By Veronica Gould Stoddart, USA TODAY
DUBAI, 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.
records is the mantra these days as this Arabian field
of dreams aspires to become the top tourist destination
in the world.
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.
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
a full house
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.
you see now is nothing compared to what's to come,"
he says, pointing to a crane-speckled skyline.
it any wonder that Dubai's proud icon, the Burj Al Arab
hotel, is a glitzy, gilded sail-shaped fantasy that
even adorns license plates?
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 Island-sized Dubai.
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."
all accelerating around here," says Arkansan Mona
Hauser, who owns the XVA art gallery and B&B and
has lived here 14 years.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 more vacationers.
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.
amid diversity, for real
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 building
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 all.
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.
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.
Photo by Rashid Shah ....
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, Lebanese.
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 apricot scented.
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 trade.
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 glamour.
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.
culture is being lost, so this tour shows some of that,"
says Indian guide Prejit Sebastian, who has grown up
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.
that child just might be leading the way to a new Middle