In Dubai, Let It . . . Snow?
Sunday, January 15, 2006
It might have been shorts weather on a recent winter day in Dubai at the juncture of sand and sea, the air a typically cloudless 85 degrees, the breeze desert-dry. But inside a stadium-size sanctum at the brand new Mall of the Emirates, the forecast called for man-made snow.
So instead of beachwear, I rented a parka and mittens and stepped into a surreal, faux-winter bazaar, where gleeful children flung ice balls, careened down a bobsled run and darted in and out of igloos impossibly out of place in a building whose parking lot is lined with palm trees. Sandal-clad men and women, some also wearing traditional Arab robes and head scarves, looked on in amusement through the mall's fogged windows.
Ski Dubai, a $275 million wonderland with five sloping runs and a chairlift reaching diagonally into the misty expanse 25 stories above, opened in December, along with a quarter-pipe for snowboarders.
"It really is mind-boggling. You can see your breath," said Sadia Mahmud, a smiling financial analyst who visited with her 5-year-old son. "You go from the desert to the Alps in just a few steps."
I had traveled to Dubai (population 1.2 million as of 2003) to see what I had heard was a city rapidly becoming a caricature of excess, a surreal oasis on a horn of the Arabian Peninsula jutting into the mouth of the Persian Gulf. "You have to see this place to believe it," said a college friend I was visiting on a stopover from Baghdad, where I normally work. He was right.
With a more permissive attitude than their neighbors toward Western-style capitalism and lifestyle features like bars and dance clubs, Dubai's government has carefully cultivated an exploding economy centered on oil, financial services and, increasingly, real estate and tourism. Even a stock exchange opened in September.
An advantage for travelers is an abundance of swanky hotels and restaurants, although prices ($200 per night and way, way up for luxury accommodations) may seem daunting to those more accustomed to the region's less lavish locales. Nonetheless, tourists and business travelers are flocking. The number of hotel guests the country has accommodated nearly doubled in the past five years to about 5.4 million per year, according to the tourism office.
The ability of this small city-state -- one of seven that make up the United Arab Emirates -- to adapt to a seemingly inhospitable geography is first viewed on approach from the air, as an unbroken sea of yellow sand to the west gives way to vibrant green irrigated plots for giant stone houses.
Dubai draws frequent comparisons with Hong Kong, for its role as a financial center linking two cultures -- in Dubai's case, the Middle East and the West--and to Las Vegas for its "top-this" approach to opulence and development. (Most forms of gambling, however, are illegal.) Along the main highway through the center of the city, the scope of construction is simply staggering. Hundreds of large construction projects are underway at once, including dozens of high-rise buildings. Reportedly, about 16 percent of the world's large construction cranes are in Dubai, a number often cited and difficult to verify. A collage of glass-and-steel skyscrapers, half-built towers and a veritable forest of cranes define the skyline in all directions.
"When my aunt first went to New York and saw the skyline, she told them it didn't seem like much because she had already been to Dubai," said my host, Hassan Sattar, a Pakistani investment banker who moved to Dubai with his family last year.
Among them is the world-renowned Burj Al Arab Hotel, built on a man-made island in the Persian Gulf and shaped like a sailboat mast and mainsail. It bills itself as a "seven-star" resort, and guests are assigned a butler with every room. Other artificial archipelagos -- one of which is shaped like a palm tree, another a map of the globe -- house some of the emirate's most lavish and exclusive new developments, including homes bought by such Western celebrities as aging rocker Rod Stewart and English soccer star David Beckham.
On a billboard near the center of town, next to a vast building foundation, is an artist's rendering of the Burj Dubai, a spiraling tower under construction. At up to 160 stories, developers say, it will be the world's tallest building upon completion, set for 2009. "Throughout history, only a handful of structures have had the power to change history," says a statement on the project's promotional Web site, above a photo of Egypt's pyramids.