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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 December 2005, 12:47 GMT
Dubai defies the pessimists

By Frank Gardner
BBC Security Correspondent

As Dubai's property boom continues, Frank Gardner contemplates what the future may hold for the Gulf state, on his first visit to the Middle East since he was shot and seriously injured last year while on assignment in Saudi Arabia.

Burj Al-Arab Hotel in dubai
The town is awash with money, much of it from neighbouring Gulf states

If I squint hard, the view down the runway at Dubai airport at dawn does not look that different from the way it did on my first visit 25 years ago.

The sun still lifts off the quivering tarmac into a cloudless sky like a giant hot-air balloon, the same skeins of sand still drift around the edges of the runway.

Then, as now, Dubai was defying the pessimists.

Why on earth does Dubai need an airport, they said, when there's one down the road in Sharjah?

But the ruling al-Maktoum family have long had a vision to develop this once-sleepy trading port, previously famous for pearl-diving and gold smuggling.

Dubai has very little oil income of its own to speak of, but you would not think so.

The skyline changes almost overnight as ranks of plate glass skyscrapers shoot up towards the sun.

Far down the coast towards Abu Dhabi, the steamy horizon is perforated by a phalanx of cranes as developers race to complete apartment blocks for Britons, Russians and other expatriates.

Many of them have already invested their life savings in a property that has yet to be built.

'Vegas of the Gulf'

There will one day be the world's tallest building here, although a few jitters have been set off by the recent earthquake in nearby southern Iran.

This town is awash with money, much of it coming from neighbouring Gulf states who are sitting on windfall revenue from high oil prices.

They simply cannot spend it fast enough.

This is the Las Vegas of the Gulf where gambling and other sins may be officially banned but where many misdemeanours are quietly committed behind closed doors.

"I can't believe it," exclaimed a journalist colleague of mine this month.

"I've just been propositioned outside my hotel!"

Simon had checked in and gone for a stroll when a Russian lady invited herself to accompany him back to his room.

He declined, or so he claims, but prostitution is certainly big business here, aided and abetted by the latest technology.

Sitting in a cafe in one of the countless air-conditioned shopping malls, it is not unusual to see ladies of negotiable virtue netting their clients by Bluetooth.

This wireless device allows any interested parties within range to send her a message from their mobile phone without even knowing her phone number.

Alpine chill

Dubai attracts the high-rollers as well as the underworld.

Bill Clinton was here last month, along with Richard Branson. Michael Jackson was, according to the local press, spotted going into the ladies' toilets to freshen up his make-up.

Even when we lived here in the late 90s, Naomi Campbell was a frequent visitor and Dubai now features on almost every kind of sport calendar.

Dubai's indoor ski resort
The ski resort cost more than $270m to build

In the grandly named Mall of the Emirates, my wife and I went to visit one of the city's more bizarre attractions: the Snowdome.

It may have been close to 30C in the shade outside but here, in a huge indoor ski slope, the banks of air-conditioners keep the temperature down to an alpine chill.

Gulf Arab children in padded ski suits and helmets skid down the icy slides while teenagers snowboard down a slope so big they have time to stop for several breaks on the way down.

The idea was a brainwave because for much of the year it is simply too hot to be outside.

So what could burst this bubble, I wonder?

Will Dubai continue to go inexorably onwards and upwards, being what the head of the Arab League called this month "a model Arab city"?

Security fears

Well, the question on some people's minds is: why hasn't al-Qaeda hit this place yet?

Six years ago there were 20,000 Britons in Dubai; now there are thought to be at least five times that many.

My heart skipped a beat on our first morning back in the Middle East when a voice came over the hotel tannoy
Iraq is not far up the coast, with its thousands of fanatical jihadi fighters all bent on killing westerners.

I must admit that the distant possibility of a terrorist strike in Dubai did occur to me as we flew in for a well-publicised media conference.

Until I got shot in Saudi Arabia last year, I would have dismissed such thoughts as needless paranoia and, sure enough, the conference passed without a hitch.

For me it was an unbridled pleasure to be back in the Gulf, to be welcomed home by so many Arab journalists, especially Saudis who queued up to commiserate for what their renegade countrymen had done to me in the name of a warped version of Islam.

Still my heart skipped a beat on our first morning back in the Middle East when a voice came over the hotel tannoy to tell us: "Your attention, please. An incident has occurred in the hotel. Please remain exactly where you are."

My wife and I exchanged glances. Was this a bomb scare? No, was the answer.

A waiter had spilled some water on the polished marble floor. In peaceful Dubai, that almost made the news.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 17 December, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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