The flat-topped pyramid will be 492ft high, just taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza and three times the height of Nelson’s Column.
It is intended to be a landmark for Abu Dhabi – despite being 100 miles from the city itself – in the same way the pyramids are for Egypt and the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, with two million visitors expected annually.
Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude first envisaged the project 30 years ago, after being inspired by the colourful sands of the desert but its completion has been delayed by various conflicts in the region.
The Mastaba chimes with Abu Dhabi’s latest ambition to turn itself into a centre of art and culture.
The emirate’s rulers have approved a site near Liwa oasis, in the south-east of the United Arab Emirates close to the border with Oman.
The region is home to some of the highest sand dunes in the middle-east and the yellow and red colours in the sand have inspired the design.
Christo said: ‘When the sun rises, the vertical wall will become almost full of gold.’
The Bulgarian-born artist, 74, is collaborating with Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed al-Nayhan, the crown prince’s elder brother, with the royal family ‘very excited to realise the project.’
Although Christo hasn’t said whether the ruling family have contributed financially towards it, he said it had mainly been financed ‘independently’ and through sales of his work.
He denied that choosing oil barrels to build the structure was a comment on the region’s chief source of wealth and stressed that his idea was not born out of economic or political events, just ‘joy and beauty.’
It has been inspired by Islamic architecture, with Christo saying: ‘When Louis XIV was building that kitschy castle Versailles, the greatest architecture in the Middle East had incredible simplicity… and play with colours.’
Construction of the Mastaba will take 30 months, with hundreds of people involved. A German company has been commissioned to supply the coloured barrels.
A nearby ‘art campus’ will include an exhibition on the project, as well as housing a luxury hotel and restaurant.
Christo, born Christo Javacheff, is best known for wrapping everyday items including bottles and chairs in sheets or tarpaulin.
He famously wrapped the Reichstag, the German government building in Berlin, and the Pont-Neuf Bridge in Paris in fabric.
His ‘Umbrellas’ project, between 1984 and 1991, involved setting up 3,000 umbrellas along highways in Japan and the United States.