DUBAI // Many people have their eyes on the world's tallest tower as it advances steadily into the sky, but Jalal bin Thaneya is following its progress more closely than most.
The opening of the Burj Dubai has already been postponed once and is now scheduled for December, when the 23-year-old Emirati dreams of being the first person to take the stairs all the way from the bottom to the top - a total height of nearly a kilometre, though Mr bin Thaneya estimates the actual distance up the zigzagging staircases at about 5km. He hopes to raise money for good causes in the process, which he believes should take three hours or more, but also sees in it a deeper significance than in his previous charity walks.
"Burj Dubai is a symbolic climb," he said, "as it also represents a part of our Emirati identity, where the UAE is reaching for the skies and beyond." Of course, there are difficulties. Mr bin Thaneya has still not secured permission for the project from the tower's management. They has been encouragement, he said, but the green light remains elusive so he has set up an online petition in the hope of adding some more gentle pressure.
Several attempts by The National to contact Burj management about the climb were unsuccessful. Last month a report emerged citing an anonymous senior architect that the iconic building would be officially unveiled on December 2. However Emaar brushed it off, explaining the exact date had not been determined other than it would be some time in December. A six-metre glass panel, the last of more than 24,000 laid on the exterior, was to be installed some time this month.
Mr bin Thaneya "understands" the delay in management approving his private plans for the building's opening, but remains optimistic. "It is never easy when you try to introduce new ideas and push people to do something different." His track record shows that he is not a man to give up on a project when things get difficult. In 2007 he walked across all seven emirates, a 600km journey that took 20 days, and raised Dh80,000 (US$22,000) for the Dubai Autism Centre.
Even though he had developed massive blisters and did not shower once during the whole exercise, he said it had been worth it. "I never got bored as I walked, as there was so much to see and I got to meet amazing people along the way," he says. It was his first time in the northern Emirates, and one of this favourite memories was befriending a saluki. On another occasion a military officer who had seen him walking from Al Ain to Fujairah stopped to say hello. The entire experience was "priceless", he said.
"I got the chance to pause, and watch an ant carry a leaf, something most people have gone through their life not even noticing." The following year he climbed 90,000 steps in 100 of Dubai's towers, including the Emirates Towers and Dubai World Trade Centre. That took 12 days and was done to raise awareness for the Rashid Paediatric Centre, a special needs school in Dubai. Many of the staircases were dark and smelt of stale cigarette smoke, he said. It had been one of the less attractive aspects of his climbs, but something Mr bin Thaneya took in his stride.
His fund-raising started two years ago, the result of growing frustration with what he perceived as the neglect of the less fortunate by society. "The disabled had no one representing them, so I decided, I will." Once he completes his business studies at Dubai's Middlesex University early next year, Mr bin Thaneya plans to embark on an even more ambitious walk. This one will stretch from his front door in Jumeirah to Mecca and take three months, covering up to 40km a day. Along the way, he hopes to raise awareness and funds for special needs students wishing to perform Haj or Umrah pilgrimages.
He has already mapped out his route and will be carrying a hand-held GPS device and a backpack full of water bottles. He is still putting together the Emirati support team, including a doctor, that will tag along with him in a car as he walks. "It will be difficult but it is not impossible. I will even get a bulletproof vest as a precaution," he said. "It is a three-month commitment to a very unique and demanding project, so it is taking a while to find people willing to do this."
Mr bin Thaneya recognised that he takes walking to extremes in a region where many people seem averse to it. He said people took their mobility for granted. "How often do you see people walk anywhere?" he asked. "They hop in and out of fancy cars instead of enjoying their surroundings and just noticing life." Inspired by old photographs of grandparents who walked across the desert barefoot, Mr bin Thaneya decided to reawaken that sense of simplicity - but with a modern twist.
"I wear comfortable shoes of course and use the latest gadgets to assist me," he said. "I know the importance of being successful socially in order to be a successful humanitarian, so I develop both areas in my life in the hopes of inspiring others to do the same." Besides his fund-raising projects, a strict schedule of gym time, self-reflection and studies, Mr bin Thaneya is determined to push social boundaries within his community.
"Think outside the box," he said. "People don't realise here that they can do things that don't follow a particular, rigid life script of school, university, work, marriage and children. "It is OK to be different," he added. "You don't have to live just within your own bubble." Mr bin Thaneya said anyone could do what he does; it just took a little determination. "Preserving Emirati identity is more than about clothes, food and slogans, it is about reviving in ourselves a sense of meaning and pride in where we came from."
Besides taking a support team with medical equipment and supplies of food and water, Mr bin Thaneya usually embarks on his challenges with his face and head shaved, and wearing comfortable shoes, a T-shirt and cargo trousers, and a pair of sunglasses. "I don't care to be recognised," he said. "I just want people to remember that someone did this and that may inspire in them to do something similar."