“Veiling is a highly personal decision here,” a Dubai woman told me. “Those who veil tend to look on it as something like a raincoat they throw on when they leave the house.” When, as it sometimes happens, the breeze from a passing vehicle lifts an abaya to the ankle, that gust of wind may reveal spikeheeled, Italian leather sandals, or jeans and running shoes. What appears most remarkable is the ease with which Dubai women in purdah mingle with bare-midriff and miniskirted women, Arab or not—thigh to thigh in a hotel elevator, for example, as the piped-in crooning of Christina Aguilera inquires, “Voulez vous couchez avec moi?”
Dubai’s women have the same legal and educational rights as men and hold many public sector jobs. Sheika Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the 23-year-old daughter of Dubai’s crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, even competes in karate.
Pragmatic open-mindedness has also prevailed in the disposition of Dubai’s territorial boundaries. As late as the 1940s, tribes in the region warred over disputed borders; such demarcations were submerged when the UAE was formed in 1971. Those tribal borders still exist on administrative maps: someone has to know which sheik owns which oil well or who pays for which streetlight. But for me, a map showing Dubai’s exact boundaries was almost impossible to find. “Sweetheart, there are no borders!” says Mary Bishara, an Egyptian marketing manager for an Emirates Airline subsidiary. “That’s what makes this such a remarkable country.” A knowledgeable expat eventually sketched Dubai’s boundaries for me on a UAE map.
Such demarcations, in any case, may well be beside the point. “We want people to work, live and travel where they wish in a UAE free of the past,” says Ibrahim Belselah, the government official who led Dubai’s preparations for the 11,000-person World Bank and International Monetary Fund annual meeting scheduled to take place there in September (after this issue goes to press).
Today, tribal warfare takes the form of economic competition. Abu Dhabi, with 86 percent of the UAE’s land and enough oil reserves to last 150 years, may be the richest of the emirates, but Dubai is where the action is. Supertankers crowd its shipyards, which constitute one of the world’s largest container ports. Arab playboys boogie through the night at gilt-edged nightclubs and bars in some 300 hotels. Tiger Woods has played in its golf tournaments. There are camel races, horse races and powerboat races. Thirty years ago, Dubai’s students attended traditional Islamic schools where, in paper-scarce classrooms, they scratched Koranic verses onto polished cattle bones. Today, 37 percent of the population is linked to the Internet, and municipal agencies etch their Web site addresses onto marble facades of downtown headquarters.