This is no mirage

Incredible wealth has transformed Dubai into a tourist trap - complete with indoor ski slopes.

palm island 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
palm island 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A Dubai resident of Indian origin dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter, who greets him at the gate, offers the man a choice: "Since you have as many good deeds as you have evil deeds in your life, you can choose to go to either paradise or hell." The man thinks for a while and then asks, "Can I go to Dubai instead?" - a popular joke among immigrants in Dubai. Dubai is indeed a place suspended between two different worlds. The creek that divides it is a prime example. The small, nimble boats called abra and the wooden trade ships called dhow that carry passengers and goods from all across the Persian Gulf, resemble exotic decorations taken from a Hollywood set of a Sinbad movie. And they are overshadowed by splendid skyscrapers that kiss the rare Arabian clouds. The dhow are reminiscent of the long-ago era of continental exploration, sea pirates and the great bazaars of the East, filled with the bursting aroma of coffee and spices. But the fantasy of the mysterious Orient immediately transforms into cyber-dimension as soon as you step out of the abra, filled mainly with tourists and foreign workers, into the glossy reality of genuine Dubai, where there are more Jaguars than buses and the combined length of the skyscrapers would be enough to reach the moon. Though there are still traditional bazaars, or shouks, in Dubai - including the gold shouk, the spice shouk, the mobile phones shouk and the Mini DV-cam shouk - the commercial heart of Dubai is elsewhere. In the Italian-style Mercato Mall, a large, elaborate map needs to be studied carefully before you begin your day-long journey in the modern counterpart of the ancient shouk. Here, you can find both couture evening gowns and couture veil and abaya (women's traditional black wide upper coat), as well as Burberry and Versace. You won't find the crooked money-changers with piles of foreign coins, but you will find sophisticated ATMs with installed DVDs that allow you to enjoy Dubai's view while waiting for your cash. The traditional coffee shops are replaced by McDonalds, KFC and Golden Fork (a local fast food chain). There are no magicians and jugglers entertaining the crowd with their unbelievable stunts, but there is a movie theater and a Tower Records shop. And still, despite the well-felt breath of globalization, Dubai projects uniqueness, quickly conquering a place of importance in the region and in the world. "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," wrote Rudyard Kipling, but it seems Dubai strives to prove the great poet wrong. From camel to Mercedes There isn't the slightest resemblance between the Dubai of today and the Dubai of 1966, when Sheikh Zayed bin Nahyan, who is often called the founding father of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), first came to power. The people of the Emirates are extremely proud of the giant leap their country has made in such a short period of time. The promotional film about the country, Creative Energy, was released last year by the UAE's Information Ministry (it can be viewed at and demonstrates shabby mud huts and fishing villages on the coasts of Dubai's Creek - one of the fashionable areas of modern Dubai. Until the 1930s, the Emirates' main industry was pearl hunting. But when the Japanese first introduced the cultivated pearl, the profits from pearl trade dropped sharply. By 1946, the rates had hit rock bottom - 60 times less than they were in 1926. So when the fountains of "black gold" started flowing from the desert lands of the Arab Peninsula, the situation of the country could not have been any worse. The oil wells were discovered in Dubai in 1966, and the extraction of oil started in 1969. Along with the oil came the money, which floated around the country in the mid-'70s during the oil crisis. Visitors and tourists who'd been in the UAE during that time described a rapid growth, but also flashy and extravagant money waste. "People who until recently used to ride camels were buying cars now, the most pricey and fashionable ones. They got rid of them only to get newer models as soon as the cars became dirty or ran out of gas," writes Patrick Lamb, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, in his book The Arabs. Fortunately, soon after the primary shock and euphoria, the rulers of UAE started calculating for the future. Despite the fact that the oil revenues alone could sustain the country's economy for a while, in the long run, dependence on the oil industry was neither smart nor profitable, the sheikhs concluded, and the Great Construction period began. During the past two decades the rulers of the UAE invested not only in real estate and the physical development of the country, but also in human resources, local and foreign. Schools and colleges sprouted like mushrooms, and free education was offered for UAE natives who wished to study in Great Britain, Germany, France and the US. As for the foreign human power, the best engineers, architects, advisers, experts in PR-technology, hotel managers and chefs were recruited from all over the world, so that in less than 30 years, Dubai, the heart of UAE, is predicted to become the Middle Eastern Singapore. FOR A FEW years, the city resembled an enormous construction site, as tall buildings, fancy hotels, modern ports and airports, sleek highways and curvy interchanges were shaping the new face of Dubai. When the process was completed and the scaffolds were removed, the results were overwhelming. Looking at a picture of Dubai in 1968 and comparing it with the shining, ultra-modern city of today, one immediately thinks of the story of "the ugly duckling," which in Dubai became a reality. Indeed, just as the ugly duckling transformed into a beautiful swan, the elegant designer skyscrapers replaced the mud huts of the past, Mercedes (or Bentley, a more fashionable option) had relegated the camel to the zoo and the phantasmagoric air-conditioned shopping malls substituted the old-time shouks. And yet, these external changes are not the most striking ones. There are beautiful glass skyscrapers and chic malls in the neighboring Gulf oil-rich countries as well, such as Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. But none of them became a tourism magnet, or an international trade hub, such as Dubai. And none of them has Dubai's charm, glamor and style. Pulling a rabbit out of nowhere, turning dust into gold and achieving the impossible is the motto of Dubai, which succeeded in building a flourishing tourist industry (3 million visitors a year) and becoming an international business center that rivals East Asian tigers (third place in the world in export and re-export after Singapore and Hong Kong). Now, only 10 percent of its economy depends on oil revenues. Back to the future Singapore of the Middle East or the new Babylon on the shores of the Persian Gulf? Or perhaps a piece of Manhattan that was magically transferred to the sands of Arabia? Either way, life in Dubai doesn't stop for a second. Don't even try to escape the rush hour and gigantic traffic jams - every hour here is rush hour! It seems as if Dubai is in a hurry to make up for time lost when the country was sound asleep in the back of history. Like any other megapolis around the world, Dubai lives and enjoys itself around the clock and around the year, regardless of the weather conditions. And when there are sandstorms or it's 50 Celsius outside, why not stay in? Who cares about the sweltering heat when you can put on a ski suit, grab some skis and conquer the slopes of "Ski Dubai," the largest artificial ski resort? Inside the Mall of Emirates (the largest mall in the region), for 140 dirhams (about $43) you get the gear, a suit and a ski pass for 2 hours. Igor, one of the technicians at Ski Dubai who came here from Samara, Russia, to work, said that since the resort opened in January, there has been a constant flow of visitors. The snow is just like real snow, the temperature is about -2 to -4 and the sight of skiers from Iran, Russia, France, the US, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, Malaysia, Pakistan, Ukraine and Japan in red and blue Ski Dubai gear is breathtaking. And the Dubians didn't stop there. While sipping hot chocolate at Ski Dubai (while outside it was 30 ), I heard a rumor that the owners of the slope are considering bidding on hosting future Winter Olympics! If you had to choose one word to describe Dubai, "superlative" definitely would be it. "The highest building on earth," "the most luxurious hotel," "the cleanest city in the region," "the best airline of the year" - Dubai won't settle for second-best. Extravagant and futuristic projects are launched one after another, as if Dubai were seeking to take over the Guinness Book of World Records. And if progress continues at this rate, it just might. Dubai's most famous sensation of the '90s - the spacious Burj al-Arab 7-star hotel, constructed to resemble a billowing sail - is now overshadowed by the artificial islands "Nahla" and "A'lam" ("The Palm" and "The World") being built today by the shores of Dubai. Designed in the shapes of a palm tree and all the continents of the world, the islands will offer a lifestyle of luxury to those who can afford the pleasure - e.g. David Beckham, Michael Jackson, etc. The islands that will eventually form the palm tree are almost finished, but no one can enter yet - except, of course, the future clients! But even if you aren't David Beckham, you can still enjoy the shimmering, somewhat haughty splendor of the city, where gigantomania and perfection have become a religion. AFTER SPENDING a couple of hours skiing in the mall, the best part was changing back into a light summer dress and forgetting all about the cold and snow. And whether you choose to wear a strapless mini dress or a long-sleeved black abaya is really up to you. Live and let others live is the credo of Dubai and its residents. One could argue that considering the large number of tourists and foreigners living in Dubai (around 90%, according to some statistics), this is the only path for coexistence, but this tolerant approach was embraced by the rulers of the Emirates. The unique mix is especially vivid in the malls, since this is pretty much the only place where you can find local residents - men in white galabiyas accompanied by their mysterious-looking wives wrapped in black gowns and head-scarves - walking side by side with Indian women in colorful saris, women in mini-skirts and shorts from Europe, the US and Australia, women in tight power-suits from China and the Philippines, women in face-veils from Saudi Arabia and beautiful embroidered abayas from Iran. And sometimes even these can mix among themselves, since there are plenty of Arab girls who come to Dubai to enjoy the freedom and escape traditional behavioral patterns. I met Shereen, a beautiful, blue-eyed girl from Teheran, Iran, when standing in line for the changing rooms in Dubai's branch of Zara. "My family comes here all the time. In Dubai, I dress the way I want, I do whatever I want. You can't have fun in Iran at all, that's for sure," Shereen explains to me, showing me a few items she picked for herself - a jeans mini-skirt, a gold tank top and an unidentified item that resembles a shirt and a bra. When asked where she would wear these types of clothes in Teheran, Shereen coyly responded: "I have a special wardrobe for Dubai." One spot that epitomizes the symphony of contradictions that is Dubai is The Pork Shop - where piles of the finest bacon, ham, sausages and pork lie everywhere, despite all the Koran regulations against eating pig. An inscription on the store explains that this shop is for non-Muslims only... but the vendor doesn't request birth certificates from anyone. Another characteristic place is the Dubai Marina. Slightly after 1 a.m., hundreds of people of different religions and nations gather here to enjoy life, sip coffee in small cafes, eat Japanese, Lebanese, Cantonese and Vietnamese food and walk around lit-up fountains. Businessmen, housewives, children, tourists, veiled and unveiled women - all of whom have chosen one of Dubai's many lifestyles - fill the promenade. The expression "clash of civilizations" never sounded more awkward. UAE IS NOT a democratic country; it is ruled by the presidents and the council of shura who choose the president. The official religion of the country is Islam and the source of the legislation is the Islamic sharia, but foreign residents are free to practice their own faith and traditions. After a short tour in Dubai and neighboring Emirates, I found churches, both Greek Orthodox and Catholic, a Russian supermarket and dozens of Indian schools. The Indians and the Pakistanis are the majority of the foreign manpower here in Dubai. The locals even joke that Dubai, in fact, is the best run Indian town. There are also many Eastern Europeans, especially Russians, and plenty of Iranians, French and Americans (Israelis are not allowed in; I, for example, entered using my Russian passport). Some work in the construction and service sphere, others in the prestigious Dubai Internet City and Media City. Today, Dubai's role in the Middle East is almost similar to that of Beirut of the '60s or Cairo of the '50s, as it rapidly becomes a leader not only where business is concerned but also in the artistic and cultural spheres, attracting young singers and actors from all over the Middle East. Will Dubai become not only the capital, a bright star and a magnet, but also a role model for other cities in the region? The old men of Dubai, who saw their homes transformed from tiny, dirty villages into a shimmering, ultramodern megapolis would say: "Inshallah - with God's help - everything is possible."