How High, Dubai?

It was 1985. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, age 36, was assuming a role in the governing of Dubai. His father, the reigning ruler Sheikh Rashid, had suffered a stroke, and Dubai’s political leadership was changing. In a meeting of Arabian Gulf leaders, discussion centered on troublesome issues in the Palestinian territories and Iran. “I was keen to change the subject,” recounts Sheikh Mohammed in his book My Vision. “So I asked the ministers, ‘Why don’t we develop this region, particularly Dubai, as a tourist destination to attract people from all over the world?’”

“What is in Dubai to make it a tourist destination?” one official scoffed. “You have nothing but humidity, red-hot sun, burning sand and barren desert.”

Now, 25 years after that dismissal, Sheikh Mohammed is the driving force behind the mind-boggling phenomenon that is Dubai. This spring, we traveled there and had an opportunity to see to what extent the sheikh’s grandiose vision remained intact in the wake of the global
economic meltdown.

We left San Francisco at five in the afternoon aboard an Emirates Airline Boeing 777. The plane was full except for a few seats in first class; most passengers were headed for India, Pakistan or Afghanistan, using Dubai as a stopover. Dubai is the hub for Emirates and services flights throughout the world with over 100 destinations across six continents. Our nonstop flight was as enjoyable as nearly 16 hours on a plane can be—cushy business-class leather seats that reclined into a bed encapsulated in a pod for privacy; delicious meals, a fine selection of wines, individual movie screens with over 100 choices of current films.

Our steward, Matteo, fluent in Italian, English, French and “a little bit of Japanese,“ explained that the government of Dubai owns Emirates airlines. According to Matteo, thought was given to the name Dubai Air, but officials decided on Emirates at the last minute.

Lay of the Land

Ironically, Dubai, which might safely be deemed the ultimate shrine to Western excess, sits at the geographic crossroads of Islamic culture. Oman and Saudi Arabia are to the south and east, while Iran is just 90 miles across the gulf. One of seven Persian Gulf states in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is about the size of Rhode Island and has few natural resources, only minimal oil reserves. Of its reported population of 1.7 million, 85 percent or more are foreign workers—from laborers to top management—drawn to this capitalist mecca in search of jobs.

The Maktoum sheikhdom has run Dubai since the 1800s, but modernization began when Sheikh Mohammed’s father, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, became ruler in 1958. Under his direction telephone systems were built, offshore oil fields developed and Dubai Creek dredged to create the world’s largest man-made deepwater port.

After Sheikh Mohammed became Crown Prince of Dubai in 1995, one of his first decisions was to open up real estate investment to all foreigners, an offering made especially enticing by the lack of property and income taxes.

Dubai’s famed transformation from sleepy desert outpost to glitzy global mega-resort is captured by two aerial photos in the book City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism by Jim Krane (St. Martin’s Press, 2009). A 1990 image shows two-lane Abu Dhabi-Dubai Highway, with four high-rise apartment buildings on one side, a flat desert with camels grazing on the other. A second shot, 19 years later, shows the same highway 10 lanes wide, crammed with cars and bordered, jungle-like, by dozens upon dozens of towering office buildings and condominiums.

Burj-eoning growth

On the ground, Dubai seems bigger than its statistics. When driving, you’d think the population was 10.7 million, not 1.7 million. The city stretches 40 miles along the Persian Gulf coast; our first stop was to check in at The Address Hotel, which faces the new $1.5 billion Burj (tower) Khalifa. The tallest building in the world, it rises more than half a mile; designed by Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it resembles a slender silver rocket poised for launch. Burj Khalifa boasts staggering specifications: 900 luxury condos; 54 elevators that travel at 40 miles an hour, a 76th-floor swimming pool, the world’s highest; a 124th-floor observation deck, also the world’s highest; and a 158th-floor mosque—yep, the world’s highest.

The area surrounding Burj Khalifa epitomizes modern Dubai: thousands of high-rise offices, apartments and condominiums sprouting from the ground in all directions. Amid this urban uprising is the Dubai Mall, billed as the “world’s largest shopping and entertainment destination.” That seems an apt superlative for a complex that contains more than 1,100 shops and restaurants (Prada, Gucci, Diesel, Quiksilver, CPK, they’re all there), a 2.6-million-gallon saltwater aquarium and an NHL-size ice rink. The surrounding 500-acre area, dubbed downtown Dubai, also consists of greenbelts, a man-made lake and a lagoon that holds—here’s another superlative—“the grandest, most complex fountain ever built,” says Mark Fuller, who designed the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and Lincoln Center in New York.

After a few days we transferred to another Address Hotel, 20 miles down bustling Sheikh Zayed Road, passing en route the enormous Mall of the Emirates, famous for its 800-meter indoor ski slope. Our room overlooked a four-mile waterway carved out of the desert, part of a project called Dubai Marina; hundreds of gleaming white yachts (no sailboats) were berthed below. It brought to mind the Chicago River as it winds through downtown Chicago—only on a much larger scale.

Dubai still appears to be growing, although, as best we could determine, not at the feverish pre-crisis pace that required tens of thousands of laborers imported from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to work day and night. Many of those laborers are gone now, most reportedly disgruntled because dreams of employment at good wages did not pan out.

In November 2009, Dubai received a cash infusion of $25 billion from Abu Dhabi to help restructure its own enormous debts. Yet on our visit, almost everywhere buildings were under construction, and traffic—on the streets and in the mammoth malls—appeared robust. Indeed, official reports this spring claimed citywide hotel occupancy rates had risen to 80 percent, up from 50 percent the year before.

Sales of Dubai’s seemingly endless supply of commercial and residential real estate, however, are another matter. Even though ostensibly 90 percent of Burj Khalifa’s condos are sold, citywide prices for condos and office space have fallen dramatically and, even from a tourist’s perspective, many high-rise buildings appear vacant. One evening, at dinner in the Dubai Marina Yacht Club, we asked the manager, “How many of the surrounding towers are occupied?” With a laugh he answered, “Not as many as we’d like.”

It is not uncommon, he explained, for a sheikh to purchase a building and leave it unoccupied. The government does not release economic statistics and forbids the state-controlled press from publishing negative business stories, so it is difficult to determine the truth about Dubai’s financial condition.

Visions and Horses

We missed by days the Dubai World Cup, a horse race with a $10 million purse. Sheikh Mohammed, now 60, is an equine enthusiast who says a “love for the horse runs in my blood.” He breeds horses and competes in day-long journeys on horseback across 100 miles of desert. According to the official story, the Sheikh met his junior and most public wife, Princess Haya, during one such event.

He’s also channeled this personal passion for horses into a business venture—Meydan City, the world’s most ambitious racetrack. Begun in 2007, Meydan boasts a mile-long grandstand with seating for 60,000; a 100-yard LED screen (the world’s longest) that allows fans to view races from a rooftop pool; and, for the purebred Arabian horses, air-conditioned stables with 30-foot ceilings and floors covered with pine bark chips. Islam forbids gambling, so spectators are given a free racing form from which they can pick favorites and win thousands in prize money.

Dubai is betting part of its future on the three massive man-made “islands.” Development of the first, Palm Jumeirah, is mostly completed, with 4,000 beachfront mansions anchored by the 1,539-room Atlantis hotel. The seven other luxury hotels include the 1,000-foot-tall Burj al-Arab, whose billowing sail profile has become Dubai’s icon. Unfinished is Donald Trump’s 61-story $500 million hotel, stalled because of the economic crisis.

A second island (actually, they’re not islands because you drive onto them) is Palm Jebel Ali. Half again as large as Palm Jumeirah, it extends more than 10 miles into the water. Palm Jebel Ali was about half done—78 miles of roads intended for an eventual 70,000 residents, several more hotels and a Busch Gardens Sea World—when the financial meltdown stopped construction. A third faux island, Palm Diera, is the biggest yet, designed to have a surface equal to Manhattan’s and a population of one million, but land reclamation is only half finished.

Dubai’s most ambitious offshore project is The World, a 15-square-mile archipelago of 300 man-made actual islands, each at least three acres in size. “These will be purchased by the world’s mega-wealthy,” says Sultan bin Sulayem, Sheikh Mohammed’s point man for reconfiguring the coastline of Dubai. The World is only partially completed and only one island is inhabited—by Princess Haya. Reportedly, rock star Rod Stewart has bought another island, named Britain, for $33 million.

As if creating a project named The World isn’t enough, Dubai is also creating Dubailand, billed, of course, as “the most ambitious tourism destination ever created.” As designed, it’s a 110-square-mile project (for reference, San Francisco is 49 square miles) comprising six Disneyland-scale theme parks—from replicas of the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal to a sports complex featuring a $272 million indoor ski mountain to the Dubai Autodrome, a Grand Prix racing circuit with grandstand seating for 7,000. At the time of our visit, little development had taken place. We saw hints of construction of the Autodrome, but the rest of Dubailand was still desert.

Dream Works

As much as Dubai’s explosive growth bubble seems to have burst, its inspiration should not be summarily denied. Despite the halted construction and unfinished projects, the persistent, dare-to-be-great desert dream of Sheikh Mohammed burns bright. In fact, perpendicular to those soaring towers, we found an immensely practical example right along the ground—a commuter train.

In 2003, Sheikh Mohammed announced plans for a $4.2 billion electronic light rail system to service the city. The trains would stop at air-conditioned terminals and be controlled by computers, silently moving people by the thousands above freeways and under waterways on 45 miles of strategically laid track. The system is mostly built and we rode it, marveling at the sleek trains and futuristic terminals. From our perspective, Dubai Metro seemed a spectacular success.

In his book, Sheikh Mohammed explains how in Dubai so much was accomplished so quickly: “It’s simply because we never drowned ourselves in detail; the key is to not allow details to cloud your basic goals.” Statements like that offer much to think about—especially for dreamers in more bureaucratic places around the globe.

Meanwhile, Dubai, like Shanghai, is truly a 21st century city—a monstrous and fascinating work in progress—and a visit there is a rare opportunity to witness history in the making.

Out of Control, Dubai style

Be wary of Desert Safaris: After having our brains boggled by Dubai’s countless off-the-charts attractions, our afternoon activity sounded, well, boring. “A Desert Safari,” is how they described it. Therefore, after finishing a sushi lunch at the poolside restaurant at The Address Hotel in downtown Dubai, I ordered a second glass of wine. “This time, make it a red,” I remember saying.

Ten minutes later, eight of us were ushered into two spanking new (and hulking) Toyota Land Cruisers. “Spiffy wheels,” I thought to myself while settling into the shotgun seat. About then, I noticed a series of roll bars lining the Land Cruiser’s roof. “Hah,” I joked to our driver safari guide Jamil Sammour of Gulf Ventures, “aren’t roll bars a little overkill for a Desert Safari in Dubai?”

About an hour later, I received my answer. It seems “Desert Safari” is code for a rollicking Dubai pastime more commonly called dune bashing. You know how sand dunes can be carved by the wind until they resemble ocean waves that are about to break? Well, we were going surfing—in Land Cruisers! I swear, going up the face of one dune my head was lower than my butt. And screaming didn’t bring things into balance. Then our driver—we called him Evel Knievel—decided to drive off the lip of a wave-shaped sand dune. Heading up the dune’s backside, all I saw was blue sky; all I heard were screams. After that, I am certain we caught air.

After a dozen similar stunts, my barely digested sushi and red wine…oh, you don’t want to hear about it. Just remember this: when in Dubai, if “A Desert Safari” is your afternoon activity—go for it! My only advice: make a mad dash for the shotgun seat and enjoy your lunch after the ride. ­