DESERT MIRAGE

The Baltimore Sun

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- There was a haze in the air. Almost as heavy as fog, it was drawn forth by a heat that sapped the very strength of the sea itself. I got out of the tourmaline green water and stood on the sand feeling breathless. It was broad daylight, and as I fixed my gaze, I saw ghosts in the distance, the outline of buildings, buildings, buildings. And among them construction cranes, one-armed wizards there to bid them grow, to multiply.

I had been swimming just down the beach from the Burj Al Arab, the sail-shaped hotel, tallest in the world. It is also one of the most expensive and highest-rated hotels, set apart on its own little island in the Persian Gulf. This should have been one of those peak moments in travel - and it was - of having seen in the flesh something long lusted after.

And yet it bothered me. None of this seemed quite real. The development zone - of the Palm Jumeirah island project as it turned out - appeared to float just above the horizon, as opposed to resting on it. The Burj Al Arab looked to be hovering over its isle, not anchored to it.

Maybe it was the heat or the light playing tricks, but I couldn't shake that imagery of levitation, of things in midair. Maybe the heat gets to everyone here, for surely in Dubai, the sky is not the limit. It's only the starting place.

Thirty years ago, there'd have been only the growing port, a nascent oil industry and the arrival of indoor plumbing to write about here. Back then it was just a dusty town of some 183,000 souls cobbled together on either side of Dubai Creek.

The creek was a wide natural inlet - still is, but enlarged - with banks jammed by squat wooden cargo boats, called dhows, of a sort I imagine Sinbad the Sailor might have captained. Today, their mahogany-colored hulls and fanciful painted railings stand at odds with the glass office towers that front the creek farther inland. To see them, I joined a German couple in commissioning an abra, or small ferry, for what turned out to be an hour's tour deeper up the creek, past that odd building with a "golf ball" on top, and beyond Al Maktoum Bridge almost to the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club.

The abras are a Dubai institution and a diversion in themselves. Commuters and tourists alike step onto the flat, open deck and find a seat on the linoleum-covered bench. Most rides just go from one bank to the other in fewer than five minutes, knitting together by their many crossings the fabric shops, vegetarian restaurants and Indian banks on the Bur Dubai side with the spice and gold souks (markets) of the Deira side.

One of the abra stations on the Deira side opens onto the shaded lanes of the spice souk. Dried lemons, vanilla, cardamom and curry, and mysterious roots of different colors - all meted out by the scoopful - crowd the walks in great cloth bags, yielding their fragrance to the heat.

Then there's the gold. A few streets beyond the spice merchants are scores of sole proprietorships - anywhere from 250 to 400 depending on who's counting - flaunting 55,120 pounds of gold in their shops on any given day, at least 90 percent of which is 22 karat or better.

They had deeply worked necklaces almost the size of lobster bibs; heavily filigreed cuffs that would cover a woman's arm from wrist to elbow; gold belts with gold buckles; and even a garment of chains and medallions. It's all sold by weight, plus workmanship, and the day's gold prices are there for everyone to see, scrolling in big red numbers across a sign at the souk's main gateway.

To tell the truth, I didn't want to leave. But I did. From the gold souk, I took a $10 cab ride to Jumeirah Beach.

As Dubai has developed farther and farther from the creek, it has become defined by planned neighborhoods. There are cities within a city, anchored by a particular business sector - for example, Internet City or by a hotel-residence-mall complex such as Wafi City. Major roads between these neighborhoods feature medians that are terraced and underpass embankments finished with decorative tiles - the better to enjoy the route while stuck in traffic.

Such are the contrasts of a megalopolis where a reported 5,000 buildings are under construction at this very minute. I expect the haze over Dubai had as much to do with construction dust as with the heat and humidity. Visibility that day was only 6 miles. So I could just make out the form, about 3 1/2 miles away, of Burj Dubai, now the tallest free-standing structure in the world: 1,922 feet and 156 floors. Burj (pronounced boorj or bourg, depending on the dialect) is Arabic for tower.

On a clear day - and I'm not sure when that might be - they say it'll be possible to see the top of Burj Dubai from 60 miles away. Eventually, it will be part of a complex of waterways and residences, parks, an aquarium and an ice rink, that when finished will be able to add another brag: the world's largest retail development, Dubai Mall, an ambitious 12.1 million square feet.

Like other "cities" around town, Burj Dubai/Dubai Mall will have a themed component: the largest Arabian "old town" ever re-created. I say largest ever, because one beautiful reincarnation already exists along Jumeirah Beach.

Port Rashid houses, among other things, the Dubai Cruise Terminal, which cruise lines are discovering to be a year-round call. Down the coast is Dubai's other port, Jebel Ali Port, whose harbor is the largest manmade one in the world and can - and often does - berth U.S. aircraft carriers.

But the 22 miles between these two ports just wasn't enough shoreline, so they started the island-building projects of Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali, The World and Dubai Waterfront.

If there were ever any doubts as to the islands paying for themselves, they were put to rest when Palm Jumeirah's first phase of 4,000 properties sold out within 72 hours. Donald Trump is building a hotel there. Atlantis, the fantasy resort of the Bahamas, will erect another version of itself there. I saw where a 1,743-square-foot two-bedroom beachfront condo in a mid-rise building out on the breakwater was selling for $850,000.

At the World, where an offshore archipelago of 300 islands forms a map of the Earth, Richard Branson has staked his claim on "England," and a Chinese businessman has sprinkled Chinese soil on "Shanghai."

To power all this growth, there's a $12 billion to $15 billion plan under way to build an electric and desalination complex capable of producing, every day, 9,000 megawatts of electricity and 600 million gallons of desalinated water. The new plant will likely go up near Jebel Ali Port and the new airport being built next door.

The idea is for Dubai to be the world's No. 1 air hub, eventually handling more than 120 million passengers a year. Meanwhile, the country is expanding the much-admired Dubai International Airport to take care of double-digit cargo and passenger increases.

It's not just about funneling people through the airport. They like for folks to stay a while. Between 1997 and 2006, the number of hotel rooms in Dubai has more than doubled to 30,850. The number of hotel guests for the same time period vaulted from 1.79 million to 5.47 million.

There's a very practical reason for all of this: The oil's running out. In 2005, it represented only some 6 percent of Dubai's $37 billion gross domestic product, according to ArabianBusiness.com. So, this emirate literally has crafted a blueprint for the future that's spelled out like a business plan: Dubai Strategic Plan 2015, which was put forth in February by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai. Dubai is one of seven states that make up the U.A.E.

From an American perspective, there's not all that much to do here - yet - beyond taking a dhow dinner cruise or heading out on a desert safari. Visiting Dubai is more like watching a high-wire act and gaping at its gravity-defying audacity.

In 2006, more than 282,000 Americans visited here and stayed two days, on average. But I found that on a three-day weekend in October, I couldn't mentally absorb the sheer scale of the growth here. But that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. Whatever else might be going on, shopping is still shopping and a beach is still a beach.

And Jumeirah Beach is all the more delightful for having both, to be found among the sand-hued walls and decorative wind towers of Madinat Jumeirah. Here is Dubai's old town magically remade as an upscale resort complex.

Its creek is manmade and banked by palms and lush landscaping. Its abras glide hotel guests in quiet comfort, seated on cushions. The wavelike Jumeirah Beach Hotel is here along with the undisputed darling of magazine covers everywhere, the Burj Al Arab. Guests there arrive in white Rolls-Royce limos, women clutching bouquets of roses, and are greeted with scented washcloths and Arab coffee.

I never travel anywhere without fantasizing what it would be like to live there. Given Dubai's comparatively low crime and death rates, I might just manage to live here almost forever. But then I get that weird feeling again. I walked Dubai's streets and grazed its buffets, swam on its beach and took its photo. I can prove I was there. I just can't be sure it was real.

Toni Salama writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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