The image of a property developer still calls to mind outdated scenes from 1970s’ films, marking the rise of major town planning projects with the colonisation of the suburbs, massive housing complexes and the systematic massacre of coastlines. In the 21stcentury, even if his role is now more discrete, he is no less active. Assisted by architects elevated to pop star status, boosted by a soaring demography and worshipped by billionaires who long to live within their fold, the sky truly is the limit for the kingpins of construction.

Al Waleed Bin Talal — The excess of the desert

Al Waleed Bin Talal
Al Waleed Bin Talal Image Credit: Supplied

Unusual? In Al Waleed Bin Talal's case, this description is a euphemism! The Saudi prince cuts no corners in his ranking amongst the richest men in the world, to the point of attempting to take Forbes magazine to court in 2013 after it undervalued his fortune, putting him at 26th in the list of the planet's billionaires, with a fortune estimated at $20 billion (Dh73 billion.) In 2015, he announced plans to distribute his entire fortune via his foundation. The “Arab Warren Buffet”, as he is known, prefers to don traditional brand-name thobes, tinted sunglasses, and meticulously controls what he eats, never consuming more than 1,100 calories a day. This progressivist employs more women than men, and encourages them to forego the veil. Owner of the George V Hotel in Paris and the New York City Plaza, he owns 130 properties in 27 countries. It is in the Middle East, in particular, that he develops his property portfolio, and he is one of the largest landowners in Saudi Arabia. In the suburb of Riyadh, he has built a residential development overlooked by the Kingdom Centre Tower, a vertiginous 300 metres high. But the crowning glory of his empire will be the Jeddah Tower, on the banks of the Red Sea, which, when completed, will be the highest building in the world, soaring over the planet at 1km.

Donald Trump Jr. of the Trump Enterprise

Donald Trump Jr. & Eric Trump
Donald Trump Jr. & Eric Trump Image Credit: Supplied

The Clinton campaign teams called them the Storm Troopers. An ironic reference to their slicked-back hair, reminiscent of the élite troops of the German army during the First World War. In other circles, Donald Trump Jr 39 years old, and Eric Trump, 33, are referred to as “Uday & Qusay”, the sadly famous sons of Saddam Hussain. It is these “brutes”, as they in fact call themselves, that Donald Trump, the 45th president of the USA, who have taken over the reins of their father's real estate business. Eric is in charge of golf and vineyards, whilst Don Jr takes care of real estate. He will take care of the 40 Wall Street leases and oversee the construction and sale of the condominiums in the Trump International Hotel & Tower de Chicago and the Trump Tower in New York.

Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago
Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago Image Credit: Dani Soon

His one previous incursion into the unforgiving world of real estate property ended in bankruptcy. In 2014, Titan Atlas Manufacturing filed for insolvency and the loan of $3.65 million issued by Deutsche Bank was bought back by the parent company.

Zhang Xin — The Chinese diva

Zhang Xin
Zhang Xin Image Credit: Supplied

A male-dominated industry, you have to travel to Asia to meet the business woman of the real estate sector. Zhang Xin, managed to build the Soho China empire in just a few years, propelling her into 488th place in the Forbes List, with an estimated worth of $3.2 billion. Head of her philanthropic organisation the Soho China Foundation, she has made a name for herself thanks to her pro-democracy stance and her sup-port of the education of women. And this is not just all talk and no action. Raised by her mother, she moved to Hong Kong where, at the age of 14, she worked in a factory, saving up to pay for her studies in Great Britain. Surrounding herself with renowned architects for her projects, such as Kengo Kuma and Antonio Ochoa, she has redrawn the skylines of the Chinese megacities, like Sky Soho in Shanghai or Wangjing Soho in Beijing, designed by Zaha Hadid. Property developments that place a high value on modernity, luxury and boldness.

Wangjing Soho Beijing
Wangjing Soho Beijing Image Credit: Dani Soon

Abdullah Ahmad Mohammad Al Habbai — Of ambitions and shaiks

Abdullah Ahmad Mohammad Al Habbai
Abdullah Ahmad Mohammad Al Habbai Image Credit: Supplied

Sitting on the edge of the Arabian Gulf, Dubai, the principal city of the UAE, offers the most exuberant fancies when it comes to property. This urban landscape is a developer’s dream. Unlike the novel by Dave Eggers A Hologram for the King, which unfolds in an adjacent kingdom, here, the most extreme real estate reveries take their shape and form. Meraas, a government-owned company, is the driving force behind all current major construction projects. In 2016, the website Construction Week Power, which annually rates the major property developers on the Arab peninsula, placed the CEO of Meraas, Abdullah Ahmad Mohammad Al Habbai, in 31st place. Modest? It is in fact this very company which was the driver behind projects such as Palm Jumeirah, an artificial archipelago, which unfolds into the sea in the shape of a palm leaf, Bulgari Hotel, a luxury development of 173 apartments and 15 residences signed by the Italian jeweller, or even Bluewaters, a second artificial island overlooked by the great Ferris wheels, which amazingly are found in so many capital cities. Meraas has just completed City Walk. No vertical extravagance to be found, instead, this is a city within a city. A vast group of luxury shops, apartments and restaurants. It boasts 200 luxury boutiques, as well as beauty salons and upmarket restaurants. Just another shopping mall? This one is unique, as it is in the open air or, rather, because of the climate, air-conditioned.

Claudio and Paolo Marzocco — Concrete cool

Monaco is getting an imaginative makeover thanks to its property developers. How to continue building with such a dense population per square metre (38,000 inhabitants in just 2.1 km2) in a place which happens to be the preferred residence of 200 millionaires who worship space and power? Two solutions: Build upwards and over the sea. Two major projects are ad-dressing the problem: The Odeon Tower, built by Vinci, and Monte Carlo Sea Land, with design and construction commenced by Bouygues in collaboration with architect Renzo Piano. Gaining six hectares of sea space, the area will offer 60,000 m2 of additional housing within the heart of a marina. As for the Odeon Tower, it contains one of the most pricey apartments on the planet, €300 million for a penthouse overlooking the Mediterranean from a height of 170 metres. Barely finished, the tower has already got itself a bad name, tainted by the trial last autumn of its Italian developers Claudio and Paolo Marzocco, dragging down with them the mayor of the nearby town of Beausoleil, a senator and widow of a billionaire. Corruption and money laundering … This is the world of J.G. Ballard. Super Cannes is not that far away!

How do you build for millionaires who worship space and power?

The Hinduja brothers — The British watch and its Indian tycoons

The Hinduja brothers
The Hinduja brothers Image Credit: Supplied

Great Britain is known for its many brother-hoods in the world of the property tycoon : The Barclay twins, the Reuben brothers and the Hinduja brothers. The Hinduja brothers, born in India, own an empire estimated to be worth£13 billion (Dh58.5 billion), making them two of the very few subjects of Her Majesty to feature in the list of global billionaires. In London, they bought up the famous War Rooms building, where Churchill planned his defeat of the Nazis.

Churchill War Rooms London
Churchill War Rooms London Image Credit: Dani Soon

Four James Bond movies include scenes filmed in the old war office building of the Ministry of Defence. There are now plans to turn it into a luxury hotel with 125 rooms, a ballroom, swimming pool and terrace.

Stephen Ross and Zaha Hadid—The property developer and the architect

520 West 28th in West Chelsea, New York has just been completed and its very first apartments put up for sale.

520 West 28th New York
520 West 28th New York Image Credit: Dani Soon

However, its architect will never see the final result. Zaha Hadid passed away when the works were finally finished in March of last year. Launched by the company Related, managed by the philanthropic property developer billionaire Stephen Ross, this was the first residential project in New York for this famous Pritzker prize-winning architect. Some 39 apartments, amazing sculptures in glass and metal, extend over 11 floors stretching up to the sky. As with all Hadid’s creations, the building is immediately identifiable with her futuristic style. With floor to ceiling glass, the five-room apartment on the last floor occupies 2,000 m2 and looks set to become one of the most expensive in the world at a starting price of $50 million. A little further away, on the Hudson, Stephen Ross is preparing to redefine the New York skyline with the future development of an industrial zone, which he plans to cover with hyperbolic towers.