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Dubai’s Skyscrapers Look Spectacular. But Are They Safe?

UAE- Fire at Fountain Views Tower
Firefighters battle a fire at the construction site of the Fountain Views tower next to the Dubai Mall, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2 April 2017. Photo AP

Since 2012, a spate of high-rise fires have struck Dubai and other cities in the United Arab Emirates. The blazes, some of which have drawn global attention, prompted serious concerns over Dubai’s safety regulations as well as an exterior insulation material commonly used in the skyscrapers that dominate its skyline.

In response to the fires – including a spectacular New Year’s Eve 2015 blaze at a luxury hotel near the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa – Dubai in January 2017 announced new safety codes intended to nearly eliminate the risk of high-rise exteriors catching fire. But the actual work of retrofitting the fire-prone panels has been slowed in part by legal tussles over who should pay.

Dubai ranks behind only Hong Kong and New York in the world for the most number of completed skyscrapers that are 150 meters or taller. In addition to those 160 buildings, Dubai has another 40 high rises under construction. In total, this modern desert metropolis on the Arabian Gulf is home to some 900 high-rise buildings.

Much of the construction took place during Dubai’s immense building boom in the 2000s, especially after real-estate laws were amended in 2002 to allow non-UAE nationals to buy properties for the first time. This accelerated the proliferation of new high-rises, with properties often sold off-plan, giving developers leeway not to comply with standards and regulations.

The Gulf News recently documented twelve fires that broke out in the UAE between 25 January 2012 and 28 March 2016. This is a huge number. Several other fires have followed since then, including two in the summer of 2016 and another in December. In April 2017, a 72-storey tower being built in downtown Dubai across the street from its largest mall caught fire around dawn. Dubai’s Civil Defense director-general, Maj. Gen. Rashid Thani al-Matrooshi, said the fire was an “accident” which started at the parking level and spread out.

The latest blaze occurred a block away from the 63-storey Address Hotel, which was engulfed in an inferno that struck a few hours ahead of the 2016 New Year Eve fireworks show. That sensational fire in turn happened 10 months after flames ripped through Dubai’s Torch skyscraper, one of the tallest residential buildings in the world.

According to the Dubai police, the Address Hotel fire was caused by an electrical short circuit on a spotlight located on a ledge between the 14th and the 15th floors. Authorities have not identified the main cause of the Torch Tower fire. Eyewitnesses said the blaze broke out on the 51st floor and quickly spread up to the 83rd floor, burning everything in its path. Sajid Raza, advisor and vice president at Butler Engineering, a company that specializes in fire and life safety consultation for buildings in the UAE, told the Khaleej Times that was “unnatural,” because building materials are supposed to keep the fire from spreading.

What seems to be the common denominator among these high-rise fires in Dubai?

The infernos all behaved the same way, rushing up and down the sides of the buildings, fueled by the external panels. In most cases, a specific building material was singled out as the main culprit. In order to insulate the exteriors of large buildings while keeping the overall weight down, many developers opted for what is called a “thermo-plastic core,” which basically is layers of polyurethane sandwiched between aluminum cladding. But that polyurethane is a combustible solid and can be ignited if exposed to an open flame. The aesthetically pleasing, “aluminum-looking” cladding panels cover the exterior of an estimated 70 percent of the UAE’s high-rise buildings. The high price of solid aluminum makes the panels made out of two-sided aluminum with a polyurethane core a more economical option.

The cheaper panels usually resist most standard flammability tests, and they never combust in the heat of the sun. However, if the panels are exposed to open fire from a gas burner, shisha coal, lit cigarette or other sources, they go up in flames quickly.

Tom Bell-Wright, founder of an international fire safety consulting firm in Dubai, told the IFSEC Global magazine that the panels hit the UAE market suddenly about 10 or 12 years ago. “I suppose no one here knew about this issue — except, of course, the manufacturers, including some very large firms in the Far East, who apparently chose to keep quiet about it,” Bell-Wright said.

The danger posed by the new claddings is that when they catch fire, flames will spread rapidly up and down the high-rises. Then burning droplets fall and, with the help from winds, spread the fire to nearby buildings and objects on the ground. So the fire safety problem is an aesthetic issue as well, since Dubai seems to be a fan of shiny metallic buildings.

Fortunately, Dubai’s headline-generating fires so far have been non-lethal. Usually the buildings’ façade go up in flames. But the interior are relatively safe, thanks to Dubai’s strict fire codes and such mandatory measures as sprinklers and fire-retardant panels.

At a security exhibition on 22 January 2017, Civil Defense Lt. Taher Hassan Al-Taher released new fire-safety rules and regulations for the emirate. The tougher rules aim to reduce the risk of fire and “minimize it to zero,” Taher told the Arab News. Among other things, Dubai will require developers to replace the old fire-prone cladding or face fines up to 50,000 Dirhams ($13,623). In addition, buildings that catch fire must have all old cladding panels removed, not just those damaged by the blaze.

Retrofitting could cost millions of dollars per building, according to Barry Greenberg, a senior associate at BSA Ahmad Bin Hezeem & Associates, a law firm in Dubai. Greenberg said a legal battle over who should pay to retrofit buildings has helped delay fixes. Another reason for the slow progress may be that the fires have yet to result in mass casualties, although some people have been injured.

Phil Barry, a fire safety consultant with Gloucester-based CWB Fire Safety who has worked extensively in Qatar and the UAE, told the Telegraph that fire safety inspections there are lax for two reasons. One is because expat workers conducting the inspections lack the right education and experience. The other reason is that the buildings’ owners are typically well connected, which might make it easier for them to skirt regulations. Barry noted that Dubai updated its fire standards for building exteriors in 2013. In the UK, those standards were adopted in 1973.

So the question remains whether Dubai’s high-rises will become safer structures in the near future. The answer for now seems to be “no.” One argument for that pessimism is that the UAE continues to be accused of fueling its construction boom with undocumented migrant workers, who are kept at the sites in what are essentially slave labor camps.