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COLUMN ONE

In Dubai, the Sky's No Limit

The zany, ambitious Persian Gulf boomtown is chockablock with oddities. Man-made islands shaped like palms are just a start.

October 13, 2005|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When Salem Moosa looks out over the skyscrapers spreading like a metallic rash over the sand, this is what he sees: The Eiffel Tower. The Pyramids. The Taj Mahal.

He's angling to build all of them -- but bigger than the originals. And, if you ask Moosa, perhaps even better.

Moosa's constellation of head-scratching oddities would join the marvels already cropping up like mushrooms across Dubai. The man-made islands in the shape of palm trees. The indoor ski resort. The underwater hotel. The lost city of Atlantis. One of the world's largest aquariums, set inside the world's biggest shopping mall, sprawling in the shadow of what will be the world's tallest skyscraper.

At first blush, there's an existential question at the heart of it all: Why? And in the case of Moosa's creations, what kind of tenants would clamor to nest in a swollen pyramid?

In Dubai, a zany boomtown afloat in plastic fantasy, unbridled ambition and rivers of cold cash, such questions are dismissed as the calling cards of the unimaginative. Moosa waves them away like sand flies.

"Who wants to live in a pyramid? Everybody wants to live in a pyramid," he says with evident astonishment. "It's the only address in the world. Imagine your card: 'The Grand Pyramid of Dubai'! "

Bigger. Brighter. More outlandish. Construction-fevered Dubai is almost Gatsby-esque in its audacious thirst for reinvention. This once-sleepy port of pearl traders and pirates is gunning to turn itself into one of the great capitals of the postmodern world.

If Americans pushed west to manifest destiny, the Emirates are pushing into the sky. There is a vague consensus here that great cities arrange themselves around ambitious architecture, and Dubai is determined to outdo them all. You feel it when you drive down the highway, eyes assaulted by a string of quixotic slogans: "The earth has a new center." "History rising." "Impossible is nothing."

"We can't keep up with it. We're walking around and things are popping up, and we just had no idea," says Trevor L. Evans, a Canadian-born transplant who markets real estate here for Better Homes. "And some of it seems really wacky."

Perched at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, Dubai was among the old-style tribal sheikdoms that stayed under British control until 1971. Upon independence, it joined with its neighbors to form the United Arab Emirates.

With relatively little oil to bolster its economy, this trading hub has long used ingenuity to lure business. There are no taxes, and the city is endowed with an efficient, well-appointed national airline and relatively hassle-free airport.

The city cashed in on the chill that followed Sept. 11, which drove some rattled Arab and Muslim investors to pull their money out of the West lest it be seized under anti-terrorism legislation. Much of that cash has found its way into Dubai's explosive real estate market. So has money earned by Persian Gulf Arabs in the current oil boom, which has pumped up Dubai like some hyper-charged steroid.

Today's freewheeling Dubai is a bewildering stew of nationalities, a place where natives make up less than 20% of the population of about a million. It's also a place where politics is seldom spoken of -- people are much too busy amassing cash and spending it as flamboyantly as possible.

Misgivings rumble into the conversation sometimes. People wonder whether the go-go economy has enough real stuff underpinning it to sustain itself, or whether the real estate bubble will pop. Human rights groups have accused developers of exploiting thousands of foreign men who come from countries such as India and Pakistan to toil in the hot sun for about $200 a month.

"The city is losing its authenticity. It's losing its past," says Abdel Khaleq Abdullah, a television talk show host. "Maybe in globalization, identity is irrelevant. That's what the government says. But in reality, hell no, you're losing something very precious."

He casts a bemused glance around him at the Wafi Center, a posh shopping mall where Yves Saint Laurent, Marks & Spencer and Tiffany cluster behind an exterior of glass pyramids. As he sits in a cafe, waiters brush past, trays of cappuccinos aloft. The floors gleam; expensive perfumes waft through the air; among the milling Asians and Europeans, there is hardly an Arab in sight.

"I'm not sure these guys know what they want to be," he says. "They're just riding the roller coaster and they haven't reached the top yet. Is this thing going to burst? And if it does, who will pay for it?"

But in times of spectacular growth, pessimism is not particularly popular.

"Since I got here 27 years ago, I've been hearing that it's a bubble," scoffs Ghassan Tahboub, an advisor to Dubai's crown prince. Night has fallen, and the Porsches and Jaguars and Ferraris are jostling and crawling along Sheik Zayed Road, the six-lane artery that serves as the backbone of the city.

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