On a nearby sandbar—one of the Palm’s 17 peninsular fronds—he showed off more than a dozen plots where researchers are testing salt-tolerant plant varieties. The plots represent a microcosm of a $3 million-a-year research effort at the InternationalCenter for Biosaline Agriculture a dozen miles away. There, for the past four years, scientists have been working to identify crops and landscape plants that use salt water.
“There is a huge difference in what it takes to make salt water drinkable, compared to what it takes to make it just pure enough to grow crops,” said Saeed Al Mussallam, commercial manager of a residential development on the outskirts of Dubai, as we drove through landscape that could have been in Nevada. “Today what you see here is desert. Come back in a few years and it will all be olive trees and orchards.”
It would be easier to regard such claims with skepticism, were Dubai’s other transformations less dramatic. Obviously, some of these plans won’t work. But who’s to say which will fail? Not the roughly 200,000 citizens of Dubai, who won’t hesitate to tell you they are living well.
One morning toward the end of my stay, I drove out into the desert with a guide, Yousif Assad, bound for a resort about 45 minutes southeast of the city. There, Sheik Mohammed has set up a 30-room eco-resort (rates can go up to $1,400 a night) to serve as an environmental model for Dubai’s future developers as well as a preserve for the emirate’s fast-vanishing desert. Admittedly, the tranquil Al-Maha Resort offers a rarefied experience: each suite has its own swimming pool; in the evening, guests ride camels to a nearby ridge to sip champagne and watch the sun go down behind the dunes.
Assad, the son of a camel breeder, leads tourist excursions into the desert. “But not because I have to,” he says, but “because I want to. I am Bedou and without the desert I am nothing.” He says he appreciates what the government has made possible, which includes grants of money and housing for newlyweds as well as excellent schools and a booming economy. When he injured his leg playing for one of Dubai’s official soccer teams, the government sent him to Germany for seven months of surgery and rehabilitation. He never paid a dime. “That’s because our sheiks are generous. They share money with the people. You think that happens in Saudi Arabia? Those sheiks, they share nothing.”