Backstory: Dubai's mirage – having it all

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The tourist maps here can be confusing. Probably because about three quarters of the landmarks shown on them are nowhere to be found on the actual ground.

"Dubailand (u/c)" and "The World (u/c)" are simply not there. "Dubai Waterfront (u/c)"? Nope. "iPod towers (u/c)"? Huh? "Falcon City (u/c)"? Not a trace.

And while on the subject of confusion, what does that (u/c) stand for, anyway, a visitor may start asking herself?

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Welcome to Dubai, where everything is "under construction."

"This place is unreal," says Irishman David Hackett, who, years ago, did a stint as a construction worker in Las Vegas, building a 540-foot Eiffel Tower replica at the Paris Hotel. "A tower like that, 60 percent life-size" he shakes his head, "would just not be enough here."

On this recent weekday afternoon, Mr. Hackett, a production manager for a multinational construction company, is at the mega Mall of the Emirates, home to the only indoor ski slope in the Middle East.

He's not slaloming down the quarter-mile ski run toward T.G.I. Fridays on this 73-degree F. day, but rather standing in line waiting to get his George Foreman Next Generation Interchangeable Plates Grill. The two-time world heavyweight boxing champion is in town for the weekend to shake customers' hands at the mega hardware store near the women's prayer room.

"The thing about Dubai," explains Hackett, is "they do it big, big ... bigger then anywhere else."

The Eiffel Tower at the planned Dubailand theme park – a $20 billion project that will be three times the size of Manhattan – is, for example, going to be life-size. So are the planned replicas of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Pyramids, and the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal, too? Is that even possible? "Absolutely," says Hackett, inching closer to Big George. "It's on the maps."

And this, as they say, was all desert just a few decades ago.

***

The Maktoum sheikhs – Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, who ruled Dubai from its independence in 1971 until his death in 1990, and his sons Maktoum bin Rashid and Mohammad bin Rashid, aka "Sheikh Mo" and currently Dubai's emir, get much of the credit for the transformation. They realized early on that oil riches were ephemeral and would one day run dry, and they started liberalizing and broadening the economy to attract outsiders.

Almost as fast as you could say, "outrageously bling-bling-tourism is our future," this little fishing port on a creek had been turned into a wonderland of artificial attractions. Soon they had a growth rate bigger than that of China, more tourists than India, and – people here like to quip – more than half of the world's building cranes. They also had growing labor abuse charges (Human Rights Watch reported nearly 900 construction deaths here in 2004), prostitution (the US State Department reports that Dubai's efforts to curtail sex trafficking fall short of "minimum standards"), and looming environmental disasters (man-made islands upset the entire ecology of the western Persian Gulf).

But, regardless, Dubai, one of seven small Persian Gulf emirates that form the United Arab Emirates, has become its own sort of modern Mecca for expatriates, laborers, and tourists making pilgrimage here. Out of a population of 1.2 million, 80 percent are foreigners, and tourism now accounts for almost 20 percent of Dubai's $30 billion GDP – compared with less than 5 percent for oil revenue. Last year, close to 6 million visitors came here – a figure Dubai hopes will rise to 15 million by 2010.

Where do they all stay? Well, there is the Burj Al Arab option. The world's first seven-star hotel, in the shape of a giant billowing sail and covered in Teflon, the Burj features in-room marble staircases, an underwater restaurant reachable by submarine, and white Rolls Royce taxi service to the airport. If you book on TripAdvisor.com, you might get a steal at $2,156 for a simple room. Or, you can go for the rack rate of $13,900 for a suite. Either way, you get to keep the Hermès goodie bag. Andre Agassi and Roger Federer played an exhibition match on the hotel's helipad rooftop a couple of years ago. Apparently it was very nice.

For those hankering to own a pied-à-terre , you could go the David Beckham route and purchase a second home on a fake island in the shape of a palm tree. The Palm Jumeirah was created by dredging out sand and repositioning it in the shape of a date palm tree – complete with a trunk and 17 fronds – on the seafloor. It is almost finished – and filling up with luxury hotels, residential villas and apartments, water theme parks, health spas, and cinemas – and, at $1.2 million a villa, almost sold out.

And what to do while in town? Shopping, maybe? Shopping just happens to be Dubai's forte, with everyone from veiled Saudis to tank- topped Germans joining the mad rush – to the strains ofMuzak to get into the Victoria Secret sales or get a new MP3 player in one of the mega-malls. The recent Dubai Shopping Festival featured late-night shopping specials, carnival performances, Foreman-esque special appearances, a private island lottery (second prize: a private jet), and a whole range of Guinness World Record events.

In fact, breaking records is a national pursuit here. Among those contested in Dubai this year were the world's largest gathering of people reading at one time, longest line of footprints, and largest buffet; also the world's biggest wallet, pillow, inflatable balloon, and spoon. Results were not yet in, but Hisham Nammour, owner of the feng shui stall at the Emirates mall was hopeful. "We always win," he said over a mug of hot chocolate at the après-ski bar. "We excel at breaking records."

And indeed, last year, Dubai broke the record for the largest gathering of people sharing a name (2,500 Mohammads showed up) – leaving previous record-holder Spain (375 Marias) in the dust. Also Dubai put together the largest display of rice dumplings: 23,000 – trouncing dumpling doyen Singapore (13,192 in 1992). And, let's not forget to mention the "Burj Dubai (u/c)" which aims to be the tallest skyscraper in the world. They had a little celebration here last month when the building hit the 100-floor mark – 67 more are apparently on the way.

Meanwhile, in the realm of faux islands, there is a lot happening as well. First of all, there is "The World (u/c)" – a "blank canvas in the azure waters of the Arabian Gulf with endless possibilities," as the website puts it. In normal-speak, this translates into an archipelago of 300 man-made islands, each the size of several city blocks, which, when taken together, make up a map of the world. Fancy owning Italy? It's still up for grabs. Developers aren't purists when it comes to exact world proportions, and island owners, it is promised, can re-shape the planet by "merely moving the sand," to create unique features such as coves and marinas.

And there is also the new palm tree project, known as "Palm Jebel Ali (u/c)," which is going to be 1-1/2 times bigger than Palm Jumeirah and is to be surrounded by houses on stilts that will take the shape of Arabic letters and spell out a poem by Sheikh Mo:

Take wisdom from the wise
Not everyone who rides a horse is a great jockey
It takes a man of great vision to write on water
Great men rise to great challenges.

All of this will be written there, they say, and be visible from space.

Sabir Ali Rehmani owns a small retail business selling simple cloth from Indonesia for the long dishdashs traditionally worn by Arab men here. He has been watching Dubai sprout around him for the past 20 years from his one-room office in the old souk on the creek.

"This is a fantasy land," says Mr. Rehmani, sitting down to a quiet morning cup of sweet Arabic tea. "You forget what is real."

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