Desert Dynamo

Glittering by the Gulf, United Arab Emirates powers its 'consumer culture' into overdrive

The mall scene would be familiar to most Americans: children shrieking as they dig into McDonald's lunches, then tracking off across the cola-sticky floor to "Magic City."

They are drawn to the flashing lights and beeping of countless video games and carnival rides, where a minitrain packed with kids cuts through the chaos and disappears into a "cave" made up like a Robinson Crusoe fantasy.

They emerge again into this brilliant, multicolored world, where a huge screen shimmers with music videos and adds to the noise.

It could be any mall in New Jersey, complete with JC Penney, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Levi's store. Expensive watches and designer clothing labels - even designer Arab dresses - sweeten the Western buying style.

But this monument to mammon is thousands of miles from US shores and one of dozens that cater to the lavish lifestyle of the United Arab Emirates.

In the once-bleak desert, where the per capita income is one of the highest in the world, spending money and easy consumerism in air-conditioned malls have become a way of life. From world records to world-class sporting events in the backyard, anything seems possible with money in this oil-rich land.

Foreign workers clean away cola slicks almost as soon as they develop, and weary parents take a break from the cacophony by answering beeper messages with their mobile phones. Some women wear veils and long black gowns; others reveal far more.

Outside, two new, four-wheel-drive off-road vehicles are wrapped like Christmas presents to be given away in a raffle, but so many have been handed out recently that their market price has dropped.

The UAE has long had a reputation for cosmopolitan behavior and deep pockets. But its spending habits - and a national proclivity for the "big" gesture - scaled new heights in December during celebrations to mark its quarter century of independence.

No expense was spared to ensure that the UAE birthday party would make the history books. Ten million lights were strung up in the capital, Abu Dhabi, and some 4,000 fireworks shells - twice as many as normally light up the Fourth of July shindig in Washington, according to one American diplomat - entertained awestruck spectators.

The largest cake in the world stretched its 69-ton mass for 1-1/2 miles through the streets, crushing the tables it was laid upon. It disappeared within minutes - before it could be auctioned off for charity, as planned - when rumors swept the crowd that hidden inside was the key to a new car.

A 1,200-yard UAE flag was paraded through the streets, and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the UAE ruler since independence in 1971, was presented with the largest bouquet of flowers - 45 square yards - ever assembled.

"They want to put this place on the map, and they are doing that all right," says one US-educated foreign worker.

That aim is even more evident in the commitment of Dubai, the most business-oriented of the seven emirates, to bring world-class sporting events to the country. Big-purse events such as the $1 million Desert Classic golf tournament and $1 million Dubai tennis open attract big-name sports celebrities.

The state-of-the-art $5.5 million tennis stadium was completed in just six months; the golf club is one of the rare green grass spreads in the region. Every blade of heat-resistant turf was airfreighted in special containers in 1988 from Tifton, Ga. It is kept lush by millions of gallons of desalinated water.

World championship Hobie Cat sailing and speedboat championships have also been held here. The $4 million World Cup - the richest horse race in the world, rained out this March - has confirmed the position of Dubai and that of its ruling al-Maktoum family in the world of horse racing.

Horses are flown in from around the world, treated to bottled water and their choice of imported custom-blended feeds. White-pine wood chips are made from logs shipped from Finland; straw is brought from Australia on a chartered plane. Air-conditioned stables are, of course, de rigueur.

For those who find the glitzy, frenetic pace of consumerism in the Emirates too damaging to their health, there are solutions similar to those found in Western societies.

Advertised prominently in the local papers are dark-eye-circle treatments, solutions for hair loss, and "miracle" slimming soap.

The driving force is the same here - just as in New Jersey malls - and is evident in one gilt symbol bolted to a glittering high-rise in Abu Dhabi: an Uncle Scrooge-style dollar sign.

ABCs of the UAE

Area: 30,000 square miles

US state of comparable size: Maine

Population (1995): 2,377,700

Principal religion: Sunni Muslim

Official language: Arabic

Gained independence: Dec. 2, 1971

Monetary unit: Dirham (3.67 to $1)

Per capita GNP: $22,417 (compared with $24,750 for the United States)

The United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ajman, and Fujairah) grew out of Trucial Oman (or the Trucial States). The seven component sheikhdoms were under British protection, though largely autonomous.

r Oil: First discovered offshore 1958, onshore 1960. As of January 1995 the UAE's proven recoverable reserves of oil were 99.6 billion barrels, or nearly 10 percent of world reserves.

r Water: Sixty to 70 percent desalinated. First plant (1960) produced 12,500 gallons per day; rate projected by 2015: 60 million gallons.

r Government: The highest federal body is the Supreme Council of rulers (hereditary rulers of the emirates, each an absolute monarch in his own domain). The Supreme Council elects a president and vice president from its own ranks. The president appoints a prime minister and Federal Council of Ministers. Legislature is the Federal National Council, whose 40 members are appointed for two-year terms by the emirates, and which considers laws proposed by the Council of Ministers.

Sources: UAE Yearbook, Europa World Yearbook, The World Almanac

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