Between Two Worlds

Not quite the Middle East or the West, with ancient customs and a modern attitude, one thing is certain Dubai’s buzz is just starting

By: David Swanson

First things first: To get to Dubai you don’t have to travel through a war zone. As my journey aboard Emirates’ Airbus A340-500 from JFK to Dubai took me over eastern Turkey in late afternoon, the pilot veered left. The onboard monitor displaying our route revealed the plane making a standard course correction to steer away from crossing into Iraq.

You also don’t need to be as apprehensive about casual garb as I had been. For my visit I packed shorts how else to cope with Dubai’s 100-degree daytime heat? But when I sauntered into the main dining room of the new Madinat Jumeirah Arabian Resort for my first breakfast, I realized I was the only person showing his legs. Careless faux pas, or was I being overly sensitive to the local culture? Most of the resort’s guests appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin, the men wearing flowing white dishdasha robe and sandals and many of the women adorned in a black, head-to-toe abaya that covered all but their eyes and hands.

I was relieved when a British couple entered wearing shorts and T-shirts and looking very Western indeed.

Dedicated to a peaceful embrace of both oil-free commerce and a tourism industry built around shopping and the exoticism of the Middle East, the emirate of Dubai one of seven that makes up the United Arab Emirates has rapidly emerged as one of the world’s must-see cities. In 2003, when the emirate had 5 million visitors, the WTO named Dubai the world’s fastest growing tourism destination. Current projections hold that Dubai will host 15 million by 2015.

Perhaps it’s time to get to know Dubai as something more than Arabs and oil.

Remaking Dubai

Abu Dhabi is the largest and historically the wealthiest of the emirates (think of them as emir-led states). Dubai represents just 5 percent of the UAE’s territory roughly the size of Rhode Island. Oil was discovered in 1966 when the emirate was a lowly fishing and trading port with a population of just 59,000. Today, with a population over 1 million, Dubai is predicting the end of its oil reserves in 10-18 years depending on who you talk to.

Credited as the visionary behind remaking Dubai, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al-Maktoum anticipated the end of oil revenues and set about to create a future that would enable his emirate to thrive well into the 21st century. With just a few elements to work with a duty-free trading port, 40 miles of Persian Gulf beachfront and sand dunes as far as the eye can see he initiated Dubai’s dramatic transformation into a city of 1.2 million and a Middle Eastern hub for information, technology, tourism and transportation.

For the moment, American visitors are few and far between. After all, if you want good beaches Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean are within easy reach. And if it’s Middle Eastern history and culture you seek, what’s on display in Egypt and Turkey, to name just two choices, is more intoxicating. But if you want to see a startling new vision of what the Middle East may very well become, Dubai is it.

“Middle America tends to tar everything between India and Turkey with the same brush,” said Timothy Clark, president of Emirates Airline. “But in the last 14 years Dubai has surged ahead, and in the next five years Dubai will emerge as something that has to be seen to be believed.”

Dubai’s airport is undergoing a $4.1 billion expansion that will increase capacity to over 70 million passengers a year in 2008. Elaborate resorts that could rival Disney World are emerging along the coastline. The largest shopping mall in the world complete with indoor ski slope is under construction, and an astonishing trio of manmade island developments is being manufactured out of rubble and sand vacuumed up from the gulf.

The first of these islands, The Palm Jumeirah, in the shape of a three-mile-wide palm tree, is located a few hundred yards offshore and accessed by an eight-lane throughway along its “trunk.” Apartments, villas and town homes for 5,000 residents are being built the first will be occupied by mid-2006. The development also includes 30 hotels, including one themed with Venice-like canals, and another that replicates the Atlantis resort (yes, that Atlantis, of the Bahamas).

Soccer superstar David Beckham is among the buyers, and President Bill Clinton a big Dubai booster on the Larry King show has toured the construction. A second “tree,” The Palm Jebel Ali, will be completed in 2008. Combined, the two projects add almost 75 miles of coastline to Dubai and both are sold out.
Midway through the reclamation process another archipelago of 300 manmade islands will loosely reflect the map of the world, including outposts shaped vaguely like a few American states (such as the 10-acre Florida island). Buy your own island prices start at $7 million.

At the Palm Sales Office, a visitor center for the Palm’s development company Nakheel, scale models revealed the intricate plans while video presentations announced future projects. The islands are only three of a dozen massive Nakheel developments under way.

Sights & Souks

The shopping, for which Dubai is renowned, has historically been concentrated in the souks of Deira, a neighborhood along the east side of the Creek, the S-shaped inlet that divides the old city in two. To see what bargains could be had, I boarded an abra, one of the countless water taxis that putters along the Creek ferrying passengers from one side to the other. This rustic style of travel, shoulder to shoulder with working-class residents, contrasted splendidly against the progressive architecture towering in the distance.

The Gold Souk lines a modern-looking, covered street dozens of fluorescent-lit, air-conditioned shops glimmered with jewelry, much of it handcrafted in India, while other items were name-brand pieces from companies like DeBeers. The souk is said to be one of the best places in the world to acquire gold, and there were plenty of buyers negotiating for 22-karat bracelets and necklaces calculators and digital scales positioned at the ready.

More intriguing to me was the Spice Souk. Competition from malls and supermarkets has caused it to dwindle to less than a half-dozen shops, but bags brimmed with saffron, peppercorns, frankincense and myrrh. I haggled affably with the Iranian owner for a few jars to bring home, and tried to avert my eyes from two women at one corner of the shop who were bartering for spices. Enveloped in abayas but glittering with jewelry on their hands, the scene was the most “foreign” I experienced in Dubai.

After shopping, my next stop was the Dubai Museum, which occupies a restored 1787 fort, Dubai’s oldest building. It was probably the only structure I saw that predated the 1960s. Made of coral cemented with lime, the museum casts a light on the emirate’s history and culture, with ancient musical instruments competing for attention with ancient weapons.

But the museum is not what most visitors will remember about Dubai. The dominant image is that of modern, sometimes majestic architecture especially the Burj al Arab, the world’s tallest hotel. The iconic building sits on a small manmade footing a couple hundred feet off the beach, its outline visible for miles up and down the coast recalls the dhows (sailing vessels) that once outnumbered oil tankers in the Gulf.

You cannot saunter into the Burj al Arab without an appointment, but mine earned a brief tour of the rooms (all two-story suites, with 22-karat gold leaf decorating the doorways, and mirrors above the beds), the restaurants (one lined with fish tanks and reached by ersatz submarine ride) and the 27th-floor bar, which reveals a staggering panorama (book a two-drink package and tour for $41). Majestic, gaudy and outlandish all at once, a stay at the Burj runs $1,486 a night with service befitting royalty.

A Little Like Las Vegas?

My visit to the Burj al Arab made me think that, from a tourism standpoint, Dubai could well emerge as a Middle Eastern Las Vegas minus the gambling, of course. With London just a six-hour flight away, the emirate’s appeal makes sense for Brits. And for those headed to an East African safari or Indian Ocean resort, a few days of shopping and spa treatments in Dubai might be a nice way to break up the trip home.

But will Dubai ever be a destination for Americans?

After my return home, Kathleen Leuba, vice president of marketing for Mondotels, the U.S. representative for Dubai Tourism, had a reasonable answer.

“It’s for the luxury travel market that’s culturally curious,” she said. “For people who want to be able to buy carpets from all over the Middle East, or gold at the best prices on earth. And for travelers who want a city experience in a deluxe hotel, but also a soft adventure in the desert for an afternoon or overnight.

“It’s for an upscale sophisticated crowd that wants to be able to talk about it at the next dinner party,” she added.

That’s when it hit home. No, Dubai is not for everyone, but it will definitely make for good conversation at the next dinner party I’m invited to.

If You Go

Getting There: Emirates flies daily nonstop from JFK to Dubai, with service from California rumored to be in the works. Emirates is part of the SkyTeam Alliance. Most Asian and European carriers also fly to Dubai from their hubs.

When to Go: High season is September-May. The summer, June-September, can be hot, with daytime highs above 110 degrees and humidity at 90 percent. During this time, hotels are substantially discounted and swimming pools are chilled.

Where to Stay: Most resorts are located on the coast, a few miles southwest of downtown. Prices provided are high-
season rack rates; discounts as much as 60 percent and package deals are usually available.

Madinat Jumeirah: This hotel opened last year and has an elaborate Arabian theme worthy of Disney World. The 400-acre beachfront property is next to Burj al Arab, and has three separate hotels connected by waterways, an air-
conditioned souk with 75 shops, 45 restaurants, a spa and a water themepark next door. Doubles from $635, discounted as low as $227 in summer.

Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Resort: Located opposite the Palm Jumeirah, this property is an upbeat older resort popular with British visitors. It features a marina and extensive watersports facilities and a Clarins spa. Doubles from $351.

Four Points by Sheraton: This 125-room business hotel is located downtown near the Creek. It has a pool, fitness room and dining facilities. Doubles from $162.

Burj al Arab: This iconic hotel has doubles from $1,486.

Guidebook Tip: Reliable, non-
government tourist information about Dubai is in short supply. (Perhaps book publishers are leery of a destination that is remaking itself so rapidly?) Earlier this year Lonely Planet published a compact guide to the city that seems more up to date than anything else in the market.

For more information:

Emirates Airline

One doesn’t need to talk to Timothy Clark, president of Emirates Airline, for long to understand how Dubai is on the verge of becoming one of the world’s busiest airports.

“Three-quarters of the world’s population lives within eight hours of Dubai,” he said.
To meet the growth, Dubai’s airport is expanding.

“The airport currently handles 22 million passengers with a 20 percent growth rate,” said Clark. “By 2008, when the airport is finished, we’ll have a capacity for 80 to 90 million passengers a year. It will be one of the world’s most efficient and seamless airports.”

Growing just as fast, Emirates is taking delivery on average of at least a plane a month for the next eight years, and Emirates is the launch customer for the new Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft, taking delivery in 2007. For its ultra-longhaul routes Emirates relies on the A340-500, which includes the nonstop JFK-Dubai service that began in 2004 (a second daily flight was added last month).

“The only way Dubai can have a presence in the United States is to have a physical presence with the airline’s product,” said Clark.

Nonstop San Francisco-Dubai flights were scheduled to begin in January 2005, but the service was delayed due to the spike in oil prices.

“Serving the West Coast is very important to us as is the Midwest, as is the East Coast. But Los Angeles or San Francisco will probably be our next U.S. destination,” Clark said.

The nonstop flights will be a boon not just to West Coast travelers headed to Dubai, but also to those aiming for East Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and Indian Ocean destinations. Efficient Dubai connections will potentially shave hours off of current itineraries.

There are even plans for a second Dubai airport, Jebel Ali International. It was just announced at the Dubai Airshow last month that the facility, when completed, will be the world’s largest airport the size of Heathrow and O’Hare combined.


Most restaurants are located in hotels, and small, inexpensive eateries are scattered around the city but, being a Muslim culture, alcohol is not served outside hotels. On Fridays the equivalent of our Sundays brunch buffets are very popular at most restaurants.

Tucked into the One & Only Royal Mirage resort, Tagine (971-4-399-9999) offers Moroccan specialties like meghoui (roasted lamb shoulder or other meats in crushed almonds), and a variety of kebabs, tagines and cous cous dishes all against a backdrop of hand-painted tiles, trickling water and rose petals. Entrees run $17-$29.

Britain’s only three-star Michelin chef Gordon Ramsey oversees Verre, located in the Hilton Dubai Creek (971-4-227-1111). Offering a minimalist setting, the subtle backdrop works for cutting-edge European dishes like salmon with a fricassee of peas and horseradish. The three course lunch specials are a good value as well. Entrees are $33-$39.

With sweeping Persian Gulf views from the 27th floor of Burj al Arab, Al Muntaha (971-4-301-7600) serves rich contemporary European cuisine suitable for expense-account types pan-roasted loin of lamb and sweetbreads, and foie gras with red onion confit and apple brioche. There’s a live band after 8 p.m. Entrees are $36-$44.

One place that won’t break the bank is a visit to the food court of Deira City Centre (971-4-295-1010), which provides a panoply of international tastes, and full meals under $20 (no alcohol).