Dubai's Oasis

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You'll be forgiven, upon your arrival at the Burj Al Arab hotel, if you can't believe you're in the Middle East, that forsaken corner of the world that seems doomed to endless war, terrorism and zealotry. The chauffeur of your Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph will collect you at Dubai's palm-studded airport, transport you past the shimmering skyscrapers and finally pull up to a resort that feels a lot more like Las Vegas than Arab sheikdom. Here, in an awesome, sail-shaped edifice as tall as the Eiffel Tower, obsequious staff will conduct you to one of the Burj Al Arab's sumptuous suites, featuring bedrooms with naughty mirrors on the ceilings, marble bathrooms with Jacuzzis, bars stocked with champagne, and personal butlers for every whim.

The Burj (meaning tower in Arabic) isn't everybody's idea of a place to stay on a holiday budget — the rooms start at $1,361 a night — but the hotel that has become Dubai's striking trademark is merely the centerpiece of an extraordinary effort to transform a small patch of sand surrounded by conflict into a magical vacation paradise that draws tourists from East and West alike. In 2002, 4.8 million visitors checked into Dubai's hotels, double the total for the past six years. Despite the war in Iraq, an upswing in Middle Eastern terrorism and the global SARS scare, hotel occupancy rose once again in the first nine months of 2003.

Dubai's tourist boom is part of a bold plan to transform the tiny city-state (part of the United Arab Emirates) into a Middle Eastern Singapore — that is, an ultra-efficient regional service center and tourist destination that benefits from the innovative yet unobtrusive hand of a benevolent leader. In Dubai that would be Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ambitious Crown Prince whose dreams for Dubai leave those of most other gulf princes in the camel age. "They have been bold, and they have been strategic," acknowledges Sheik Mohammed, but he adds, "I have achieved only 10% of my visions." Dubai turned to tourism because oil and gas represent only 17% of its GDP, and those resources are expected to run dry, or nearly, in the next decade. So the energy sector has already been surpassed by tourism, which in 2002 accounted for almost 18% of GDP.

One of Dubai's attractions is simply being able to lounge around gorgeous hotels, getting the royal treatment as you soak up the year-round rays. Accommodations range from such superluxe joints as Al Maha Desert Resort to more conventional names, such as Sheraton, Sofitel and Best Western, whose rooms start at about $140 a night, plus a 20% tax. Arabs from around the region may frolic in the waves wearing traditional thobes (robes) and abas, but there's no frowning on string bikinis, if that's your taste in swimwear. And there is all manner of outdoor adventure, from scuba diving or wind-surfing further out in the azure waters of the gulf to trekking across Arabia's sands in 4-by-4s or on camelback.

Visitors have also been flocking to Dubai for its international sports events, such as the Dubai World Cup, horse racing's largest pot, and the Dubai Desert Golf Classic, which attracts top players, among them Tiger Woods. Another major attraction is the winter Dubai Shopping Festival, which runs from mid-January to Feb. 15. Its price reductions in fashion and electronics outlets temporarily turn Dubai into a mecca for the material world. Gambling may not exist here, but partying certainly does. There are no strict Islamic bans on alcohol — or on basically having fun in public — as in neighboring countries. A local edition of the listings magazine Time Out identifies 160 establishments in its "Nightlife" section.

At the rate Sheik Mohammed is building resorts, an ever increasing number of tourists will be able to join the fun. Up the coast a few miles from the Burj, Dubai is creating a massive complex of hotels and condos called the Palm on a man-made island in the shape of — no joking — a giant palm tree. Another ambitious resort named the World is being constructed on another man-made island in the form of — naturally — a map of the world. Recently Sheik Mohammed announced plans for Dubailand, a $4.9 billion megaproject that will include the Mall of Arabia, and theme parks called Adventure World, Sports World and Eco-tourism World.

Except for the traditional gold suq, where tourists like to wander, little is left of Old Dubai. But Sheik Mohammed's planners are also taking care of those who crave that experience. Madinat Jumeirah, scheduled for completion later this year, will feature clusters of villas made with a mud-and-beam design to re-create a 19th century Arab city — oh, yes, and two five-star hotels. A country has to have standards, you know.