Osama's Nightmare Las Vegas in the Arabian Desert

Dubai has sold its soul to globalization like few cities have. A glittering capitalist fantasyland has taken shape at the heart of the Arab world. It's a center of international trade, a holiday paradise and a carnival rolled into one.

By in Dubai

High above the Persian Gulf, in Vu's Bar on the fifty-first floor of Dubai's Emirate Towers Hotel, a woman calling herself Nikita drinks pink mai tai cocktails like tap water. She smokes pearl-white Cartier cigarettes. She's moody and irritable -- a thin whore from Kazakhstan at the heart of the strict Islamic world. "Get lost if you don't want me," she says. "You're bad for business, here in my little rat's cage."

Men linger around the tables, locals and vacationers from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They're wearing snow-white dishdasha robes and their heads are framed in the traditional kaffiyeh head garb. These are the men who play the moral authority in their families, and then to go out late at night and drink Johnnie Walker Gold Label. They're guzzling sin down greedily, Cuban cigars in hand. Desire for a woman like Nikita flickers in their eyes.

Her body is available for $300. "Three zero zero," she says, drunk. "I'm sad, I'm funny, buy me another mai tai." Behind her slim silhouette and far down below lies the city, shrouded in its nightly mugginess. You can see the row of skyscrapers on Sheikh Zayed Road. Further back and closer to the sea lies the Jumeirah neighborhood's broad strip of villas, a blinking chessboard.

Seen from this hotel bar 300 meters (984 feet) above the ground, it's a quiet and festive panorama, an image fit for travel magazines. But this is only a small part of the city. Like so many images of Dubai, it's illusory. Those images make everything look like something from a glossy brochure, but the city isn't so much a grand festival as a place undergoing profound transformation, a place torn with contradictions. Dubai is like a bag full of puzzle pieces, and no one knows what picture they will make once fit together.

It's Sunday, the work week in the Islamic world is beginning. The temperature is crawling to almost 50 degrees Centigrade (122 Fahrenheit), a mist of evaporated seawater is forming along the coast. Olaf Fey, a paunchy Bavarian with a moustache, brings his cherry-red Mercedes with cream-colored leather seats to a halt. He's willing to give a tour of his own Dubai -- for a fee. Fey worked as a policeman in Munich for 20 years. At the end of his career, he led a canine unit. When the dog died and his relationship shortly thereafter, he decided it was time to start a new life -- far away from the long German winters and the gloomy mood that comes with them.

He resigned from his position, giving up the benefits of being a civil servant, including his pension. That was four or five years ago. At the time, everyone said he was crazy, but now he's 43 and proud to have re-invented himself here in the desert. Fey sells vacation trips and information, calling himself the managing director of Travel Service Dubai, a kind of one-man business consisting of roughly a dozen Web links that provide 1,000 pages of information on Dubai and always feature a path leading directly to Fey's booking service.

Click on the map for a larger view.

Click on the map for a larger view.

He found out quickly that "there's something going on in Dubai." He says he was "originally" a specialist on Kenya, but Dubai turned out to be the better place. "It's sunny 365 days a year. You don't need a visa, you don't need vaccinations. You have top-quality hotels, top-quality flights. You can go shopping. Everything is safe and clean. There you have it," he says. His mobile phone is always ringing. He grumbles something into it, in English or German. Sometimes he just wordlessly passes the phone to his assistant, Lilly, who sits in the back seat. She's a young Chinese woman who follows him everywhere like a shadow and hardly says a word.

Fey knows Dubai well, especially those parts of the city that tourists like to visit. He has connections to hotel and restaurant managers all over the emirate. Take a tour with him and you'll meet Dutchmen, Pakistanis, Germans, Saudi Arabians. They wave as soon as they see Fey coming. He's set up a little network of business friends out here in the desert. "So, what do we want to do?" he asks over lunch at the bistro of the Royal Meridian hotel. "The usual? Everything's great in Dubai? Just wonderful? Or do we want to tell people how things really are around here?"

Rising and falling buildings

Not even Fey knows exactly "how things really are." He mentions the rent increases, as much as 40 percent a year, and the rapidly rising cost of living, the price of water and electricity, the trouble with new buildings that collapse. This view of Dubai reflects the everyday experience of a mixed-up international middle class. Life is hard for the members of this middle class, in Fey's opinion: It's a demanding life, not the tax-free, sunny dream that people all over the world associate with Dubai -- which is turns out to be many cities.

The glittering fantasy land from the travel brochures is only one of those cities, a beautiful optical illusion arranged by the the world's public relations managers. Whoever believes in it must think of Dubai as a kind of fairy tale, a place of Arab magic, an oasis of camels and sheiks and a cluster of luxury hotels where no day goes by without a golf tournament or swanky horse races.

But Dubai these days is mostly a noisy, rough, unkempt city -- one of the world's largest construction sites. Construction work is going on throughout most of the urbanized coastal strip, and the jackhammers can still be heard from the terraces of seaside hotels at night.

In five or six years, the around-the-clock construction work will produce a patchwork metropolis, a place with many town centers, divided up into theme parks for living, working, shopping, going out -- a post-urban city the likes of which has never existed before. And it will be an architectural mess: an aesthetic blend of Shanghai, Las Vegas, Disney World and southern Tenerife.

The Burj al-Arab hotel in Dubai is located on an artificial island. It's the tallest hotel in the world.

The Burj al-Arab hotel in Dubai is located on an artificial island. It's the tallest hotel in the world.

Outside the dark windows of Olaf Fey's Mercedes coupe, Dubai moves by like an endless construction site. Far outside of town, in Jebel Ali, the ground is being levelled for the construction of the new giant airport. Closer to the city, you can spot the contours of what will be Dubai Marina. Now it's a forest of uncompleted building structures. In three years it will be a city in its own right, with 124 apartment towers and space for 150,000 people.

Closer to the city center, one construction site follows another. Our trip takes us past gigantic offshore construction projects with names like "The Palm" and "The World," artificial islands for Europeans who have grown weary of civilization. It continues through new business districts like "Knowledge Village" and "Media City." Then, near the city center, there's a cluster of skyscrapers being built with names like "Business Bay," "Old Town," "Dubai Living" and "Festival City." In the middle of a gray sand field riddled with cranes stands the foundation of what will soon be the highest building in the world, Burj Dubai. In two or three years it will stand 180 to 200 stories high, up to 800 meters (or 2,625 feet) -- more than twice the height of the Empire State Building.

The metropolis of superlatives

World records are a major consideration in Dubai's urban planning schemes. When Olaf Fey drives through the city, he points left and right, stringing together superlatives: the tallest building, the biggest shopping mall, the largest airport, and the biggest entertainment park, complete with the highest Eiffel Tower in the world, slightly higher than the original in Paris.

What about the large port in Jebel Ali? "Oh," Fey says. He doesn't have any contacts there. "That's not really very interesting." But Fey's answer is a long way from the truth.

Jabal Ali is the largest seaport ever built. The cranes, the ships, the wharfs -- everything is enormous. Take a tour through it and you'll feel like you're seeing the backdrop to an overblown sci-fi flick. The view from one of the giant cargo cranes is also striking: Millions of cargo containers form straight rows as far as the eye can see. There are ten or twelve such rows, each as broad as a highway. They seem endless, and they're as colorful as the world economy itself.

This panoramic view of the port facility is as overwhelming as London must have been in the 18th century, or Paris 150 years ago. It's a view that says: History is being written here; this is where old certainties break down. Dubai's port shatters the belief that America, Europe or China are the most modern of today's societies. It foreshadows an entirely different 21st century -- and an Arab world altogether different from the one the West thinks it knows.

The port recounts the magical tale of Dubai's rise to glory: Twenty years ago, four companies operated a few cargo cranes in this free trade zone. Today 6,300 companies from 100 countries have a presence here, and they are joined by new companies every day. A nodal point of world trade has taken shape in an extremely short time, linking India and Africa, China and Europe. It's as if the world had always been waiting for this transfer point.

That the port was built in the first place is owed to the boldness of Dubai's ruling Maktum family. When construction began in the 1970s, they had two things: money from oil sales and their old tradition as tradesmen -- not much more. What they added was the audacious plan to transform a barren stretch of desert into a buzzing free-trade zone and a tourist playground.

Ever since then, they've been handling capitalism like a construction kit. They built the new country by assembling pre-fabricated elements: ports, airports, airlines, streets, hotels, shopping malls. The most famous of their mammoth projects has become Dubai's trademark. The Burj al Arab is the tallest hotel in the world, shaped like a sail and positioned on a platform in the sea.

It's a seven-star establishment, and maybe the most famous hotel in the world. Olaf Fey drives up to it in his Mercedes. He knows the people at the gate. The area is surrounded by guards, security mirrors and ditches, as if a World Bank meeting were being held here. Two large white Rolls Royce cars stand parked at the top of the driveway. "So enjoy yourself here, I'll see you later," says Fey as we reach the entrance. He talks like the director of the hotel.

Inside the high lobby, Arab clan leaders walk by, surrounded by a dark orbit of veiled women. Two maids and a butler lead me to my room. One of the maids is from Bavaria. "We Bavarians are everywhere," she says and giggles as if she's made a dirty joke. The Butler is a Filipino wearing a tailcoat. His name is Filibert. Asked if he likes life in Dubai, he replies: "But of course, sir. This way please. You're staying in room 510."

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