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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

Fisher and I head through the open waters away from the Palm toward the World, an agglomeration of man-made islands in the shape of a map of the world. "North America is on our left," Fisher tells me, as we bounce along. Places like Japan and South Africa are prime, he says, because they are at the ends of their continents, with an unrestricted view.

At around $2,000 per night, my room at the "seven-star" Burj Al Arab hotel costs about what the foreign workers who built it make in a year. And my room, as the staff at the Burj point out, is the least expensive one available in the hotel—it's a duplex with a panoramic view of the Persian Gulf. You can have your own personal butler come in and arrange aromatherapy for you in the comfort of your own whirlpool. Your butler will unpack for you—there is a special hidden-away area just for luggage storage. There is also, ahem, a giant mirror in the ceiling over the bed.

And I haven't even mentioned how these rooms are decorated: huge amounts of gilt, deep reds and royal blues and bright yellows, velvets and satins and tassels and buttons, patterns in which the preferred shape is a long oval. The furniture in the living-dining area is idiosyncratic, oversized, curved, and elongated, as if designed by the love child of Salvador Dalí and Antoni Gaudí. Moving among my giant chairs to reach the pistachio-and-honey sweets on the coffee table, I feel like a tiny American Alice in an Arabian Wonderland.

One night I put on my very best clothes and go out to Sho Cho, a restaurant, bar, and nightclub at Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa that is the current nightly gathering place for young professional expats in media, fashion, design, advertising, marketing, public relations, tourism, finance, and development. There's a line to get in. I'm with Moody, a former television talk-show producer whose real name is Mohamed Fadel Fahmy. Moody is a misnomer, though; he brings a spirit of good cheer wherever he goes, and everyone is glad to see him—all the sexy girls, the brooding boys.

Dubai is a refuge from the strictures of the rest of the Islamic world, and people come here not just for the business but for the freedom. Here at Sho Cho, the women wear anything but traditional dress. People converse in English. Most of the drinkers and dancers and chatterers at Sho Cho are from Lebanon, but some are Egyptian or Saudi, and some are from Bahrain, Oman, or Europe. There are two German girls who toss their blond manes happily. Moving through the crowd is a cousin of Osama bin Laden's, who has long black hair and a gap between his tobacco-stained front teeth and looks like a French troubadour from the 1950's. Tonight is Sunday, the weekly 1980's night. Sho Cho is playing songs from Thriller. It reminds me that Michael Jackson is right up the Gulf Coast from the place where we are all listening to his music—in Bahrain. He's a friend of Bahrain's sheikh.

The desert's evening air blows cool, even in this hot spot filled with the kinds of people who are building the new Dubai.

Dubai's is a swinging Muslim society. The names and locations of houses of prostitution and red-light districts are well known. At the Cyclone and the Garage, girls and women of many different nationalities are on offer at many different prices—Chinese, Russian, and Ethiopian, each group in its own corner. The lobbies of international tourist hotels are frequented by a higher class of available girls. They wander the vast, twinkling spaces in their diaphanous blouses and chic short skirts or pencil-thin designer jeans, subtly trolling for customers.

Under Dubai's sharia, or Islamic legal code, such vice is frowned upon, but the vice laws are not uniformly monitored or enforced. For many visitors to the emirate, anything goes. But for the 10 percent or so of the population that is actually Dubaian—or nationals, as Dubaians are called here—the draconian alcohol and drug laws of sharia apply (although because Dubai is so rich and so underpopulated, nationals also have First World–style, nationalized health care and receive benefits such as marriage bonuses and starter homes from the emirate). With none of the benefits of nationals, long-term expats who work in Dubai, including the common laborers who've come to build the new skyline, have all the disadvantages, plus more. They are far more worried about morality laws than peripatetic tourists are, because they make their homes and their livings in Dubai, and they all live in fear of the ultimate punishment: deportation.

I've spent a lot of time in the Arab world, and one thing you can say about it is this: It's old. But for cultural reasons, Dubai has very little in the way of Arabian atmosphere from the past. Its population was always nomadic or seagoing, not the kind with long, strong roots. Before the discovery of oil, in 1966, Dubai was a sleepy little fishing hamlet populated by Bedouin tribesmen, boat makers, and pearl divers. Only the sheikhs had automobiles. Britain ran the place. Pearls were then Dubai's primary product—by many accounts, they were the best and most beautiful pearls in the world. Many of the old men you see today, sitting in their white robes and kaffiyehs by Dubai Creek or smoking hookahs near the fish market, started out their lives as pearl divers.

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