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Dubai: Sand castles

Carved out of the desert, Dubai is a man-made urban oasis. But just as the sands are ever-shifting, so too is the city. Hop on as we follow its rise.

By Peter Thomson
"Look at moi-i!" We're out in the Dubai desert, white-knuckling as our gigantic 4WD crests a dune at high speed. Our Arab driver, Hanni, is doing his best imitation of an Aussie accent. "Look at moi-i, Poida!" he cries as we go airborne in a spray of orange sand. Hanni reckons he's the biggest Kath & Kim fan on the whole Arabian Peninsula. A wandering Englishman dumped the complete collection of DVDs and he's watched every episode. When our photographer reveals he's hung out with the actors in Melbourne, Hanni is ecstatic: he's been given entry to celebrity heartland.
Hanni's a top guy.  His grandfather was the Imam of Sanaa, the very conservative capital of Yemen, but Hanni's chosen a different path - guiding tourists on dune-bashing tours, joining a growling convoy of 50 or more 4WDs and mounting attacks on the sand dunes. Strangely, this gas-guzzling extravaganza takes place in the fenced-off Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Diverging from the convoy, Hanni takes us to a camel farm where a hawk-nosed Bedouin poses with hooded falcon at hand. But we're doomed to rejoin the throng at the desert camp, where the dune-bashing gang has been joined by busloads of tourists from every corner of the globe. As bellydancers jiggle for the masses, we sit on carpets beneath a blazing desert sky amid stalls serving alcohol and barbecued food. 
Dubai is obsessed with superlatives. The Burj Dubai is already earth's tallest structure (at what height its heavenly ascent will halt is yet to be announced), the Dubailand theme park is intended to be the largest tourism attraction in the world, the Wild Wadi the most advanced water park, the Dubai World Cup the richest horse race, the Dubai Mall the biggest shopping centre housing the largest gold souk, the Burj Al Arab the only seven-star hotel, the Mall of the Emirates the first shopping resort, the Dubai Marina the biggest man-made marina, and The Palm trilogy the largest man-made islands.
Why visit Dubai when the place is still dominated by construction sites and towering cranes? There's a certain fascination in seeing a gigantic edifice in the process of being created. It's like watching the Giza pyramids or the Sydney Harbour Bridge being built. The five square-kilometre Palm Jumeirah, one of three palm-shaped island reclamations wowing investors, is a case in point. The construction is a site to see, with a monorail, Trump International Hotel Tower, 30 beachfront hotels and thousands of apartments being slotted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Adding to the glamour, the QE2 will soon be permanently docked alongside as a floating hotel. And what is truly amazing is that the Palm Jumeriah is the smallest of the three Palm reclamations.
Dubai is for the tourist who takes pleasure in awe-inspiring, massive-scale engineering, construction and landscaping. It's for the visitor enthusiastically immersed in the flow of consumerism, who loves a giant theme park or shopping mall.
Dubai is a city of traders and has one of the world's highest per-capita incomes. The emirate's open skies policy has led to more than 110 airlines using its international airport, making the city one of the world's leading aviation hubs, and the enormous man-made Jebel Ali Port is one of Asia's busiest.
Gone are the days of a handful of Bedouins filling water jars from jealously guarded wells - now there are thousands of tourists filling baths and spas every minute of every day in every one of Dubai's burgeoning tower conglomerations, reclaimed island resorts and myriad themed precincts spreading into the desert. And all that water is desalinated by burning Dubai's natural gas reserves. With sustainability the mantra of our times, it's hoped humanity will soon  work out a gas-free technology to convert seawater into fresh water. If not, the taps may one day run dry, the desert reclaim its own, and the Burj protrude from the dunes like the colossal wreck of Ozymandias.
Defenders of Dubai's breathless urban development point out there is environmental argument in favour of building a city on a desert foreshore.
Most great cities took hundreds of years to build, making them feel more organic to us, but if you think of the productive arable land and beautiful forests cemented over by our metropolises, you can see the good sense in building cities of the future on  non-arable land. There is also persuasive logic to the gigantic resort reclamations along the coast. Although its economy was built on the back of the oil industry, today only a small percentage of Dubai's national earnings comes from oil and gas. Tourists want sun, sea and bea-ches - all of which Dubai can provide, with its long, sandy strands and clean, azure waters of the Gulf. But when the powers that be decided to turn the city into a tourism mecca they realised they were short on waterfront real estate. By undertaking reclamations in the manner of the elaborate Palm trilogy and globe-shaped development The World (a reclaimed archipelago of 300 islands that, when viewed from the air, resembles a map of the world), Dubai's foreshore has been extended by about 12 times its former length.
Four kilometres out to sea, The World development alone will provide Dubai with a further 232 kilometres of beachfront land. It's sobering to see this rich persons' playground springing from the ocean at the same time as global warming causes atoll nations such as Tuvalu to slip slowly below the sea. With Dubai's hotel, condominium and serviced-apartment inven-tory growing at a staggering rate, occupancy levels remain high. Many of Palm Jumeirah's condos have been sold - 30 per cent to Brits and 30 per cent to investors from Arab nations.
When the Mob began constructing their gambling haven in the Nevada desert, there would have been few who imagined Las Vegas would be so triumphant, not just as a gambling mecca but for its entertainment and dining. Dubai's development is being backed by bigger money than the Mob's, so expect Dubai to be out-glittering Vegas any day now. 
With its horse racing, motor racing, championship golf, Rugby Sevens, cricket tournaments, sailing and power-boating, Dubai is often referred to as the sports capital of the Middle East. But our Filipino taxi driver told us the true national sport was shopping, so we decided to exercise our credit cards instead of our limbs. If shopping malls make your head spin at the best of times, be prepared for some Exorcist-style cranial movements at the Mall of the Emirates. Outside it may be more than 40C, but indoors there are some parts that are permanently sub-zero, such as the 25-storey man-made mountain, where snow skiers clad in black burkhas can barrel down five ski runs all year round. 
The retail strip at the Mall of the Emirates is seemingly endless, dotted with themed restaurants, cafés and amusements such as a 10-pin bowling alley, bumper cars, a 14-screen cinema complex and Magic Planet, with its giant scare machines swinging screaming youths through confined spaces.
The Emirates Marina Hotel and Residence, sitting on the foreshore of the Dubai Marina precinct, affords fabulous views of the ever-changing cityscape. From one window we counted almost 100 towers rising along the marina's waterways. In another direction, we looked over the incredible Palm Jumeirah and, somewhere off in the hazy distance, The World development. Through the orange aftermath of a dust storm blown in from Arabia, we could also see the cranes of Dubailand with its Tiger Woods Dubai golf project, the ICC Global Cricket Academy, the Manchester United Soccer School, the Universal Studios Theme Park and the Bawadi precinct where more than 60,000 hotel rooms are being built. 
The pace of development in Dubai is break-neck, the vision quite flabbergasting. This is a boom town where the mindset is what next? How much higher? How much bigger? How much more incredible? The turnover of people, dollars and project completions are proof of the city's audacious success. 
But if you find yourself thirsting for something far from mirrored towers and looming cranes, there is another Dubai where you can still find the mystique and desert tranquility captured in Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian photographs. Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa accommodates guests in tent-roofed suites spread along a desert hillside overlooking a waterhole frequented by serene Arabian oryxes.  With their long, straight horns, these once-endangered beasts are thought to be the origin of the unicorn myth. At Al Maha, the sense of peace that has long-drawn man to the desert is all around.
Dubai is so much more than a convenient stop-off point en route to Europe. From the soaring Burj skyscraper to The Palm reclamations, from ethereal oryxes among red desert-dunes to the glamorous glitter of the Gold Souk, Dubai has much to offer.

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  • Author: Peter Thomson