Shuffling through Dubai International Airport with a head full of unfounded apprehension, my nervousness quickly evaporated, quite literally, when I stepped outside. It was May in Dubai, early morning, and I was boiling in 105 degrees of desert heat.
Spotting our pickup (a tasteful, black Audi), we jumped in and were promptly handed cold towels and bottles of water by our driver from the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. As we sped off, my nerves began to settle as familiar stores like Ace Hardware passed by, and I began to quickly see what all the hoopla concerning Dubai was about. Cranes and new development as far as the eye could see sprouted from the desert landscape. Immediately I imagined Las Vegas 50 years ago, with hotels and casinos springing from sand. Casinos are prohibited in Dubai, but hotels are most certainly not.
To understand Dubai is to first know its history. Before 1970, Dubai was a small trading city next to Saudi Arabia and across the Persian Gulf from Iran. But in 1966, oil was found—leading to an influx of Indians and Pakistanis, which over a seven-year span, grew Dubai's population by more than 300 percent, according to some estimates. In 1971, Dubai and five other emirates, including Abu Dhabi, formed the United Arab Emirates, uniforming many things such as adopting the diraham as the currency.
Dubai has been ruled since 1833 by the Al Maktoum dynasty, and its current head is Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, who is also the prime minister of the UAE. The Sheikh has a reputation for being outgoing and extroverted, and is often seen in public without bodyguards, consorting with common folk. His love for horse racing is also well documented, as is his astute business sense.
It is widely believed that Dubai's oil reserves will dry up by 2016, which would adversely affect the Emirate's yearly revenues. Anticipating the loss of his cash crop, Sheikh Mohammed got to thinking about what could replace it. The answer: Tourism.
Three Islands and The World
Since 2000, Dubai has become a hotbed of investment, especially from private real estate groups. The hotel and resort development is a major part of Dubai's commitment to bolster tourism. What Dubai is building is as impressive as how much.
For example, take the Palm Islands: Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira. These man-made islands are reclamation projects that add more beach area and additional space for hotel projects. The islands are called "Palms" because the rock and sand is shaped to form the outline of a palm tree. Work began on Palm Jumeirah in 2001 and was completed in about seven years. By the end of 2009, more than 30 hotels will have opened on the island alone, from Atlantis, The Palm to a Trump International Hotel & Tower. The island will also be the final resting place for the Queen Elizabeth 2, which is in the process of being transformed into a floating hotel.
Dubai now boasts the world's tallest free-standing hotel, the Burj Al Arab, and the world's tallest building, the Burj Dubai (burj means "tower"). The nation is also embarking on a project that sounds as ludicrous as it does amazing. The World Islands, or The World, is a man-made archipelago of 300 islands constructed in the shape of a world map and located 2.5 miles off the coast of Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed conceived the project, as he did The Palms.
This past January, it was reported that 60 percent of the islands had been purchased, with uncorroborated reports that islands were purchased by many celebrities, from soccer star David Beckham and his wife Victoria (aka "Posh Spice") to singer Rod Stewart.
Spices and Gold
Much of Dubai is about luxury and its attainment. Most of the city's nightlife takes place behind the opulent hotel facades, in the chic bars and lounges and haute restaurants. The best of these is Al Mahara, the flagship restaurant of the Burj Al Arab that conveys guests to the dining room to the restaurant via a lift outfitted like a submarine. The experience is cheesy, yes, but cheesy can be fun.
Dubai, however, isn't just for the affluent. There is still a side that is unequivocally Arabic in culture, history and hospitality. One of the better activities is trolling the souks, or markets, for popular items such as gold and spices. The souks are great to visit and you can get some good deals, often by haggling over the price, a commonly accepted practice. The gold and spice souks are adjacent to each other in the city area of Deira, and easily accessible along Dubai Creek via abras, wooden boats that are used as water taxis and cost a drop in the hat to ride. It takes just about 10 minutes to cross between Deira and the other side of the creek, Bur Dubai. Dubai is also in the midst of implementing a citywide Metro service that will be completed by September 2009. In the meantime, there is bus service that offers air-conditioned bus stops.
But Dubai can certainly be expensive. In fact, one U.S. dollar equals around 3.67 dirhams, the UAE's universal currency. (You will see it represented as AED.) Don't be surprised by your bar tab, especially that $50 glass of champagne.
Dubai is quickly becoming a working model of Middle Eastern and Western confluence. It's not unusual to sit down in any hotel lobby and see a woman dressed in an abaya, standing next to a German businessman in a three-piece power suit, flashing a chunky gold Rolex while shouting on a cell phone.
Without a doubt, Dubai will continue to grow as a tourist haven as well as lure North American business with the enticement of special economic free zones that make setting up shop there a financial snap.