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.
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
Nonstop San Francisco-Dubai flights were scheduled to begin in
January 2005, but the service was delayed due to the spike in oil
“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
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.
|WEB EXCLUSIVE: Where to Eat|
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
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).