DUBAI (Reuters) - Billion-dollar islands being built off the coast of Dubai offer wealthy tourists a chance to leave the world behind, but environmentalists say the Gulf's delicate marine ecosystem is paying the price for this perfect escape.
Government-owned developer Nakheel is building three islands in the shape of palm trees -- one surrounded by more islands spelling out an Arabic poem -- and a fourth group of 300 private islands shaped like a map of the world.
"The perfect place to leave the world behind" touts Nakheel's Web site, which features pictures of the verdant isles and their white beaches, being built at a cost of $20 billion.
The luxury resorts and homes on the islands have already attracted celebrities like English footballer David Beckham, who bought a villa in advance. The map of the world development offers a golf island and an African safari island.
Dubai, one of seven semi-autonomous states of the United Arab Emirates, is the leading commercial centre in the Gulf region and has ambitious plans to boost its thriving tourism industry to prepare for when its low oil reserves run out.
But environmentalists say the futuristic island developments have taken a heavy toll on the present ecosystem.
The only known coral reef off the shores of Dubai was destroyed during the dredging work, turtle nesting sites have been destroyed, natural currents rerouted and silt has muddied what were crystal-clear waters, they say.
"It has been detrimental for the natural environment of the Dubai coast, especially at the place and location of the first Palm island," said Frederic Launay, director of the World Wildlife Fund's office in the United Arab Emirates.
"That is a little bit of a shame because there were very good habitats there. There were possibilities of recovery and protection, and there were possibilities of using that natural asset to make something," he told Reuters.
"This opportunity has been lost and now we are only talking about remediation and mitigation."
COAXING CORAL BACK
Dubai, once a tiny trading post in the Gulf, wants to attract foreign cash and investment into an economy that is weaning itself off rapidly-dwindling crude oil reserves.
The city of modern skyscrapers, which has no historical, natural or religious sites of note, wants to make sure its 1.4 million residents and 5 million plus tourists get everything they want -- and this has made it an architect's playground.
For now, record high oil prices are stoking a construction boom in the city, an oasis of park-lined highways in the blistering heat and suffocating humidity of the desert.
Nakheel disputes environmentalists' claims that building the islands has damaged the ecosystem, saying that most of the coral was already dead.
The property developer, which is in partnership with the Trump Organization to build a $400 million luxury hotel on the man-made Palm Jumeirah island, says it will use revolutionary techniques to stimulate coral growth by placing electrically charged meshes underwater.
"I don't see any problem with this technology. We still have to wait and see when we start really doing it at a much, much larger scale, when I say a larger scale I mean a mega scale," said Imad Haffar, Nakheel's head of research and development.
The remains of two fighter planes, jumbo jets and seven barges have been dropped onto the sea floor in a bid to attract marine life and create an underwater theme park for divers.
Nakheel says the silt and sand will eventually settle down.
Launay said the coral recovery effort was a good thing.
"But that's not what nature conservation and preservation, and respect of the environment, is all about," he added, saying the UAE authorities failed to study Nakheel's plans beforehand.
Sultan bin Sulayem, chairman of Nakheel, says the projects will create a marine ecosystem from scratch.
"The bottom of the sea in Dubai is like a desert. I used to scuba dive there and there's no real significant amounts of coral, few rocks. It's flat and sand, with no life basically and not a habitable area for fish," bin Sulayem said, speaking in his office at the top of a Dubai high-rise overlooking the sea.
"Turtles only rested on remote islands, and we are planning to build an island for the natural habitat where turtles will return to the area," he added.
Bin Sulayem says the projects, which many Dubai residents say are too showy, are a necessity because the emirate has only a small stretch of coastline on the Gulf.
"It will be 1,200 km (746 miles) (of beach when finished) as compared to the 60 km (37 miles) ... now," he said.
The building work has involved shifting a massive 1.65 billion cubic metres of sand and 87 million tonnes of rock. Nakheel's multi-billion dollar Dubai Waterfront project involves moving 1 billion tonnes of rock, bin Sulayem said.
The first Nakheel project to be completed will be the Palm Jumeirah, which has been plagued by delays and reports -- denied by Nakheel -- that it is sinking. Nakheel are now building on the island, with the first residents due to move in next year.
And the concept has taken off, with similar islands planned in other UAE emirates and Gulf countries, where economies are also booming because of the rise in world oil prices.
(Additional reporting by Hala Salman)