By Hans Tammemagi  www.edmontonjournal.com

The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, rises like an elegant rocket almost a kilometre into the sky. Standing on the observation deck, I feel like Gulliver looking down on a Lilliputian city.

A woman peers through binoculars from the observation deck on the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa Tower. Photograph by: Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters, File, Edmonton Journal
A woman peers through binoculars from the observation deck on the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa Tower. Photograph by: Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters, File, Edmonton Journal

The view through the wispy clouds reveals an ultramodern city: clusters of skyscrapers stretch to the Arabian Sea; traffic fills a 10-lane highway; desert sands lie to the south. What a start to my five-day whirlwind tour of Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates.I try to imagine the immense construction boom that created this amazing cityscape, for only two decades earlier, little was here. Furthermore, this instant city -just add water and petrobucks -is one of superlatives: world’s tallest building, most luxurious hotel (the Burj al Arab, seven stars), huge cruise-ship port, best horse-race track and, to top it all off, an indoor ski hill.

I descend to the Dubai Mall, one of the world’s largest, with more than 1,100 shops, including the world’s best such as Gucci, Armani and Versace. Signs point to an aquarium, an Olympic-size ice rink, a food court and prayer rooms. I can see why Dubai with its tax-free bargains draws shopaholics from around the world.

Many people dress in traditional Arab attire: long black dresses (abayas) and scarves for women, and long (usually) white gowns with turban-like scarves or caps for men. Others wear modern western clothes including jeans, shorts and halter tops. I go to the Mall of the Emirates to see the indoor ski hill. Snowboarders and skiers jam the slope. A woman, enclosed in a long black abaya, carries her son’s snowboard. Outside, the temperature exceeds 30 C.

Dubai’s luxury hotels rival and even exceed those in Las Vegas. The Atlantis Hotel, situated on the outer rim of the artificial Palm Island, has an enormous aquarium and water park, epitomizing Dubai’s over-the-top attitude. For example, the Poseidon suite -$8,400 a night -stretches over three storeys with its own elevator. The bedroom and bathroom windows face onto the aquarium with sharks and manta rays lazily floating past. Pleasant dreams.

The gold and spice souks fascinate me. I love to wander through crowded, narrow old alleyways with the aroma of nutmeg and cinnamon hanging in the air. The adjacent creek is alive with dhows, reminders of historical trade routes. At a small shop, I select a gold chain. The salesperson measures the amount of gold with a small electronic scale, then punches the number into a calculator to determine the price. Haggling follows, of course.

Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s face looks down from many walls, a not-so-subtle reminder Dubai is governed like a benign dictatorship, complete with enforced personality cult. The Sheik is incredibly wealthy with more than seven palaces, several wives and 21 children, and has the ultimate power in the Emirate. Under his direction, this patch of sand has been transformed into the thriving commercial and tourism centre of the Arab world, a cross between Singapore and Las Vegas.

I’d heard that foreign workers, who comprise about 90 per cent of the population, are not treated well. But the Pakistanis, Indians and Filipinos I meet -admittedly, all in the tourism business -generally provide better service than experienced in North America and seem content. I see no trace of disgruntlement. A dark note though: a critical article about Dubai has been cut out of every issue of Vanity Fair on newsstands.

One afternoon, I clamber aboard a huge Hummer and go dune bashing in the desert. We roar up and down steep slopes, sand flying behind. Then I walk barefoot, soft sand squishing delightfully between my toes. The more adventurous try sand boarding. After the sun drops below the horizon, I sit on cushions on rugs on desert sand and enjoy an Arab meal under the stars.

Dubai is like the Tales of the Arabian Nights with camels, golden pots that pour tiny cups of strong coffee, minarets and endless dunes of sand.

To learn about Muslim culture, I remove my shoes and enter the cool elegance of Jumeirah Mosque, one of about 300 in the city. The five daily hours of prayer are posted at the front like hymn numbers in a Christian church. The tour leader, a lady clad completely in black, describes the Five Pillars of Islam and the faith’s gentle and peaceful nature. These principles are reflected in the city, which is safe with little alcohol (only for foreigners at major hotels) and no gambling or beggars.

Critics say the recent financial crisis has put the brakes on Dubai’s grandiose plans. Indeed, the artificial islands depicting a map of the world and a few other projects lie unfinished, but during my visit the malls are crowded and the roads are full (gasoline costs only 50 cents a litre).

I head to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and the Al Maha Resort, an unusual combination of stark nature and extreme luxury. I join a group for an outing late in the afternoon as the sun turns soft orange. The dunes are like art with sculpted ridges and rich shadowy ripples. An endangered oryx poses against the sky. Delicate little Arabian gazelles gaze shyly at us. Then I mount a camel and we ride far into the dunes. Dismounting, I walk barefoot among the dunes and sip sparkling wine as the sun sets.

A filly, several actually, drew me to Dubai. I have come to see the World Cup horse races, the richest in the world, featuring seven events worth a total of $26 million US. A gala Arabian Nights precedes the feature race. I drive along a modern highway (with permanent radar monitors every few kilometres) into the desert. A camel train wanders past.

A path of Persian carpets laid on the sand leads into a roofless stadium that looks like an old fort. Elegant tables arrayed with glistening glasses and cutlery fill the stadium tiers. I wander around in the sandfloored centre enjoying displays of Bedouin crafts and foods. As the sun set in a blaze, the Sheikh arrives.

I sit at our al fresco table and tuck into sumptuous Arabic cuisine, washed down with -surprise! -wine. The entertainment begins. An Arab band plays bagpipes! Horses perform intricate manoeuvres and stunts. To close the evening, fireworks sparkle across the sky. Arab hospitality is fabulous.

World Cup race day arrives. What a party! The new state-of-the-art Meydan Stadium, the most opulent horse-racing venue in the world, is crammed with more than 60,000 exuberant, happy people. Sheik Mo is in attendance, followed by a coterie of Arabs, all dressed in flowing white traditional robes. Beautiful ladies in hats, stiletto heels and ample curves and cleavage parade back and forth, occasionally contrasting with local women totally covered in black.

Oh yes, there are seven horse races. A magnificent show of dancing, lights and fireworks precedes the final race, the Dubai World Cup, with a purse of $10 million US. In the thundering charge down the final straight, a horse from beleaguered Japan noses out the field.

Later, when the airplane lifts into the air, my head is whirling and I feel like I am re-emerging from Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole.

If You Go

-For more information, go to definitelydubai.com

-Canadians require a visa.

-Dubai currency is the dirham, which equals $0.27 Cdn. Change at the airport or a bank. The U.S. dollar is commonly accepted.

-Many airlines fly to Dubai. If you’re over five-foot-two, avoid Lufthansa.

-Al Maha Resort in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve: al-maha.com

-Dubai is also suitable for the budget-minded.

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