At the sheikh rashid terminal of Dubai International Airport—a glittering temple of Ali Baba eclecticism and gateway to this 1,500-square-mile principality on the Persian Gulf—a visitor steps onto a carpet patterned after wind-ruffled desert sand, passes goldtone replicas of palm trees and continues past a shop-till-you-drop duty-free store where one can buy a bar of gold or a raffle ticket for a Maserati. Afew steps away stands the special departure gate for Hajj pilgrims en route to Mecca. They have their own Starbucks counter.
Beyond the terminal lies a startling skyline: high-rise hotels and office buildings of stainless steel and blue glass springing straight out of the desert, the backdrop to a waterfront where wooden dhows laden with Indian teak and spices from Zanzibar sail out of antiquity. Only ten minutes away, in the mind-numbing vastness of Deira City Centre, Dubai’s largest suburban-style shopping mall, children in traditional Arab robes lose themselves in American video games. Veiled women, swathed in billowing black and sporting gold bracelets and diamonds, shop designer boutiques for thong underwear, garter belts and stiletto-heeled Italian shoes.
Islamic fundamentalists may rage at the West in many parts of the Arab world, but Dubai has embraced Western ways. Once a drowsy, flyblown haven for gold smugglers and pearl divers, the little emirate today is racing to realize a vision of itself as the Singapore of the Middle East: a high-tech oasis of trade, tourism and tolerance in a region long shell shocked by political and religious extremism.
“The royal family here wants to position Dubai as an innovative leader and a global player, and they’re determined to make that happen in their lifetime,” a Dutch-born Dubai businessman told me over a cup of Arabic coffee the first morning of my stay. “The speed and magnitude of what they’ve accomplished is staggering. These people never experienced an industrial revolution. They’ve gone almost straight from a nomadic life on camels to the world of cellphones and faxes, absorbing the new with incredible efficiency.” Yet, he cautions, “don’t be fooled by all the stainless steel and glass. At its heart this remains a deeply traditional society.”
“Dubai is the best unkept secret in the Middle East,” says Youssef Ibrahim, a former correspondent for the New York Times and an expert on the Middle East who recently set up shop as a consultant in Dubai. “What’s been created here is an absolutely irresistible attraction: a safe, sophisticated, very international city-state with completely free enterprise and all the pleasures of life, located next to the largest reserves of the world’s most vital strategic commodity—oil. It’s not only a Mecca for world trade, it’s the best listening post in the region.”