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 the Hyatt Regency, also in Deira, Shahrzad serves Iranian food in a shamelessly opulent atmosphere of heavy silver cutlery and brocade-upholstered chairs. I ordered only one dish, something called a polo--saffron rice cooked with chicken or lamb and a blend of fragrant, subtly merged spices. But after the waiter discovered that I was new to Iranian cuisine, food and drink began materializing at my table every few minutes as if I were an honored guest: olives and yogurt dip and a basket of delicious warm flatbread; sparkling water and lemons; a woodsy amber tea presented on a gold tray; and finally, for dessert, iced vermicelli flavored with rose water, which tasted like I imagine perfume might taste, only sweeter and less acidic. During the meal, I watched a keyboardist play a sinuous melody over the insistent beat of a dumbek drum, while a singer in a series of ever-slinkier evening gowns crooned what I presumed were Persian standards, moving her nimble pelvis in a manner that challenged all of my preconceptions of Muslim modesty.

As exciting as I found the cultural smorgasbord, at a certain point I began craving something indigenous to Dubai. One afternoon, I set off for the Bastakia, Dubai's oldest neighborhood. I started with a cappuccino at Basta Art Café, a lovely old house with a tent-shaded courtyard. Then I wandered the quarter's narrow alleyways, brushing my fingertips across the cool walls of the coral-and-gypsum houses. I wandered a few hundred feet, anyway, until my reverie was foiled by a rudeconfrontation with an asphalt parking lot. I turned around and headed down another alley, but that one, too, ended abruptly, cut short by a boulevard heaving with traffic.

Hoping a trip to the sand dunes would provide me with a glimpse of the real Dubai, I signed up for a desert safari with Lama Desert Tours. I piled into a Land Cruiser with a posse of oil com-pany executives, and 60 minutes later we pulled up to the edge of the dunes, which glowed pink in the late-afternoon sun. I had dreamed of something simple: a camel ride at sunset, dinner cooked over a fire and eaten under the stars. But you don't go to Dubai to commune with nature--or to enjoy something simple, for that matter.

The safari started with dune bashing, which involves careening along the sides of the 100-foot-high dunes and feels a lot like riding an improvised roller coaster. (Our driver pointed out that there were barf bags in the seat pockets.) An hour or so later, we were deposited at the desert camp, which featured small booths where people in bedouin costumes gave demonstrations of Arabic culture. A man in bedouin costume offered five-minute camel rides, and another taught curious tourists how to smoke a sheesha. One woman painted henna tattoos on the freckled shoulders of Germans and Americans and Brits, while another cooked traditional flatbread over an open fire. Nearby, a man served (yet again) traditional Arabic coffee. I could have been in the Arabian pavilion at a World Expo.

We ate at low tables, and after dinner, a creamy-white Russian woman performed a belly dance, pulling shyly eager middle-aged men off their cushions and taunting them with her gyrations before inviting the whole audience to join her.

The next day, I gave up my quest for authenticity and decided to go to another mall. On the way, I passed long rows of billboards advertising gated "lifestyle communities" that promised days filled with yachts and tennis and poolside mai tais. The horizon was cluttered with construction cranes as far as the eye could see, like outsized dragonflies hovering between columns of scaffolding. More than 100 major development projects are to be completed within the next three years, each one bigger or wider or more luxurious than the last.

The mall I visited, Ibn Battuta, is divided into countries, like Epcot. The Persia section has faux-faience domes and Ibn Battuta, a puffy Ali Baba--like character who entertains children; the China area features pagodas and a massive sculpture of a wooden junk keeling to one side; the Tunisian wing is designed to resemble a 14th-century outdoor market, sky and all.

While I was roaming through the Egyptian wing, I came upon a kiddie attraction called the Magic Carpet Ride. A British woman deposited her toddler atop a mechanical Persian rug undulating a few feet off the ground. The little girl, perfectly adorable with her blonde braids and rosy complexion, was dressed in a short velvet coat and an Aladdin--style cap. An Arabic melody began to play, and the attendant turned on a video camera to capture the moment.

"You're going to wave at me, Beatrice, right?" her mother asked, in anticipation of her daughter's starring role. Beatrice waved and beamed and wriggled around happily. On the monitor before her, the mother could see Beatrice sitting on the carpet, which appeared to be whizzing through the air, weaving among glass-and-steel towers in a virtual-reality tour of Dubai. People began to gather around to watch lovely little Beatrice and wave at her. Beatrice gamely waved back. More people gathered, until there was a crowd of about 30 pressing in on her, laughing at the spectacle of Beatrice zooming around the city on a carpet.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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