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Dazzling Dubai

The Persian Gulf kingdom has embraced openness and capitalism. Might other Mideast nations follow?

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Kuwait, but there’s little sense of the incredible energy you feel here,” Tor Svelland, CEO of a Norwegian software company, told me. “I remember being in Hong Kong in the early 1990s. It was just like this. People here see only possibilities.”

 

This kind of thinking can lead to a mind-reeling brand of over-the-topism, best exemplified by the Palm project, a mega-development now taking shape off the JumeirahBeach and its tourist hotels southwest of town. There, Dubai’s beachfront is being radically expanded through the creation of an intricate sand island constructed in the shape of a date palm. The trunk will stretch three miles; a surrounding, crescent-shaped breakwater will extend nearly seven miles; some of the 17 frond-shaped peninsulas will jut out more than a mile into the gulf. The complex will sprout 2,500 beachfront villas, up to 2,400 shoreline apartments, 49 hotels, and a water park, replete with performing killer whales and dolphins. The $1.5 billion project, begun in July 2001, is scheduled to open in 2005. Its developers boast it will be visible from the moon. And there’s a second Palm project already under way nearby.

 

From earth, the best place to watch the Palm emerging from the waves is the restaurant atop the nearby Burj Al Arab (ArabianTower) hotel, 54 stories of architectural swagger designed to look like a racing sloop sailing under full spinnaker. Opened in 1999, the Burj so symbolizes Dubai’s soaring aspirations that it adorns the emirate’s license plates.

 

Not everyone loves the Burj (“a bit flash for my taste,” sniffed one British expat), but it does function as a mirror of the once and future Dubai. Accommodations include a $7,500-a-night royal suite (Bill Clinton has stayed there) and the least expensive suite, a $1,000-a-night duplex larger than many houses I’ve lived in. With the help of off-season rates and a marathon bout of Internet comparison shopping, I managed to eke out a few days there at the bargain price of $682 a night—a discount coinciding with the Dubai Shopping Festival, held in January. No cutbacks were evident in the five-star service: iced French champagne, mirrors above the parking lot-size bed, 11 telephones, including one at the bidet and one by the Jacuzzi, and a remote-controlled TV that permitted me to identify a visitor from a floor away or open the door for my personal butler, Eddie, a Filipino who appeared distressed I wouldn’t let him serve me dinner or unpack my clothes.

 

Among the 1,200-member staff (which includes 20 chauffeurs for the hotel’s ten Rolls Royces) are 6 men devoted entirely to maintaining the hotel’s floor-to-ceiling tropical fish tanks. The 15-foot-tall aquariums flank the entrance escalators and serve as the centerpiece for the ultra-sheik Al Mahara restaurant. There, moray eels and sharks glide past your table, eyeing relatives swimming in hoisin sauce and sauvignon blanc.

 

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