Arabian heights

As its oil reserves run out, Dubai has reinvented itself as a high-rise haven for Western tourists. Leonard Doyle visits the jewel of the Emirates

With the wheels spinning in the sand and the golf buggy digging itself in deeper, I looked around in some desperation for assistance. My partner Tim, whose ball we had left the fairway to retrieve, looked as though he wished the Desert Course would swallow us up, cart and all. As the perfection of an early morning round of golf in Dubai came to a juddering halt with sand up our axles, it occurred to me that the sign in English in the buggy reading: "Please do not drive in the sand dunes" meant just that, and not what I had first thought.

With the wheels spinning in the sand and the golf buggy digging itself in deeper, I looked around in some desperation for assistance. My partner Tim, whose ball we had left the fairway to retrieve, looked as though he wished the Desert Course would swallow us up, cart and all. As the perfection of an early morning round of golf in Dubai came to a juddering halt with sand up our axles, it occurred to me that the sign in English in the buggy reading: "Please do not drive in the sand dunes" meant just that, and not what I had first thought.

"Who would hit their drive from a sand dune?" I had puzzled when we set off from the first tee, thinking I had found a rare example of imperfection in a land where achieving excellence in all things has become the national aspiration. From the time the man in the clubhouse takes your clubs and cleans them before playing, to the clean-and-shine service for your golf shoes, this is a place that strives for faultlessness.

Dubai is all about perfection. In fact, from the moment I arrived in Dubai it was akin to being on the set of The Truman Show, the cult film that depicts the life of Truman Burbank, a man who lives his life in a fake world enclosed in an enormous dome with high-tech simulations of sun and sky, where everyone strives to be unflinchingly happy. Dubai is indeed a land of constant sunshine and spanking new skyscrapers. Just as in Beverly Hills, buildings over 20 years of age are acquired for the value of the plot of land they sit on, pulled down and rebuilt 10 times bigger. As Kent Cooper, an American expatriate, put it while we drove along the city's main thoroughfare: "In two years' time there will be 60 new tower blocks here with 350,000 people in them. Every time you turn around there is a new development going up."

The Emirate's landscape is changing by the month as it turns itself from a corner of sand on the Arabian peninsula into a city-state of superlatives the size of Luxembourg. It is already renowned for its collection of man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree that have quadrupled its 25 mile-long coastline. The rich and famous, including the Beckhams, have bought opulent villas here, unconcerned it would seem by the risk of it all being washed away as sea levels rise with global warming. The people pouring into Dubai are also relaxed about the political risk of living in a moderately free Islamic state just a stone's throw from radical Islam's home turf in Saudi Arabia. In the gold rush that is Dubai, these thoughts are suppressed as everyone focuses on the positives.

Soon this plucky little sheikhdom will boast the world's tallest skyscraper, as well as the world's largest theme park, "Dubailand". Currently being designed by Greg Norman is the world's largest golf and residential development. It already has the world's largest man-made port, its tallest hotel and a host of other world biggest and bests (from gold to diamonds). This is the world capital of boosterism. But what, you may ask, is so special about Dubai that it attracts such development and global attention?

In the late spring of 1949, on the eve of the oil age, the great British explorer Wilfried Thesiger travelled by camel with the sheikhs of what was then known as the Trucial Coast, hunting with falcons and salukis. In his book Arabian Sands, he records his impressions of Dubai, then the biggest town in the area: "The creek divided the town, the largest on the Trucial Coast with about 25,000 inhabitants. Many native craft were anchored in the creek or careened along the waterfront. There were booms from Kuwait, sambuks from Sur, jaulbauts and even a large stately baghila. Naked children romped in the shallows, and rowing boats patrolled the creek to pick up passengers from the mouths of alleys between the high coral houses, surmounted with square wind-turrets and pleasingly decorated with plaster moulding. Behind the diversity of houses which lined the waterfront were the souks, covered passageways where merchants sat in the gloom, cross-legged in narrow alcoves among their piled merchandise.

"The souks were crowded with many races - pallid Arab townsmen, armed bedu, quick-eyed and imperious Negro slaves, Baluchis, Persians and Indians. Among them I noticed a group of Kashgai tribesmen in their distinctive felt caps, and some of the Somalis off a sambuk from Aden.

"Here life moved with the past. These people still valued leisure and courtesy and conversation. They did not live their lives at second hand, dependent on cinemas and wireless. I would willingly have consorted with them, but now I wore European clothes. As I wandered through the town I knew that they regarded me as an intruder. I myself felt that I was little better than a tourist."

Until recently, the waterfront in Dubai remained much as Thesiger had found it. A busy souk, a nondescript sheikh's fort by the famous creek, hard-working pearl divers and lots of wooden dhows busy smuggling contraband, goods and people around the Gulf. Today it is an amalgam of glass-fronted tower blocks boasting the names of Arab banks and trading houses. While dhows, still the most economical way of shipping goods (and more recently smuggling Pakistan's nuclear bomb-making kit), pass up and down the creek, a new international financial centre is growing as fast as London's Canary Wharf - possibly faster. Whereas Thesiger felt himself a mere tourist as he watched the locals pass the time of day in easygoing conversation, today he would witness a souk as rich in spices and precious metals as it ever was. But today it is completely overshadowed by the glittering temples to commerce that have sprung up around it. To walk along the water as the sun sets is to witness an extraordinary scene as the glass-fronted buildings bathe the creek and passing vessels in a shimmering halo of gold. Soon the city will boast the Burj Dubai, an office block that will be the tallest building in the world, topped off with a luxury hotel jointly developed by Giorgio Armani as part of a new group of hotels based in Milan, London, Paris, New York, Tokyo and Shanghai.

Unlike its rich neighbour, Abu Dhabi, Dubai's oil reserves are modest. It has only a few years of exports left, but instead of squandering its limited oil wealth, Dubai has managed to reinvent itself as the new California. It has become a thus far culture-free zone of climate-controlled opportunity for expatriate pleasure-seekers, tourists and carpet-baggers, the like of which has not been seen since America's Gold Rush of the 1890s.

Located halfway between Europe and Asia, Dubai is spending vast amounts of marketing money insinuating itself onto our mental maps. In much the same way that the film industry (which set up shop in Los Angeles because it had lots of sunshine and cheap land) made California the world's most desirable destination, Dubai is spending its capital on extraordinarily generous sponsorships. The costliest of these is the £100m that the city-state's airline, Emirates, spent naming Arsenal's new stadium (the biggest club deal in football history). For the next 15 years at least, the name Emirates Stadium will ring out across the UK, further spreading the word about the little sheikhdom that talks big and acts audaciously.

While across the world low-cost airlines are destroying all in front of them, Emirates - owned by the Dubai government - has ordered a $15bn buying spree, equal to the country's annual GDP, which will see it take possession of a new Boeing or Airbus jet every month for at least the next 10 years. Included in the order are no fewer than 45 double-decker Airbus 380 super-jumbos, for which Emirates is the first customer.

Already familiar to many long-haul passengers from Europe, Dubai's airport is going increase in size and triple the number of passengers it can handle every year to 60 million. The government is already building a third terminal, costing up to $2.5bn. Many of those visitors will be taking short breaks here rather than changing planes and wandering around the duty-free shops as they do now, and there are 272 hotels with 30,000 rooms and 30 virtually tax-free shopping malls here to accommodate them.

Adding greatly to the sense of unreality - the Truman Show feeling - is they way everything seems to have been planned and carefully mapped-out in advance. This is entirely due to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, a man The Economist describes as a "benign autocrat" whose family owns almost anything of any worth in Dubai, but who manages to run a relatively corruption-free country that taps into market forces rather than ignores them.

Some 95 per cent of Dubai's population are not local, and that number is set to double to two million by the year 2010. There are only a few hundred thousand Emiratis in Dubai. Dressed in their blinding white dish-dashas they remain in the background, managing and observing as the world comes to play in their sandpit. The vast majority of the expatriate population are Pakistanis, Indians and Filipinos who work long hours to support families at home whom they probably see at best once a year. You see them on the roads, (mostly Pakistanis and Indians) building the next wonder of the world for not a lot of money, or in the restaurants and hotels, (mostly Filipinos, it seems) offering a level of service that you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on the planet.

Dubai has plenty of immigrants, but a hard-headed approach to handing out passports and residency means that it can and does send them home when it is done with them. Thus those who are helping to build Dubai by the sweat of their brow have good jobs but no real stake in the country's future. Even expatriate professionals are asked to leave if they lose their job, whereupon they may reapply for a residency permit - if they find a new one. But while they are in the country they pay no income or property taxes and consider themselves to be very fortunate indeed.

Renate, who moved to Saudi Arabia from Germany twenty years ago, is a good example. When her husband lost his job they moved from Riyadh to Dubai. "It was like moving from hell to paradise," she says. "There you felt the burden of living in a country where you were not welcome. Every Friday they would announce how many people were being punished with amputations in Riyadh. It was awful. Here they welcome foreigners and even allow us to buy property."

Back at the Desert Course, we were shoving our buggy deeper into the sand, all the time hoping that a Black Watch Land-Rover would appear over the horizon to rescue us. I felt like Truman Burbank, who found a crack in the perfection of the made-for-TV Vacation World. The desert sun beat down as mercilessly as in a Camus novel while we tried to figure out what to do. I was thinking up a scheme that involved using my golf clubs to give the wheels some traction when a couple of Americans from the four-ball ahead came over to lend a hand. How humiliating, I thought. A few holes earlier we had been complaining about the slow pace of their play. Now, not 800 miles from the battlefields of Iraq, we were having to rely on American brawn to get us out of trouble. With a few shoves they had us on our way, just as the amiable course ranger came into view. "I don't think he would look too kindly on us if we did that again," remarked Tim as we continued our game.

The Desert Course, in which Jack Nicklaus has had a hand, is designed for low handicappers with lots of tricky fairways and demanding rough to punish those with a tendency to slice. As the name suggests, the designer, Ian Baker-Finch, maintained the look and feel of the desert while providing fairways that are deceptively narrow.

Golf is booming in Dubai, driven forward by a luxury real-estate explosion that is like nothing on earth. In this tiny country it seems that there is a championship course and a luxury resort for every name-brand golfer around. Colin Montgomerie's course is now a mature four years old and Ernie Els is busy designing a "modern classic" with wide fairways and plenty of sand.

The Desert Course was completed only last February and already most of the 6,000 luxury villas that surround it have been sold, either to expatriates hungrily partaking in the country's real-estate boom or as holiday-homes and investments. Despite the fever pitch at which work is carried out, some of the unfinished villas are already being traded-on at a profit. British buyers and sellers, always quick to spot a real-estate bargain (or killing) are very much in evidence, as a quick search on the internet reveals.

While Dubai abounds in the flash of new money, four-lane highways and shimmering towers, all of the country is not like that. Out in the desert an area known as Al Maha is perhaps the most redeeming feature of this over-achieving sheikhdom. A nature reserve has been established here where the racehorse-loving al-Maktoums have ordered a halt to development and the barbarian sport of "dune bashing", where locals and expatriates head out to the desert in 4x4s and destroy its delicate flora and fauna in the process. Now it is possible to join field-guides who will track down the rheem gazelle, the scimitar-horned oryx, Arabian oryx and the rare Arabian fox, either on foot or in the ubiquitous air-conditioned 4x4. Only this time the vehicles have to follow dedicated tracks so as not to destroy the burrows of animals and roots of vegetation. There is also the opportunity to go camel-trekking in the desert or even to fly falcons, as Thesiger did so many years ago.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled to Dubai with Seasons in Style (0151 342 0505; www.seasonsinstyle.com), which can put together similar packages from £1,060 per person. This includes seven nights' bed and breakfast accommodation at The Fairmont Dubai; return flights from Heathrow with Emirates; transfers; a round at Montgomerie golf course, transfers to the course and golfing equipment.

Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) flies to Dubai from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow, as does Royal Brunei (020-7584 0252; www.bruneiair.com) and Bangladesh Biman (020-7629 0161; www.bimanair.com). Connecting flights from many UK airports are offered by numerous airlines. Lowest fare likely to be around £250 return.

STAYING THERE

The Fairmont Dubai (00 971 4332 5555; www.fairmont.com/dubai) has double rooms from 1,800 UAE dirhams (£265), room only. Dubai's newest luxury hotel, the Grand Hyatt Dubai (00 971 4317 1234; www.dubai.grand.hyatt.com) boasts 37 acres of landscaped garden, 14 restaurants and Zen-like spa facilities, and offers twin rooms from 1,080 UAE dirhams (£160), room only.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Dubai Department of Tourism (020-7839 0580; www.dubaitourism.ae).

Photini Philippidou

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