Amid Dubai's towering, half-built skyscrapers and profoundly ambitious man-made island developments and over-the-top luxury resort hotels, Amy Wilentz encounters all the contradictions of the postmodern Middle East.

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

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.

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.

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.

I putt-putt across. First, I want to stop off and see the gold souk, which is famous in the Middle East. Gold prices, however, are up, and the souk is suffering; buyers are not coming. All around me, down covered streets and alleyways, gold is glittering and no one is looking. I proceed through curving side streets and wide sunny avenues filled with workers with wheelbarrows and early-morning food shoppers in white dishdashas or black abbayahs, until I come, circuitously, to the fish market, which spreads out wide beneath the shelter of a mosque.

Here is an authentic place: women in chadors with the veil shifted away for better fish-selecting, people shouting in foreign tongues, vendors with fish scales and blood all up their arms. At one stall inside the market I find, crammed side by side, Pakistani crabs, Omani shrimp, Dubai clams, and Iranian golden bass—a veritable piscine counterpart to the mixed population of Dubai.

At Sho Cho, I met one of the people who helped develop the ubiquitous promotional campaign for the new Burj Dubai. He's Egyptian. He doesn't want me to use his name.

"Yeah, 'History Rising,'" he says, laughter in his voice. "And don't forget also, 'The Earth Has a New Centre.'" More cynical laughter. "How about, 'The Address,' with the Burj Dubai behind it?Dubai is a big marketing project—it's not a country, it's a business. Everything here is about being the biggest, the best, the first, the tallest, the only. We wanted to do the things that had never been done before in the region.

"The Burj Dubai will be a landmark, like the Burj Al Arab. Dubai needs as many landmarks as it can get, because it's only a 30-year-old country. This ain't Egypt. There is no real Dubai. We went from the Stone Age, basically, to the discovery of oil. And now we have become what you see. Is it good?" He shrugs. "The world will be the judge of that."

Dubai sometimes seems like the Third World racing to overtake the First. We drive through a hidden, garbage-strewn and dusty neighborhood of undocumented, formerly nomadic Dubaians, who live mostly in shanties and shacks behind the condos and second homes that line the boulevard beyond. They're known as bidoun, which means "without"—without passports, without national identification, without a country. Many are low-level police officers. And then we drive to a residential street of skyscrapers.

I'm eating chicken shwarma with Tabasco sauce from the fast-food place downstairs and sitting with Moody on a vinyl couch in his apartment, watching a documentary he made a few years ago on the drug laws of Dubai. I'm on the 30th floor, and it's very windy up here. Meanwhile, a friend of Moody's has come over to the apartment with a production team; they want to shoot part of a reality-TV show out of Moody's window. The show is called Anatomy of Fear, and the nice producer tells me they've already put a British "aristo–'it' girl type" into a coffin with cockroaches. Now, the producer continues, raising her eyebrows, they're going to bring the girl to the top of a skyscraper across the avenue from Moody's, blindfold her, and let her walk a plank as if (crucial words) the plank were extending out over the roof's edge.

There's something low-budget about the whole setup, and I find myself gazing over at the TV screen, where Moody's documentary has been replaced by Dubai broadcasts. On one station is a serious Arab man in a dishdasha talking to another such fellow. On another channel, smiling Arab women—in super-hyper makeup, their cleavage prominently displayed, their hair long and coiffed—are giggling on an inexplicable, brightly lit game show.

One hot day in the desert that is Dubai, I decide to visit the ski slopes. Moody comes along.

"Isn't this ridiculous?" he says, looking up at the gigantic tin-can ski slope that's attached to the Mall of the Emirates. But we go in anyway, past the workers sitting outside on the curb taking a break from the heat, past the booth advertising apartments above the mall: OWN THE LIFESTYLE OF A LIFETIME. We walk beyond Starbucks to the slopes, passing women in long black abbayahs clutching designer purses. Some of their robes are studded with rhinestones at a hem or sleeve—subtle fashion statements. We arrive at the ski slope entrance.

Kids are coming down a sledding hill on plastic toboggans and rubber tubes; they're all bundled up in pastel-colored snow clothes. A ski lift runs above us. Down the black-diamond slope zip all sorts of skiers, some of the men in white ankle-length dishdashas topped by long snow jackets rented in the complex.

It's as if we were in nature. The snow is wet and real, it's very cold, and on the side of the ski slopes, someone has deftly painted a rather lifelike version of an alpine landscape: pines, snow, rocks. There are visible refrigeration ducts, however, that take away from the realism. I feel the usual Dubai disconnect—it's always "as if" you were somewhere else instead of being in Dubai. The Kempinski hotel chain has just opened up a hotel here that faces the slopes; the view is the big drawing card.

After our visit to the slopes, my feet are a little wet from the snow, and now the sand outside sticks to my sandals. In Dubai you are either walking over fabulous new surfaces—marble and inlaid wood, brilliant pebbles, Arabian tiles, vivid, painted cement—or you're walking on sand, actually on the desert floor where the new Dubai is being built. So I have sand on my feet. The wind feels extra hot, after the bizarre, almost morgue-like chill of Ski Dubai. Out here, evening is falling dully. There's a sandstorm just rising tonight, blowing amid the cranes and the skyscrapers. Moody looks up. I can hear it too—the faint sound of the call to prayer.

As we drive away, I see the image of the Burj Dubai on banner after banner, a needlelike silhouette performing contortions as the vertical flags luff in the yellow wind: HISTORY RISING, HISTORY RISING, HISTORY RISING. The cranes are still moving—night work is easier in the desert, cooler. Down certain streets, you can see that nothing is finished. The pink sands are fading from view with the day's light, as are the pylons for tomorrow's overpasses, iron cable emerging from them like fingers pointing toward the sky. Blank billboards wait by the side of the highway for new mottoes, new promotional themes.

The sky is growing darker, and the fluorescent lights on the minarets of mosques flicker on in shades of white and green. Sheikh Mohammed's likeness gazes out at us equably from the back window of car after car. On both sides of the road, now, skyscrapers are lit and blazing, showing off their baroque shapes, their graduated towers and death-defying walkways, their buttresses and columns in the air, their curves. Far away, in the blue-yellow dusk light, the Burj Al Arab lifts its pale white ghost-lit face to the Gulf's setting sun, looking to the future.

There's no shortage of super-high-gloss hotels, restaurants, shops, spas, nightclubs, and galleries in Dubai— here's a selection. By Marisa Katz


  • A resort with more than 40 bars and restaurants and a large souk.
  • Jumeirah Beach; 877/854-8051 or 971-4/366-8888;; doubles from $806.
  • Over-the-top luxury.
  • Jumeirah Beach; 877/854-8051 or 971-4/301- 7777;; doubles from $1,770.
  • Recently opened near the Dubai Marina, with great views of the city.
  • W. Marina Beach; 800/543-4300 or 971-4/399-8888;; doubles from $640.
  • A desert retreat 45 minutes from the center of town.
  • 877/854-8051 or 971-4/832-6699;; doubles from $355.
  • Set on a 65-acre coastal property and surrounded by lush, blossoming gardens.
  • Jumeirah Beach; 971-4/399-9999;; doubles from $382.
  • Just opened on Dubai Creek, with a modern Moroccan theme.
  • Deira; 800/778-7477 or 971-4/602-1234;; doubles from $380.


Every airy treatment room opens onto a private courtyard with an outdoor rain shower.
Park Hyatt; 971-4/602-1660.

Includes modern European treatments along with a traditional hammam.
One & Only Royal Mirage; 971-4/399-9999.

  • The 26 tropical treatment rooms sit on small islands.
  • Madinat Jumeirah; 971-4/366-6818;

Bars and Restaurants

Lebanese cooking—and the best hummus in Dubai.
Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Sheikh Zayed Rd.; 971-4/319-8760; dinner for two $140.

Relaxed atmosphere, superb Italian food, and a good wine selection.
Hilton Dubai Jumeirah; 971-4/318-2520; dinner for two $125.

Great people-watching, but definitely not the place to get a quiet meal.
Grosvenor House; 971-4/317-6000; dinner for two $215.

Moroccan restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel; live music.
Sheikh Zayed Rd.; 971-4/405-2703; dinner for two $76.

Amazing views.
One & Only Royal Mirage; 971-4/399-9999; drinks for two $22.

Trendy sushi restaurant and nightclub. Located in the Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa.
Jumeirah Beach; 971-4/ 346-1111; dinner for two $55.

British chef Gordon Ramsay's modern European restaurant on Dubai Creek.
Hilton Dubai Creek, Baniyas Rd.; 971-4/227-1111; dinner for two $200.

The city's best Chinese.
Mina A' Salam, Madinat Jumeirah; 971-4/366-3670; dinner for two $136.

Shops and Galleries

  • Contemporary art, with new exhibitions every month. Located on the ninth floor of the Fairmont Hotel.
  • Sheikh Zayed Rd.; 971-4/332-5523;
  • This concept store-gallery holds cutting-edge art shows and performances, and sells casual clothes from young designers.
  • Garden Home Bldg., Oud Metha Rd.; 971-4/336-4100;
  • Only six months old, this marble-bedecked complex houses a good selection of designer labels—and the new Almaz restaurant, by Mourad "Momo" Mazouz.
  • Mall of the Emirates, Sheikh Zayed Rd.; 971-4/409-8888;
  • S*UCE
  • A fashion boutique like no other in Dubai—you can enter directly from the street—with clothes by Middle Eastern designers.
  • Village Mall, Jumeirah Beach; 971-4/344-7270;
  • This gallery also organizes film screenings.
  • 3 Al Quoz; 971-4/341-1367;

The "sheikh of chic" of Kuwait, Majed al-Sabah, enters the Dubai scene with his trademark luxury shopping destination in the Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Sheikh Zayed Rd.; 971-4/330-4555;

Park Hyatt Dubai

Compared to Dubai's flashy skyscraper hotels, the waterfront Park Hyatt Dubai is subtle and diminutive—which is exactly the point. While close to the city center, the 225-room, bright-white compound sits on a quiet stretch of Dubai Creek, sequestered from the streets by acres of gardens, with a stunning (and noiseless) view of Dubai's skyline. A Mediterranean-influenced design subdues the city's harried energy, using low archways and an intimate, candlelit lobby that's more sanctuary than waiting area. The serenity extends to the rooms—outfitted with clean-lined, angular wood furniture, silky fabrics in tones of cream and gold, sculptural objets, freestanding baths, and either balconies or lavish terraces with views over the creek. At the Amara spa, each of the eight treatment rooms has its own private garden; of the five on-site dining options, we like the modern European Traiteur restaurant for its enormous, impressively stocked wine cellar.

One&Only Royal Mirage

A kind of über-Arabian fantasia built in the style of an ancient palace and fortress, the Royal Mirage occupies prime Dubai real estate. The compound of buildings—all vaulted sandstone arches, gleaming columns, and intricate tile work, topped by a gloriously painted dome and mirrored by a palm-lined reflecting pool—sits right on Jumeirah Beach, and is surrounded by 65 acres of gardens. The property includes two main parts: The Palace, with 246 units, and the Arabian Court, with 172 units; both sections have rooms and suites that are plush if rather European in style, with private balconies or terraces overlooking the sea and lushly landscaped gardens. There's also the more exclusive 50-room resort-within-a-resort, the Residence & Spa, which has its own reception, private dining room, and bar, plus the hotel's most spacious and exotically decorated rooms and suites (lots of carved and inlaid wood, elaborate tile work, and silky embroidered fabrics). The eight on-site restaurants range from Moroccan to Asian, and Mediterranean to casual beach side seafood; but wherever you eat, be sure to hit The Rooftop lounge (at the Arabian Court) for pre- or post-prandial cocktails overlooking Palm Island Bay.

Bab Al Shams

Meaning gateway to the sun, Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa is located in the desert outside of the city. The low-rise hotel is only two stories high and resembles a fortress with imposing walls and large doors. The property’s 113 rooms and suites have desert or garden views and chic Arabian décor. The Bab Al Shams offers a plethora of luxury activities and amenities, including the Satori Spa, sunset yoga, camel riding, and falconry. The primary draw here is the secluded location, which has earned the hotel a following among harried locals.

Grosvenor House

A modern hotel in the heart of the buzzing Marina neighborhood, Grosvenor House continues to be the destination of choice for well-heeled residents and visitors alike. Unpretentious by Dubai standards, but nonetheless impressive, the property's two 45-story towers boast some of the most stylish spots in the city, including Pan-Latin fare at Toro Toro and Asian fusion (with a side of serious people watching) at the open-air Siddharta Lounge.

Burj Al Arab

In a city full of opulent hotels, the Burj al Arab is like no other. Located on its own private artificial island, the Burj is constructed like the sail of a boat—and has served as a shimmering symbol of glamour and opulence in Dubai's ever-evolving coastline since its completion in 1999. It's often mistakenly cited as the world's first seven star hotel (even the owner insist it's only five star) but one can hardly blame the world for jumping to such conclusions when the Burj boasts features such as its own helipad, a fleet of Rolls Royces, and a bridge that shoots jet flames to acknowledge the arrival of VIPs.

Al Qasr

This hotel's Lebanese restaurant has outdoor tables overlooking a waterfront resort. Part of the Madinat Jumeirah resort.