“Ski Dubai,” the billboard read as we descended the stairs from the plane into the 80-degree, December night air. “Ski Dubai, Where it Snows Every Day.” And indeed it does, inside a 25-story, windowless building that rises out of the sprawling Mall of the Emirates. The interior is air conditioned down to 29 degrees and fresh, man-made snow covers the short, steep slopes.
Indoor skiing in the desert is just one more eccentric, nature-defying contradiction in gilt-edged Dubai, which also boasts air conditioned golf, chilled swimming pools, over-the-top resorts and scores of skyscrapers, including one, under construction at 160 stories, that is to be the world’s tallest.
An Aspen Institute conference on U.S. and Arab media brought me to Dubai for my first visit two months ago. This was before the state-run Dubai Ports World Corporation caused a furor by trying to take over the management of half-a-dozen east coast U.S. seaports. Like many Americans, I had given little thought to the Disneyland in the desert that is rising along the western shore of the Arabian Gulf. I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I found.
With the price of oil around $60 dollars-a-barrel, hundreds of billions of dollars are flowing into Dubai, which is one of the seven city-states that comprise the United Arab Emirates. Russian mafia money has found its way there as well.
A trillion tons of sand has been dredged up from the sea and arranged offshore to create three new housing developments in the shape of palm trees. A shimmering, shorefront hotel that resembles a spinnaker filled with breeze offers rooms for $1,500 dollars a night and up. Nothing that can be built by man is too grand, too costly or too much for Dubai.
It is a glittery, fashion-crazy metropolis that the designer Giorgio Armani recently dubbed “the new New York.”
An American friend who lives there explained how business works, Dubai-style. The luxurious, seafront apartment he was renting was sold out from under him by the owner, who had paid a million dollars for it a couple of years ago. The Russian buyer arrived for the transaction, inspected the premises quickly and paid on the spot with two-and-a-half million dollars in cash he carried in a suitcase. With that, the Dubai real estate boom edged up another notch.
Beyond ostentatious wealth, Dubai has become a major banking center. It has granted landing and naval visiting rights to the U.S. The Dubai government, which is to say Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, is pro-western and free-market . Dollar-by-dollar, the Emirates are becoming a strategic counter-weight to the more radical Arab regimes in the region and to Iran across the Gulf.
Suddenly, Americans are paying attention to Dubai, trying to decide whether it is friend or foe or something in between. What is clear is that the Emirates are becoming a force to be reckoned with and that the U.S. –Congress included – had better decide what kind of relationship we are going to have with this new economic powerhouse.
TERENCE SMITH is a former media correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.