Chris O’Donnell: Building a Legend

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When you are overseeing a company that is simultaneously redefining the way the globe appears from space, the way the world sees a modest little Middle Eastern city-state, and offering homes to 3 million people, you may be excused for seeming slightly frazzled. But this is not the case with Chris O’Donnell, who, just hours before departing on a much needed vacation, has agreed to sit down for an exclusive look into the inner workings of Nakheel. I am immediately captivated by his presence and keen to know what brought him to this desert city from his native Australia. “Dubai was first etched in my consciousness more than two years ago when I was approached by a head-hunter who talked of building islands in the sea the size of cities,” he explains. “At the time, I was with the Investa Property Group in Australia and the thought of uprooting my family and moving to the Middle East seemed a daunting and unlikely prospect. However, following some research, a visit to Dubai with my family, and the realization that I would be joining one of the world’s largest real estate development companies responsible for icons such as Palm Jumeirah and The World, my mind was soon made up. I believe that Dubai has a positive energy that exists in few other places in the world, and my family is extremely happy here; I have no doubts that I made the right decision. My only regret is that I didn’t arrive in Dubai 10 years earlier.”

Under O’Donnell’s leadership, Nakheel’s projects have enjoyed the multifaceted refinement of truly enriched communities. Whether it is an 1,800-seat Cirque du Soleil theater, record-breaking luxury apartments managed by the iconic Trump Organization, or one of the world’s largest waterfront resorts, there is no shortage of superlatives in the Nakheel portfolio. But perhaps the closest to O’Donnell’s heart is the company’s Blue initiative-the first of its kind in Dubai. “Nakheel is dedicated to the three pillars of corporate responsibility on environmental, social, and economic levels. At the beginning of the year, we launched Blue Communities, an initiative for the sustainable development of coastal communities around the globe. As part of this initiative, we are committed to ensuring that we incorporate into all of our subsequent developments any activities that can positively contribute to the environment. I can’t think of any similar company in the world that has pledged $136 million to the research and development of new ideas in the field of sustainability.”

 “All of our projects are exciting in different ways. It’s almost impossible for me to say that one is more so than the other.”

This conscientious new philosophy may have been formed to quell rampant rumors that the Palm and other reclamation projects are environmental threats. After all, creating man-made islands does sound like a recipe for trouble. But O’Donnell assures us this is not the case. “We were the first property development company in the UAE to have a dedicated team of environmental experts working full time within its own walls, and in 2003 we partnered with the United Nations University so that we had an independent body that would research and manage the waters surrounding all of our waterfront projects. Our environmental guidelines for the construction and occupation of the Palm projects and The World are setting new standards for the property development industry. Come and see our developments for yourself! I live on Palm Jumeirah and can often be seen fishing from the beach; I’ve even caught some pretty big fish on a few occasions,” he says with a proud smile.

Along with its world-renowned Palm Jumeirah project (which has already sold out each of its phases), Nakheel owns 14 other brands, including two more Palms located on Dubai’s Deira and Jebel Ali shorelines; the celebrated Ibn Battuta Mall, an experiential shopping center themed to the entrancing lands conquered by the famous Arab explorer; The World, which is made up of 300 islands arranged to form a map of the world; Marina Promenade, a stunning beachfront community with the utmost in modern design at the forefront; and the much-anticipated Dubai Waterfront, which promises to be one of Dubai’s (and the world’s) most ambitious projects. When asked to identify his favorite Nakheel project, O’Donnell replies with a very diplomatic, “All of our projects are exciting in different ways. It’s almost impossible for me to say that one is more so than the other.” He pauses and, aware of the fact that we are still looking for an answer, says, “As our first major development, Palm Jumeirah will always hold a special place in my heart. Palm Jumeirah has been at the forefront of our growth as a company and also Dubai’s growth as an internationally recognized tourism and business destination. It’s amazing to think that just six years ago, if you looked out to the Arabian Gulf there was nothing there. Now there are more than 2,000 families living on the island and the first hotel, Atlantis, is set to open in September this year. There is still so much more to come, including Trump International Hotel & Tower, a permanent 1,800-seat Cirque du Soleil theater, and the QE2, which will arrive before being refurbished as a luxury hotel towards the end of the year.”

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