By Tara Dooley

‘‘ The shopping malls are like cathedrals.”

Emaar properties Downtown Dubai with the Burj Khalifa the world's tallest building at 828 meters.
Emaar properties Downtown Dubai with the Burj Khalifa the world's tallest building at 828 meters.

That was the word from a man who enthusiastically interrupted me in Houston as I sat in the downtown tunnel with my cup of coffee, leafing through a travel guide to Dubai.

He had lived in the city on the Persian Gulf, located in the United Arab Emirates, with his family for about two years and raved about the experience.

I was preparing for a last minute excursion halfway around the world, and was not quite sure what to expect.

I had heard the stories: Shopping malls with shark tanks and ski slopes. Deserts. Camels. And good times for the posh, jet-set crowd.

The producers from Sex and the City 2 were looking for this same sort of atmosphere that has made Dubai famous. But the producers settled on nearby United Arab Emirates city-state, Abu Dhabi, for the girl’s upscale vacation in an international lap of luxury.

In the film, Abu Dhabi takes the honors, though it was shot in Morocco.

Maybe it was the roughly 14 hours on a plane, but when I trudged off the Emirates flight, the cavernous terminal glittered. It was a preview of the effect that dominated my Dubai experience, a place I came to privately compare with the Emerald City.

Part of the reason for the sparkle is that the city is new.

“Dubai is probably one of the fastest-growing cities in the history of the world as far as I can tell,” said Jim Krane, author of City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99) “Basically, it sprang out of nowhere.”

Actually, it sprang out of the desert starting in the early 1960s. Back then, Dubai had no buildings made out of concrete, no electricity, no running water, no paved roads, Krane said.

Oil was discovered in the mid-1960s, Krane said. Some was in Dubai, one of seven states that make up the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi is the capital.

Building kicked into high gear from 2002 to 2008, when the population doubled and the city-state area grew fourfold, Krane said.

The result was infrastructure, buildings, highways, rail systems and airports with superlatives attached to them that would make Texans seem demur.

The global economic crash did not spare Dubai. Some construction ground to a halt, and Dubai building enterprises looked to Abu Dhabi for help in paying back debt.

But the economic crisis did not deter the January opening of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world — by a lot.

Still, signs of the boom, the sparkle, and the crash now are sprinkled throughout Dubai.

In the sky, cranes float next to clusters of gleaming skyscrapers spread along the gulf. On the ground, cars race along 12-lane highways. An ever-expanding public rail system shoots through pod-like stations. Some construction sites sit still while others echo with the sounds of jackhammers. Sandy ground alternates with medians of colorful bursts of flowers.

“For rent” banners hang from shiny new office buildings.

“It is going to take a few years for them to absorb everything they built,” Krane said.

In the meantime, travelers can luxuriate in the newness. Even the areas of “old Dubai” such as the Dubai Creek, the Bastakiya district, and the old gold and spice markets seem tidy and accessible. Of course, 100 years is about as old as anything gets, and much of that has been revamped for tourists.

Hospitality is a hallmark of Arab cultures and in restaurants and hotels it is translated as polished service everywhere.

Though the culture may be based on the Arabian Peninsula, many of the people who live and work in Dubai come from around the world. British, South African, Indian and Filipino accents are heard in every corner. Guests at poolside bars seem as likely to speak Dutch as Arabic. English is spoken everywhere.

“As a resident it is the most fabulous climate to live in,” said Rosie Hayes, director of the XVA Gallery in the Bastakiya district. “It is very cosmopolitan. There are a huge amount of nationalities here, and that makes it an exciting place to be.”

In the streets and in malls, there is a variety of clothing worn. There are women covered from head to toe following behind husbands and tourists in shorts and T-shirts, though modest dress is probably a respectful nod to the culture, customs and faith of the city. Recently, two British citizens were sentenced to a month in jail for kissing in public.

The international flavor of Dubai also comes from its role as a trading hub. Since its days as little more than a few buildings in the sand, the city-state produced pearls and traded gold. Later, the city became a tax-free trading port and huge docks were constructed to keep goods flowing.

As a result, shopping is plentiful.

Some is done in old markets with wooden barrels of cloves, shelves of shawls and displays of gold chains.

But just as I was promised, there are shopping “cathedrals” of glass and marble malls filled with Chanel, Dior and Jimmy Choo. Sacred names for the serious shopper.