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Dubai: Oasis rises in the desert
By Veronica Gould Stoddart, USA TODAY
United Arab Emirates Erupting from the flat, featureless
desert of this Persian Gulf city-state like a space-age mirage
is the tallest building in the world, the Burj Dubai.
It is rising at the rate of a floor a week. Some predict it will
reach half a mile heavenward, but no one knows for sure. The
builders won't reveal its final height for fear of tipping off
would-be competitors and heaven forbid! being trumped. To
ensure its place in the record books, the tower which will
house shops, apartments and a 172-suite Armani hotel when it's
finished next year can be even further elevated in the future.
PHOTO GALLERY: Dubai
Shattering records is the mantra these days as this Arabian
field of dreams aspires to become the top tourist destination in
One of the seven United Arab Emirates, the oil-rich sheikdom is
strutting onto the global stage with all the speed and energy of
its famous Arabian thoroughbreds. Naysayers are not welcome.
Consider that it boasts the world's first indoor black-diamond
ski run (despite the 110-degree outdoor heat), largest gold souk
(with jewelry sold by weight), richest horse race, only
seven-star hotel and more shopping malls per consumer than any
other city in the world.
If that's not enough, developers are racing to build the
planet's largest amusement park (twice the size of Walt Disney
World), largest shopping mall (eat your heart out, Mall of
America), only luxury underwater hotel, first rotating
skyscraper, and offshore artificial islands audaciously shaped
like palm trees and the map of the world. (Rod Stewart
reportedly already snapped up "England.") Not to mention
life-size replicas of world wonders, including the Great Pyramid
of Giza, the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. And a Vegas-style
strip (minus the gambling) where one hotel alone would have
6,500 rooms, making it what else? the largest in the world.
a full house
All these in-your-face trophy projects seem to be working. Dubai
has the highest hotel-occupancy rate in the world at 86%,
tourism official Hamad Mohammed bin Mejren says in his office,
where he's dressed in a traditional white dishdasha. Today's 6.1
million hotel guests, most of them from Europe, the Middle East
and Asia, are projected to reach 15 million in three years. They
will be accommodated by a frenzy of hotel building.
"What you see now is nothing compared to what's to come," he
says, pointing to a crane-speckled skyline.
Is it any wonder that Dubai's proud icon, the Burj Al Arab
hotel, is a glitzy, gilded sail-shaped fantasy that even adorns
The can-do wizard in this sci-fi land of Oz is 57-year-old Sheik
Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum ("Sheik Mo"), the ruler of Rhode
"Sheik Mohammed says that what we have now is only 10% of what
he envisions," says Belgian tour guide Claudine Dierickx. "What
I like is that everything is moving in an upward spiral. I don't
have hours enough to do everything I want to do."
in Shanghai or Singapore, the energy is contagious. Billboards
blare: "Where Tomorrow Lives." "There's no Limit to your
Dreams." "Reinventing the Arabian Enterprise."
"We're all accelerating around here," says Arkansan Mona Hauser,
who owns the XVA art gallery and B&B and has lived here 14
The head-snapping changes can disorient even Dubaians. "The
change is going too fast," says Sultan Al Shanqiti, 29, a
tourism worker at the Heritage Village. "If you leave for a
month, you can't recognize the streets."
Or the L.A.-style traffic that now clogs them, which makes
traversing the Dubai Creek that splits the city harder than
finding litter, graffiti or beggars.
But everyone, it seems, wants his own castle in these sunny
sands. Cirque du Soleil makes its debut this month with an eye
toward a permanent home in the city. Tiger Woods is creating his
signature course and 25-million-square-foot resort community, to
open in late 2009.
Why Dubai? "There are so many landmarks in Dubai. I hope that
one day people will consider this golf course on that scale,"
Woods told the Business Gulf News. And such brand-name hoteliers
as Donald Trump and Sol Kerzner (of Nassau-based Atlantis fame)
have hotels going up on one of the three man-made palm-shaped
islands, The Palm Jumeirah. All of its 2,000 villas were sold
out pre-construction in just 72 hours.
Not to be outdone, the second palm island, Palm Jebel Ali, will
feature homes on stilts arranged to spell out a poem by Sheik
Mo. And the third, Palm Deira, will cover an area larger than
Manhattan. (Waterfront properties sell for $7 million to $30
million.) Together with The World, these archipelagos will
double Dubai's 25-mile coastline, providing more beachfront for
Cruise lines, too, are lining up. Costa just became the first
major line to base a ship here for an entire season. And the
Queen Mary 2 and others are starting to call.
Unity amid diversity, for real
With 180 nationalities making up 80% of Dubai's 1.4 million
residents, it's a Tower of Babel with money as the lingua
franca. Yet it's remarkably strife-free, an improbable oasis of
peace and prosperity in a troubled region. "People accept and
respect each other," says Mia Hedman, a Swede with the Jumeirah
hotels. "Everyone feels part of the development here, part of
Catholic priests pray for the ruling family. European expats
break the Ramadan fast with Arab friends. And you're as likely
to see women in colorful saris or midriff-baring tank tops and
jeans as in head-to-toe black abayas often brashly encrusted
with gems and sequins. This is money-is-no-object Dubai, after
Despite the opulence, the 13-square-mile city is one of the
world's safest. "There's nowhere that's a no-go area," says
Lorraine Ludman, a Brit who has lived here 12 years and doesn't
lock her house. Full employment, rigorous security and political
neutrality have shielded Dubai from regional chaos. "There's
speculation that the government pays off al-Qaeda to prevent
terrorism," says Ludman.
In this surreal Ali Baba-meets-Blade Runner world, camel racing
vies with auto racing and falconry with tennis matches on
rooftop helipads. Even a crushed-diamond-and-ruby massage at the
Six Senses Spa doesn't turn heads.
The social scene centers, not surprisingly, on the 46 themed
mega-malls, some of which even have their own magazines. Here
willowy fashionistas in stiletto boots or buxom Russian
prostitutes in clingy miniskirts peruse designer boutiques
alongside traditionally clad Arab couples pushing baby
strollers. Young Emirati men, palming cellphones and worry
beads, survey the parade from cafés. And forget fast-food
burgers and fries. These food courts offer United Nations-worthy
options: Japanese, Indian, Iranian, Turkish, Chinese, Thai,
Partiers dance away their Arabian nights at state-of-the-art
clubs such as Trilogy or The Apartment or Zinc, where they must
be checked off "the list" to enter. Elsewhere, sleek
Lamborghinis dash down eight-lane Sheik Zayed Road, past showy
skyscrapers that tower over the desert like Vegas wannabes. In
this alternate reality, the Burj Al Arab elevators are even
When you've overdosed on excess, head to Bastakiya, a newly
renovated 100-year-old Persian neighborhood with traditional
adobe houses and trademark wind towers. A few have been turned
into galleries and restaurants. Nearby, the Dubai Museum reveals
the history of the sheikdom as a backwater of Bedouins and pearl
divers when oil was discovered in 1966. But with that due to run
out in 10 years, Dubai is banking its future on tourism and
Not much is left of the old Dubai. You can hop a water taxi
across the creek to the textile souk and shop for the finest
silks from Asia. Or the spice souk, where Iranian merchants
peddle saffron, turmeric, coriander, frankincense and cinnamon
in colorful mounds. Or the 300 shops of the gold souk, where
Indian and Arabian women load up on their bridal dowries. Echoes
of the call to prayer in this older part of town remind one that
tradition and religion still hold sway over the glitter and
Tourists also go "dune bashing" in the Dubai Desert Conservation
Reserve, the Middle East's first. The roller-coaster-like jeep
caravan ride ends at a re-created Bedouin tent village, complete
with a belly dancer (Russian, no less), henna-tattoo artists and
sheesha pipe smoking.
"The culture is being lost, so this tour shows some of that,"
says Indian guide Prejit Sebastian, who has grown up here.
Still, in its rush to become Disney on steroids, "Dubai is like
a spoiled child: I see it and I want it," says Caroline Newton,
56, a tourist from Adelaide, Australia.
But that child just might be leading the way to a new Middle