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Going cosmo in Dubai

Indoor skiing, man-made islands -- it's all real in the glitzy cosmopolitan desert oasis.

January 27, 2008|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

But it isn't just that the city has taken an early lead into the 21st century; it's the speed with which it has done so.

At the Dubai Museum, built underneath Al Fahidi Fort in the historic creek-side district of Bastakiya, high-tech exhibits document the city's relatively brief recorded history, starting when Dubai was little more than a souk at the edge of the Arabian Desert.

A decade-by-decade photo gallery reveals the development of the city, which is caught up in a real estate boom that's transforming the sky and coastlines.

In just a handful of years, two new high-rise districts have taken shape west of downtown, one like Miami Beach with hotels and residences between a man-made marina and the beach, the other an international business center along the desert flats of multilane Sheikh Zayed Road, where, it seems, every other lot is a construction site.

The cluster of postmodern skyscrapers there is dwarfed only by Burj Dubai, a tapering tower designed by the Chicago-based architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. When it's finished, perhaps later this year or early next, it will be twice the height of New York's Chrysler Building (a mere 1,046 feet) and may take its place as the tallest skyscraper in the world.

Together with Burj Al Arab, the ultra-luxurious hotel shaped like an Arabian sailboat (see photo on the cover of the section), it is the pride of Dubai.

Rooms at Burj Al Arab are palatial, two-story suites starting at more than $1,000 a night. The clientele reflects that: actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Swiss tennis star Roger Federer.

Hoi polloi can reserve a table for a meal, high tea or cocktails at one of the hotel's eight restaurants, then take a lightning-fast, glass-walled elevator to the 27th floor for a bird's-eye view of the placid, aqua Persian Gulf, where, without the benefit of geologic activity, a swirling chain of islands is being created.

Only one of Nakheel's five island-building projects -- three shaped like palm trees (Palm Jumeirah), one that approximates a map of the world and another, announced last week -- is close enough to completion for its property owners (including soccer star David Beckham, Bollywood leading man Shahrukh Khan and race car driver Michael Schumacher) to move in.

Ultimately, Palm Jumeirah will have vacation villas and apartments, a Trump International Hotel & Tower, an Atlantis resort, a monorail, a Barneys New York department store, a purpose-built Cirque du Soleil theater and the Queen Elizabeth 2, to be retired from oceangoing service and converted into a hotel, as its prime coconuts.

East of Palm Jumeirah, sand has been moved from the bottom of the gulf, shaped and compacted to create the World, a development of about 300 islands, all to be privately owned and selling for $15 million to $50 million. There, just one structure has been completed, a show mansion, purchased by Sheik Mohammed for his junior wife, Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, the daughter of Jordan's late King Hussein.

From Burj Al Arab's 27th floor, I looked out and again wondered whether it was all real or just a big, dazzling bubble floating alongside the water.

But later, I got what I take to be the answer from an Indian bus driver, who personified the city's spirit. He told me he came to Dubai more than a decade ago to make his fortune.

"Anyone," he said, "can get rich in Dubai."


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