Dubai: Just Add Money

In 15 years, Dubai has gone from a backwater refueling stop to a playpen for the rich, thanks to one of the grandest building schemes that the modern world has ever seen. But is there any reason for normal people to visit?

At Ski Dubai, two hours of indoor skiing, including the clothing and gear, costs only $38 (Sue Parkhill)
At Ski Dubai, two hours of indoor skiing, including the clothing and gear, costs only $38 (Sue Parkhill)

On my first morning in Dubai, I sat beside a stone fireplace, sipping hot chocolate and watching a video loop of a roaring fire. The fireplace was inside the St. Moritz, a re-creation of an alpine ski lodge, which is located beside a ski slope, which is located inside the Mall of the Emirates, one of the biggest malls in the world.

At lunch, I sat on the sandstone terrace of an Italian restaurant, Toscana, which was also located inside a mall, the Madinat Jumeirah, a re-creation of an Arab souk. I'd moved from hot chocolate to Amarone della Valpolicella, from ski boots to flip-flops. I ordered wild-mushroom risotto and watched water taxis ferry passengers along the narrow waterway between Tommy Bahama, Caviar Classic, and Cinnabon.

That evening, I sat on a bench in Heritage Village, which is not a mall but a re-creation of a traditional village in the United Arab Emirates. I watched a man in a flowing white head scarf and a woman in an abaya as they sat on a blanket in a very finite, very imported piece of desert--more like a large sandbox--pouring coffee from a samovar-like pot. I assumed they were picnicking until they offered me a cup, and I realized this was just one more Heritage Village demonstration. "Traditional Arabic coffee," the man said proudly.

Lying in bed that night, I wondered if I had been drafted into an elaborate game of make-believe. In order to grow a city from a fishing village to a convenient place to refuel a plane to the world's fastest-growing tourist destination--it now draws more than six million visitors a year--the architects of the new Dubai had to rely more than usual on the power of fantasy.

At some point in the early 1990s, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum determined that tourism was to be the cornerstone of Dubai's economy. He knew that one day the emirate's modest oil reserve was going to run dry. But Dubai didn't have the World Heritage sites, cultural attractions, or natural wonders to lure tourists. (There's an undeniable, austere beauty to the desert dunes, but that was hardly enough to build a good case for visiting, especially with competitors like the Sahara.) And so: What Mother Nature and the forces of history did not bequeath to Dubai, Dubai would have to create for itself.

Ever since, Dubai has been growing at a breakneck pace, every new project an attempt to outdo the last one. I imagine the sheikh assembling a sort of tourism think tank. I imagine his advisors sitting around and trying to figure out what tourists want, and coming up with a list: Malls! Waterslides! Spas! Theme parks! Gondolas! Sushi! River cruises like the Bateaux Mouches!

Dubai has all of these and more. It wants to entertain you; it wants to be all things to all people. Just as Vegas crams the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Roman Colosseum under one metaphorical roof, Dubai offers curious Westerners world-class chefs, family entertainment, and, for those who are so inclined, a thriving sex-tourism industry. It has also drawn comparison to Ibiza for its throbbing club scene and to Singapore and Hong Kong for its overnight evolution into a modern international trading center.

And yet, despite visitors' befuddled attempts to find an analogue for Dubai, it is, at base, an utterly Middle Eastern city, albeit an improbably tolerant one. Dubai gathers together all the lavish sights and sounds and tastes of Arabia and makes them safe and accessible for Westerners--many of whom aren't entirely comfortable traveling just anywhere in the Middle East these days. In Dubai, lovers of the exotic can indulge their Thousand and One Nights fantasies. At the One & Only Royal Mirage Hotel, they can recline on the silk pillows of a daybed and sip a Kir Royale in the Rooftop Bar, or lie naked and nibble fresh dates inside the hotel's spa. They can shop for Moroccan lanterns at Madinat Jumeirah, for sandalwood incense in the Perfume Souk on Sikkat al Khail Street, and for chunky 24-karat-gold Cleopatra chokers in the nearby Gold Souk. They can glide down Dubai Creek on a dhow at sunset, booked with Danat Dubai Cruises, the thick air vibrating with the voices of a dozen muezzins calling worshippers to prayer.

There are two ways to experience Dubai: first class and economy. As a first-class traveler, you will be indulged beyond your wildest dreams. At the Six Senses Spa, you can have your face exfoliated with crushed diamonds and emeralds. You can rent an $800 VIP pod at Trilogy nightclub, where you and seven of your closest friends will be suspended above the dance floor and plied with drinks by a gorgeous, impeccably coiffed waitress who knows full well that you laid out some serious cash to feel special. You can stay at the mainsail-shaped Burj Al Arab--dubbed the "world's first seven-star hotel" by a travel writer who had clearly been well cared for--where a white-gloved butler will hang up your clothes and plan your entire itinerary while you soak in an Hermès-scented bubble bath.

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