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Dubai: Oasis Rises in the Desert


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.

Shattering records is the mantra these days as this Arabian field of dreams aspires to become the top tourist destination in the world.

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.

Always 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 license plates?

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 Island-sized Dubai.

"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."

As 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 years.

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 more vacationers.

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 building history."

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 all.

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.

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.


Photo by Rashid Shah ....

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, Lebanese.

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 apricot scented.

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 trade.

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 glamour.

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 East.

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