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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

There is a mock roller coaster on top of Dubailand's headquarters out in the desert—justifiably, for the success of this multibillion-dollar project, more than that of all the others before it, may well have its ups and downs and could determine the future of Dubai. Soon, too, the tallest building in the world, a slender needle of daunting grace called Burj Dubai, or Dubai Tower, will go up here, in a bold but not necessarily accurate assertion of Dubai's world preeminence.

At 160 stories (and twice the height of the Empire State Building), the Burj Dubai will dominate a skyline that is already famously postmodern. As you drive down Sheikh Zayed Road, flanked by skyscrapers of unimaginable design and exotic materials, you see dark, stylish publicity banners for the future tower flapping from the streetlights. One after another, the banners proclaim: BURJ DUBAI—HISTORY RISING.

We're on a little motorboat off the coast, zipping through the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. The sky is a pure blue, and we're making good time. Out here on the water, you'd expect to be on a fishing or diving expedition or shipping goods up to Bahrain or farther, to the far end of the Gulf: Iran. But, no, this is Dubai, and we're skimming the surface, looking at real estate.

I'm with Benedict Fisher, of Nakheel, a quasi-governmental Dubaian development company with many large projects in the works. If you examine Nakheel's corporate structure, you will find, at the top, Sheikh Mohammed. Sheikh Mo—as he is cheerfully known to the expatriates who, including construction workers, make up almost 90 percent of the Dubaian population—is at the top of all development here, because his family, like that of an old-fashioned monarch, owns the emirate. After years as defense minister with a personal, unofficial portfolio as tourism chieftain, Sheikh Mohammed took over early this year in the wake of the sudden death of his elder brother Maktoum. His title is emir, roughly translated as "prince."

Fisher and I are now navigating the inlet between Fronds H and J, of the Palm Jumeirah, a palm tree–shaped, man-made island encircled by a sea breach. On the fronds, elaborate empty pastel house sits next to elaborate empty pastel house—each with a two-car garage. One house ends and another begins without much space in between; because of their narrow configuration, the fronds don't allow for much of a garden. Yet the names of all of the house designs include the word garden: the Central Rotunda Mediterranean Garden home; the Garden Gallery Arabic Garden home; the Atrium Entry Santa Fe Garden home.

The Palm is not a natural land mass; no geological activity over the aeons slowly rumbled it into existence. Instead, it is a place that was created by the people at Nakheel a few years ago, as they dreamed up new schemes for reaping profits from Dubai's real estate boom. It's an imaginary beachfront made real out of sand dredged up from the bottom of the sea, and it kicks out into the Gulf  like a developer's ocean-view hallucination.

Now that the earth has been moved and put in place, there are construction sites all over the Palm and 12,000 workers building houses, hotels, and condominiums. Laborers are shipped onto the Palm daily from distant work camps, where most reside. It's more efficient to ship them in than to bus them, which gives you an idea of how bad traffic is going to be on the Palm's slender highway once the island is inhabited. Imagining it is one thing: artists' versions of Nakheel's and other Dubaian projects provide the kinds of spectacular visual pleasures—in still or DVD form—that can be found in Japanese anime landscapes. But on the ground, the reality is often more complicated and less gorgeous.

From a distance, Fisher and I can see dust rising up from the trunk of the Palm as the work continues. The frames of high-rises are already visible along the shore, encircled by cranes. (A quarter of all of the world's construction cranes are, apparently, now located in Dubai.) Not surprisingly, development magnate Donald Trump has rushed into Dubai's building bonanza; his Trump International Hotel & Tower is to be a centerpiece of the Palm. Another will be a 1,500-room Atlantis resort, with an extravagant water park.

"This Palm is already sold out," Fisher tells me. But not to worry: two more Palm developments, also jutting into the Gulf, are in the works.

There is a huge amount of money in the Arab world, with few stable places to go, Fisher points out, and Arab businessmen searching for an investment in a nearby, Arabic-speaking environment look to Dubai, where money can be sunk into a cornucopia of attractive projects. The promotional materials for Nakheel's big real estate projects are less about your dream house than they are about your dream investment.

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