In Dubai, the Sky's No Limit

Times Staff Writer

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.

"When they built this road, they said, 'Dubai is mad. Why do they need such a street?' " Tahboub says. Referring to one of the city's many development projects, he adds: "You've seen Internet City? Five years ago it was sand." By way of punctuation, he points outside to the dirt on the edge of the road.

Then he gets quiet and glowers, because another car is trying to squeeze him out. In a city like Dubai, you've got to keep your elbows sharp.

The high-rollers who plot Dubai's future from the polished heights of the skyscrapers like to describe their city as a model of something entirely new. They claim they are using the spoils of a boom to craft the Persian Gulf's first post-oil economy, a hub of commerce and tourism that will endure even if the wells of black gold run dry.

"You come here and you see a gimmick, but it's not," Moosa says. "You have to see the vision behind it. Oil is not everything. What about the next generation? Oil will be scarce. We need a national income aside from this oil."

In the heat of its frenetic boom, Dubai has developed a few tics. There is a preternatural fascination with how things will look when viewed from the sky. Then there's the obsession with breaking records.

Dubai has already swept up a trophy case of titles -- packed the heftiest box of chocolate bars (Kit Kat), cooked the largest bowl of spaghetti, gathered the biggest group of people of the same name (Mohammed, natch). This town's bragging rights also include the richest horse race, tallest unsupported flagpole and biggest stained-glass mural.

No feat is too stupendous, and even the zaniest superlative is trumpeted proudly.

On a recent morning, as Dubai simmers in triple-digit heat, a developer named David Richmond lingers on the details of a massive fish tank planned for Dubai Mall.

"It will be the biggest piece of acrylic ever created," he says soberly, pointing out the front panel of glass that will, theoretically, protect shoppers from being walloped by a deluge studded with exotic fish. "It's going to take a year's supply of the world's acrylic to make the one sheet of glass."

The height of Burj Dubai, soon to be the world's tallest building, is a secret guarded jealously lest some other city plot something even taller. This paranoia persists even though, as Richmond points out sharply, "we're on the 12th floor, so we're at least two years ahead of any competitors."

The apartments and offices in Burj Dubai -- burj means "tower" -- are sold out already, not that "no vacancy" means much in Dubai, where properties are bought on speculation and often change hands three or four times before ground is even broken. The steel behemoth will poke high into the atmosphere -- at least 2,313 feet, busting by far the standing record of 1,667 feet, held by Taiwan's Taipei 101 tower.

"I call it a sexy building," says Richmond, pointing to the petal-inspired elements that taper to a point at the top.

Not all Dubai's innovation comes in pretty packaging. The ski run has risen from an improbable little patch of asphalt, attached to one of the many shopping centers. It looks like a big tube of steel, twisted into an elbow and glistening blackly in the sun. Driving past, you don't really notice its size unless you happen to see a few workers crawling on its skin -- they look tinier than ants on the flank of an elephant. Seen from the sea, the encased ski run rears up from the earth, taller than the surrounding buildings.

Lurching through the liquid turquoise of the gulf, hulking ships power-spray great arcs of sand, pounding it tight enough to make the man-made islands. Seen from above, the islands take the shape of palm trees (there are now three palms), a crescent and a map of the world.

It all began, this island-building craze, with the Palm off the shoreline neighborhood of Jumeirah -- the original Palm, that is, which is not to be confused with the two that came after. The first palm-shaped island was the brainchild of Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed ibn Rashid al Maktum; his company later decided to capitalize on the buzz by adding two more.

"He wanted to put Dubai on the map with something really sensational," says Jacqui Josephson, whose title at development giant Nakheel is "tourism and VIP delegations executive."

And so he did.

British soccer star David Beckham owns a place on the Palm off Jumeirah, and the development is due to be finished next year. Hotel wizard Sol Kerzner is building his take on the lost city of Atlantis at the top of the fronds. And in the waters just off the man-made coast, the world's most treasured scuba diving sites will be re-created: the Maldives, the Barrier Reef, the Caymans, the Red Sea.

Another of the palm-shaped islands will be flanked by houses rising from the sea on stilts. Seen from overhead, the homes will be positioned to spell out a poem written by the crown prince: "Heed the wisdom of the wise: It takes a man of vision to write on water. Not everyone who rides a horse is a jockey. Great men rise to great challenges."

"It's not lacking in wow factor," Josephson says.

"But this is, to a certain extent, what people have come to expect from Dubai. People have these visions here, and they've got the guts to go through with them."

She glances at the satellite photos of the Palm and half-mutters, "The money doesn't hurt either."

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