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Last Updated: Monday, 7 November 2005, 11:18 GMT
Hello Dubai
The Burj Al Arab hotel

It's portrayed as a place of glittering spectacle and conspicuous consumption, but what's Dubai in the United Arab Emirates really like? Clark Stevenson, an English expat who is one of those who has joined this new gold rush, gives his view.

The easy comparison is with Las Vegas. A boom town. A city of ambition, a bright-lights oasis surrounded by miles of desert. A city of architectural folly and consumer excess.

That's the lazy comparison. More accurate is Dubai as Los Angeles.

This is a sprawling city of cars and early morning smog. A city of walled-off communities, with 180 different nationalities and 180 little villages.

A city where the language of the street - Hindi, Urdu, Tagalog rather than LA Spanish - is not the language of the government.

Soaring rents

Sure, it has its bright lights and ambitious hordes seeking their fortune but, the people of Dubai will tell you, the city isn't built on a gamble.

The projects stack up. The city is a natural mid-way point between Europe and Asia, the hub for the Middle East. And, with oil priced so high, the region doesn't lack for investment cash.

A 159-storey tower next to the world's biggest shopping mall? Makes sense: the city needs commercial space and malls are packed.

Map of United Arab Emirates

A man-made island home to 400,000 people? Sure, the population grew by more than 100,000 last year, rents are soaring and it needs the accommodation.

A multi-purpose leisure development to dwarf Disney? Bring it on; the UAE's national airline Emirates has ordered more than 40 of the new Airbus A380s and visitors will need entertaining.

All three projects - Emaar's Burj Dubai, Dubai Holdings' DubaiLand and Nakheel's Waterfront - are under way.

The financial and technical logistics for each would be enough to give the guys at Wembley a hot flush, yet there is no doubt here on the ground that they will come in on time and to budget.

Why? Because Dubai has been hitting its targets for more than 20 years. In 1981 it built what at the time was "the tallest building between Athens and Bombay" - the Dubai World Trade Centre.

Fergie visit

It has created one of the world's best airlines (if judged by industry awards), hosts the world's richest horse race and built an iconic "6-star" hotel on its own little island, the Burj Al Arab.

Annular solar eclipse in Dubai
Dubai blends the traditional and the modern
As the city has developed, first the region then the world has begun to take notice. Dubai Holding, the government umbrella firm spanning media to property, hotels to logistics, is starting to make investments overseas.

Plans for two stunning new towers in Istanbul were revealed this week, hotel management contracts are being signed in New York and the A1 "World Cup of Motorsports" is touring the globe as F1 shuts down for the winter.

Sir Alex Ferguson is here next week to open a Manchester United Soccer School, part of the Dubai Sports City development. And the International Cricket Council has relocated here from the home of cricket, Lord's.

For a Brit - and a Brit journalist to boot - this positive energy can sometimes sit uneasily
As I write, the Brazilian national football team are due in town - who's to bet they won't have a kickabout on the helipad of the Burj?

Tiger Woods did it in 2003 and Agassi and Federer did it last year, so it would be more of a surprise if Ronaldo didn't get up there.

All this creates a peculiar, slightly hyper attitude among residents. Part 1850s Klondike, part 1960s London, there is an air that anything's possible, that the dazzling soon becomes the norm.

But for a Brit, this positive energy can sometimes sit uneasily. The natural urge is to doubt and snipe.

Growing pains

It is no secret many of the labourers building these mega-projects are being misled. There are cases of workers not being paid for three months.

As buildings go up at a rapid pace, there are concerns over build quality. A UAE freehold law safeguarding property ownership by expats has yet to be passed, despite property being sold to non-nationals for more than three years.

The stock market has witnessed several cases of insider dealing, enforcement of traffic laws on the congested roads is non-existent and rents are up 30% on last year.

The Burj Al Arab hotel
It is the third most popular long-haul holiday destination for Britons
Such topics are the staple of every expat dinner party (with the sun shining every day, discussion on the weather is limited), and while everybody wants to see change, this is tempered by an understanding that these growing pains are inevitable.

The city didn't have a two-lane highway until the 1980s and the country itself is less than 35 years old.

Twenty years ago, an expat posting to Dubai would have merited a hardship allowance, a 40% hike in UK wages to compensate for the lack home comforts. It was a city of men, working 11 months straight and sending good money back home to their families.

With a few exceptions, this weighting no longer applies, and there are far more women and families here. The success of Emirates has meant there are now around 5,000 cabin crew in the city - the majority of them single women. Without doubt this has changed the mentality of the place.

The recent past was a scruffy town with easy money, the present is a building site with huge ambitions.

The future, as those who arrive every day will say, is up for grabs.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I lived in the UAE (Sharjah & Dubai) for over 16 years, from the 1980s until the late 90s. As a child it was a very safe and luxurious place to grow up in and I have very fond memories there. The underbelly which not many people see is the unbelievable discrepancies and discrimination the UAE treats its labourers & large Arab expat communities. As a British citizen or holder of any western country travel document you are automatically eligible to receive up to four times the salary or package offered to an Arab national, regardless of experience or merit. Dubai & the UAE's treatment of manual labourers is deplorable.
DM, London -UK

Hear Hear! It is a remarkable amalgamation of the traditional values of the East and the modern technologies of the West that puts other nations to shame.
Tony, Cardiff, UK

Dubai might be an amazing place to visit but the people working to give an excellent service to tourists are being treated as "slaves"- working 16hrs to be paid for only nine hrs of work. A barman is paid roughly 280 per month and had to reimburse 300 for a bottle of whisky which he dropped accidentally. Incredible place!!! Growing fast!!!! But to what cost?
Laura, London, UK

In recent times I have visited Dubai on several occasions. I must say it is the only place in the world I have been where I have felt safe, respected and amongst truly wonderful people from all nationalities living in complete harmony. My only reluctant criticism would be that Dubai appears to be losing its mystical charm of old and is fast becoming a modern day playground, if only it can find a way to preserve its heritage whilst keeping up with the times without becoming the Vegas of the Middle East!!!
Saadia, Manchester

Dubai has transformed in a big way since I moved here from London five years ago. Now it is a big city with big city problems. It is still an amazing place to live but traffic, inflation, lack of respect for poor labourers and mistreatment of certain nationalities is making it a less attractive place to live day by day
Mohammad Al-Mossawi, Dubai

Having lived in Dubai for a decade and now in the UK, I have felt the drastic growth that has catapulted the city of Dubai from a typical Middle Eastern city to one of the fastest growing economy in the world. There is a very pathetic downside to their booming skyline. There are concerns of work and safety issues of workers in the searing heat. Immigrant workers are earning pittance at inhuman conditions so I guess Dubai actually can owe their economy boom to these poor immigrants.
joseph chacko, london

Thank you Clark Stevenson. As a citizen of Dubai currently studying in the UK, it is extremely satisfying to read a neutral opinion of Dubai's past, present, and future. One would only hope that other residents and visitors to Dubai would be willing to have a similar outlook that looks at Dubai through glasses tinged with the burden of history and the optimism of destiny.
Ammar Shams, London, England

As a 25-year resident of Dubai who - in the early years - played a small role in the global promotion of the emirate, its airline and its facilities, I share the chairman of the UAE Central Bank's concern at Dubai's speed of growth. By any stretch of the imagination, the modern city is a remarkable achievement, although I sometimes hanker after the old days when traffic jams didn't exist and common courtesies did; when you knew half the people in any restaurant and the fun event of the year was the raft race. Dubai may have won the admiration of the world with its grand designs, but I fear it has lost much of its soul. Someone said the difference between Dubai and Disney World is that Disney World knows it's a fantasy. But it is not always fair to criticize. The turning of Dubai into a palace of entertainment is perhaps the inevitable price of survival after the oil ran out.
Ian Bain, Dubai, UAE

I must admit, the speed at which Dubai has developed is amazing and incredible at the same time. Oil and money indeed have been a great factor behind the quick boost. However, I do hold a great fear that maybe this is happening a bit too fast, perhaps the country still is not fully ready to handle all of this just yet and just so soon. As an Arab and from this part of the world I am ecstatic to see all this development and opportunity and I do believe that in this whole region there are a whole load of opportunities and investments to be captured.
Raiya Al Salmi, Abu Dhabi, UAE

I have stayed in Dubai twice in recent years, and can honestly say that of all the destinations in the world that I have visited, none have come close to feeling as safe as Dubai. The people I have met have been incredibly corteous and friendly, and service has been unbelievable. It is the only place in the world where I have seen a 'found' ad in the local paper for cash left behind in a taxi.
andy reeley, gloucester UK

Visited this year for the first time with my wife and child. The best place we have visited on holiday by a long way! Fantastic hotels and wonderful friendly people!! We will be back next year without a doubt!
Chris Mckellar, Neston, England

An absolute jewel in the desert. Wouldn't it be fantastic if other Arab countries try an emulate this even if it's just a small amount. I went there in 93 and 05 and the difference is staggering. It's like another planet. Now my house is up for sale and we intend to move there in the next few months. It's an exotic blend of Islamic culture and Western life.
Mazen, Manchester UK and Damascus, Syria

The article states that 35 years ago the city had no 2 lane highways - when I was first based in the region in 1965 there were no roads - in fact there was no city, just a small village along the side of the creek. It is hard to believe the difference only 40 years has made.
Derek Smith, Ayr, Scotland

Dubai is indeed an amazing place. Mega-Structures appear out of nowhere in what seems like hours and England could learn a lesson or two in this respect. On closer inspection however, I'm sure even we could build Wembley Stadium on time if we virtually forced 10,000 migrant workers to work 15-16 hours a day 7 days a week for a pittance in unbearable heat.
Chris Gilbert, London, UK

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