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One Emirate's Unchecked Landgrab Into the Future

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Tonight, here’s how it feels.

It’s balmy, with a faint breeze. Standing at the base of the Atlantis Hotel, on the tip of Palm Jumeirah island, I can see red and white lights dotting the skyline. Construction cranes. It’s near midnight, but work in Dubai never stops.

I make out the contours of the $4.2 billion Burj Dubai, set to be the world’s tallest free-standing building (jutting out of the world’s largest mall), somewhere in the vicinity of 2000+ feet – though at this time, the final height is still a state secret. If word got out, someone would invariably start building something taller. It’s happened before. In fact, work’s already begun on rival Nakheel Tower down the road. When completed, it’ll be more than a kilometer high – 3280 feet – and have five microclimates.

I’m here – as are 2,000 Hollywood and Bollywood notables (including Robert de Niro Quincy Jones, and Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra), plus captains of industry, a smattering of royals and, naturally, Lindsay Lohan and her off/on girlfriend, Samantha Ronson, although lesbianism is officially not recognized in Dubai – to witness the grand opening of Sol Kerzner’s $1.5-billion Atlantis Resort and the man-made island it’s built upon.

The world’s most expensive hotel crowns Palm Jumeirah, the self-appointed eighth wonder of the world. You may have heard about it, this 11-square mile, $3 billion project created by clawing up 3.2 trillion cubic feet of sand from the ocean floor and power-spraying it into the shape of an Arabian date palm. It’s the smallest of three palm-shaped fake islands. Last week, the region’s most expensive piece of real estate sold here, a penthouse that fetched $3,000 per square foot. Even Donald Trump was impressed, and he’s the one who sold it.

This party is a crowning achievement, a manifestation of Dubai’s explosive growth, an anachronism in the wake of Wall Street’s turbulence and tanking oil prices, and a middle finger to a western world in economic freefall. It’s a $20 million debutante ball for an entire city-state.

The fireworks alone cost $4 million, and that’s why everybody’s staring up at the sky. The story (everyone here has a version of it) goes something like this: When Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – Crown Prince of Dubai, the man who birthed the Palm and whose family owns every other grain of sand in the emirate – saw the fireworks for Kerzner’s other, much smaller Atlantis Hotel (in the Bahamas), he demanded to see whomever was responsible. On the spot, he commissioned Long Island’s Grucci company to create the fireworks spectacle for the Palm’s debut. When Phil, the genial Grucci paterfamilias, asked if his highness would like any special pyro effects (palm-shaped bursts? sky-writing in Arabic?), the Sheik had only one request: Make it the biggest fireworks show in the history of the world.

And because of that, and the glittering crane-lights, and the trays of dates wrapped in 24-karat gold leaf, when the sky over Dubai ignites with 11 miles of fireworks exploding in perfect unison – easily visible from space, indescribable from the ground – I think, damn. Dubai’s going to make it. Maybe New York won’t, maybe Tokyo and London won’t, but Dubai will. This crowd has seen it all, yet they’re erupting in shrieks and incredulous laughter and even a few stupefied tears. Dubai’s going to make it. All that attitude, nothing left to prove.

Of course, this was back on November 20, 2008. A month later, the Atlantis will pull the plug on its own New Year’s Eve fireworks at the 11th hour – shells in place, wired, ready to go – because such excess might look bad, given everything that’s happened. On February 12 of 2009, the New York Times will publish an article called “Laid-Off Foreigners Flee as Dubai Spirals Down,” describing how scores of expats who’d left everything behind to pan for gold in Dubai are driving to the airport, ditching their Jaguars and getting the hell out, back to London and Sydney and Johannesburg, in hopes of evading debtors’ prison in the Emirates.

They’ll also finally announce the Burj Dubai’s final height: 2683 feet, as tall as the late Twin Towers stacked on top of each other. As for the one-kilometer building, construction is suspended until further notice.

But on this night, none of this has happened yet. Tonight, Dubai is a beacon of hope and 11 miles of fireworks, a place with the money, freedom and balls to make its own rules. Remember when the world saw America that way?


Next time you’re at a party, try telling people you’re going to Dubai. Eyes widen. You might as well say you’re having dinner with J.D. Salinger, or bought a seat on that first commercial space flight with Richard Branson. People have heard stories, crazy stories, cockamamie tales of hotels made of solid gold and air-conditioned beaches. And you’re going to get to see it all with your own eyes.

As I click away a month’s rent for a ticket to the second-largest and most progressive of the seven United Arab Emirates, I have vague notions about the place that seem true but actually are not (booze is illegal, women get jailed for wearing pants); and others that seem preposterous, but are actually true (no holding hands in public, falcons cost $250,000, there’s a man-made archipelago called “The World” and Rod Stewart offered $33 million for “Britain.”).

For the record, yes, women can walk the streets alone, though the further you get from the new parts of town, the more stern (male) stares you’ll attract. Yes, you can drink, but mostly at hotel bars (only residents can shop for liquor), and public drunkenness is grounds for arrest. As is unmarried sex, though an infamous British couple caught in flagrante delicto a short while ago wound up being deported instead of serving their three-month jail sentence. Women are technically not allowed to date: My boyfriend tells me to pack a ring that could pass for a wedding band so sharing a room won’t raise any eyebrows. There is, indeed, a boat-shaped hotel, but it starts at five grand a night. Dubai International Airport is big, but not the world’s largest – a second airport under construction will take care of that. And yes, Brad Pitt is consulting on an unnamed five-star eco-resort. It was in People.

Also, unmarried sex is illegal, porn sites are blocked, cross-dressers get rounded up and jailed, criticizing the government is a no-no. Sorry, lesbians, you officially don’t exist. Bright side: You could be male, where being gay is punishable by death.

Not that these laws get enforced much. Because the PTB know that those dropping $3000 per square foot on a condo with its own heli-pad don’t take kindly to being told how to live. So behind closed doors, in bars and clubs and the privacy of your own villa, anything goes.


From the plane, Dubai looks like a videogame, all glass and multicolored parapets and stuff jutting out at crazy angles 500 feet in the air because, you know, why not? Why wouldn’t we put a double helix-shaped glass atrium right here, on the 48th floor? It’ll be our building’s signature. We’ll call it the Burj Helix. Done.

We drop lower, and I start counting cranes. Somewhere between 25 to 30 percent of the world’s cranes are in use in Dubai. They’re the city’s unofficial soundtrack. Ten days from now, I’ll be awake in my bed in Brooklyn, freaked out by the silence. You get used to cranes groaning outside your window all night long. It’s the sound of progress. It soothes.

As we wait on the shimmering tarmac (it’s 104 degrees) for a shuttle to Terminal 3, a woman who managed to sleep (and snore) for the full 14-hour trip sets her watch to local time and inhales deeply. “Smells like New Jersey,” she announces.

Some numbers on Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3, which opened a few weeks before my trip:

$4.5 billion: Final building cost, in dollars

16,145,865: Square footage (largest building in the world)

180: Check-in counters

160,000: Square footage dedicated to retail

13,720: Running feet of baggage carousel (approximate)

163: Models of cell phones for sale at Arrivals Duty Free

$1500: Price of a 27-oz. Rémy Martin Louis XIII Cognac at Duty Free, in dollars. (According to Terminal 3’s Duty Free sommelier, it’s very smooth, though it’s no Black Pearl edition, which they do not carry, as purchase thereof is by invitation only at the manufacturer’s behest. A quick Googling, however, reveals you can order it through for $27,999 if you’re interested.)


Rhode Island-sized Dubai was a relatively sleepy fishing village until the sixties, when it struck oil. The whole region did. (Dubai and its neighbors became the federation of the United Arab Emirates not long after that.) But while Abu Dhabi had crazy oil, Dubai had relatively little (or about 5% to Abu Dhabi’s 95%; Dubai’s reserves will be gone by 2015), so its rulers started sowing the seeds of a post-oil economy early, like a supermodel launching a fashion line so she’ll have a career when she’s over the hill at 28.

The plan: Talk big, spend bigger, and go from backwater to global business and tourist hub as fast as possible. Okay then.


So imagine Rhode Island run by the mob, headed by a fairly benevolent papa sitting on about $18 billion of fuck-you money. He wants to turn the Ocean State into a Silicon Valley-cum-Monaco-cum-New York (with a dash of Las Vegas) and make it the travel pass-through between the Americas and Europe. To get from one to the other, you have to refuel in Providence, and hey, why not spend the night, have dinner, go deep-sea fishing while you’re at it?

In Dubai, Sheik Mo (as he’s known) heads up a ruling family with as close to absolute power as you can get in a nation with multiple Starbucks locations.

The Al Maktoums own Dubai’s airline (the world’s eighth largest), the airport, seaports, local banks, print and broadcast media, hotels and most of the world’s racehorses. (At Shadwell or Gainsborough stud farms in Kentucky, you’re on Al Maktoum land. Sheik Mo’s racehorses travel on their own Boeing 747.) Developments like the Palm Islands are helmed by Nakheel, the largest privately held real estate entity on the planet, which – surprise – is backed by the Al-Maktoums.

When you own and run everything, it’s cake to get stuff done. You can eliminate any obstacles to growth – taxes, labor laws, restrictions prohibiting foreigners from buying property. And when you run out of land, you can just make more. Imagine if Donald Trump started dredging up the bottom of the East River and had 300-foot GPS-directed sandguns working 24/7 to jet-spray a bunch of islands into existence off the coast of New Jersey so he’d have more beach for condos, and you begin to get the picture.

In the 1990s, Dubai got 30,000 visitors a year. Thanks to the Al Maktoums’ efforts (and to 9/11, after which the region’s capital stayed largely local), that number is now 5 million annually, and expected to triple by 2012. Property value increased by about nine percent in ’04 – not too shabby, but peanuts compared to the 90% surge in ’07. That’s not a typo. Not for nothing has Dubai projected a tripled GDP by 2015.

Sure, Sheik Mo has been allegedly linked to everything from terrorist money laundering to child slavery (toddlers are used as camel jockeys; camel races are big money, and shrieking children make them gallop faster). But he’s kept his people safe and made them rich, and that counts for a lot. Democracy would just spoil things, anyway.

Besides, compared to its neighbors in ruins (Iraq), run by madmen (Iran) or oppressively fundamentalist (Saudi Arabia), Dubai is paradise.


The Madinat Jumeirah is a new hotel built to look like an old Arabian village that’s attached to other new hotels that look old by a waterway where young men from the Philippines dressed like Aladdin will shuttle you around on electric boats called abras for about $20, or free if you’re a hotel guest.

You could go to the old town and ride in a real abra for about 30 cents, but the Madinat is all about delivering the Arabian Nights experience without the inconveniences (raw sewage), and with the comforts of home (clean restrooms, Cinnabon). Here, you can browse a mellow, fragrant souk that mimics the real, cacophonous souk across town for souvenirs: a wood-carving of Tintin and Snowy, a ceramic camel whose hump is a snowglobe (inside of which is a second, much smaller camel), a silver ring etched with the face of an angry gorilla, a seven-spouted teapot called “Crazy Tea!”, a solid silver two-seated swing, a chain-mail jacket, and Tom Cruise’s head cast in bronze (actual size).


Dubai’s list of world records and future projects reads like the resume of the world’s most insecure MBA holder. Nothing matters here if it can’t be counted, measured or topped. “World’s largest acrylic panel”? Seriously?

There’s Dubailand, a $64 billion, 107-square-mile city-within-a-city being built from scratch; it’ll have theme parks, stadiums, spas, malls, hotels and the world’s largest snow dome.

There’s Hydropolis, a jellyfish-shaped resort 66 feet below the sea’s surface. Its 220 suites will offer unimpeded views of the world’s first underwater fireworks. It’s being built in Germany and shipped to Dubai.

The $11 billion Arabian Canal, a 50-mile waterway running inland to the desert, is the largest project of its kind since the Suez Canal.

But most ambitious is Dubai’s landgrab into the Arabian Gulf. Ten years ago, the Emirate had a puny 37 miles of natural coastline. Today, Nakheel’s man-made islands – three different Palms, plus The World, an archipelago of 300 islands designed to look like the world map from above – have tacked on another 1,200 miles of shore. The World’s islands aren’t open for public sale. You must receive a private invitation from Nakheel to bid.

On my third day in Dubai, I learn they’re building the world’s first commercial aerospace port – this is where you’ll board shuttles heading into space. It barely registers.


Once, I was assigned a piece on the president’s Thanksgiving turkey pardon, that annual rite where we atone for all the turkey we’re about to eat via the POTUS’ public sparing of one bird. So I called Kidwell Farm in Herndon, Virginia, where the lucky thing gets shipped to live out its little turkey days free from harm, frolicking about, pecking at grain.

And here’s what I was told: All the turkeys are dead. They die within months, sometimes weeks. The presidential photo-op’s big Butterball-style bird isn’t designed to sustain life long-term. It’s meant to become as fat possible as quickly as possible, and its organs just can’t keep up. (The article was shelved.)

In Dubai, I think of the turkeys often, like when my cab crawls by an overturned car that looks like a loaf of bread somebody sat on. It’s not the first accident I’ve seen here. My cabdriver gets worked up. “How many accidents this road? So many! Bad road, cannot see, many accidents. Everywhere everywhere new Dubai, many accidents.”

The circulatory infrastructure is insane. I’m told that as new neighborhoods crop up, the city scrambles to build roads. Does the Department of Transportation have controls, planning committees, safety hearings? Hard to say. But the roads certainly materialize fast. You need a road, a road gets built.

Lining these terrible roads are billboards hawking new residential developments, an endless parade of attractive model-couples enjoying their terrace/yacht/dock/lap pool/screening room. The marketing lines blend together: Desert Dream. Building Value Through Integrity. Live the Legend. Opportunity That’s Worlds Apart. Power With Oxygen.

At a bar later, I’ll chat with an Australian, a Brit, and a guy from Philadelphia who met working for a local construction company. They have a theory that all of Dubai’s new buildings (i.e., more than half of the structures currently standing or in-progress) fall into one of three styles: Slapped Together, Arabian Nights Retro, or Make it Look Like the Future.

Describing the road backed up because of the accident, my cabbie uses a phrase I hear often in the next week: “You see here? Five year before, all sand.”


At the top are the Al Maktoums. Beneath them (and dependent on their largesse) is a loyal, wealthy leisure class of Dubai natives. Next, managerial expats: About 200,000 Europeans (east and west), Aussies and South Africans mostly, but also Lebanese and some Americans, all handsomely paid to make new Dubai happen. The rest, some 60 to 70 percent of the 1.1 million population, are laborers from the globe’s most impoverished nations, like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Philippines. They’re building new Dubai – from Trump’s next tower to Brad Pitt’s eco-resort – in green or blue jumpsuits, in up to 16-hour shifts, in blazing heat, for about $200 a month, which they send home to their families before going to sleep in a room with 11 other guys in a work camp on the outskirts of town until their next shift starts. Their passports are gone, they have no rights here, and labor unions are outlawed. I’m told there’s a high suicide rate in this group, but these statistics don’t officially exist.

Yet the workers I talk all say they're happy. They’re all wide-eyed, impossibly sweet. My hotel’s valet is supporting nine family members back in Nepal. The Kenyans at the Atlantis aquarium are in heaven, getting paid to work with animals all day, in this beautiful place — 200,000 species of fish, they tell me. Imagine!


Contrary to what you’ve heard, Dubai isn’t the Vegas of the Middle East. They’re both pleasure playgrounds, grow like fungus, and build fake versions of real things elsewhere (the Eiffel Tower, skiing), but in Vegas – hell, in America – luxury is cheap. Everyone gets to have some. Can’t afford to stay at the Bellagio? You can still wander through, have lunch, buy a GUCCI-logo T-shirt at the Gucci store, feel special wading in the shallow end of the luxury pool. The Bellagio wants your money, and it’ll prey on your aspirations to get it. But it’s not exclusive – if it were exclusive, it would, by definition, exclude people.

Exclusivity, as Dubai reminds you hard and often, is precisely what money is for.

At the Burj Al Arab, the world’s only seven-star hotel (out of a possible five), there’s no wandering in off the street to coo at the world’s largest atrium or take photos of your kids in front of the four-story, 24-karat solid gold columns. No Burj keychains or souvenir shotglasses for purchase. It’s a gated community on its own artificial island accessed by a private footbridge. The cheapest way in involves reservations for tea (about $100). The Burj’s guests pay a minimum of $5,000 a night for a two-floor suite, assigned butler, airport transfer by private helicopter and, most importantly, not having to breathe the same air as you and I.


Mall of the Emirates (MOTE) operates an unofficial but efficient caste system. The ground floor houses your Esprits and H&Ms and a thudding dance soundtrack. The top has lower lighting, softer music, more expensive surfaces; here, tan Caucasian men squire much younger, well-groomed women (trophy wives or Russian prostitutes, I’m told) to Christian Dior or Yves Saint-Laurent, while Middle Eastern women shop for designer clothing to wear under their head-to-toe black abayas, or behind closed doors, at home.

When the call to Mecca prayer sounds through MOTE’s PA, some people rush off to the mall’s Ladies’ or Gents’ mosques, but most keep shopping.

Dubai messes with my mind. At Newark Airport, I pass on a $24.99 hardcover I’m dying to read because online, used, I’d pay $5, tops. Four days later, I seriously consider buying – to the point of trying on – a pair of Italian calfskin boots that cost what I’m getting paid to write this article. I talk myself out of it, but I’m irritated and vaguely petulant for the rest of the day, like a three-year-old who isn’t tired but still gets sent to bed.

Four days kicking around Dubai, and I’ve spurted a poisonous sense of consumer entitlement.


To hit the slopes, you enter MOTE from the west and hook a right at the food court. (Not a Panda Express-and-Sbarro food court, but one with marble counters and lacquered Peking ducks on gleaming hooks, sliced to order.)

You pass through a series of Get Smart-like doors, each leading to a chamber that’s colder than the one before, to reach Ski Dubai. Maintaining a constant temperature of 30 degrees Fahrenheit is no small feat in the desert. Nepalese photographers are excited to shoot you skiing, tubing, tobogganing, scampering through the ice labyrinth, hurling a snowball, and building a snowman in the designated snowman area, which has how-to diagrams for first-timers. Everyone on staff at Ski Dubai seems excited, especially the Filipino guy who helps me into my bobsled. He’d never seen snow before this job.

Every night, at 2AM, it snows. The temperature drops to 17F and Cessna propeller-sized guns blast atomized water and ice microns from the ceiling. By the time Ski Dubai opens at 10AM, 3,000 tons of new snow blanket nearly three football fields of terrain. It weighs down the branches of artificial pine trees, coats the world’s first indoor black diamond run, lines the two-story windows overlooking the food court, dusts the eaves of the aprËs-ski Avalanche CafÈ. Here, I warm by the fire, sip non-alcoholic mulled “wine” made with Vimto, a berry soft drink popular with British grandmothers and watch skiers whoosh by. Just outside – inside, but outside – an Indian family shrieks with glee at seeing their breath for the first time.

Each superlative’s days are numbered. Soon, Ski Dubai won’t be the only indoor ski resort in the Middle East (Dubailand’s Snowdome is in the works, and it’ll be bigger).

This can’t last, right? Or is it progress? Is it any different from the Pyramids, or Versailles, or the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota? Aren’t they all some rich guy’s idea of what the future should look like?


The locals seem sanguine about the future. The guy offering camel rides at the Atlantis fishes a pack of Marlboros from his dishdasha and shrugs. As long as he can afford to feed his camels, he says, he’ll be fine.

A Pakistani cabdriver is impatient, even. “Is too much construction, too much. Building many, but now, money finish. I talk people hotel, no booking. Before full until April, May, but now no. Finish. I am happy. Balance, you know? Cannot go many time like this. I am happy. Before was Bush system. Now is God system.”

Still, if you can buy a $4 million fireworks show that gives people the most exhilarating 20 minutes of their lives, why wouldn’t you? As the last rockets explode over the Atlantis (illuminating Sheik Mo’s yacht, moored at a discreet remove), hundreds of waitstaff, laundry workers, security guards, drivers and janitors have poured out of the resort onto the beach. They hoot and holler, sling an arm over each other’s shoulders, and point cameras at the sky, taking pictures to send home.