Does the sun still shine on Dubai?

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The emirate has been making news for the wrong reasons recently. But Jim Krane says now is the time to visit the city – and the desert beyond

Dubai's over with, right? Teetering debts threaten to topple the city's towers; fleeing foreign businessmen are abandoning their cars at the airport as the desert sands reclaim the city. Well, not quite. The collapse last year of Dubai's building binge has certainly left the emirate with a bad hangover, and last week's debt postponement triggered a global economic frisson, with angry fingers pointed towards the city. As a result it's true that, just at the moment, Dubai's gilded name lies in a ditch.

But that is precisely why it's a great time to visit. The frenzy of speculation over its financial viability hasn't touched the things that lure tourists to Dubai. The hotels are still first-rate, the sun is still guaranteed to shine, and the warm water of the Gulf remains attractive to visitors.

And for me, the best sights aren't even in Dubai. They're in the peach-coloured dunes and jagged canyons beyond the city, which form some of the best camping grounds to be found anywhere in the world. There is nothing quite like sitting around a campfire in the desert with a giant moon setting the dunes aglow. Now, with the weather cooling alongside Dubai's financial reputation, is the time to go. Air fares and hotel rates are low; tables are easy to snare at the best restaurants; the barracuda are running off the sailing club's jetty.

Twenty years ago, we'd never heard of Dubai. Then, suddenly, the city's name seemed to spring into our collective consciousness. The hype about the emirate was everywhere, even plastered on to the doors of London taxis. In fact, in many ways Dubai did spring from nowhere. When Sputnik was orbiting the globe in the late 1950s, Dubai was in the dark. At night, those aboard an aircraft passing overhead or a ship offshore would not have been able to see it: the town had no electricity, no running water, no concrete buildings. Most locals had never tasted a cold drink, because there was no ice.

Dubaians who are now billionaires were raised by illiterate parents in thatched shacks. The city's pell-mell transformation happened within a few decades – and remnants of the old ways are easy to find. One of the most revealing is the house where current ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum was raised. Known as Sheikh Saeed's house, after the ruler's grandfather, it's a rambling coral-and-mud compound overlooking Dubai Creek.

Sheikh Mohammed, now on the Forbes rich list, slept at times with his entire family in one electricity-less room, with tiny windows and low doors. The family toilet was a hole in the ground. Pictures on the wall depict Sheikh Mohammed as a tough little boy in a grubby jacket, a falcon clamped to his wrist. A guide can show you the air-conditioning system: the "wind tower" vents that funnelled hot breezes indoors, representing a sustainable form of air conditioning. The guide might even offer you a glass of tea in the former slaves' quarters. Slavery was legal in Dubai until 1963, and many families owned them.

From such beginnings there is nowhere to go but up. And Dubai went way up. After 29 years of prospecting, the emirate struck oil in 1966. It spent its modest deposits on ports, dry docks, and a single skyscraper: the honeycombed 1979 World Trade Centre that is emblazoned on the United Arab Emirates' 100-dirham note.

More recently, of course, Dubai has spread out to sea. The city's island developments are a key reason behind its debt troubles. The only such inhabited archipelago is the comparatively modest Palm Jumeirah, its dredging spoils studded with skyscrapers and million-dollar mansions: "sandbanks stuffed with villas, awaiting Russian oligarchs or English Premier League footballers," as Ben Ross wrote in The Independent a year ago. Many villas are still waiting. The Palm looks iconic from the air, but from ground level the Palm is given over to off-limits gated communities, so there isn't much to see. The main drag up the "trunk" is so packed with high-rises that it offers few sea views – better to take the monorail that quietly opened earlier this year. The gargantuan pink Atlantis hotel, rising over the island's outer corniche, is the only viable destination, and the only hotel yet open. Its restaurants and cocktail bars are overpriced, but the over-the-top undersea décor is well worth gawping at, and the adjacent water park is open to guests and casual visitors alike.

Elsewhere, the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab requires a reservation just to peek at the lobby, which is walled with fishtanks and gilded pillars. The cheapest way to see it is to book a table at the Skyview Bar, the tubular structure resembling a roll of parchment wedged below the helipad. Once inside, the iconic hotel descends into a cacophony of colour. The Burj's London-based architect, Tom Wright, wanted a simple lobby, clean and white, to match the exterior. But Sheikh Mohammed had other ideas. He hired British-Chinese interior designer Khuan Chew to liven up Wright's pristine whiteness.

Looking up, the atrium is dizzying, almost seizure-inducing, with scalloped balconies rising floor after floor – so high that the Eiffel Tower could fit inside, at least sans its radio antennae. Looking down, the floor is equally dizzying. It's covered in giant mustard tiles woven with arabesques of gold mosaic, blue wedges and red swooshes. Just when you think it's safe to relax, the lobby's fountain explodes like a rocket-propelled grenade, and a blob of water rises 14 storeys.

A few miles away, workmen are putting the finishing touches on another burj, the Burj Dubai, which is due to open next month. To call it the world's tallest building doesn't do it justice. This slender spire is so tall that it's tough to get within walking distance and actually view it properly, even to capture in a photograph. My best shot is a montage of three. It's like the earth has sprouted a handle. The Burj Dubai, even without its linchpin tenant, the 160-room Armani Hotel (delayed by a few months), is not for those on a tight budget. This includes the men who built it, the Asian labourers who would need a month's salary to buy a cocktail in one of its upcoming bars – if indeed they could get past the doormen.

To see how these men live, take a taxi to Sonapur – the City of Gold in the Hindi language. Sonapur is Dubai's poorest neighbourhood but, in a triumph of irony, its most important. Its 100,000 or so residents live in battered dormitories with protruding air-conditioners and coverall-festooned balconies. They are the men who make Dubai run: the construction workers, cooks and cleaners, air-conditioning and elevator repairmen, butchers, and even security guards. If Sonapur were to shut down— if its residents went on strike or some cataclysm befell it— Dubai would cease to function.

Dubai is improving conditions in its labour zones, but you may nevertheless see – or smell – an enduring problem: the pools of sewage that bubble forth from the overflowing system.

The dusty lanes of Sonapur make an interesting detour on a trip to the neighbouring emirate of Sharjah where, at last, you find the Middle East.

The Sharjah Art Museum is loaded with British watercolours of the old Middle East, with fascinating lithographs of Britain's 1819 sacking of the nearby emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, made under a counter-piracy pretext. The raids ended up securing the seven emirates that later became the UAE as crown protectorates, requiring their lucrative pearls to be marketed through British India.

The best sight in Sharjah is the Blue Souk, or Souk al-Markazi, a cavernous modern bazaar in the Istanbul tradition, with carpet stalls, silversmiths and bejewelled trinkets. The carpet selection is a treat, with vendors specialising in outré tribal rugs from Iran, like the famed tacheh of Chahar Mahal, trippy patchworks of thick carpet or thinner flat-woven mats. One shop sells only the ethereal green-and-gold Baluchi carpets unique to Quetta, Pakistan. Beware, though: the souk and museum (and much of Sharjah) closes between noon and 4pm.

No trip to Sharjah is complete without a blazing curry, among the best anywhere, at the Karachi Darbar restaurant in the city centre. The family section is preferred by Westerners, while the "bachelors" section is packed with Pakistani men dunking chapattis into bowls of dhal. The menu is vast and the dishes are divine, especially the Kashmiri and Peshawari mutton. You can feed a family on £15.

But to find the real Arabia, you must point your car away from the cities along the coast. Inland, the great Arabian Desert extends for thousands of miles, a gorgeous tableau of rippling sands and knife-sharp peaks. Any hotel can arrange a desert safari, an afternoon of dune driving in a 4x4, followed by evening cocktails around a campfire and a belly dance. It's an easy way to experience the desert, but it won't give you the rich solitude and wonder of a night's camping.

This, after all, is what the Bedouin did every night until a few decades ago, and the traditions are still cherished. The desert and mountains of the UAE and Oman are open to campers. You can go anywhere you want – as long as you're not on someone's farm – and put up your tent somewhere that you will remember for the rest of your life.

Local operators will offer route suggestions but a simple plan is to drive Highway 44 toward Hatta, Dubai's mountain enclave, and take one of the side roads into the mountains. There, you will find plenty of open wilderness. So you don't harm the fragile desert plants, pick up some firewood scraps from an idled Dubai construction site. Those are certainly easy to find.

Jim Krane is the author of Dubai: The Story of the World's Fastest City, published by Atlantic Books (£18.99).

Dubai travel deals

Getting there

* Dubai is served from the UK by Emirates (0870 243 2222; emirates.com), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com), Royal Brunei Airlines (020-7584 6660; bruneiair.com) and Biman Bangladesh Airlines (020-7629 0252; biman-airlines.com).

Staying there

* Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach (00 971 4 301 7777; jumeirah.com). B&B starts at 4,908 dirhams (£801).

* Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (00 971 4 426 2000; atlantisthepalm.com). Doubles start at 1,212 dirhams (£198).

* Armani Hotel, Burj Dubai (00 971 4 362 7200; armanihotels. com). Opening date and rates not yet available.

Visiting there

* Sharjah Art Museum (00 971 6 568 8222; sharjahmuseums.ae). Open 8am-8pm Sat-Thurs, from 4pm Fri; admission free.

More information

* Dubai Tourism: 00 971 4 223 0000; dubaitourism.ae

Travel essentials Dubai

£517: seven nights at the four-star Al Manar Hotel, booked through On The Beach

The price includes return Oman Air flights from Heathrow and seven nights' B&B. Valid for departures in December. (0871 911 0202; onthebeach.co.uk)

£549: five nights at the four-star Metropolitan City, booked through The Holiday Place

The price includes Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow and B&B accommodation. Valid for 7 December departure, based on two adults sharing. (020-7644 1755; theholidayplace.co.uk)

£669: three nights at the five-star Atlantis The Palm, booked through netflights.com

The price includes Emirates flights from Gatwick or Birmingham and B&B accommodation. Valid for departures between 10-23 December and based on two adults and two children sharing. (0844 493 4944; netflights.com)

£699: five nights at the three-star Gold Sands Apartments, booked through Hayes and Jarvis

The price includes Emirates flights from Heathrow, transfers and room only accommodation. Valid for 13 December departure, based on two adults sharing. (0871 664 0246; hayesandjarvis.com)

£799: five nights at the four-star Habtoor Grand Resort and Spa, booked through lastminute.com

The price includes flights from Heathrow and B&B accommodation. Valid for departures up until 16 December, based on two adults sharing. (0871 222 5969; lastminute.com)

£849: three nights at the Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina, booked through Emirates Tours

The price includes Emirates flights from Birmingham, Gatwick, Heathrow or Newcastle; transfers and B&B. Valid for departures up until 24 December, based on two adults sharing. (0844 800 1400; emiratestours.co.uk)

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