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Backstory: Dubai's mirage – having it all

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 2007



DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

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.

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"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?

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.

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