Kalmykia's Plush Chess City"Ilumjinov has already created Chess City in Elista, Kalmykia's capital city. That the project happened in that Russian republic is striking. Kalmykia ranks in Russia's very lowest rungs for all economic indicators - making Chess City one of many glaring incongruities during Ilumjinov's 11-year reign.
Created Amid Pronounced Poverty
Only 31 when first elected in 1993, Ilumjinov promised to make Kalmykia a free-market economy. But by far the freest economic mover seems to be the president.
Ilumjinov remains fond of wearing white capes and driving classic Rolls-Royces - tastes already well developed by the time he won the presidency. By then, he'd made millions, running a group of successful banks in capitalism's first heady days after the Soviet Union's collapse.
Ilumjinov also brought a burning passion for chess to the president's mansion. By the age of nine, he was the chess champion of his tiny native republic, which has some 330,000 residents. During his first term, Ilumijinov by presidential decree made chess a compulsory subject in Kalmykia's schools.
Then Ilumjinov's passions for the good life and chess merged. He announced his plan to make Elista the "city-capital of FIDE" (the World Chess Federation). By 1998, he'd completed Chess City, a four-story, glass-domed monument to all things chess. The cushy venue hosted the chess universe's Olympiad in '98.
Chess City reportedly cost $30 million. How the building was financed remains murky.
The facility remains jarringly at odds in a nation where hot water is generally a luxury item. Perhaps fittingly, Chess City is surrounded by huge, faceless public-housing developments. Many residents living near Chess City say they were told to loan their TVs, refrigerators and dish sets to furnish freshly finished new housing for the '98 Olympiad.
Amazingly, Ilumjinov has a long list of other grandiose projects he wants to create in his poverty-stricken nation. Those designs include an opera house, a ballet theater, a museum and a conservatory, an art school, a water sports complex (in the desert, no less), a skiing center, and an airfield for recreational flying.
Kalmykians Charge IlumjinovSounds preposterous, you say? Well, you could get a lot of agreement with that opinion in Kalmykia, where the natives are restless.
With Human Rights Abuses, Murders
The Kalmyk Human Rights Center (KHRC), for example, called a press conference in Elista in April to blast Ilumjinov's administration.
"According to Russian human rights activists, Kalmykia holds the record of abusing human rights," said KHRC spokesman Sergey Ageev. "Prosecution of political opponents, physical assaults on opponents and the murders of those who know too much have become ordinary things in Kalmykia. The republic's law-enforcers are involved in prosecuting Ilumjinov's opponents."
Boris Andzhaev and Basan Gorodovikov, two well-established Kalmykia politicians, have also mounted a protest. They timed their most public action to date to coincide with the opening of the Women's World Chess Championship at Chess City on May 22nd.
The two Kalmykians were protesting "against the anti-people rule of Ilumjinov, the oppressor of civil rights and freedoms," Andzhaev and Gorodovikov said in a statement.
Particular scorn was reserved for the president's lavish obsession with chess.
"We don't want holidays in a poverty-stricken region," Andzhaev and Gorodovikov asserted. "When you participants of the chess championship are enjoying yourselves with the concerts of the poverty-stricken performers and dinners in expensive restaurants, the majority of children in Kalmykia do not have enough food. Poor Kalmykia cannot be donor and money-bag for FIDE!"
Things have already come to a nasty head once. Late last year, a large crowd of protestors gathered outside governmental offices for 72 hours. The demonstrators demanded Ilumjinov's resignation, charging him with violating voter rights in 2002's national elections (in which Ilumjinov won a third term with a reported 85 percent of the vote). The protest broke up when the 2,500 Russian troops that Ilumjinov had requested arrived from adjacent regions.
In June of this year, Pravda blasted Ilumjinov with a story headlined "Leader of Kalmyk Republic Blackmails the Kremlin." Kalmykia's president is holding on to power now by telling the Kremlin that if he's thrown out of office, Russia will have a second Chechnya on its hands, asserted reporters with Pravda (which ended its 80 years as a Communist Party organ in 1991 and now operates independently).
In short, Ilumjinov faces a very unstable situation. That doesn't necessarily mean that International Chess City won't happen. But it may happen without Ilumjinov still leading a nation whose people are descended from Genghis Khan.
Instead, it may be Kalmykia's citizens who triumphantly shout out "checkmate" as they chase their president out of office.
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