He is an artist best known for wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin and for siting thousands of coloured umbrellas across valleys in Japan and America.

Now Christo is creating for Abu Dhabi a colossal structure that he claims will be the world's biggest permanent sculpture. Estimated construction costs of US$340 million ($413 million) would also make it the world's most expensive.

A 150m-high, flat-topped pyramid would be taller than St Paul's Cathedral or St Peter's Basilica and would overshadow the Great Pyramid of Giza - creating Abu Dhabi's answer to Egypt's pyramids or Mecca's Kaaba.

The Mastaba, made out of 410,000 multicoloured oil barrels, is planned for what Christo describes as a "spectacularly beautiful" desert landscape, Al Gharbia, 160km from Abu Dhabi city.


Christo said the country's rulers had approved a site near Liwa oasis. The region boasts some of the world's highest dunes, with gazelles among the wildlife. Stacked barrels painted in colours inspired by the yellow and red sands would recreate the visual effect of an Islamic mosaic, he said. "When the sun rises, the vertical wall will become almost full of gold."

It is a project he first envisaged in a series of drawings more than 30 years ago with his wife, Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009. But the Iran-Iraq war was among factors delaying plans.

Christo revived them after being inspired by Abu Dhabi's bid to turn itself into a cultural oasis in the Middle East, with the Louvre museum in Paris opening an outpost, and British architect Norman Foster designing the Zayed National Museum.

He is collaborating on the project with Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed al-Nahyan, representative of the crown prince, his elder brother. He first had to convince the royal family - "and now they're very excited to realise the project," he said.

He claims it is financed "independently"through sales of his works for up to US$10 million and by "different investors".

The Mastaba will be his only permanent large-scale work. The name and geometrical form are inspired by an ancient Mesopotamian mud bench for desert travellers to rest on.

Mastaba's construction will take 30 months and involve hundreds of people.