THIS IS THE MOST THOROUGH AND INTERESTING REPORT ON DUBAI THAT I'VE EVER READ...AND NICK TOSCHES IS ONE OF THE BEST LIVING ENGLISH-LANGUAGE WRITERS. ADDITIONALLY, I COULDN'T FIND THIS ON ANY REG-FREE WEB SITE, SO ENJOY.
Dubai's the Limit
In the Persian Gulf, on a not particularly oil-rich piece of desert about the size of Rhode Island, sits the Capitalist Dream on Steroids: Dubai.
Source: Vanity Fair
Publication Date: 06/01/2006
By Nick Tosches
Yes, you may be tired and even a little bit drunk, but, no, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. The big roadside sign you just sped past said what you thought it said:
SORRY FOR INCONVENIENCE-
BINLADIN CONTRACTING GROUP
And, yes, you may be tired and even a little bit drunk as you enter the Cyclone club, wherein await several hundred young ladies priced to sell, but, no, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. That sign you just strolled by said what you thought it said:
NO CAMOUFLAGE IN THE DISCO AREA
In his Surrealist manifesto of 1924, Andre Breton declared, "I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a
surreality, if one may so speak."
Well, Andre, here we are.
The building of this temple of the marriage of dream and reality is so vast an undertaking that it can be truly appreciated only from the sky. It is, in fact, an undertaking that encompasses one of the only man-made constructions that can be seen from outer space, as evinced by nasa photographs taken from the International Space Station.
The temperature is 106 degrees. The door of the helicopter is wide open, and the wind feels good. On the ground, where there is no wind, not even a breeze, but only the wicked heat and glare of the sun, the work goes on. In every direction, as far as the eye can see, there is endless, teeming construction. The shore does not contain it. Arabesques of manufactured islands rise from the blue sea waves. Tens of thousands of men labor down there in that heat and glare, in a congestion of work so dense and so intense that, even from up here, its full scope evades grasp and shakes the mind. As if following blueprints derived from an overlay of medieval translucent-vellum schemas of Dante's "Inferno" and "Paradiso," the panorama is at once hellish and grand, monstrous and marvelous. It is inspiring of awe in the true meaning of that word: a feeling of solemn wonder, tinged with latent fear.
Two-lane roads have become 10-lane highways, and under the noonday sun the traffic is almost at a standstill.
Even the immensity amid the waves, that thing that can be seen from outer space-a palm-tree-shaped structure whose trunk, 17 fronds, and circular sea barriers soon will bear 32 luxury hotels, more than a thousand lavish villas and apartment complexes, and a projected population of more than 70,000 people-even this singular immensity is but a glimmer of all that shimmers in the burning sun. Seventy thousand new people? The least of it.
When that sun turns red and goes down, nothing ceases. The tens of thousands of workers of the day are replaced by tens of thousands of workers of the night. The excavating, damming, and dredging of the sea, the heavy movement of bulldozers, steamrollers and steam shovels, derricks and dump trucks: it is all without end. Lights gleam and glisten on the big cranes and girders, and beautiful risen Venus, the evening star, al-Zuhara, is but a lone, diminished shining above them.
Yes, Andre, who in your conceits envisioned merely words and pictures: Here we are, in a surreal future beyond your aesthete's imagining. It's called Dubai.
Imagine the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Giza, the leaning tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Then imagine them bigger-and all in one place. You're thinking of Falconcity of Wonders.
Falconcity of Wonders is breaking new boundaries with a complete living, working, and leisure environment built around historical monuments, cultures, and civilisations. A world within a city, it is one of the most aweinspiring developments the region has ever seen. It's taking shape now in the desert of Dubai. And it promises to take you beyond history.
These words are from a hardcover folio prospectus, Falconcity: Beyond History, which begins with a quotation from the Metaphysics of Aristotle and ends with floor plans for various styles of villas available to those aspiring to dwell in Falconcity. The six Falconcity "monuments" are described. The Dubai Eiffel Tower Residence will be "taller than its Parisian cousin." The Dubai Grand Taj Mahal Hotel is "rich with the complexity and strong geometry of Islamic architecture." The Dubai Hanging Gardens of Babylon Residence will "cascade down towards the Dubai Eiffel Tower." Larger than the original Great Pyramid of Giza, and with parking facilities for more than 4,600 vehicles-something that Pharaoh Khufu could not boast-the Dubai Grand Pyramid, the "star attraction" at Falconcity, "is planned for hotel, residential, leisure and office use." The Dubai Lighthouse of Alexandria Residence will be situated in a corner of the Pharaoh's Theme Park, near Falcon Mall, not too far from the Valley of the Kings.
Falconcity, sprawling as it is, will occupy but a small part of a larger development: Dubailand, "the most ambitious tourism, leisure and entertainment destination ever created"-a three-billion-square-foot fantasyland. Three billion square feet is more than 68,870 acres, more than 107 square miles; bigger than 52,000 football fields, bigger than two San Franciscos, bigger than four and a half Manhattans, bigger than Disneyland and Disney World combined.
This development will also include Victory Heights, a joint venture between First Islamic Investment Bank and Dubai Sports City, which lies within Dubailand as well: "Active. Calm. Wellness. Memories. Four words that define what Victory Heights is all about." Here awaits the elusive comforting serenity promised by every pharmaceutical and insurance advertisement ever devised. "Elevate your life. Create special memories." And-whoa, get back, Deepak!-"Find your balance."
The supreme well-being of Victory Heights is not to be confused with that of the Fortune Serene community of Fortune Investment Ltd.
"If you have always wanted to live life the Hollywood way, Fortune Serene is where you need to head." Here you will find "peaceful, calm living with a touch of glamour" and "the finest in designer chic." Here you will find "luxury lifestyles at an affordable price!" Here you will find that "Fortune Serene is all that the name suggests and more-luxury apartments in a peaceful location."
The "peaceful location" is "in the environs of International Media Production Zone (IMPZ)." Occupying 43 million square feet, the I.M.P.Z., a part of Dubai Media City, is described as: "Truly, the coming of Hollywood to Dubai!"
And there, near the downtown coast, a couple of miles from Dubailand's western frontier, rising steadily toward the languid white clouds: the Burj Dubai, soon to be the world's tallest building. That distinction has been held since 2003 by Taipei 101, the 101-floor skyscraper in the capital of Taiwan. The spire of the Freedom Tower, at the World Trade Center site in Manhattan, is expected to rise to a symbolic height of 1,776 feet, more than a hundred feet taller than Taipei 101. But the Burj Dubai, scheduled to be completed in 2008, is already designed to reach a height of more than 2,300 feet. It will be the center of what's being called "the most prestigious square kilometre on the planet." The tower itself spires to a pinnacle from a base whose geometry is based on a six-petaled lily, the hymenocallis, native to the deserts of these parts. Before the first level was completed, every residential unit was sold-more than 1,000 of them, in two evenings, by invitation only.
The word burj, from the classical Greek purgos by way of the Syriac boorgaa, is Arabic for "tower." (Our words "burg" and "borough" come from the same source, via late Latin, burgus.) This humble term has found increasing favor among the builders of Dubai's architectural extravagances.
This is otherwise a land of hyperbolic superlatives. It is also a land of onrushing change, in which, with accelerating speed, each new superlative-each new biggest, each new best, each new most-is surpassed by another.
Opened just last fall, the Mall of the Emirates, "the world's first shopping resort," with 6.5 million square feet and 7,000 parking spaces, is already overshadowed. The Dubai Mall, a part of the Burj Dubai complex, promises to be the "world's largest retail development," with parking facilities for 16,000 cars. And, as work progresses on the Dubai Mall, scheduled to open by 2007, it in turn is already overshadowed by the Mall of Arabia, a Dubailand development that will be "the largest mall in the world." Forget the 80-meter indoor ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates: the Dubailand Sunny Mountain Ski Dome, a $272 million, 1.4-million-square-foot project of the 32Group, an international holding company headquartered in Dubai, will feature a revolving ski slope, cable lifts, polar bears, and not just a mountain but a majestic fake snowy mountain range when it opens in 2008.
In winter you can encounter snow not so very far from here, in Oman. But you would have to ascend 10,000 feet to the juniper forests at the summit of Jabal Shams, Arabia's highest mountain. Rugged going, and, besides, that paltry snow is boringly real.
Dubai lies near the Tropic of Cancer, on the Arabian Gulf, or the Persian Gulf, as we call it: one of the seven sheikhdoms that constitute the United Arab Emirates. Dubai is not a big place. The United Arab Emirates occupy an area of 82,800 square kilometers (little more than 32,000 square miles), a geographical trifle among the great territories of the Arabian Peninsula: Oman, Iraq, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Within that geographical trifle, Dubai is an area of not even 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 square miles). This is about the size of Rhode Island, the smallest of the United States. But Rhode Island has a coastline of 400 miles. Dubai's coastline, on the Persian Gulf, is less than 45 miles.
The falcon is a national symbol of the United Arab Emirates. More than horse racing, which is pure sport, falconry represents the old Bedouin way of life, a communion between the nomads of the sand and the nomads of the sky, brought together in the hunt for prey. The desert has lost much of its wildlife. The Arabian leopard, the oryx, the Arabian wolf are all but extinct. The red fox and the deadly sand viper are still out there. And the falcons are out there, too. A prized saker falcon can fetch more than $300,000 among those sheikhs who still pursue falconry. And thus Falconcity of Wonders.
The United Arab Emirates are a major presence in the global oil trade-the emirate of Abu Dhabi alone accounts for almost 8 percent of the world's confirmed oil reserves (92 billion barrels)-but Dubai has never been an oil-rich country. As early as the 1970s its reserves were known to be quite limited, and today oil accounts for 6 percent of Dubai's income. But Dubai no longer needs oil revenues. In 2004 the emirate's G.N.P. grew by 16.7 percent. The accumulated annual growth of Dubai's economy in the last decade comes to 10 percent, among the highest rates of growth in the world.
The region currently has a trade surplus of nearly $26 billion. The United States, by way of comparison, has a trade deficit approaching $800 billion and borrowing from abroad has raised the nation's debt to a record $8.2 trillion. It continues to worsen.
A ruined economy and ruinous politics have, in the land of its birth, turned the dream of mindless capitalism into a nightmare, and many of us see the East through a nightmare haze of fevered delusion.
Which brings us to what Immanuel Kant called the ever elusive fucking point.
And the point is that the dream of the West is coming true. But it is coming true in the East.
The Dubai skyline is like no other. Silhouettes of cities come into being over the course of centuries. Here, where a few buildings rose from the dirt 15 years ago, countless structures now crowd the land and gasp for what space remains. Here there is no sense of accrued form, no sense of architectural strata, no sense of past become present. Here there is no sense, period. It changes every day, every night. Looking out one evening, I see Manhattan. The next night, it's a boundless industrial fantasia, a tenfold Newark-by-the-sea. Then, another night, it is what it is: Dubai, shapeshifting, hammering, and grinding madly, and somehow silently, toward the sun and stars. There is no architectural rhyme, no cohesion of design, no defining style. It is the visual equivalent of a bunch of speed freaks babbling incoherently to one another. Las Vegas is a sputtering 20-watt bulb compared with this fire in the desert. Forget about babbling speed freaks. Forget about everything. This is a skyline on crack.
The Burj Dubai is the flagship project of Emaar Properties. Emaar is the largest real-estate company in the world in terms of market capitalization. The two other major players in Dubai are Nakheel, the makers of the palm tree in the sea that can be seen from outer space, and other, even more ambitious ventures; and Dubai Holding, one of the developers of Dubailand, self-described as "the largest and most holistic Group in the Middle East." All these companies are tied to the royal house. Dubai Holding is in fact an investment arm of the government. Funded in part by private investors, Nakheel is nonetheless government-run. And the government also retains a reported 32.5 percent interest in Emaar, a public joint-stock company. All of them operate in fierce competition, much to the happiness and prosperity of the House of Maktoum.
When I mention the Burj Dubai to an executive of Nakheel, he is silent for a moment. Then comes a sly grin. Then a little heh-heh-heh sort of sound as his grin widens.
"And the moment they finish it," he says, "we'll build higher."
As Emaar reaches for the heavens, Nakheel seems, at present, intent on projects that can be seen from the heavens.
After the first Palm project, the Palm Jumeirah, begun in 2001, came the bigger Palm Jebel Ali, begun in 2002. The bigger Palm will be distinguished by a 12-kilometer (seven-and-a-half-mile) circle of hundreds of water homes rising from the sea on stilts between the fronds and the crescent breakwater. Viewed from above they will form, in seaborne Arabic calligraphy, a wisp of poetry written by Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. The verse translates as: "Take wisdom from the wise.... Not everyone who rides is a jockey." Bigger still will be the Palm Deira, begun in 2004. Three Palm projects-the name Nakheel means "palm" in Arabic-each an immense, incongruous palm tree in the sea, each more monstrous than the last. But the most ambitious of Nakheel's undertakings is the World.
Begun in 2003, the World is a collection of several hundred man-made islands representing regions of the world in their respective continental groups. There are to be private-estate islands, resort islands, community islands, each ranging from 150,000 to 450,000 square feet in size, with about 160 to 330 feet of water separating each island. The World will cover an area of almost five miles in length and more than five miles in width, surrounded by an extravagant landscaped oval breakwater.
The Dubai-born general manager of the World project, Hamza Mustafa, strikes me as a character out of The Arabian Nights. He is a big man in a big white dishdasha and a big white gutra. His big eyes and his big arms and hands move excitedly as he speaks. And everything he says is big.
"Now, say you want to buy an island, a mid-density island. You come to me and be like, 'Hamza, I want to buy an island. I like-' Choose any country."
"Australia." Why did I say that? I hate Australia. I hate the idea of Australia. No matter.
"'I want to buy Australia. I want to buy Adelaide in Australia.' I'm like, 'O.K., Adelaide is 450,000 square feet. It costs $20 million.' I'm like, 'What do you want to build?'"
The buyer can build whatever he likes, but he must observe certain considerations. For example, "we tell him: you can't go more than six stories in an island right in the middle of North America, because you'll destroy everybody's view."
Six percent of the World islands, the most expensive, are reserved for sale as private islands.
"Yeah, this 6 percent are for people who just want to build that island, you know, that house on a private island. Something like what James Bond from Man with the Golden Gun-have you seen it?"
"Something like that. He wants to build something amazing, a private island, whatever he wants."
The World will be completed in 2008. Thirty percent of the islands have already been sold. Rod Stewart is said to have bought Britain for [pounds sterling]19 million (more than $33 million).
The poor nations of the world are not well represented. Who would buy Rwanda? Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt? And there is no Israel. They won't even let you into Dubai if you have an Israeli passport.
(Curious, in this light, that, during the controversy surrounding its proposed takeover of six U.S. ports earlier this year, Dubai Ports World received a wholehearted endorsement from Israel's biggest shipping firm. The Christian and the Jew kill the Arab, the Arab kills the Christian and the Jew, but business is business.)
Overlooking the Persian Gulf from the panoramic windows of al-Muntaha, the restaurant on the 27th floor of the Burj al-Arab hotel, I can see both the Palm Jumeirah and the inchoate World.
It's not the total number of its stories but rather the spacious luxury of its 27 double-height stories of 202 duplex suites that makes the Burj al-Arab the world's tallest hotel. It's also the world's only "seven-star" hotel. Actually, in the real world, there is no such thing as a seven-star hotel. Luc Delafosse, the French hotelier who came to run the Burj al-Arab after years of managing the Ritz in London, tells of a British journalist who came to the Burj al-Arab after its opening, in December 1999. On her return to London, she breathlessly described the Burj as "the world's first seven-star hotel." Mr. Delafosse smiles his gentle smiles and expresses no regret that the phrase gained wide currency.
This is the joint whose facade, fashioned in an unprecedented work of architectural technology from double-skinned Teflon-coated woven glass-fiber screen, looks like a huge wind-filled sail, inspired by the humble single lateen sail of the traditional dhow. A party of Saudi royalty may arrive at the 28th-floor helipad one evening, having flown in with full entourage by private jet from Paris. On the next morning, in the pool, a Russian and an American may be heard to converse boorishly about revenues in the tens of millions of dollars.
"I don't mean to sound stupid or anything, but what is Dubai? Like, is it a state or a country or what?" the American asks.
The Russian doesn't seem to have an answer. His next sentence begins: "First I empty my dick ... "
There are old-school European aristocrats and nouveau riche slobs. Many here have more ass than class. A lot of manatee men and blubbery wives. Waddling Westerners and Arabs of prodigious girth. Fat rich people, simply put. A good-looking British broad lying topless poolside on holy Friday is discreetly taken to task by a female attendant.
There are a lot of great places to eat in Dubai. Traditional Bedouin food-fresh and dried fish, dates, camel milk, and on festal occasions roasted goat or mutton-is nothing to seek out. But modern Dubai has some of the finest Iranian, Moroccan, and Syrian restaurants in the world. The best cooking in the Middle East is Lebanese, and al-Nafoora, a Lebanese restaurant in the Emirates Towers, is said, by people from Lebanon, to be the best outside of Beirut. After a long meal there of a dozen or so remarkable dishes shared among three of us, I will never forget the place. And while the Middle East is a good bet for Middle Eastern food, you can find anything here: Indian, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, and good old American junk food.
But you could eat very well indeed without ever leaving the Burj al-Arab and its five restaurants. Al-Muntaha, seductively sleek and cool and high above the sea, is the classiest restaurant in the hotel. It's not cheap. A 50-gram serving of special Iranian beluga caviar-special not because the best caviar comes from Iran, right across the sea al-Muntaha overlooks, but because the Burj employs its own caviar grader-goes for 3,270 Emirian dirhams, or almost 900 American dollars. The Fin de Claire and Belon oysters are harvested in France and shipped here without ever leaving seawater. My one criticism of al-Muntaha is of the manner in which these oysters are served. As in several chic New York joints, the foot of the oyster, the pied de l'huItre, the delectable white morsel of muscle by which the oyster is attached to its shell, is severed and discarded, and the oysters are then rinsed and returned to their shells before they are brought to table. This procedure kills the oyster, which should be eaten alive, and destroys the true, sea-rich flavor.
This isn't done at al-Mahara, the seafood restaurant at the Burj, where I asked for the best of whatever they had. The oysters, alive and delicious, came with a chilled Manzanilla, the pale-amber Spanish booze that is light, dry, and subtly bitter. A plate of salmon p,te, salmon roe, and roquette spume came with good champagne. Another salmon dish, of sashimi and enoki mushrooms, came with sake. Lobster-tail meat with vegetables and a smear of creamed sweet potatoes came with Chablis. After a smoke, lit in gentlemanly style by the maItre d', and another glass of I-forget-what, there was chocolate fondant, tonka-bean ice cream, and little hazelnut cakes with a glass of sweet Pantelleria.
I ate and drank alone, watching the leopard sharks and reef sharks, the batfish and parrot fish, the unicorn fish and butterfly fish, the big, ugly humphead wrasses and even uglier moray eels in the oval 300,000-liter (80,000-gallon), floor-to-ceiling saltwater tank by which I sat. As at al-Muntaha, the seating arrangement is such that, while it is often necessary to make a dinner reservation days in advance, neither the presence nor the talk of one table intrudes on another: a rare luxury for those used to the restaurants of New York or Paris or just about anywhere else.
During my dinner at al-Mahara a harpist played "My Way." During lunch at al-Muntaha, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by the Temptations was playing.
Early mornings, at the poolside restaurant Bab al-Yam, I took camel milk with my eggs for a while. The Bedouins swear by it. A few of them drink camel urine as well. According to the Hadith-the traditions relating to Muhammad that form a supplement to the Koran called the Sunna (hence the Sunni, the orthodox Muslims who accept the Sunna as of equal authority with the Koran)-the Prophet prescribed drinking camel piss for its medicinal benefits. But the milk, good as it tasted, was hard on my gut, so I didn't try the urine, which wasn't offered at the poolside breakfast anyway.
There was a second luxurious bedroom in my duplex suite, which I didn't even find until after I was there for two nights. Rich woods, lush fabrics, marble, gold everywhere. A goddamn 12-page "pillow menu" at bedside. Heavy curtains and fine voile that opened, by remote control, to floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the sea. A different bottle of wine and silver tray of delicacies brought to the room every afternoon. A private butler. Whatever I wanted. (Well, almost.) I wondered what things were like at the two Royal Suites, on the 25th floor.
Mr. Delafosse likens the hotel to the Ritz of London in 1906: a completely new experience and level of luxury, a defining manner of life and etiquette.
I mention the Ritz Club, located in the Ritz. The Ritz Club is my favorite casino in London. I wonder if there will ever be a Burj al-Arab Club? Islam, after all, isn't preventing many Muslims from drinking, which is also forbidden. Nor does it prevent Islamic banks from effectively practicing usury, which is as strongly prohibited as gambling. When was the last time you met a truly devout monotheist of any brand? I'd always believed that the month-long fasting of Ramadan was an austere period. In Dubai it is more like an extended feast. People eat and drink all night, sleep through most of the sunrise-to-sunset fasting hours, then begin their celebratory excesses anew each evening. What isn't done in public, such as gambling, is done in private, or abroad.
Most places in Dubai, security is light. In fact, Dubai seems worried not at all about security. There is the unforgettable walk-through metal detector festooned with Christmas lights at the York brothel-bar on Khalid bin Waleed Road. But not much else in the way of homeland-security concern is evident.
We must remember that if there is anything that radical Islamic fundamentalism regards with greater enmity than it regards the West itself, it is what Ali Shariati, one of the most influential of Muslim ideologues, called gharbzadegi, a word that translates as Westoxification or Occidentosis: the adoption of Western culture in the Middle East.
Then again, maybe Dubai has the best of all homeland-security programs.
Describing Dubai as "the Middle East's unquestioned financial capital," U.S. News & World Report stated, "From Egypt to Afghanistan, when terrorists and gangsters need a place to meet, to relax, maybe to invest, they head to Dubai." Or, in the words of press material touting Dubai Internet City-a 408-acre technology complex where you'll find Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Compaq, Dell, Siemens, Canon, Sony Ericsson, and the rest-Dubai "has a vast experience in successfully creating and managing free trade zones."
"All roads lead to Dubai when it comes to money," said Patrick Jost, a former senior enforcement officer in the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. A former Treasury Department special agent, John Cassara, has said the same thing: "All roads lead to Dubai."
According to evidence presented by the U.S. commission investigating the September 11 attacks, 11 of the 19 hijackers came to the U.S. via the emirate, taking off from Dubai in groups of two or three and flying to Miami, Orlando, and New York City.
As reported by The New York Times, about half of the attacks' $500,000 budget was wired to the U.S. from Dubai. Al-Qaeda money parked in Dubai has been linked as well to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Dubai has the largest excavated dry docks in the world and a long history as a smugglers' haven. Cargo containers of heroin, gold, and cash are rumored to still move through this huge port complex.
As has come to light, transfers of gold and dollars into Pakistan by Taliban and al-Qaeda couriers in the fall of 2001 were centered in Dubai.
But why maunder on about such things when, as I am about to learn, there is trouble in Dubailand.
Cityscape is the annual commercial-property-investment and development-industry exhibition at the World Trade Centre on Sheikh Zayed Road. As I walk into the first of the enormous exhibition halls of Cityscape, I am greeted by one of the white-robed Binladin boys-the guys from Osama's family's company, who apologized for the inconvenience of their construction-site detour on the Jumeirah Beach Road. He hands me a gold-embossed "Special Invitation" to "come, visit the largest property development at Cityscape." The text is in Arabic with English translation: "It's a pleasure to invite you visit our project Abraj Al Bait (Abdul Aziz endowment for the two Holy cities) in Holy Mecca. Where you can invest or live by purchasing floors, wings, studios facing the Holy Kabbah." An artist's rendering shows the first house of Allah, the house of the holy black stone, dwarfed by a complex of high-rises.
Moving from one Cityscape hall to another, I chance upon the Western City Saloon, which promotes an Arab-Czech American-Wild-West-theme venture called Western City in Dubailand.
"Can't take those!" the little fellow within pleads in a harried Czech accent, placing his hand on the pile of press kits. "Later," he says. Then, by way of explanation:
"There is trouble in Dubailand."
He says it exactly as one might say, "There is trouble in Dodge City."
But Dubailand, which is theoretically 10 minutes from where we stand, doesn't yet exist. The first phase of development, the laying of its roads and other infrastructure, is only just beginning and isn't scheduled for completion until 2010.
Trouble in Dubailand? The little guy in the little Arab-built Czech-style Old West saloon seems sincerely alarmed. Is he on methamphetamine? Has he seen too many cowboy pictures or Gunsmoke reruns? Or has the resolution of dream and reality come so completely to pass? What is real and what is not? The traces of old Dubai have all but vanished, so the Emaar real-estate company decided to create something called the Old Town. When I asked to see it, I was told by a corporate executive that there was really nothing to see. "The Old Town isn't finished yet," he said with a straight face.
I swagger through the swinging doors of the Western City Saloon. In an adjacent hall, life-size mechanical dinosaurs roar in fearsome attestation of Dubailand. Maybe that's what the guy was shook up about. Maybe they didn't see Jurassic Park in the Czech Republic.
Let's pause here and go back a few thousand years. Perspective lends understanding. Let's indulge that notion.
Long ago, even before Rudolph Valentino played the Sheik and Harry Smith, Francis Wheeler, and Ted Snyder wrote "The Sheik of Araby," this was good pagan country. Archaeological excavations in the Hatta, al-Qusais, and Jumeirah regions of Dubai have revealed the presence of civilization here dating to at least 3000 b.c. Evidence shows that a form of serpent worship was practiced at al-Qusais for at least a thousand years, from about 2000 to 1000 b.c. With the emergence of Bedouin culture in the following millennium, a form of animism became widespread. Indwelling spiritual powers were perceived and venerated in objects of nature, in sacred trees and especially sacred stones. As Judaism and Christianity penetrated the Arabian Peninsula in the early centuries of the new era, the tribes of nomadic camel breeders-the Bedouin, or badawin, whose name came from the desert, badw, itself-stuck to their stones. Their subtle animistic theology not only survived the advent and rise of Islam in the seventh century, but influenced Islam, as is attested by the revered Hajar al-Aswad, the holy black stone of Mecca.
No one knows how or when Dubai got its name. Settlement began along the creek banks of Khor Dubai, the eight-mile tidal inlet of the Persian Gulf whose mouth now lies close to the 20-story Hyatt Regency. The first written reference to Dubai comes from a Venetian jeweler and merchant-traveler, Gasparo Balbi, who toured the region in 1580 to assess its pearling activities. His list of place-names in the lower Gulf region includes the tiny fishing settlement of "Dibei."
Britain's involvement in the area dates to the 17th century, when the Gulf became an important trading route of the East India Company. The slaves and riches of the British ships fell prey to both Bedouin and non-nomadic fellahin who fished and pearled the sea. By the early 19th century, the region was known as the Pirate Coast. In 1820 the British pressed the tribal sheikhs of the coast into a treaty of non-aggression.
Dubai at this time had fewer than a thousand inhabitants. In 1833 the Maktoum clan of the Baniyas tribe seized Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the current ruler of Dubai, is a direct descendant of Sheikh Maktoum bin Buti, the founder of the sheikhdom. In 1853, after a renewed truce with the British, the Gulf sheikhdoms became the Trucial States.
Free trade and pearling were the foundation of Dubai's economy. During the summer pearling season, with nothing but primitive noseclips and leather finger sheaths, divers descended as deep as 14 fathoms, remaining underwater for nearly a minute and a half to wrench the jagged oysters from their beds, making as many as 30 dives a day. This had been going on since time out of mind, and it ended only in the 1920s, with the invention of the cultured pearl. After that, Dubai's main export was dried fish. Its port also served as the primary channel for gold smuggled into India.
At the turn of the 20th century Dubai had a population of about 10,000. The thriving smuggling industry brought immigrants from India and elsewhere, and by the early 1930s immigrants accounted for nearly a quarter of a population that had grown to 20,000. Today non-nationals account for more than 80 percent of Dubai's population.
In his 1959 book, Arabian Sands, the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger recounted a journey he'd made to Dubai 10 years earlier:
Naked children romped in the shallows, and rowing boats patrolled the creek to pick up passengers from the mouths of alleys between the high coral houses, surmounted with square wind-turrets and pleasingly decorated with plaster moulding. Behind the diversity of houses which lined the waterfront were the souks, covered passageways where merchants sat in the gloom, cross-legged in narrow alcoves among their piled merchandise....
Here life moved with the past. These people still valued leisure and courtesy and conversation. They did not live their lives at second hand, dependent on cinemas and wireless. I would willingly have consorted with them, but now I wore European clothes. As I wandered through the town I knew that they regarded me as an intruder.
As Leonard Doyle of The Independent of London observed in the fall of 2004: "Until recently, the waterfront in Dubai remained much as Thesiger had found it."
In the 1950s many of Dubai's native inhabitants were still illiterate nomads. Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum, who had ruled Dubai since 1912, died at 80 in 1958. It was his eldest son, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, who brought Dubai into the modern world. It was under Sheikh Rashid, in 1966, that the American School of Dubai was founded. The Dubai Automatic Telephone system was inaugurated that same year, celebrated by the issue of postage stamps picturing the sheikh and one of the newfangled devices. And it was on June 6, 1966-a few months before our friend Andre Breton died, in Paris-that oil in commercial quantities was discovered in Dubai, at the offshore field of Fateh. Then came the dredging of the creek. Both the three-basin, million-ton-capacity Dubai Dry Docks and the 39-story Dubai World Trade Centre were completed in 1979.
British involvement in the Gulf, and thus in the Trucial States, came to an end in 1971, when the Labour government withdrew its military presence east of Suez. At an assembly in Dubai that year the sovereign emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qawain, and Fujairah came together to form a new nation known as the United Arab Emirates; Ras al-Khaimah joined the following year. A constitution was adopted with Islam as the state religion. Sheikh Rashid's eldest son and future successor, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum, was appointed prime minister of the U.A.E.
If Sheikh Rashid made modern Dubai a reality, it was Sheikh Maktoum and his younger brother Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum who brought it to full-blown surreality. Indeed, those in the know say that it was the Cambridge-educated Sheikh Mohammed who was the true driving force behind the vision of the new Dubai. This past January, Sheikh Maktoum died at the age of 62 and Sheikh Mohammed succeeded him to power.
Another key member of the royal family is Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum. Though raised like a brother to Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikh Ahmed is by blood descendance his uncle. When Sheikh Maktoum succeeded to the throne in 1990, he and Sheikh Mohammed entrusted their American-educated uncle with the vision of a new Dubai, as well as with the responsibilities of governing the Civil Aviation Authority and the Emirates Group. Sheikh Ahmed is one of the most important, powerful, and respected members of the royal family. He is also loved and admired by all who know him as the coolest sheikh that ever was. Those things that are now all but unthinkable in a high-ranking personage in the modern world-honesty, natural grace, unassuming dignity, ingenuousness, humanity, openness, wisdom, a love of life, an air that cares not for image or affectation-are what define Sheikh Ahmed.
aving no need or desire to submit to interviews, he rarely grants them. In his outer office I found out that he had just turned down The Wall Street Journal. I was asked to write down three questions that I should like to ask the sheikh, and then I was asked to leave. The next day, I was told that the sheikh would see me. Later I found out that I could have met him the night before if I had gone to a private pre-opening party at the new Buddha Bar, where he was hanging out with the owner and a few other friends.
I tell Sheikh Ahmed that I didn't know what to expect when I came to Dubai. "I'm amazed by it in a way. I'm amazed because it seems to have grown and changed in the few days since I got off the airplane from Paris."
"No," I say. "I'm serious."
Sheikh Ahmed smiles. His eyes are calm, peaceful, and happy. His salt-and-pepper beard has been shaved more recently than his dark mustache. He crosses his legs, and with his hand he sweeps the folds of his white gutra to one side of his neck. He takes a Marlboro Light from a gold cigarette box on the low table near the couch where we sit. He lights the cigarette, offers me one.
I ask him, "Fifteen years ago, when you wanted this to happen, did you even envision that you would be so successful on such a scale?"
"You know, I must say that, with our leadership-His Highness Sheikh Mohammed is a very energetic person to work with." He laughs, as if he has just uttered a polite but ridiculous understatement, and he continues to laugh as he continues to speak. "I mean, you have to go always with a full-charged battery and give 100 percent that you will be able to come up with what he wants."
"Do you work with him well?"
"To be honest, maybe I am one of the lucky people. From the day I finished school, I started with him. It was '81. It was completely different than what you see here. Even if you see a picture from 1990 and you see a picture now, it's completely different.
"I mean, for example, we tried to push tourism into Dubai. That was maybe, I would say, easily 10, 15 years back. But at that time we were talking a much smaller number. In the last five years only, His Highness is speaking of 15 million people coming to Dubai every year. And that's a big number."
It's a very big number, considering that Dubai has a population of fewer than 1.4 million. The United States, with a population nearing 300 million, lures about 45 million tourists from abroad each year. This is equivalent to about a sixth of its native population. Fifteen million is equivalent to more than 10 times Dubai's native population. It's more than three times the number of foreign tourists who visit New York City each year.
"And I remember him calling me up and saying, 'I want to see this number by the year 2010,' and I told him, 'Your Highness, maybe you are thinking of all those people who are crossing our skies, to make sure that they land here.'
"But he was very much determined that he would see this number. I remember I said to my team, 'His Highness wants to see 15 million hotel guests in Dubai by the year 2010.' And, to be honest, the team, some of them, they were surprised: 'The government is asking too much.'
"But now we are going to see this number of people in the next five years. We are not far off today. I think we are now close to at least seven million people. In the last year we couldn't take some of the people. There was no place for them to stay. We have today very close to 45,000 rooms. We need by 2010 at least 95,000 rooms to be able to make this number of 15 million."
"Do you foresee a time when there will be a feeling of 'That's enough, we've come to the pinnacle'?
"Working with His Highness ... "
Later I talk with Sheikh Ahmed's associate Ahmed Khoory, a senior vice president of Emirates Airline. He seems to finish the sheikh's sentence:
"Well, honestly, you know the vision of Sheikh Mohammed: 'If I'm running, you have to run with me. If you stop, give your place to somebody else.'"
There are no elections in Dubai. And people like it that way. There are no taxes in Dubai, either. No income tax. No sales tax. Nothing. No taxes. Virtually no crime.
No, in Dubai they don't care about the charade of voting. But, who knows, maybe there will be an Election World in Dubailand.
Our democracy hasn't been wholly forgotten. Dubai Internet City will soon be opening the Dubai Outsource Zone. The D.O.Z., "the world's first free zone dedicated to the outsourcing industry," will offer "100 percent exemption from taxes, arguably the world's most reliable technology and communications infrastructure, a one-stop shop of support services, and the best possible working environment."
A white-bearded Punjab Sikh in a big saffron turban wrenches the gearshift lever of a lumbering, run-down steam shovel as we drive around him in the dusty dirt of an unfinished road. Elsewhere in the world, Muslims are killing Sikhs, and Sikhs are killing Muslims. This old guy in the turban merely gazes impassively ahead.
"I can give you just general background," says a gent who's showing me around, "but I can't be quoted even as just a spokesperson."
We are roaming the growing communities of Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City, and Dubai Knowledge Village.
Dubai Internet City, which possesses the world's largest Internet-protocol telephony system, is described as "a Knowledge Economy Ecosystem designed to support the business development of Information and Communications Technology." The related "economy ecosystem" of Dubai Media City is dedicated to media and marketing services: publishing, music, film, entertainment, broadcasting, and information agencies. "In this open and flexible environment, you and your company can operate with collective synergy and individual freedom." Dubai Knowledge Village is "a vibrant, connected learning community that will develop the region's talent pool and accelerate its move to the knowledge economy." Graduates will work in the inter-related "knowledge economy ecosystems" of Dubai Internet City and Dubai Media City. Dubai Knowledge Village is now expanding to include the "mega-campus" of Dubai Knowledge Universities, the first stage of which is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2006.
If the spread of these communities has the look and feel of a vast, perfectly landscaped suburban subdivision, and if talk of knowledge-economy ecosystems and such carries a note of Intel-English absurdity, there is no denying that knowledge is perhaps the most valuable commodity in the economy of the post-industrial world. The U.A.E. allocates 35 percent of its federal budget to education. The proposed 2007 U.S. budget apportions less than 3 percent to education-a decrease-while seeking 16 percent for defense. (This doesn't include that thing called homeland security, which will get more than half of what education does.)
Outside the Showtime building in Dubai Media City, a woman in a black veiling headscarf and long black dress, the hijab and abaya of tradition, passes the big banner advertising Desperate Housewives, shown here on Showtime's TV Land channel: the veil of the East and the Wonderbra of the West meet in passing.
We move on to Dubai Internet City. A simple question for my guide: "What reason would, say, Microsoft have to open up in Dubai?"
"Come to Dubai? I mean, as well as the fact that Dubai has probably got one of the most advanced transportational hubs in the region, in terms of land, sea, and air ... there is also the actual benefits that the free zone itself offers a company such as Microsoft. The first benefit is the fact that this is a tax-free environment. Microsoft has a tax-free environment within a free-zone setup.
"No income tax. It has various options and advantages being located within this free zone that other companies wouldn't necessarily find in other parts of the world, one of them being the convenience with which a business can be set up here. It can take as little as two weeks to set up a legal corporate entity within Dubai Internet City or Media City or Dubai Knowledge Village, allowing you to be fully incorporated and therefore start doing business.
"The second advantage, beyond this being a tax-free environment, is the series of initiatives that have been taken to improve things. Normally, by way of example, if you're in the U.S. you might have to go to the U.S. Customs and Immigration. You might then have to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get your driving license. You might then have to go on to Naturalization and Immigration with regards to a residency visa. We have particular organizations here who work directly with all the government services so that you actually have a one-stop shop for all these services. Life is made a lot more simple and a lot more easy."
"Given the tax-free incentive," I ask, "why wouldn't a Microsoft move its corporate world headquarters here?"
"Well, that's a question you'd probably have to ask Microsoft, not me."
So I did. A representative of Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft's public-relations firm, told me, "I'll be happy to look into this for you. Please give me a chance to connect with my colleagues, and I can keep you updated as I learn more." The last I heard-post-literate American communication-sector e-mail punctuation here presented unaltered-was: "Ive just learned from my colleagues that this is something that would be best addressed by Microsofts mid-east regional PR team. We have forwarded your inquiry over to the appropriate regional representatives as we continue to pursue this for you. Ill be sure to keep you posted!" That was some months ago. An e-mail to Bill Gates has brought no response.
As far as fantastic working environments go, what of the tens of thousands of lowly immigrant laborers who are toiling like slaves under the whip of all-consuming construction?
In the U.S. Department of State's June 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report, the United Arab Emirates was one of four nations on the Arabian Peninsula added to the list of countries in open violation of sanctions against forced labor and involuntary servitude. (The others were Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar.) The U.A.E. has since redeemed itself somewhat by repatriating several hundred under-age camel jockeys.
The nations of the Arabian Peninsula were among the last to outlaw slavery. The oil conspiracy between the U.S. and the Saudi royal family dates to a concessionary agreement, signed in 1933, between the House of Saud and Standard Oil of California. In 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the defense of Saudi Arabia to be of critical importance to the United States, and a year later, born of the Standard Oil agreement, came Aramco, the Arabian-American Oil Company, the business that every successive American administration would serve. It was under pressure from President John F. Kennedy that the future king Faisal brought an end to the open slavery market in Saudi Arabia, in 1962. There was a show of granting freedom to about 10,000 of an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 slaves. Civil-rights problems in America posed an increasing threat to Kennedy's political welfare, and it didn't look good for him to be in bed with a dictatorship where slavery still thrived, even if, as Said Aburish claims in The House of Saud, the C.I.A. was buying boys for King Saud.
In the following year, 1963, slavery was also abolished, under British pressure, in Dubai and the other Trucial sheikhdoms.
In contemporary Dubai the term "guest worker" is preferred. Most of them are fellow Muslims from Pakistan, exported by Pakistani recruiting agents offering them an escape from destitution and often charging them a fee for that escape. Whether or not they can read or write, many of them sign work agreements that accompany them to the agents' labor-contracting clients in Dubai. Once they arrive, their passports and visas are often confiscated by sponsors and employers until they complete the years of hard labor to which they have knowingly or unknowingly agreed.
While I was in Dubai, something without precedent occurred. There was an organized protest by a thousand or so workers, who blocked morning rush-hour traffic on the main thoroughfare of Sheikh Zayed Road. According to local reports, for four months the Al Hamed Construction Company had refused to pay them and another thousand or so workers. The company was a contractor on the Palm project. Nakheel, the developer, had been paying Al Hamed, but Al Hamed had not been paying the workers. The unpaid salaries of these men, who worked backbreaking shifts, was about 700 dirhams a month, or about $47 a week. Nearly a third of a worker's salary went to the labor-camp canteen for food. A labor-ministry official was quoted in the local Khaleej Times as saying, "[Al Hamed] says it has several construction sites and thousands of labourers and that it pays their wages by rotation."
The protest was the first that many Emiratis had ever seen of any of these workers, though they were well aware of their numerous presence at the closed construction sites and off-limits labor camps. "To make matters worse," someone told the Khaleej Times, referring not to the plight of the protesters, "oncoming traffic from Dubai to Jebel Ali slowed down to watch this unusual spectacle, creating a traffic snarl on the other side as well-all the way up to the Dubai Media and Internet City."
Developers may tell you how many laborers are at work on a project-more than 2,000, for example, at the Burj Dubai site, I am told by Emaar-but the conditions under which they live and work are not to be discussed. I was with the executive director of one of the biggest of the development companies when I met the company's director of projects, whose expertise lay in engineering rather than in circumlocution. I asked him where the workers were kept when they weren't working. "Out in-," he began. I will never forget the sudden silencing glance that the executive director fired directly into his eyes.
Later I was told by a Bedouin employee of the company that the laborers were housed in outlying districts and were transported back and forth in caravans of buses.
This is a hot place. Temperatures rise to well over 110. Forget about "dry desert heat": the humidity is extreme. I am told that regulations prohibit manual labor outdoors in heat exceeding 100 degrees. For this reason the weather, I am also told, is subject to censorship in Dubai. No matter what thermometers indicate, the official temperature rarely exceeds 99 degrees.
Seekers after sex on the Internet will be greeted with this notice, in Arabic and English:
We apologize the site you are
attempting to visit has been blocked due to
its content being inconsistent with the
religious, cultural, political, and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.
There is no similar notice regarding the temperature. But that is pretty much what it comes down to as far as censorship goes in Dubai: smut and the weather.
What the executive director who silenced his project director didn't see was that he, a North American, and all the other executive directors were merely "guest workers" of a different kind. The Bedouin chairmen who run these companies import Western executives just as they import Pakistani laborers. The exorbitant salaries of the former reflect only what the lowly salaries of the labor-camp workers reflect: their price on the open market. Purchased from London, New York, Los Angeles, these executives are shipped in to do what is beneath Bedouin dignity: to engage in the slick lying, the fraudulent smiling, and the sophisticated snake-oil salesmanship that is demanded by global business. Their high salaries render them no less degraded and no more possessed of dignity in certain eyes than the unfortunate labor-camp souls on whose blood and sweat it all ultimately depends.
The British journalist Nick Meo reported from Dubai in 2005 that "the labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to the once-dusty backwater of Dubai by its former colonial master, the British, who shipped muscle from India around the globe to build an Empire at minimal cost."
Mr. Meo told me that he later received a "wounded" e-mail from a Dubai government spokesman who found his words "'a bit harsh.'"
And how curious it is that, as the dream of the West absconds to the East, Prophetic-sounding talk of being a messenger of God's will-the words of America's current president-should arise in the forsaken land of the infidel.
Of those whose souls are claimed by monotheism, the number who profess Christianity is decreasing, and the number who embrace Islam is increasing. Hinduism and Buddhism, the lesser by numbers of the four world religions, hold steady, their folds neither increasing nor decreasing. (Believers in the founding monotheism, Judaism, make up less than 1 percent of the world population. As pointed out by Ian Buruma of Bard College and Avishai Margalit of the Hebrew University at Jerusalem in the elegant and illuminating scholarship of Occidentalism: "In terms of scale, Judaism is not a world religion. It has barely the size of a sect.")
Christianity, down; Islam, up. What's the spread? Maybe we are merely nearing the end of the Christian interlude-Henry Miller's beautiful phrase of 57 years ago: "The whole Christian interlude has been a denial of life, a denial of God, a denial of the Spirit. Freedom has not even been dreamed of yet."
When the likes of George W. Bush sees himself as a messenger of God, it may be time to ponder this. When the populace elects the likes of him to represent them-twice-it may be time to flee. Trouble in Dubailand? You ain't seen nothing yet.
But I don't care. All the world religions are well represented by the girls who work the Cyclone club.
The Cyclone is air-conditioned and the beer is good and cold. It is a vast dive with a very big central roundabout bar and, off to the side, another bar. It's dark, and the only light, from strobe-lamp flashes, ensures that no one really gets a good look at anybody else. The patrons are young and old, rich and not so rich, in T-shirts and fancy suits, locals and Westerners. Wealthy Saudi kids swarm in on weekends. There is a special V.I.P. section upstairs. Downstairs, there is no camouflage in the disco area.
I am with a lovely young lady of Pakistani descent, a Dubai native whose grandfather came here half a century ago as a gold smuggler. I lean back on the cushions with my cold beer and ask her to stroll around the place and see what a few girls would each charge to go home with her.
The joint is big, and God only knows how many girls are working it. My friend returns about 20 minutes later.
"One girl said, 'You mean, like, lesbian?' I told her yeah. She said, 'Five hundred dirhams.'" That's about a hundred and thirty-five bucks.
"Another one said, 'I never did that.' Then she smiled and shrugged and said, 'Why not? Five hundred dirhams.'
"I asked a few more. They all said, 'Five hundred dirhams.'"
I send her back out. "Ask what they would charge to go home with the both of us."
Another cold beer, another 20 minutes or so. She comes back. There are no little stories this time. She just shakes her head, laughs, and sits down:
"Five hundred dirhams."
It was much the same when I was out with my new Dubai buddy Mike. We went to the York club, the place where the walk-through gun detector is strung year-round with Christmas lights.
Prostitution is illegal in Dubai, as it is just about everywhere else. Ask any of the police in the street near the York and they will probably tell you the same thing.
A small, slender Chinese girl approached me as Mike and I stood at the bar. She was from Guangzhou, and she'd been here a few months.
"You rich man, yes?"
I reached down and laid my healing hand on her head to cure her of such delusions.
"How much?" I asked.
"Five hundred dirhams."
"I'll think about it," I told her. "Right now I just want to relax here and have a drink with my buddy."
She stood there dutifully waiting.
Mike, meanwhile, was looking at a woman holding court among a coterie of admiring sisters in trade. When she saw Mike's eyes, she arched her brows dismissively and turned away.
"Amazing," Mike reflected. "A hooker playing hard-to-get."
Mike has spent most of his life here. He shook his head and smiled with bemusement, perhaps seeing her now not as flesh and blood but as a metaphorical essence of this place called Dubai, which in the end defies all understanding and defies all sense.
Five hundred dirhams won't get you a second glance at Amnesia even if you pin it to your vest; most nights it costs a hundred dirhams just to walk through the door. This swanky club near the Hard Rock Cafe on Sheikh Zayed Road is where some of the most beautiful women in the world gather to get rich, among them the creme de la creme marocaine, as connoisseurs say: the most alluring of the Moroccan girls. I am told that, on certain evenings, one may also find here gentlemen of charm and class for hire.
How come the guidebooks don't mention this stuff? Lonely planet indeed. Of course, these aren't the only sort of bars in Dubai. You will find everything from old-fashioned dives with pool tables to the swankiest of carpet joints. And there is iBO, a great little club that has been called the hippest place in town, perhaps because it is simply a very pleasant bar, so unlike the others.
The Cyclone is located in the Oud Metha area, at the edge of Bur Dubai, the old part of Dubai, west and south of the creek, opposite Deira. Most of the other brothel-bars, such as the York, are found in the heart of Bur Dubai, just east of the spreading megalopolis, but on hot Arabian nights still a world away.
Whatever is left of the true old settlement of Dubai is here, in Deira and Bur Dubai: the narrow, winding streets that weave from one souk to another; the small cafes and eating places barely shaded from the blazing sun by crumbling archways and eaves; the haunting afternoon azan, calling the faithful to prayer; the old dhows that sail the creek as they did a hundred years ago and more; the old abras that take you across it, from Bur Dubai to Deira, from Deira to Bur Dubai, for a few dirhams, or more if you're an easy mark. It is here, in these old areas on either side of the creek, that you will find the only real streets in Dubai: real streets where real people deal and walk and mingle, and where cars can barely make their way through the old passways.
But it's all changing. The fabled gold souk is now just a bunch of jewelry stores and guys trying to sell you knockoff wristwatches-"imitation," they say enthusiastically, as if that were a selling point. The ramshackle hole-in-the-wall cafes and eating places are being replaced by Starbucks, McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut. The call to prayer through loudspeakers can barely be heard over the din of traffic. The boatmen are all now on the eager lookout for tourist suckers. Al-Bastakia, the oldest district of Dubai, has undergone restoration to give it a new and fresh coat of age. A guidebook says that I'll find "a part of the original city walls" here, but it doesn't say exactly where, and nobody in Dubai knows what I'm talking about.
The old gold souk in Deira has put up a sign saying, dubai gold city. But it's futile: the Dubai Mall, the world's biggest mall, will contain the world's largest indoor gold souk. And, though not completed, Dubai Gold & Diamond Park, on Sheikh Zayed Road, already has more than 30 retailers and 100 manufacturers. "The exterior of the park reflects the Arabic architectural heritage of the region, while inside it is spacious, cool, clean and comfortable. The shops are arranged around a central square where an open-plan French Connection coffee shop gives you the opportunity to sit and soak up the atmosphere."
A chauffeur from the Burj al-Arab hotel points out Dubai Gold & Diamond Park as we pass it in the plush, quiet cool of a Rolls-Royce Phantom.
"Say you want cell phone made of gold. Some diamonds, some rubies. Is good place. They make for you here. It breaks, they fix. Good place."
Above all, there will be, coming soon, the Old Town.
"Architectural cues are taken from traditional buildings, including the Al-Bastakia neighbourhood of Bur Dubai." We can here see at work the hand, and mind, of the high-priced guest labor of the West. After talk of "earthy natural tones," Emaar Properties' literature tells of "amenities ranging from private pools, a 25-metre lap pool, gym, spa, squash courts and an aerobics room to recreation areas, juice bars, movie theatres and a games room." Yes: "The Old Town offers the best of the past." And let's not overlook Old Town Island, with its "quaint market squares" and "charming alleyways."
The newest past is the best past.
Back at Cityscape, beyond the roar of the Dubailand dinosaurs, soothing serenity-city voices, like the advertising voices triggered by retina recognition in the Minority Report mall, beckon us to those quaint market squares of the future past, those charming alleyways of surreality without crime. Go swimming, sailing, skiing, golfing. Falconing. Shop, get rich, be rich. Without taxes.
Ignore your compass bearings. Welcome to the Western dream.