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Gulf Dream

A few miles off the coast of dubai, the launch from the mainland cuts its engines and bumps against the landing, allowing me to clamber onto the rocks and scan the surroundings. It is an unprepossessing setting, little more than a breakwater of rock and concrete running out to the sea. Yet in a way, disembarking on this piece of land is as remarkable as setting foot on the moon. For here, surrounded by the clear, blue-green waters of an a few miles off the coast of dubai, the launch from the mainland cuts its engines and bumps against the landing, allowing me to clamber onto the rocks and scan the surroundings. It is an unprepossessing setting, little more than a breakwater of rock and concrete running out to the sea. Yet in a way, disembarking on this piece of land is as remarkable as setting foot on the moon. For here, surrounded by the clear, blue-green waters of an ancient harbor, a new paradise is taking shape.
 
All around, rubble is being sculpted into a series of islands, the largest such man-made formations in history. When viewed from aloft, explains the young lady who is my guide, the islands will form the silhouette of a palm tree 4 miles across. Already, she says, enough concrete and rock has been poured to build a 10-foot-high and 3-foot-wide wall around the world. When completed in 2005, the development—aptly named the Palm, Jumeirah—will offer a haven of lavish vacation homes, hotels, apartments, clubs, and spas. A twin palm nearby—the Palm, Jebel Ali—will feature restaurants, theaters, and shopping malls.
 
Even more impressive is the offshore development that will follow: the World. Set for completion in 2008, the World will be larger, more spectacular, and even more exclusive than the Palms. Accessible only by air or water, it will comprise some 300 privately owned islands in the shapes of the countries of the world—each covering an area of 250,000 to 900,000 square feet (6 to 20 acres)—that together form a map of the globe measuring 5 miles long and 4 wide. What might you do with one of these islands? Why, whatever your heart desires, explains the guide. You could build a tropical retreat, open a nightclub in the style of Havana in the 1950s, even create a miniature replica of Scotland. About the only thing you would be discouraged from doing is declaring your patch in the ocean a sovereign nation with its own laws and army. Otherwise, there will be no limits.


As if the prospect of reigning over your own island domain were not tempting enough, there is the weather; the skies over the United Arab Emirates, which include Dubai and six other sheikhdoms, are invariably cloudless, and the water is perfect for sailing and waterskiing. Typhoonsa few miles off the coast of dubai, the launch from the mainland cuts its engines and bumps against the landing, allowing me to clamber onto the rocks and scan the surroundings. It is an unprepossessing setting, little more than a breakwater of rock and concrete running out to the sea. Yet in a way, disembarking on this piece of land is as remarkable as setting foot on the moon. For here, surrounded by the clear, blue-green waters of an a few miles off the coast of dubai, the launch from the mainland cuts its engines and bumps against the landing, allowing me to clamber onto the rocks and scan the surroundings. It is an unprepossessing setting, little more than a breakwater of rock and concrete running out to the sea. Yet in a way, disembarking on this piece of land is as remarkable as setting foot on the moon. For here, surrounded by the clear, blue-green waters of an ancient harbor, a new paradise is taking shape.
 
All around, rubble is being sculpted into a series of islands, the largest such man-made formations in history. When viewed from aloft, explains the young lady who is my guide, the islands will form the silhouette of a palm tree 4 miles across. Already, she says, enough concrete and rock has been poured to build a 10-foot-high and 3-foot-wide wall around the world. When completed in 2005, the development—aptly named the Palm, Jumeirah—will offer a haven of lavish vacation homes, hotels, apartments, clubs, and spas. A twin palm nearby—the Palm, Jebel Ali—will feature restaurants, theaters, and shopping malls.
 
Even more impressive is the offshore development that will follow: the World. Set for completion in 2008, the World will be larger, more spectacular, and even more exclusive than the Palms. Accessible only by air or water, it will comprise some 300 privately owned islands in the shapes of the countries of the world—each covering an area of 250,000 to 900,000 square feet (6 to 20 acres)—that together form a map of the globe measuring 5 miles long and 4 wide. What might you do with one of these islands? Why, whatever your heart desires, explains the guide. You could build a tropical retreat, open a nightclub in the style of Havana in the 1950s, even create a miniature replica of Scotland. About the only thing you would be discouraged from doing is declaring your patch in the ocean a sovereign nation with its own laws and army. Otherwise, there will be no limits.


As if the prospect of reigning over your own island domain were not tempting enough, there is the weather; the skies over the United Arab Emirates, which include Dubai and six other sheikhdoms, are invariably cloudless, and the water is perfect for sailing and waterskiing. Typhoons and storms hardly ever occur, and only once every 150 years or so have there been 13-foot waves. “It can get hot,” my British-born guide allows, “but compared to Manchester in winter, it’s a no-brainer.” As a clincher, World residents will not have to pay any income tax.

It all sounds wonderful, I agree. Only, I add, there is just one thing: If my geography is correct, somewhere over the watery horizon to the north lies Iran.

Westward, the Emirates share an ill-defined border with Saudi Arabia. Nearer still is Sharjah, Dubai’s more conservative sister state next door, where being caught with a six-pack of beer can make for a bad day. So no matter how inviting the sea, balmy the weather, and spacious the homes, who is going to invest several million dollars in a fantasy island in the middle of the Persian Gulf?

The guide dismisses such concerns with a laugh; nobody worries about those things in Dubai. Prices for the World’s islands have not yet been set, and the developer, Nakheel of Dubai, has not begun accepting applications for ownership, but the company is confident of the demand. Just next door at the Palm, where a 7,000-square-foot home costs upward of $1.5 million, properties have already sold out. In fact, they were snatched up within 72 hours of going on the market. The first tree has yet to rise from the rubble, and already lots on the Palm are being resold for prices 40 percent greater than those that the original buyers paid. As the guide brightly concludes, “In Dubai, your wildest dreams can come true.”


at the very least, Dubai is a place where the improbable takes shape, a political microclimate where white-robed Bedouins preside over a never-never land of lavish resorts, palatial hotels, gleaming skyscrapers, spectacular recreational facilities, and world-class sporting events.
During this week in late March, the superlatives swirl around a horse race, the $16 million Dubai World Cup, the richest meeting in the equine world. Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has invited the elite of the racing world, some 45 sportsmen in all, to his Rhode Island–sized kingdom to compete against his own stable of Thoroughbreds. And, as long as the owners are here, perhaps they can take a look at some of the country’s investment opportunities. It is an attractive offer, as Sheikh Mohammed has flown them, their racehorses, and their trainers to Dubai, where they are being hosted in a style designed to dazzle even the most jaded.
 
Two nights before the race, a caravan of Land Cruisers moved into the desert, where the darkness had taken on an eerie glow. Disembarking amid the dunes, the visitors followed a torchlit path to an encampment of tents, where the early arrivals were reclining on rugs and cushions while quaffing wine and nibbling exotic dishes of chicken, goat, and lamb flavored with fruits and nuts. An abandoned fort stood facing the tents, with camels waiting in front to carry the adventurous across the sands. Lithe young women in gossamer bodices and pantaloons, navels oscillating to the beat of drums, beckoned the visitors to join them in their dance. The effect of the wine, the dancers, and the shadows cast against the towering dunes was seductive; as the night wore on, the party-goers shed their inhibitions and took turns puffing on shishas, water pipes filled with flavored tobaccos. Some sat cross-legged on the sand, while women in burkas painted henna tattoos on their faces, arms, and torsos.

 
The tableau suggested a scene from Arabian antiquity, when the Gulf’s desert tribes lived in tents and traveled by camel or dhow. However raffish, it is an era more recent than the Sheikh’s guests might suspect. Until the discovery of oil in the 1960s, the sheikhdom was much like it had been since the Bronze Age: a backwater port along the trade routes between Mesopotamia and the Orient. That all changed once the oil money began pouring in. Suddenly Dubai was a boomtown, with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.


Despite its prosperity, the emirate might have become just another oil-besotted Gulf state, of little interest to foreigners except expatriate engineers and technicians counting the days until their return home, if not for the fortu-itous intersection of circumstance and resourcefulness. Unlike some of its neighbors, Dubai cannot count on pumping money out of the ground indefinitely; its petroleum reserves will be depleted by 2020. However, Dubai’s former ruler, the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, prepared for the day when the oil wells will run dry.

Sheikh Rashid defied the stereotype of the dogmatic Gulf chieftain. Not only had he studied in England and traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia, he also walked the streets of his own country to solicit the opinions and concerns of his subjects. As one popular anecdote has it, Rashid once stopped his car to help an American change a tire. The tale may be apocryphal, but that hardly matters: None of Dubai’s old hands doubt he would have done so.

Rashid was also a deft politician, and in 1971 he played the key role in forging the United Arab Emirates from Dubai’s alliance with Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ras al-Khaimah, and Fujairah. Realizing that political power was meaningless without the money to back it up, he acceded to Abu Dhabi’s demands to control the national government, as long as he oversaw the country’s finances.


As for the impending depletion of Dubai’s most valuable natural resource, Rashid saw this as an impetus to diversify and attract capital from overseas. To this end he invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build up Dubai’s harbor, making it the largest in the Middle East. In the 1970s, he began building “free zones,” where thousands of foreign-owned corporations now operate tax free. Along the way, Rashid launched a number of social programs, building housing for the poor and providing all of his subjects with free medical care and free college educations.
 
With Mohammed taking charge after Rashid’s death in 1990, Dubai entered the second phase in its evolution. It would no longer be a place only to make money; it would become a destination where visitors would spend money, a cross-cultural pleasure dome. Today the reminders are everywhere that while Dubai’s oil reserves are finite, fantasy is a commodity that need never run out.

Just off Jumeirah Beach, like some titanic, silver-sailed native dhow anchored offshore, looms the city-state’s best-known landmark, the Burj Al Arab hotel. So extravagant that it claims to be the world’s only seven-star hotel, it is also the world’s tallest, with its sail-like structure rising more than 1,000 feet over the ocean’s surface.

Even taller are the Emirate Towers, a pair of slender buildings soaring higher than any others in the Middle East or Europe. Yet soon even these will be dwarfed by the Burj Dubai. Designed by American architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to be the tallest building in the world, its penthouse will sit more than 2,000 feet above the ground—its exact height remains a secret. A shopping mall will sprawl around its base; naturally, it too will be the world’s largest.

Dubai plans to offer a whole new dimension in hospitality with the opening in 2006 of Hydropolis, the world’s first underwater luxury hotel. It will house more than 300 rooms and suites and a submarine bay, and will lie off the coast beneath 60 feet of seawater. Farther inland, developers have embarked on another stupendous project, a $5 billion theme park called Dubailand, where attractions will include a space-exploration center and a dinosaur enclosure.

The Emiris do not play much golf—one imagines the dishdashi wreak havoc with their swing—but golf courses abound, some with unique, indigenous flavor. One, the Nad Al Sheba, is floodlit for play at night. A second, the Dubai Country Club, is an all-sand course. The sand areas that serve as greens have been soaked with oil to allow for putting. A third course, the Montgomerie Dubai, boasts the world’s largest green, a 58,000-square-foot area at the 13th hole that replicates the shape of the United Arab Emirates.
For a change of pace, Dubai offers such winter sports as indoor ice-skating at the Hyatt Regency Dubai, and soon there will be indoor skiing down the snow-covered, 500-yard-long piste at the Souk Al Nakheel, which will also house a replica of an old-fashioned Arab bazaar.

“It’s just like las vegas” is a comment often heard in the bars and hotel lobbies of Dubai. In some respects this is so. Both cities enjoy a desert setting, eye-catching architecture, and tourist traffic from around the world. Like Las Vegas, Dubai has experienced phenomenal growth. Its population has swelled from 20,000 in the 1950s to more than 1 million today, with expatriates representing some 90 percent of its workforce. But in actuality, Dubai is nothing like Las Vegas, a city devoted to a pastime—gambling—that is forbidden here.


Less obvious, perhaps, but no less meaningful are the cultural imperatives that drive each city. Vegas offers a populist interpretation of the classical: the Eiffel Tower standing next to Venice’s Piazza San Marco, with ancient Rome right across the Strip. It is the colossal served up as kitsch. Dubai’s cityscape has more to do with metaphysics than aesthetics. It is Vegas in the abstract, evoking nothing so much as itself with little concern for context. Too often, whether towering above the desert or rising from the sea, the monumental structures intended to be so awe-inspiring come across as merely incongruous. 
 
The Burj Al Arab is a prime example: Both hotel and oversize model sailboat, it resembles neither. One’s first response is not so much “Wow!” but “What on earth is that?” Its builders set it amid the waves simply to show they could. The entrance lies at the end of an unshaded 1,000-foot-long causeway—not a stroll to be undertaken lightly in Dubai’s midday sun. Presuming you make it to the front doors without succumbing to heat exhaustion, you enter a 600-foot-tall atrium, with torpedo-shaped golden columns rising to the ceiling, fluorescent-colored fish swimming in the walls, and oddly rustic, Pennsylvania Dutch–style carpets on the floor. The hotel’s guest suites—all duplexes—are no less idiosyncratic. The two-story panoramic windows afford all the warmth of an airport lounge, while the crushed-velvet couches in the living rooms and the mirrors over the beds in the bedrooms suggest something that even Hugh Hefner would dismiss as garish.

The same sensibility is seen elsewhere in town. One imagines that the main drag through the city—Sheikh Zayed Road—appeared great in the artist’s rendition, with Rolls-Royces and BMWs rocketing past cylindrical high-rise towers along a broad highway: Dubai, City-State of the Future! Viewed in person, however, the vista is barren and uninviting, while the towers, featureless within their iridescent sheathing, add nothing to relieve the sense of emptiness.



A far more engaging aesthetic is evident in traditional structures such as the Royal Mirage hotel, styled along the lines of a domed Arabian palace and surrounded by landscaped gardens. It is not the biggest, the tallest, or the most outrageous of Dubai’s watering places, but for these very reasons, it may be the most luxurious.

It is too soon to say what Dubai will look like 10 years from now, but Sheikh Mohammed is gambling that the rest of the world will want to see it. Construction has begun on a new, $5 billion airport that will be able to accommodate the projected 300-percent increase in air traffic—from 17 million to 51 million passengers per year—by 2015. The Sheikh is spending even more—$26 billion—to acquire 90 new Airbus and Boeing aircraft, some of which will ply the state-owned Emirates Airline’s newly opened, daily nonstop route between Dubai and New York.
 
The Dubai World Cup plays a major role in this plan, both as a way to focus the world’s attention on Dubai and to reinforce the emirate’s status in the affluent equestrian world. “Sheikh Mohammed wants to make this the winter racing capital of the world,” explains Frank Gabriel, executive vice president and racing secretary of Chicago’s Arlington Park, as he makes his way to the grandstand of the Nad Al Sheba racetrack, site of the Dubai event. “They’ve always had the perfect weather for it, and now they’ve built stables for training on the track and condos where owners and trainers can stay while their horses are here.” Judging from the reaction of American owners, this strategy just might succeed. “There’s nothing in the States to compare to this,” says Ty Leatherman of Granada Hills, Calif., who is here with two of his horses, Fleetstreet Dancer, a World Cup entry, and Excessive Pleasure, which is running in the day’s second race. “It’s exciting just to be here. The way they treat the owners is fantastic. They think of every possible detail.”


This year’s race marks the seventh visit for Bill Gallion of Lexington, Ky., whose Hard Buck will run in the fourth race, and the World Cup’s allure has not waned. “This event beats anything I’ve ever seen in the States,” says Gallion. “Everything is top-notch. That’s what Dubai does: They take
the best of everything and put it here."      

The event includes an extra note of tension this year: The U.S. embassy in Abu Dhabi closed three days before the race because of bomb threats. Nonetheless, the show goes on, beginning with a parade of young ladies in stiletto heels, low-cut sundresses, and elaborately feathered chapeaux who are vying for the titles of Best Dressed and Best Hat. The security concerns appear to have waned as visitors stroll unimpeded into the grassy paddock, where they can be photographed as members of the international sporting set while rubbing elbows with jockey Gary Stevens, who appeared in the film Seabiscuit, and Sheikh Mohammed himself.

Given the world-class scale of the race it hosts, Nad Al Sheba is an intimate track, with seating for some 25,000 spectators in the grandstands and upper-level hospitality suites. The dirt track is triangular, with part of the eponymous golf course running through its infield. 

The excitement builds as the racehorses line up for the 2,000-meter main event, which, in its inaugural 1996 running, was won by Cigar, the greatest American racehorse of his time. This year the smart money (because gambling is forbidden, spectators place bets via phone to establishments in Ireland and the U.K.) is split between Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d’Oro. For the latter’s owner, Edmund Gann, this is a revenge race; he had watched Pleasantly Perfect, trained by Richard Mandella, beat his horse to the wire in the Santa Anita Breeders’ Cup just six months earlier.


In this World Cup race, both horses run even for the first 500 meters. Pleasantly Perfect pulls ahead at the 1,000-meter mark, but Medaglia d’Oro takes a seemingly insurmountable lead in the final 150 meters. Remarkably, Pleasantly Perfect rallies with 20 yards to go, besting his rival by less than a length while the spectators yell and pound the rails and hug each other in total abandon.
 
It has been an exciting race, and everyone agrees to return the next year. If they do, they may notice something new on the Dubai skyline. It is not another over-the-top hotel, tower, or inscrutable landmark. Rather, it is a picture of a figure holding a torch 55 stories above Sheikh Zayed Road. Since June, the image of the Statue of Liberty has been replicated on the side of the 21st Century Tower, headquarters of Emirates Airlines. Her message is as commercial as it is inspirational—a reminder of the carrier’s new nonstop service to New York—yet she is also a fitting symbol for what Dubai already has become: a Middle Eastern melting pot.

In typical Dubai style, the image of the statue is monumental, 300 feet taller than the original that stands by Ellis Island. But that’s all right; here, as in New York, she looks just fine. 

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