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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

Today, the pearls are metaphorical (pearling itself having come to an end in Dubai because of Japanese predominance in the industry). Eighty years ago, the same tribe that runs Dubai now—an old Bedouin clan—owned the land where the pearlers came to trade their wares. Their pearl of great price today is real estate. The modern-day sheikhs are Their Highnesses Mohammed, Hamdan, and Ahmed Maktoum, brothers who are at the top of Dubai's business pyramid.

Pyramid is an apt word, for there is no work being done on earth today that is as pharaonic as the development of Dubai. The building of the new skyline is as close as you can get in the modern world to the culture that erected the pyramids.

You do have the feeling, as you rush around Dubai, that you are in the playground of kings. Travel to the Nad Al Sheba, Dubai's world-class racetrack, and you'll find horses wearing the royal blue colors of Sheikh Mohammed's internationally renowned Godolphin stables, as well as the nearby stables themselves, with a swimming pool for the horses. Head along the highway and you'll see, off in the distance down a long, wide, security-monitored boulevard, a huge palace that belongs to the sheikh. Drive out to the desert and you'll end up at Bab Al Shams, a sandy resort built to Sheikh Mohammed's specifications; according to local lore, the sheikh wanted a getaway near his country home, where he lives with his new wife, Princess Haya, the horse-loving, professional show jumper daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan. In Dubai and the six other small states that make up the United Arab Emirates, the sheikhs make only the tiniest of bows to democracy. Dubai is as old-fashioned a kingdom as there exists in the world today. The Federal Supreme Council, the UAE's executive governing body, consists of only the seven emirs of the seven emirates.

You can find Old Dubai in one spot in the city: the museum.

Moody and I went to visit it. Housed in an old fortress, the Dubai Museum is one of the spots in town that Moody doesn't love. Many expats (Moody is from Egypt) have this attitude toward their new home: they want to be here, but Dubai's mad pace, its overdevelopment, the lack of the kind of context and history that you would find in Lebanon or Egypt or any other place, and its (so far) stunning success make them despise it and envy it too. Moody looks at the museum exhibits, but he also kicks at the sand in the courtyard, irritated and bored.

I'm fascinated, because inside the museum lurks everything I've come to expect from an Arab city. WALK THROUGH OLD DUBAI, one exhibit advertises. And so I do, down a low-lit corridor that masquerades as a street. It looks like Cairo! Complete with mannequins of tea hawkers, hookah smokers, spice workers, and carpenters. "Old Dubai" feels ancient. But farther down the street there is a food shop showing that this life-size diorama depicts not the biblical age but a time much closer to our era—the store's shelves are filled with Tide detergent, Libby's canned pineapple, and Carnation condensed milk. We're in the days just before the discovery of oil—this is Dubai in the early 1960's.

Jumeirah Beach Park is known among the locals as Five-Dirham Beach—it's the cheap public beach locals can go to. There are no British tourists here, with their chubby white toddlers and pale, disconsolate teenagers. The entrance to Five-Dirham Beach opens out into a Malik Burger, the Middle Eastern equivalent of Burger King (malik means "king" in Arabic). Although they are going to the beach and the surf breaks not 100 yards away, the women at Malik Burger are dressed in pants and long, long shirts, or in long skirts and kerchiefs, and these are the outfits in which they'll wander through the waves. Men from a variety of home countries cluster together in separate corners at Malik Burger's picnic tables.

Strollers crowd the way down to the sand. Signs are in Russian, Arabic, and English. It's a bring-your-own-towel beach. I walk past a volleyball game in which one man, playing with ferocious intensity, has to pick up his robes to run and position himself to receive. Farther on, a man in the tiniest of Speedo bathing suits is playing a dilatory game of soccer with two young boys. The ruins of the morning's sandcastles lie in magnificent heaps at my feet.

At the end of the beach is a fence covered in thick green netting, with a sign from the Dubai municipality: "Private ladies' club. No entry," it reads. "No swimming, no cameras. Legal action will be taken for not complying with the above instructions."

Peeking through the fence where there is a tear in the material, I see no ladies on the ladies' beach—in fact, no one at all—and beyond the empty ladies' beach, the ubiquitous cranes.

If you don't want to go to the mall or to a hotel resort (and the hotel resorts are magnificent here—Al Qasr, Grosvenor House, the One & Only Royal Mirage—whether Arab-style or haute European or just plain luxurious), there are still a few sights to see, although shopping, not sightseeing, is the real mania of visitors to Dubai. Early one morning I take an abra, an open taxi boat with a canopied seating area in the middle, away from the commercial Dubai-town side of the Creek (Dubai's main commercial port before it was replaced by the modern Jebel Ali docks in 1979). I'm headed to the older Deira side, which has a little more Arabian atmosphere.

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