The Burj Khalifa isn’t just the world’s tallest building. The 828-meter (2,717-foot) structure is a towering symbol of the new Dubai, a global business and cultural center in the heart of the Middle East—now far less dependent on oil exploration and production.

While the emirate’s push for economic diversification can be traced back to the 1970s, it was an infrastructure blitz in the 1990s and 2000s that catapulted Dubai into one of the top tourist destinations in the region and a hub for finance, IT and transportation logistics. Dubai now boasts one of the region’s busiest airports, the largest port and—rising above it all like a global beacon—the Burj Khalifa.

The building’s architectural plan was ingenious, though laden with risks. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed the structure around a buttressed core system; the tripod-shaped core twists as it rises to add strength and, according to structural engineers, to aid stability when high-speed winds whip the top. The project team had to navigate their own twists after breaking ground in 2004: For example, the 106-degree Fahrenheit (41-degree Celsius) summer heat meant that the concrete had to be mixed with ice and poured at night to ensure it would set properly. Moving what turned out to be 330,000 cubic meters (87.2 million gallons) of concrete into the sky required first engineering a new high-pressure concrete pumping and filtration system.

As if the audacious plans weren’t difficult enough, the global financial markets tanked in 2008, hitting Dubai’s real estate sector especially hard and threatening the project’s funding. To stay on pace, Dubai’s leaders brokered tens of billions of U.S. dollars in emergency loans from Abu Dhabi. The skyscraper was renamed in honor of Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates.

Finally, after 22 million people hours, the Burj Khalifa opened in 2010, nine months late and more than US$600 million over the original budget. The building became an instant global icon, the cloud-skimming centerpiece in Dubai’s ongoing effort to stake a claim as a global leader.