Jamal's Musings - Project Management in History: Burj Al Arab

The Burj Al Arab (The Arab Tower) hotel was built in 1999 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. This project was conceived at the very top of the UAE government as a venture that would assist in transforming the country and the state from the exclusively oil-based economy to the trade and tourism-based market.

The ruling family of Dubai gambled – and by all accounts won – that the conversion into international hub of trade and tourism should start with a “wow-type” project that would demonstrate to the rest of the world that the Gulf country can:

  • Undertake ambitious projects and see them to completion
  • Has a rich cultural and historic heritage
  • Has the supply of and the demand for luxury hotel accommodations

The project that lasted for five years – from 1994 to 1999 – delivered a 321 m (1,053 ft) structure that is now the fourth tallest hotel in the world. Burj Al Arab stands on an artificial island 280 m (920 ft) from Jumeirah beach and is connected to the mainland by a private curving bridge. The shape of the structure is designed to mimic the dhow’s (type of local boat) sail. It is very frequently referred to as the world’s only seven-star hotel; although the company managing it refuses to even acknowledge the fact that they were the ones who started using this epithet.

Burj Al Arab is one of the most photographed buildings in the world and definitely played an integral role in putting both Dubai and the United Arab Emirates on the world map.

The purpose of this case study is to attempt to take this enigmatic and grandiose product and try to reverse engineer the requirement elicitation process from the few high-level business requirements to general features to detailed technical requirements. Let us start with what the business requirements for this project may have looked like (see Table 1):

Table 1


Requirement ID

Business Requirement Description

BR 1.0

Has to become a national icon for the UAE

BR 2.0

Has to be located offshore

BR 3.0

Has to be a luxury hotel







As can be seen, the project of enormous size and complexity can be “diminished” to only three business requirements: the new building has to be a national icon, it has to be located in the water and it has to be a luxury hotel.

Surprisingly enough there are only three features resulting from the above-mentioned high-level requirements (see Table 2):

  • The building shall resemble a dhow's (local type of boat) sail
  • The building shall be built on the man-made island
  • The building shall meet or exceed the current requirements for a 6-star hotel as defined by the European Hotelstars Union

Table 2

Parent BR

Feature ID

Feature Description

BR 1.0

F 1.1

The building shall resemble a dhow's sail

BR 2.0

F 2.1

The building shall be built on the man-made island

BR 3.0

F 3.1

The building shall meet or exceed the current requirements for a 6-star hotel as defined by the European Hotelstars Union






Once we reached the features level and drill deeper into the detailed requirements, things start getting more interesting and complicated at an exponential speed (see Table 3).

Table 3

Parent Feature

Requirement ID

Requirement Description

F 1.1

REQ 1.1.1

The concrete structure shall have exposed diagonal steel wind bracing

REQ 1.1.2

The concrete structure shall be triangular in plan

REQ 1.1.3

The concrete structure shall be founded on piles which penetrate the sea floor

REQ 1.1.4

The accommodation wings shall enclose the two sides of a triangular atrium that runs up the full height of the accommodation floors

REQ 1.1.5

The third side, facing the shore, shall be enclosed by a glass screen

REQ 1.1.6

Lights illuminating the exterior of the hotel in varying colours throughout the night

REQ 1.1.7

The atrium shall be no less than 180 metres high

REQ 1.1.8

The hotel shall have 28 double floors

REQ 1.1.9

The hotel shall have approximately 200 bedroom suites

REQ 1.1.10

The hotel shall be approximately 300 meters in height

REQ 1.1.x


F 2.1

REQ 2.1.1

The man-made island shall be located 290 metres off the Dubai coast

REQ 2.1.2

The island shall be triangular with sides of 150 m in length

REQ 2.1.3

The island shall be built off the sea bed in 7.5 metres of open sea

REQ 2.1.4 

The island shall be protected by armour that  absorbs the waves without throwing water onto the island.

REQ 2.1.5

A road shall connect the island to the mainland

REQ 2.1.6

The road shall be curved

REQ 2.1.x


F 3.1

REQ 3.1.1

Only high-grade materials shall be used in construction and decorations

REQ 3.1.2

The hotel shall have at least one gourmet restaurant

REQ 3.1.3

Every room shall have a safe

REQ 3.1.4

The hotel shall have a gym

REQ 3.1.5

Every room shall have a PC with an Internet access

REQ 3.1.x






























Feature 1.1 results in multitude of technical requirements – we listed only the first ten – describing all the relevant attributes of the hotels. They include but are not limited to its height, shape, etc.

The second group of requirements is dedicated to the description of the artificial island on which the hotel would be built; they include the island shape, location, height, protection mechanism and the attributes of the road connecting the island to the mainland. Once again, only the first six of many more requirements have been listed in Table 3.

The last group of requirements, although probably the largest, compared to other two was the easiest to collect – the requirements for the six star hotel can be downloaded from the European Hotelstars Union website at any point of time; some of them are listed in Table 3.

What was the point of this reverse requirements engineering exercise? While the author of this book obviously can’t guarantee that this was exactly the way the requirements for the this project have been documented, it demonstrates that even large and complicated projects that deliver awesome landmark products, can be broken down into fairly easy and mundane sub-components that can be easily processed by the design team (architects and engineers in this particular case).


This is an excerpt from my new book “Project Scope Management: A Practical Guide to Requirements for Engineering, Product, Construction, IT and Enterprise Projects” that is being published by CRC Press The book should soon be available on Amazon.

About the Author

Jamal Moustafaev, MBA, PMP – president and founder of Thinktank Consulting is an internationally acclaimed expert and speaker in the areas of project/portfolio management, scope definition, process improvement and corporate training. Jamal Moustafaev has done work for private-sector companies and government organizations in Canada, US, Asia, Europe and Middle East.  Read Jamal’s Blog @ www.thinktankconsulting.ca

Jamal is an author of two very popular books: Delivering Exceptional Project Results: A Practical Guide to Project Selection, Scoping, Estimation and Management and Project Scope Management: A Practical Guide to Requirements for Engineering, Product, Construction, IT and Enterprise Projects.