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Lavish, luxe, ambitious Dubai, where the snow is fake but the Bedouin roots remain real

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“THE EARTH HAS A NEW CENTER,” proclaims a billboard on the road into Dubai. It was 2 a.m. and I’d just flown in from Ethiopia, where I’d been on a magazine assignment. I decided to take advantage of a layover in Dubai for few days to see what all the hype is about. The media are fascinated with this “city of the future,” one of the seven United Arab Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula,  and the fastest-growing metropolis on the planet.

The airport was a glitzy shopping mall—the first of many I would encounter—with hotels and restaurants and international travelers crowding the Internet cafes. Late-model taxis with computerized meters and English-speaking drivers lined up outside.
I arrived without a hotel reservation—not ideal—but I got lucky at a hotel information counter in the airport: an apartment in a new building in Bur Dubai, the area I most wanted to see. The rate was just $110 a night as a last-minute booking,  much lower, it turns out, than the rates listed online.

This was my first visit to the Arab world, and I was more curious about Arabic and Bedouin culture than about the mega-malls Dubai has become known for. The historic areas of Bur Dubai and Deira straddle Dubai Creek, where the cargo vessels called dhows dock. The narrow streets and souks, my Lonely Planet guide promised, exude  authentic charm. I wanted to see this older city as well as the “21st-century phenomenon” of new Dubai, so I decided to cover a lot of ground.
The first day luckily was a Friday, a Muslim holiday. That meant relief on the freeways from the workweek’s traffic jams. The skyline is monstrous, an astonishing sight as it comes into view. Towers of gleaming glass, chrome and granite are packed like shiny sardines along Sheik Zayed road, the main drag running east-west. As recently as the early ‘90s, this was an empty desert road.

Described in a 2006 Vanity Fair article as a “skyline on crack,” the construction spreads in all directions. Skyscrapers sprout up in record time. Everything seems to meld together in a futuristic blend of cutting edge architecture.

The driving force behind this extraordinary growth is Dubai’s ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, who is expanding his late father’s vision of a world business-and-tourism hub. Sheik Mohammed is worth an estimated $27 billion.    

Tens of thousands of immigrant laborers work eight- to 12-hour shifts round the clock to make this dream a reality. Dubai has been criticized for its treatment of these construction crews, mainly Pakistanis and South Asians, forced to work in extreme heat and often cheated out of wages by layers of agents. After a strike, the government began imposing fines and monitoring work schedules and living conditions.

Dubai’s “race for the top” includes the Burj Dubai, designed to be the world’s tallest building with an estimated 160 stories when it’s completed in 2008. Every residential unit was sold before the second story went up.

Viewed over the sea of cranes, earthmovers and scaffolding, the dusty landscape looks almost like a movie set with a computer-generated backdrop that couldn’t possibly be real. I kept wondering, what’s the hurry? The answer, of course, is money.
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