Burj Khalifa

DESERT MIRAGE

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...

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