It is also a regional anomaly, an absolute but highly dynamic monarchy that has created an economic powerhouse out of little more than vision, geography and will. The emirate has neither elections nor a constitution, but its flexible, enlightened legal system incorporates elements of both Islamic and secular law in civil and criminal matters. The rulers stress the positive guiding precepts of the Prophet Mohammed, including reducing prison sentences for inmates who familiarize themselves with the Koran. Despite the country’s adherence to the principles of Islam, the emirate is tolerant of infidels, permitting Dubai’s hotels to sell liquor. Like its sister states in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Dubai opposed the recent war in Iraq but confined its disapproval to providing humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people rather than demonizing the West.
Only slightly larger than Rhode Island, Dubai is but one of seven ministates in the UAE, a loose federation of monarchies stretching 370 miles from Saudi Arabia to Oman.With the exception of Abu Dhabi, the other states—Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah—are even smaller. The entire region was a British protectorate from about 1820 to 1971.
“Dubai is sui generis,” says New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman, the veteran Middle East correspondent and author of the bestselling Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11. “There are no other Dubais in the Arab world.” But it may, he says, provide a cultural and economic template for that world’s future.
Russian tourists flock to Dubai for the sun and beaches, British vacationers for tax-free shopping, and French businessmen for the kingdom’s booming trade in fiber optics and information technology. But greeting all who arrive at the InterContinental Dubai is a slight, white-bearded figure in Arab robes. Seated with a platter of dates and a brass coffeepot beneath a small striped canopy in the lobby, he fulfills an ancient role: welcoming the weary desert traveler into the Bedouin encampment and offering the hospitality of the tribe. Never mind that travelers dismount not from camels but from desert-model BMWs and Mercedes sedans equipped with TVs and air-cooled seats.
Although Western dress is as common as the modern architecture here, at least half the population wear traditional Arab garb—the men in white or checkered head scarves (gutra) and the long-sleeved neck-to-ankle white tunic, or dishdasha; the women in black caftanlike abayas, arms and head covered. Many of those women, moreover, will be veiled: some totally, others displaying only their eyes, still others eyes and forehead.