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See the Future in Dubai

Martha Camarillo In the lobby of the Burj Al Arab hotel, in Dubai.

Photo: Martha Camarillo

In Dubai, for a couple million dollars, you can own a house on the frond of a palm tree. You can buy France, all of it, and then live there, alone if you like. In this small city in a tiny emirate on a spit of land that spikes out into the Persian Gulf, there are 10 supersized shopping malls and others still under construction, each larger and more grandiose than the next: one roughly duplicates the Taj Mahal and Beijing's Forbidden City; another has a black-diamond ski slope in it. Here in Dubai, you can take a submarine elevator down to a restaurant where a discontented shark in a huge aquarium keeps a watchful eye on your dish of foie gras. One hotel looks like a boat, another like a sail. Soon to be built: the world's first underwater resort, the world's tallest building.

I'm a hard-boiled traveler—skeptical and not easily impressed. I'm used to feeling a certain degree of distance wherever I go, and though I'm often filled with wonder and delight in the course of my travels, I rarely feel surprise or cold shock. But Dubai hit me with a thud. It's like another world—not the Arab world and not the Western world. The sheer amount of material, money, and labor that is gathered here is both menacing and exciting. It's the first place I've heard the word architecting used like lawyering, a noun becoming a verb. The scale and volume of construction dwarfs humanity—looking up at the rising skyline from any given intersection, you feel a rush of sci-fi vertigo.

All around, things are going up: the skeleton of the future is already visible in Dubai—stretching out into the sea or rising high into the air—the future with its girders and joists and concrete waiting to be poured, trucks at its feet and cranes surrounding it like bent-backed, worried nannies. On the earth below, people of all nations go about their business, pursuing their amusements and vices, each in his own particular style: Russian, Indian, Saudi, British. But don't be fooled—Dubai is no melting pot, although it is relentlessly international. It's run on an ethnic caste system: among the castes, you might say with some accuracy that the Russians run illicit activities, the Lebanese are clerks and assistants and middlemen, the Indians and Sri Lankans do the manual labor, the Saudis make investments, and the British are tourists (of course, there is some blur among the groups).

Dubai today is a series of parallel universes, and the population of each group is under the impression that it has come here of its own free will to do its own thing. Wrong. The only universe that really matters here is the one that's run by Dubai's sheikhs—and that one encompasses all the others. The sheikhs are the puppet masters, architecting a new capital of the world—Rome for the 21st century.

The great controversy this past year over whether Dubai Ports World was to be allowed to run major operations at several of the largest harbors in the United States put Dubai in the Western spotlight for the first time. Dubai was the Bush administration's best example of what an Arab country could be: business-oriented, stable, and friendly. But the Dubai Ports arrangement made many in Congress nervous, and the deal was scuttled. Dubai was open to the West, but it was also an international banking center through which most of the money that financed the 9/11 attacks had passed. And with $15 billion in foreign investments, an economy growing at 16 percent a year, the emirate's ambition is naked.

Dubai's oil is not limitless—the place has far smaller reserves than its fellow emirate Abu Dhabi, so the sheikhs of Dubai decided that real-estate investment and finance, mixed with a serious emphasis on resort tourism, would result in an economic boom—and they were right. But Dubaian tourism is not just any tourism, not tourism as we know it, but a souped-up, revved-up, va-va-voom tourism that wants to attract weekend visitors, weeklong vacationers, and second-homers too. The target of Dubai's Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing is not just what's known by developers as "the three-hour perimeter"—a circle with Dubai at the center and the circumference drawn a three-hour's flight away, encompassing almost the entire Middle East. The long view of Dubai's tourism impresarios is global; already, more of Dubai's gross domestic product comes from tourism than from oil.

And the projects of Dubai's developers would make Barnum & Bailey blush. They're of an implausible, gargantuan size. In 10 years, there is to be a 100-square-mile development adjoining Dubai City called Dubailand that is to double the current size of the capital—which has already tripled in size from what it was 20 years ago. According to the investment literature, Dubailand is to include Aviation World, Astrolab Resort, Space & Science World, Extreme Sports World, the Plantation Equestrian & Polo Club, Dubai Autodrome, Pet Land, Safari Park, Dubai Outlet City, Teen World, Virtual Games World, and—"tying [together] all Dubailand worlds"—the City of Arabia.

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