The city's grandiose building plans are bearing spectacular fruit, says Peter MacNeil

The Olympic motto citius, altius, fortius, which inspires the world's athletic elite to keep going one step further, might have been coined for Dubai. This tiny emirate - not much more than a collection of fishing villages until oil was discovered in 1966 - is expanding faster, higher and more vigourously than anywhere else on the planet. The city fathers should consider inscribing those noble words on some futuristic gateway, preparing visitors for a construction programme of a magnitude that has never been attempted before.

Dubai is in the early stages of a 20-year plan that is already bearing spectacular fruit. The sail-like Burj Al Arab is perhaps the most distinctive hotel in the world, having become an icon of the Middle East. Under construction elsewhere in Dubai are the world's largest marina, shopping mall, motorway intersection, desalination plant... they're all coming soon, along with a vastly expanded international airport to accommodate the world's fastest-growing influx of tourists.

Even more dramatic than the physical transformation of Dubai's skyline is the speed at which it's happening. The lights never go out at the city's building sites: one eight-hour shift dovetails seamlessly into the next, every day and every night, with the machinery silenced only for Friday morning prayers. The philosophy behind it all is simple: to get noticed, you have to be number one. You have to go higher or deeper or further than anyone else. You want proof? Hands up those who can name the second tallest building in the world?

In fact, Dubai currently languishes some way down that list. Its highest buildings are the magnificent twin Emirates Towers, which resemble the innards of a giant computer and change colour according to the angle of the sun. But they're only the ninth tallest structures in the world - which simply won't do. So, a mile or two across town, a skyscraper is taking shape that's designed to eclipse every previous effort by mankind to build a stairway that reaches to the heavens.

The Burj Dubai, due for completion in 2007, will rise to... well, nobody's saying at the moment, as it's yet to be confirmed how high Shanghai and/or Seoul will go with their new International Financial Centres, based on similar designs. But rest assured that whatever height those colossi turn out to be, Burj Dubai will raise the bar further - and the expectation is that many people will visit Dubai just to say they've seen it. The thinking goes: it worked in Kuala Lumpur, where the Petronas Towers have given neck-ache to swarms of visitors who might otherwise have left the Malaysian capital off their itineraries - so why not here?

Numerous other larger-than-life attractions will appear in the Burj's considerable shadow. Three hundred yards off the coast, Hydropolis, the world's first luxury underwater hotel, will open around the same time, shuttling its guests back and forth in an underwater rail tunnel. Later in the decade, two billion sq ft of desert will be transformed into Dubailand, an amusement and tourism park roughly seven times the size of Disneyland, Paris, featuring several five-star hotels.

And, because the emirate is running out of coastline to indulge its burgeoning reputation as an easily accessible year-round beach resort, a network of man-made islands is appearing offshore in the Arabian Gulf to satisfy the apparently insatiable demand of old money and new for a hotel, spa, villa or apartment next to the water. Although you'll need to be flying overhead to appreciate the fact, three of the islands will be shaped like palm trees, and the fourth will resemble a map of the world, where exceedingly rich individuals or corporations will reside in their own "countries".

The first island, scheduled for completion at the end of 2006, will contain some 40 new hotels, quite apart from the hundreds of private villas, some of which were pre-sold to members of the England football team when they were no more than a computer animation. "If someone has a really wacky idea," says Mark Deede, general manager of the Hilton Hotel at Dubai Creek, "someone else will be prepared to finance it. And then someone else will think of an idea wackier still."

As recently as 1980, the Creek district was Dubai - an inland waterway reaching six or seven miles into the desert before giving up the unequal struggle and being consumed by sand. The first phase of the modern city high-rose around and across the mouth of the Creek where, for centuries, stately dhows had carried pearls and spices between the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. They ply the same routes still, with televisions and electronic equipment on the outward journey; returning with second-hand washing machines and fridges for the labour-force from India and Pakistan without whom all that sand and cement could not be moved.

Today, as Dubai's population nudges one million, the Creek district has completed its impersonation of Manhattan and run out of space. The heart of the city is shifting south-west along the coast to Jumeirah, where most of the eye-catching new developments are appearing. At first sight, this "city within a city" seems randomly assembled: a patch of desert scrubland, a skyscraper, another patch of desert, an isolated shopping mall. But enough pieces of the jigsaw are in place to give an impression of how the final picture will look. The signs are encouraging.

The Madinat Jumeirah, which opened last summer, presents Dubai to the world in a way that reflects the emirate's origins, rather than trying to out-muscle the West in its scale and opulence. Winding canals interconnect two majestic but under-stated hotels, as well as a spa, a souk and an amphitheatre. The relatively low-rise complex has a distinctively Arabian flavour: from the ochre colouring of its walls to its enormous lobby area, decked out in exquisite Bedouin tapestries, marble flooring and intricately crafted tables and chairs for coffee-drinking and deal-making. Reproductions of traditional abras, or water taxis, ferry guests from one venue to another. It's perhaps Dubai's first serious attempt at mixing the traditional with the modern, instead of planting them side by side and hoping for the best. The fact that the Madinat contains a souk - with 75 small, independently owned stalls - rather than just another faceless shopping mall is a direct response to visitor feedback. "The city's been criticised for not showing its true colours," says Mia Hedman, from the Madinat's marketing team. "Wherever you've come from, you need to wake up in the morning and know where you are."

The citius, altius, fortius philosophy will serve Dubai well as it consolidates its position as the premier visitor destination in the Middle East, apparently impervious to the political traumas that have handicapped most of its neighbours' attempts to compete. But the Madinat complex is an encouraging sign that the unseen, all-controlling Al Maktoum dynasty that runs and rules the place is aware that there's more to a metropolis than gargantuan piles of steel, glass and newly dried concrete - just as long as they've rewritten the record books first.

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