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Surprising Dubai


I was stranded in Dubai on a Friday, the sabbath in the Islamic world, and the temperature was a sticky 86F. A sandstorm had scotched my boating date, and going to the beach seemed equally pointless. So I went skiing.

There is a snow-covered hill at Mall of the Emirates, one of the largest shopping centers in the world. When you see the boulders, fake pines, and real ice sculptures, it is magical--not less so for being totally incongruous in a mall. Kids in blue winter suits pound each other with snowballs as skiers rise into the distance on a chairlift. There is a toboggan run, even a busy ski school. A two-hour lift ticket goes for about $45, and Ski Dubai furnishes equipment as well as outerwear, although you need to bring or buy gloves and hats. The indoor temperature is 23F.

As I slid downward on the quarter-mile run, keeping a wary eye out for snowboarders, I thought to myself: This is so Dubai. The city state, which has a population of 1.4 million and an area of 1,500 square miles--half again as large as Rhode Island--is one of the seven states on the southeastern shore of the Persian Gulf that make up the United Arab Emirates. While larger Abu Dhabi floats on the money gusher from one of the world's richest oil troves, Dubai thrives on its commercial skills and imagination.

Whatever its entrepreneurial leaders conjure up quickly becomes reality. That could be anything from the tallest building in the world, the Burj Dubai, which is rising from the desert floor at the rate of a story every three days, to the ultimate monument to excess, the Burj Al Arab hotel. This 1,000-foot-tall structure is an abstract rendition of a ship, complete with a gigantic Teflon-coated sail. The Burj Al Arab's interiors drip with 22-karat gold leaf, and its rooms, all suites, start at $2,000 a night.

Global banks are rushing to set up offices in the new Dubai International Financial Center. Corporations from Microsoft (MSFT) to Cisco Systems (CSCO) are opening regional or, in Halliburton's (HAL) case, world headquarters there. So business travelers are increasingly likely to find themselves in the garish little emirate with its clogged streets and pricey hotel rooms.

A visitor will find plenty to do in Dubai after work or between meetings. Restaurants of every description abound, from the superb but low-key Lebanese eatery Al Nafoorah in the mall beneath the Jumeirah Emirates Towers hotel to the haute cuisine at Vu's on the 50th floor.

Dozens of shopping malls feature just about every name-brand store from Harvey Nichols to Louis Vuitton (LVMUY). Prices are good, thanks to low import duties and a currency linked to the U.S. dollar. The malls are great places to observe Dubai's rich mix of people, from Saudi women in full black veils (though they're not obligatory) to local youths with spiky hairdos.

Dubai can be a painless introduction to what may otherwise seem a forbidding part of the world. A Muslim country, it stands out for its tolerance toward other religions. Unlike somber Iran and Saudi Arabia, Dubai allows alcohol consumption and turns a blind eye to a relatively unfettered nightclub scene.

LINED WITH DHOWS

To get a feel of the heart of Dubai, take a walking and boating expedition along Dubai Creek, the eight-mile salty inlet that used to be the emirate's commercial lifeblood. Start at the Dubai Museum, housed in a mud-walled fort in a part of town called Bur Dubai where the original settlement dates back to the mid-19th century. Its collections of antique watercraft and huts made of date-palm fronds are fascinating reminders of how much the once-sleepy trading entrep?t on the banks has transformed in a few decades. If you don't want to navigate yourself, a company called Big Bus offers a guided walk as part of its tour.

From the museum, the route to the creek takes you through alleyways that boast Indian temples and colorful flower stalls--hints that roughly half of Dubai's population hails from South Asia. There's also a blue-tiled Shiite mosque built by the Iranian community.

At the creek you can board an abra, or 20-passenger water taxi, for the bargain fare of one dirham, about 25 cents. You will be traveling with the people who do the real work: Indian and Pakistani tradesmen and laborers. While modern shipping has moved down the coast to the huge port of Jebel Ali, the creek's banks are lined three- and four-deep with dhows, wooden vessels that carry everything from electric generators to cases of Coca-Cola (KO) across the Gulf to Iran. Their ancient shapes groan and heave against a backdrop of steel-and-glass towers.

Get off on the east side, known as Deira. In the vibrant and earthy souks, you can buy a traditional man's robe, called a dishdasha, or the heavy silver jewelry that has lost out to gold as the region has become wealthier.

In the spice souk not far from the abra landing, the air is full of the gray smoke of frankincense, available for purchase along with sandalwood, vanilla, and fancy little packages of saffron. Farther away from the creek is the gold souk, with some 400 shops offering an astounding array of designs, including filigreed chokers of mind-boggling complexity that would cover much of a woman's chest. Dubai is one of the cheapest places in the world to buy gold, which is fashioned in India and largely sold by weight, not level of workmanship.

Another way of getting a taste of Arabia is a desert safari, around $80 per person for a group tour, including dinner. About 40 minutes outside the city, your driver will let some of the air out of the SUV's tires and take you on a gut-wrenching cruise up and down the dunes. The experience won't be exactly like crossing the arid wilderness of the Empty Quarter on camelback, but the red sands and the lush desert plants, especially after spring rains, are lovely. At a desert campsite I met baby camels that were as friendly as puppies.

The beauty of Dubai is that you can do just about anything there, despite being on the austere Arabian peninsula: play golf (fees run up to $170, not including carts and equipment), go to the beach, hit the racetrack. The winter thoroughbred racing season culminates in the Dubai World Cup, which this year was on Mar. 31 and had a purse of $6 million, billed as the world's richest.

If you are staying in a top hotel, you can find a sufficient variety of restaurants to keep yourself satisfied for a day or two without leaving the premises. For evening entertainment, I enjoyed JamBase, a relaxed, wood-paneled club at Souk Madinat Jumeirah where you can have dinner and listen to an American chanteuse fronting a live jazz band. Among the cool young locals, the preferred venue seems to be the Peppermint Club, which convenes on Friday nights at the Fairmont Hotel. The music is so loud it hurts, and young female employees in uniform white-denim hot pants slither among the crowd of black T-shirts and slinky dresses to encourage dancing. That's another thing you don't expect to encounter in this part of the world.

By Stanley Reed


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