In Dubai, the sky is not the limit

The Chicago Beach Hotel, which once stood near here,
was torn down to make way for the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel
and its sister resorts that gr...

The Chicago Beach Hotel, which once stood near here, was torn down to make way for the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel and its sister resorts that gr...

There was a haze in the air. Almost as heavy as fog it was, drawn forth by a heat that sapped the very strength of the sea itself. Thus tamed, the waves whimpered ashore as ripples. I bobbed and swooshed in the water, a clear tourmaline green, and fixed my gaze. Broad daylight, and yet I saw ghosts in the distance, the outline - no the skyline - of buildings, buildings, buildings. And among them construction cranes, one-armed wizards there to bid them grow, to multiply.
I had been swimming just down the beach from the pleasing white volume of the Burj Al Arab, the sail-shaped hotel, tallest in the world, one of the most expensive and highest-rated, set apart on its own little island in the Persian Gulf. This should have been one of those peak moments in travel - and it was - of having arrived and seen in the flesh something long lusted after.
And yet it bothered me. None of this seemed quite real. The development zone - of the Palm Jumeirah island project as it turned out - appeared to float just above the horizon, as opposed to resting on it. The Burj Al Arab looked to be hovering over its isle, not anchored to it. I got out of the water and stood on the sand feeling breathless, small and lonely. Maybe the heat was getting to me, the light playing tricks, but I couldn't shake that imagery of levitation, of things in mid-air: The whole place could take off at any second. Maybe the heat gets to everyone here, for surely in Dubai, the sky is not the limit. It's only the starting place.
Thirty years ago, there'd have been only a nascent oil industry and the arrival of indoor plumbing to write about here. Back then it was just a dusty town of some 183,000 souls cobbled together on either side of Dubai Creek.
The creek was a wide natural inlet with banks jammed by squat wooden cargo boats, called dhows, of a sort I imagine Sinbad the Sailor might have captained. Today, their mahogany-colored hulls and fanciful painted railings stand at odds with the glass office towers that front the creek farther inland. To see them, I joined a couple in commissioning an abra, or small ferry, for what turned out to be an hour's tour deeper up the creek, past that odd building with a "golf ball" on top, and beyond Al Maktoum Bridge almost to the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club.
The abras are a Dubai institution and a diversion in themselves. Commuters and tourists alike step onto the flat, open deck and find a seat on the linoleum-covered bench. Spots in the shade of the craft's pup-tent-like roof are the first to go. As soon as the abra pulls away from the dock with its engine burping acrid black smoke, everyone passes their 1 dirham fare (about US$0.28) down the bench to the driver, who steers with his feet and uses his hands to fish for change, if need be, from a rusty metal box. Most rides just go from one bank to the other in less then five minutes, knitting together by their many crossings the fabric shops, vegetarian restaurants and Indian banks on the Bur Dubai side with the spice and gold souks of the Deira side.
One of the abra stations on the Deira side gives onto the shaded lanes of the spice souk. Dried lemons, powdered vanilla, cardamom and curry, and mysterious roots of different colors - all meted out by the scoopful - crowd the walks in great cloth bags, yielding their fragrance to the heat.
Then there's the gold. A few streets beyond the spice merchants are scores of sole proprietorships - anywhere from 250 to 400 depending on who's counting - and they're all blessedly unacquainted with concepts such as "understated elegance" or "less is more." Here's a city that flaunts 55,120 pounds of gold in its shops on any given day, at least 90 percent of which is 22 karat or better.
They had deeply worked necklaces almost the size of lobster bibs; heavily filigreed cuffs that would cover a woman's arm from wrist to elbow; gold belts with gold buckles; gold bangles; gold crowns; and even a garment of chains and medallions that, when donned, would drape 'round a bride from neck to knee. It's all sold by weight, plus workmanship, and the day's gold prices are there for everyone to see, scrolling in big red numbers across a sign at the souk's main gateway. But there's room to bargain.
To tell the truth, I didn't want to leave. I'd caught the fever of a gambler on the casino floor, certain the next bet, the next shop window, would be the big one. I fully expected that some sight even more amazing would suddenly materialize in the souk's shaded plaza. In a place this fantastic, anything could happen. In fact, something already had. Not in the gold souk, but a US$10 cab ride away at Jumeirah Beach.
As Dubai has developed farther and farther from the creek, it has become defined by planned neighborhoods, cities within a city, anchored by a particular business sector, for example Internet City, or by a hotel-residence-mall complex like Wafi City. Major roads between these neighborhoods feature medians that are terraced, or flush with flouncing bougainvillea, or accented with examples of the topiary arts - when they're not torn up to add more lanes. Underpass embankments are finished with decorative tiles - the better to enjoy the route while stuck in traffic.
Such are the contrasts of a megalopolis where a reported 5,000 buildings at this very minute are under construction, where they claim that 25 percent of the world's building cranes run 24/7, and the current work force of 848,000 is projected to more than double by 2015.
I expect the haze over Dubai when I was there in early October had as much to do with construction dust as with the eternal rivalry between the heat of the desert by day (98-102 degrees Fahrenheit) and the seaside humidity by night (40-60 percent). Despite the weather, though, some men laboring on road-repair detail in the Al Karama neighborhood were wearing ski masks; others tied kerchiefs to cover their mouths and noses. Seeing them, faceless like that, reminded me that Dubai is possible not just because of oil, trade business or tourism but also because foreign men by the thousands, mostly from India and Southeast Asia, need the jobs.
Endless possibilities
Visibility that day was only 6 miles. So from Al Karama I could just make out the form, about 3 1/2 miles away, of Burj Dubai, now the tallest free-standing structure in the world: 1,922 feet, 156 floors and still in the making the last time I checked. Burj (pronounced boorj or bourg, depending on the dialect) is Arabic for tower.
On a clear day they say it'll be possible to see the top of Burj Dubai from 60 miles away. It will be part of a complex of waterways and residences, parks, an aquarium and an ice rink, that when finished will be the world's largest retail development, Dubai Mall, an ambitious 12.1 million square feet. Burj Dubai/Dubai Mall will have a themed component: the largest Arabian "old town" ever re-created. I say that because a reincarnation already exists along Jumeirah Beach.
Port Rashid stands near, but outside of, Dubai Creek and houses, among other things, the Dubai Cruise Terminal, which cruise lines are discovering to be a year-round call. Down the coast is Dubai's other port, Jebel Ali Port, whose harbor is the largest man-made one in the world and can berth the U.S. Navy's 1,115-foot-long, 40-foot-draft Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.
But the 22 miles between these two ports just wasn't enough shoreline, so they started the island-building projects of Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali, The World and Dubai Waterfront.
If there were ever any doubts as to the islands paying for themselves, they were put to rest when Palm Jumeirah's first phase of 4,000 properties sold out within 72 hours. Donald Trump is building a hotel there. Atlantis, the fantasy resort of the Bahamas, will erect another version of itself there. Cirque du Soliel will have its own theater, and the QE2 will have a permanent berth. I saw where a 1,743-square-foot two-bedroom beachfront condo in a mid-rise building out on the breakwater was selling for US$850,000.
At the World, where an offshore archipelago of 300 islands forms a map of the Earth, Sir Richard Branson has staked his claim on "England," a Chinese businessman has sprinkled Chinese soil on "Shanghai," and an Irish consortium is developing something called Ireland in the Sun.
Palm Jebel Ali, when it is finished, will be home to 250,000 people. I wonder if they'll have a vantage point from which to read their poem: Between the curved breakwater and the island's residential "fronds" will be an Arabic poem, spelled out with pontoon boats that will be lit at night.
To power all this growth there's a US$12 to US$15 billion plan under way to build an electric and desalination complex capable of producing, every day, 9,000 megawatts of electricity - the same as New York City's total generating capacity, according to Dow Jones Newswires - and 600 million gallons of desalinated water. It sounds like the new plant will go up near Jebel Ali Port and the new airport they're building next door.
The idea is for Dubai to be the world's No. 1 air hub, eventually handling more than 120 million passengers a year. Meanwhile, they're expanding the much-admired Dubai International, the airport they've already got, to take care of double-digit cargo and passenger increases.
It's not just about funneling people through the airport. They like for folks to stay a while. Between 1997 and 2006, the number of hotel rooms in Dubai has more than doubled to 30,850. The number of hotel guests for the same time period vaulted from 1.79 million to 5.47 million, not counting foreigners buying into the real estate market.
There's a very practical reason for all of this: The oil's running out. In 2005, it represented only some 6 percent of Dubai's US$37 billion gross domestic product. So, this emirate literally has crafted a blueprint for the future that's spelled out like a business plan: Dubai Strategic Plan 2015, which was put forth in February by His Highness Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai. Dubai is one of seven states that make up the U.A.E.
From an American perspective, there's not all that much to "do" here - yet - beyond taking a dhow dinner cruise or heading out on a desert safari. Visiting Dubai is more like watching a high-wire act and gaping at its gravity-defying audacity. There are 52 major malls, and counting; an indoor ski slope, with another on the way; and all those buildings.
In 2006, more than 282,000 Americans visited here and stayed two days, on average. But I found that on a three-day weekend in October, I couldn't mentally absorb the growth here, the speed and vastness of it, the range of diversification, the sheer scale of everything. But that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. Whatever else might be going on, shopping is still shopping and a beach is still a beach.
I never travel anywhere without fantasizing what it would be like to live there. Looking strictly at the numbers, Dubai might be do-able. In Jumeirah Village South, the Cappadocia project has an 862-square-foot one-bedroom for US$219,000, freehold - not bad for a new unit with its own private garden, private mini pool, private sauna (as if you needed one in this climate!) and garage, even if it's not within walking distance of the beach. Gas is running US$1.65 a gallon, so getting around is cheap.
Given Dubai's comparatively low crime and death rates, I might just manage to live here almost forever. But then I get that weird feeling again.
I walked Dubai's streets and grazed its buffets, swam on its beach and took its photo.
I can prove I was there. I just can't be sure it was real.

Updated : 2021-04-17 05:24 GMT+08:00