The building that houses the Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) office, our first destination in the city, vaguely resembles a pregnant woman, with a few of its middle floors jutting out from the rest of the structure. This is bizarrely appropriate, for more than anything else, Dubai gives the impression of being perpetually in labour, straining to produce one of the greatest metropolitan tourist destinations.
Everywhere one goes, there is evidence of the many transparent efforts to make the city the ultimate haven for a rich visitor: to be bigger, showier, more eye-popping than anyplace else; to be all things to all people, with every sort of landscape and human experience within arm's reach. “We have beach resorts and mountain ranges!” the brochures cry out, “And desert camps! Fancy cruises! Cavernous theme malls rubbing shoulders with heritage villages! Even a skiing slope, the only one in the Middle East!” The staggering World archipelago project (with 300 islands positioned to form the shape of the world map), currently under construction off the coast, is like a giant symbol for the city's all-encompassing ambitions.
At the DTCM office, we are shown a presentation that could easily have been titled “Then, Now and Soon”, built as it is around a sense of wonder about what Dubai once was (a small fishing port with a population numbering in the thousands), what it has turned into under the auspices of its sheikh rulers (a modern cosmopolitan city “with over 30,000 hotel rooms”) and what it will eventually become: “The Ultimate Business, Tourism, Leisure and Entertainment Destination”, with a projected 15 million visitors by 2010.
In all likelihood, this ambition will be realised. Unlike the world's older metropolises, each carrying the burden of a long and complex past and shifting power equations, Dubai has had the advantage of being built from the ground up, by rulers who know exactly how they want the city to look. Everything is planned and executed with precision: the government even grows palm trees in the desert and transplants them whenever a newly constructed site requires embellishing.
Impressive as parts of the city already look (assuming you're impressed by large glass-and-concrete structures), Dubai is only 20 per cent complete. Given the pace of construction — one-sixth of the world's cranes are currently in or around the city, and working round the clock — most remaining projects should be finished by 2009. It's easy to see the reason for the haste. Dubai's petroleum reserves will be exhausted in less than 10 years' time. By then, the plan is that the city won't need the oil — all the money will be coming in from tourism. Shopping is already a key attraction, but it never hurts to add incentives for the visitor.
“But what about the traffic problems?” I ask the DTCM representative. “Will the roads be able to sustain all this development?” The traffic jams are appalling during rush hour (one reason is that cars are quite cheap in Dubai relative to the average incomes; it's rare to see a motorbike on the roads) and surely this will worsen with further development and a growing population? “Nothing to worry about,” he replies, “It will improve after the metro has been completed. Also, more bridges are being built across the creek, to connect the two sides of the town.” What about the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and the common perception that this is turning into a city for only very rich people? This time the answer is stiff: “Sorry, I'm not in a position to speak about this.”
Despite the scepticism about what place there will be in Future Dubai for the common man, it would be churlish to deny that this can be a fun destination, especially if you're going on a four-day 'highlights package'. The sheer range of experiences on offer is remarkable — in the course of a single day, you might visit the mountains, a beach, a ski resort and a desert camp, with possibly some time left over to roam a mall modelled on a country theme as well as the famous gold-and-spice souks located near the waterfront.
Our tour begins with a dhow cruise and dinner, which is couple tourism at its best: a romantic deck setting, a buffet spread in the opulent restaurant below, a live band performing Lionel Richie songs. The barge drifts leisurely up and down the creek, and if you're attentive you'll get a nice panoramic nighttime view of central Dubai (though if you're with your girlfriend you'll probably be too busy to notice). This is a neat introduction to what the city has to offer a visitor seeking the good life, but it's only the beginning.
In the next two days we are taken on a number of tours. There's the sprawling cruise terminal, a ship-shaped building with elaborate welcome facilities for disembarking passengers. “We have separate rooms and gates for VIPs,” the guide tells us proudly, “so they don't have to mix with the ordinary passengers.” (One wonders how “ordinary” you must be to be able to travel on an expensive cruise liner.) There's the picturesque Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, where the 18-hole course and the 121-boat marina are the centrepieces of a resort that incorporates the luxury Park Hyatt hotel and executive villas for rent. Later, we visit the stylish Mercato mall, one of many themed malls; this one has an Italian motif, with architecture evocative of the Renaissance and corridors that resemble Venetian streets — though the brands are the same you'll find in most major shopping malls.
Every nook and cranny of the city is marked by buildings in various stages of construction, and it isn't enough for them to merely be the biggest or shiniest; now safeguards have to be set in place for the future too. A tour guide tells us that the Burj Dubai, proposed to be the world's tallest building, is being put together in such a way that the top can be extended — “so if some other country makes an equally tall structure, we can increase the size of this one to maintain our position”. This is fairly representative of the attitude of Dubai's planners: Give no one else a chance.
The best part of our trip is a toss-up between two activities that you wouldn't expect to experience in the same place, and certainly not at the same time of year. First comes the desert safari, which begins at a point off the highway, around 45 minutes from the city centre, as safari vehicles filled with screaming tourists careen wildly up and down the sand dunes. Hair-raising as this is, it's followed by something quiet and laidback — a Bedouin campsite in the middle of the desert, with food, drinks and hookahs, tents to relax in and even a belly dancer show. Miles away from the city centre, one gets a genuine sense of what the region once was — a vast desert land, worlds away from the modern city.
But the other highlight is very much in the heart of Dubai — situated in its biggest shopping centre, the Mall of the Emirates: the marvellous Ski Dubai, an artificial snow dome where visitors can ski, slide, toboggan, pose for photos in igloos, throw snowballs at each other and ride the cable lift. It's easy to forget that the temperature outside might be more than 45 degrees celsius.
On the one hand, a completely natural, untrammelled desert setting; on the other, an Alpine simulacra that's so well done that it's impossible to separate it from the real thing. It's somewhere between these two extremes that one gets a sense of what Dubai can be at its best. It's tempting to be cynical about the city's future, to think of the City of Gold as an unwieldy chunk of imitation jewellery: will the current gestation period produce a monster child, incapable of sustaining all the infrastructure, with the already-considerable gap between the rich and the poor widening even further? But it's also undeniable that a lot of hard work is going into making the grand dream a reality. If that happens, Dubai will undoubtedly set new benchmarks for global tourism. The future will tell.