For his 1979 travel book Arabia: Through the Looking Glass, Jonathan Raban stopped off in Dubai as the petro-dollar boom kicked in. Thirty years ago, no-one in Dubai could have foreseen the seven-star hotels, the extravagant shopping trips of Colleen McLoughlin and her fellow Wags, or George Clooney dropping into town. But its arrogance and aspiration was already evident to Raban.
"We passed the Dubai Hilton," he wrote. "It looked to me like a Hilton but it was marked by one of those singular honours which count for so much and seem – to an outsider – so numbingly unimportant. At that particular moment it was The Tallest Building In The Gulf and Sheikh Rashid of Dubai was apparently doting on it like a favourite child. Looking at its smug, slab-sides cliffs of glass and concrete, I hoped that it would not be allowed to enjoy its pre-eminence for too long."
It certainly didn't. That title has passed through many hands and rests now with the Burj Dubai, a massive steeple rising through the clouds. Still under construction, it hit 629m at the beginning of April, breaking the record for the tallest man-made structure not just in the Gulf, but in the world.
It surpassed North Dakota's KVLY-TV mast, which held the title since 1963, and that certainly hasn't got luxury apartments at the top.
I caught my first glimpse of the Burj Dubai as my flight swept past on its descent into Dubai's airport. From the sky, you can the see an eruption of towers in this thin strip of a city lying between the Arabian sea and vast plains of sand. Dubai is undoubtedly brash – and built on vaunting ambition. So I decided my mission would be to get as high in Dubai as possible: during my five-day holiday I would climb any skyscraper I could talk or drink my way into.
My hotel was the Grosvenor House, in the new development of West Marina Beach, to the west of Dubai. Standing at 210m, the hotel briefly made the top 100 tallest buildings in the world when it opened in 2005. Just three years later it languishes closer to the 300 mark. Constructed from what appeared to be massive peach and black Lego blocks, it does still tower, just, over the neighbouring construction sites.
Passing tourists were welcomed in the evening at the hotel's Bar 44, a showy, if soulless, cocktail lounge. However the real treat was reserved for the hotel guests who, for a supplement, could take breakfast and afternoon tea in the adjacent lounge on the 44th floor overlooking the Arabian Sea.
Sitting on the balcony outside, with a perfect afternoon tea of jam and scones, I got my first, giddying, view of Dubai. Out in the water was the Burj Al Arab, the sail-shaped "seven-star" hotel; facing it lay its sister hotel, the wave-shaped Jumeirah Beach. Beneath me, just beyond the coast, was the "World" development, for which sand has been lovingly dredged into the shapes of the continent for property tycoons and A-listers to purchase in their own acts of mini-colonialism.
Tommy Lee Jones has apparently bought "Greece" for his ex-wife Pamela Anderson, though rumours that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had joined the scramble for Africa and snapped up Ethiopia have been denied by the couple.
It occurred to me that residents of "The World" will never fully appreciate what they eventually live on because it takes being at the top of a tall building such as the Grosvenor to see the full glory (and the full folly) of this particular project.
I turned my eyes towards the heart of the city. The main thoroughfare dissecting Dubai is the Sheikh Zayed Road, the eight-lane highway which runs from the heart of old Dubai out to West Marina Beach. It is along this street that the forest of skyscrapers grows strongest and thickest. Here lies the Chelsea Tower, the two Emirates Towers and the Burj Dubai, with many more still gestating in their scaffolding wombs.
My first stop was the Chelsea Tower. The taxi driver needed no further instructions; it is his trade to transport legions of businessmen and tourists from one high-class destination to the next.
His English, and his Arabic, was broken – he came from India – but he knew the name of every skyscraper I asked him about. We glided down the spanking new highways that dissect the city, past the hoardings over the developments (with their taglines such as "Be Unlimited" and "Limitless").
The Chelsea Tower is the 14th-tallest residential skyscraper in the world and 123rd-tallest building in the world. With most of Dubai's population being foreigners, there is a steady stream of businessmen and their holidaying families who avail themselves of their short- and long-term hotel apartments.
I asked whether I could see one as high as possible and was shown around a crisp, clean, set of rooms up on the 40th floor. Few pictures hung on the walls but, given the massive windows and the vast views they captured, u o there was little need of them. I persuaded the management to allow me up onto the roof of the building, somewhere not normally accessible to guests. A security guard called Mohammed accompanied me. It seemed a little difficult to breathe at 250m high, but that wasn't to do with the altitude; Mohammed pointed out the thin layer of yellow that hung across the city, a shroud of dust thrown up by all the building works going on. The spiked top of the Burj Dubai was almost invisible.
Over the road was my next target, the twin Emirates Towers. This office tower, at 355m high, is the 15th-tallest building in the world, followed closely by its sister building, the Emirates Hotel at 305m. The apexes of the Emirates Towers are equilateral triangles sloping at 45 degrees. Beneath the precipitous glass and steel roof of the Emirates Hotel is the Vu bar. Up on the 51st floor, it is open to the public in the evening (at least, those members of the public who have a dinner reservation). With its heavy wood decor and odour of tobacco, it had the feel of a gentleman's club. A floor below is the well-appointed Vu restaurant, serving scallops and foie gras. Dinner there for two cost around 940 dirhams (£130) – and a decent dose of vertigo.
Looking down from this glass enclave at the top of the Emirates Tower, I found myself contemplating the other Dubai. So far, I'd been in a city manufactured for moneyed foreigners. Like a suction pump, each air-conditioned building I'd entered was designed to pull me upwards. Super-speed elevators had shuttled me away from the realities of the hustle and heat and traffic of the city, into a far more rarefied world: the highest of pedestals. The streets looked up at us in our glazed towers, and we in turn were obliged to look down upon them. I peered downwards too, and decided to explore this alternative Dubai.
Low-rise areas carpet the inner city. Al Karama is a little series of boxy concrete residential blocks containing shops selling old furniture. It also boasts a thriving counterfeits market. It was the first place I heard the mantra that then followed me through the old town: "Rolex! Tag Heuer! Cartier! Omega!".
An Iranian spotted me as a potential buyer and led me up some back stairs to a room stacked high with handbags, shoes and trays of watches.
He gave me a Coca-Cola while he displayed his wares. "You like Gucci?" he asked. "Juicy Couture? Everything's very good quality." I declined his offers and moved onto a store where the Keralan shopkeeper let me try on a burka and a belly-dancing outfit. I left with a camel puppet as a souvenir.
Next, I got a little lost on a city stroll between the Al Karama market and an area called Deira, which lies on the other side of Dubai's river, the Creek, and is home to the Gold Souk. But during the process of regaining my bearings, I kept meeting people with tales to tell of how they had arrived on these shores.
There was the South African estate agent who walked with me a while, and informed me this was the only place to do business in his industry, but that he missed home. There was the Pakistani ship's captain who, over a beer in the slightly seedy Sun Hotel, described a complicated personal life involving his wife, nine daughters, and a nubile Korean lover. He had been naturalised in Dubai but wanted to move to Manchester. A suited woman from Mumbai told me she had come to Dubai to escape a broken heart.
The backdrop to these conversations were streets filled with African women in flowery headdresses; Chinese labourers; Indian stall-holders and mechanics; all following the pulse of money. I eventually yielded to the watch-buying mantra and purchased a "Cartier" watch from a vendor in Deira. He assured me it was the finest timepiece that Singaporean counterfeiters had ever produced.
At street level it becomes abundantly evident that the culture of this city is trade. Only one in five of Dubai's inhabitants is Arabic; it is the international traders who make it tick. Everyone from the street hawker to the high-flying businessman is integral to the city. Its culture has been fostered by the ruling Al Maktoum royal family – and the skyscrapers are monuments to their success. But down on the ground the fuel for it all is the constant stream of newcomers with a hunger to do well.
My last vertical trip was to the Burj Al Arab, as heavy on the wallet as it is on the skyline. This 321m sail-shaped hotel, built on a man-made island out at sea, epitomises Dubai's gaudy excesses. To get past the tight security on the front gates, one needs either a reservation at the hotel or in one of its extraordinarily expensive restaurants.
It's worth the effort. The Burj-al-Arab has the highest atrium in the world, at 180m, a butler dedicated to each of the 27 floors of the hotel, and a fleet of Rolls-Royces for its guests. It feels like it had been built for another age, awash with gold trim and architectural flourishes. I ascended in the panoramic lift at six metres a second into the crow's nest of the hotel, the 27th floor, which houses the Al Muntaha Restaurant.
On offer was a good European menu and classy, if somewhat bright, cocktail bar. At 200m high, the view over the Persian Gulf and the city was the best I had seen. The biggest thrill, though, was plummeting down to earth again in the elevator. For a moment I thought we were being bulleted down deep into the sea.
It didn't take me long to feel seduced again by the old city. The Creek, which cuts through old Dubai, is about as wide as the Thames and is chock-full of old wooden cargo ships. These vie for space with little passenger ferries that run between Bur Dubai and the souk on the Deira bank opposite. As we traversed the Creek on one of these makeshift ferries, sitting jammed up against dockers, businessmen and tourists, I caught the sticky smell of the "put-put" engine's petrol fumes. For all the heights of a city that had risen on the petro-dollar, this was the first real whiff I'd had off the stuff.
The ferryman asked if I would like a private, hour-long, tour of the Creek for 100 dirhams (£14). I accepted, and we set off down the river past more gleaming edifices. Soon our boat was chugging along beside the Dubai Hilton. Surely this squat little thing was not the Hilton of Raban's Dubai? No: his Hilton was torn down many years ago, its dubious glories lost forever in the rubble of this ever-changing city. It may all be built of concrete and steel round here, but there is still something ephemeral about it. Will it stand the test of time? My "Cartier" watch certainly didn't. It broke shortly after my return home.
Five surprising structures by Simon Calder
A local bus will whisk you from the centre of Dubai, past the ranks of 21st-century skyscrapers and clean out of the city into the desert, even transitting a few miles of Omani territory en route to the final destination of Hatta Fort (pictured bottom of page) which is the most imposing building in a ragged village, infiltrated with palms, that speaks of a different, more gentle, age.
Tolerance is a virtue evident in areas of Dubai. It extends to religious freedom, most visibly demonstrated just yards from the royal palace and some of the holiest Islamic locations: in the Hindu Temple (above). Believers (segregated by gender) worship freely, and non-Hindu visitors are welcomed to observe the proceedings in a relaxed, friendly environment.
Orient Guest House
The Bastakia quarter of Dubai comprises history resurrected; the original Persian area has been brought back to life with intricate care. This is the place to find traditional architecture and a celebration of Arabian art, and also this hidden gem: a classy, boutique hotel arranged around a traditional courtyard, with rates far lower than the gleaming modern behemoths.
"Established 1759", fibs the sign above the door of the most popular Irish pub in Dubai. It is located slightly out of the way, over towards the airport, perhaps because the traditional Irish "craic" is best concealed from the majority of people in Dubai, for whom alcohol is not part of daily life. Inside, you can get everything from well-served stout to filling Irish fare, pretty much the last thing you need as the searing summer heat takes over.
This is the expatriate name given to a vast gyratory system just north across the border from Dubai in Sharjah, which is another big and bustling city. Such is the scale and intensity of building in central Sharjah that roundabouts constitute oases in the concrete desert. This one – which is where traffic to Dubai meets traffic heading across the mountains to the east coast – boasts a vast plinth supporting a gigantic version of the Islamic holy book.
Dubai is served by Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) from a range of UK airports; British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; www.virgin-atlantic.com), Biman Bangladesh Airlines (020-7629 0252; www.bimanair.com) and Royal Brunei Airlines (020-7584 6660; www.bruneiair.com) from Heathrow; and Silverjet (0844 855 0111; www.flysilverjet.com) from Luton.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
The Grosvenor House, West Marina Beach (210m; 00 971 4 399 8888; www.starwoodhotels.com). Deluxe suites, including access to the 44th floor lounge, start at 3,900 dirhams (£540), room only. Burj Dubai, Downtown Dubai (629m; 00 971 4 367 3333; www.burjdubai.com). Opening in 2009 to include hotel and private apartments.
The Chelsea Tower Hotel Apartments, Sheikh Zayed Road (250m; 00 971 4 343 4347; www.chelseatowerdubai.com). From 780 dirhams (£108), room only.
Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach (321m; 00 971 4 301 7777; www.burj-al-arab.com). From 4,800 dirhams (£666), room only. Cocktails at the Al Muntaha Skyview Bar cost 70-140 dirhams (£10-£20).
Dubai Tourist Board: 00 971 4 223 0000; www.dubaitourism.ae