THE islands were intended as the ultimate luxury possession, even for Dubai.
But 'The World', the ambitiously-constructed archipelago of islands shaped like the countries of the globe, is sinking, according to evidence put before a property tribunal.
Developed with hotels and villas, the sands are eroding and the navigational channels between the islands are silting up, the British lawyer for a company bringing a case against the state-run developer, Nakheel, told judges.
"The islands are gradually falling back into the sea," said lawyers for Penguin Marine. .
According to Nakheel, 70pc of The World's 300 islands have been sold, but most of the development plans have been brought to a halt by the financial crisis. Only one of the islands, Greenland, is inhabited and that is a showpiece owned by the ruler of Dubai.
The company was part of Dubai World, the state-owned conglomerate that had to be bailed out of debts put at $25bn (€18.5bn) at the end of 2009. The tribunal was set up to hear cases arising out of the restructuring of companies involved.
Nakheel is also behind Dubai's palm-shaped offshore developments. Villas in the only one near completion, Palm Jumeirah, were given to or bought by footballers, including David Beckham and Michael Owen.
Though few celebrity buyers were found for 'The World', it was rumoured -- or joked -- that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had considered Ethiopia. Investors who did buy the islands proved unwilling or unable to finance further work when Dubai's property prices halved in the space of a year.
Some were hit by troubles elsewhere. The owner of the company that bought Ireland for €28m in 2009, John O'Dolan, killed himself; while the man who bought Britain for €51m, Safi Qurashi, is serving seven years in jail in Dubai for non-payment of cheques.
Penguin Marine, which bought the rights to provide boat travel to the islands, has seen little business and is trying to get out of a contract that involves paying an annual fee of just under €1.2m to Nakheel. Penguin claimed that work on the islands had "effectively stopped".
Lawyers for Nakheel said the project was not dead but admitted it was "in a coma".
The tribunal found for Nakheel yesterday, saying it would give full reasoning later.
A spokesman for Nakheel insisted the islands were not sinking.
"Our periodical survey over the past three years didn't observe any substantial erosion that required sand nourishment," it said in a statement. (© Daily Telegraph, London)