Superlatives matter in Dubai: biggest, highest, best, newest, most expensive. In the city’s building boom heyday, half the world’s cranes were situated here, and any skyline view was filled with them. Has the economic downturn slowed construction? Some, but “slow” for Dubai is fast for anywhere else in the world.
Already this year, the first phase of the above-ground Metro has opened. Next on the drawing board is the 3 million-square-foot Dubailand with theme parks, rides, cultural adventures and more, including Universal City, Six Flags, Sports City, City of Arabia and Motor City, as well as The Tiger Woods Dubai Al Ruwaya, a residential golf community, course and resort. The name means “serenity.”
Dubai, one of seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates, has emerged as a world-class, luxury destination in just 50 or so short years. It is located on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf and the eastern edge of the Arabian peninsula, between Saudi Arabia and Oman, across the gulf from Iran. Dubai’s bragging rights include the world’s largest manmade islands — three — including Palm Jumeirah, home to the newest Atlantis resort and featured in a CBS-TV episode of The Amazing Race; the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Dubai, with 160 floors and a $1.1 billion price tag; the world’s largest mall, with 600 stores; and the Middle East’s first indoor ski resort. There’s also the world’s first 7-star property, the iconic, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab on its own island with helicopter pad on top and standing almost as tall as the Empire State Building. The 72-story Rose Tower, at 1,092 feet, has overtaken the Burj Al Arab as the world’s tallest hotel. And yet, with all its grandeur and glitz, Dubai remains an international place where North Americans feel quite comfortable.
During our visit, we asked American Grady Walker what it’s like to live and work in Dubai. He moved here a couple of years ago for his job as vice president for an energy solutions company. He’s now among the country’s majority: 85 percent of the population are ex-pats.
“Businesses want to be here,” Walker said as we took in the view of Dubai Creek over drinks at Park Hyatt Dubai. The area’s top revenue-producers are tourism, real estate and financial services. Prior to World War I, the area was known for pearl exporting.
“This is a really easy place to adjust to,” Walker added. “I use ‘over-the-top,’ but it’s a livable place. I feel safe. It’s very energetic. It’s very captivating. It’s quite innovative, pretty special, what they’ve accomplished here.
“The Emirates are very tied to Saudi Arabia, and there are fortunes that flow here. It’s really not deposits of oil and gas anymore. Most of the stuff we’re shipping, the services we’re providing are in Oman and Abu Dhabi (the capital) and Dubai. This place, Dubai, is a little more aggressive for tourism.”
Last year, 7 million people visited Dubai; 10 million are expected in 2010, and the aim is 15 million visitors a year by 2015 — more than double last year’s figure. In fact, many hotels are sold out; an impressive statistic in light of the world economy. Hotel room rates in Dubai are the highest in the world: The average rate for a single night in October was $226, a figure only matched by hotels in New York City.
ArabianBusiness.com reported, “2009 has been extremely challenging for the hospitality industry in Dubai, the drop in demand for hotel rooms as a result of the recession coupled with a huge increase of 17 percent in rooms inventory drove occupancy down by 15 percent and revenue per available room by 35 percent so far this year as compared to 2008.”
According to Neil Rumbaoa, head of communications at Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai, “Dubai is a 21st-century city. Everything is nice. It wants to impress everybody. The markets are into play and luxury. There are a lot of American-interest businesses … but with (American) consumers and travelers, not yet.”
Perhaps one reason American tourists are still a minority is that a direct flight from New York takes about 14 hours. For some who do visit, the culture they find here is vastly different.
We met Nasif Kayed on our visit to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding at the Jumeirah Mosque, one of 1,200 mosques in this city of nearly 1.5 million. He aims to help non-Muslims understand Islamic culture and faith — the pre-worship washing, the five daily prayers, the required pilgrimage to Mecca.
Kayed was born in Palestine, grew up in Kuwait and came to live in the United States more than 20 years ago. He and his family were living in North Carolina when 9/11 occurred. Suddenly, their customs, including Islamic dress, caused suspicion and distrust; they were ridiculed at school and in the malls. Fearing for their safety, the family moved to Dubai. Having felt first-hand the sting of being misunderstood, Kayed now volunteers regularly at the mosque.
Visitors on the tour don traditional Islamic clothing, including the long jilbab robe and hijab head covering for women. Kayed asked for volunteers from our group to demonstrate the washing before entering the mosque for prayer, explaining the steps in the ritual.“We struggle,” he said, “to tackle the misconceptions.”
Dubai is a city of high-rises, glitz and glamour, high fashion and shiny cars. But conservative Islamic law prohibits gambling in those lavish hotels and outlaws public displays of affection. Within this world of contrasts, visitors and business people play and work.
Info To Go
Dubai International Airport (DXB) is located about 2.5 miles southeast of Dubai. A metro link with the city is expected to be operational by mid-2010. Metered taxis are available 24 hours a day outside Terminals 1, 2 and 3. An airport shuttle bus connects terminals. City bus service stops outside each terminal.
Just the Facts
Time Zone: GMT+4
Phone Code: 971 U.A.E., 4 Dubai
Dubai Currency: Dirham
Entry Requirements: U.S. citizens must have a valid passport, but no visa is required.
Official Language: Arabic; English is the language of commerce and is widely spoken.
Key Industries: Tourism, real estate, financial services.
With its abundance of malls and brand stores, Dubai’s national pastime is shopping. The big sales are during Summer Surprises at the end of August and Shopping Festival at the end of January, with 50–70 percent discounts. Dubai Gold Souk (402 Al Jahra Building near Ascot Hotel, Khalid Bin Waleed Road) is a series of historical streets and alleyways filled with so many gold and jewelry stores that they become a blur. Be ready to barter for up to half off listed prices.
Dig deeper into Islamic culture at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding at Jumeirah Mosque (off Musallah Road, tel 971 4 353 6666). Hour-long discussions take place on Saturdays, Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m.
Glimpse old Dubai and its tall wind towers atop buildings in the Al Bastakiya district (tel 971 4 353 9090), where shops, galleries and boutiques populate the narrow lanes. Nearby is the Dubai Museum at Al Fahidi Fort (tel 971 4 353 1862), with exhibits ranging from Arabian sailing boats to old weapons and pearl-diving outfits.
Looking for adventure? Ski Dubai (Shiekh Zayed Road, tel 971 4 409 4000) offers indoor skiing, snowboarding and a children’s snow park amid three football fields of real snow inside the Mall of the Emirates. Wild Wadi Waterpark (Jumeirah Beach Road in front of Burj Al Arab) features a freestyle wave pool for boogie boarders, a wade pool with bucket dump plus plunging water slides that include the world’s largest outside North America. Admission is $68, but Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Beach Hotel guests get in free.
A desert safari with Lama Tours is a jostling 4×4 thrill ride over seemingly endless sand dunes that concludes with dinner at a created Bedouin village, complete with belly dancer, henna tattoos, camel rides, shisha pipes and more. Tour companies also offer river cruises on a dhow, a traditional Arab boat.
Burj Al Arab
It’s prestigious to stay at the 7-star property with its 202 duplex suites, and one in two guests is a repeater. Jumeirah Beach Road, tel 971 4 301 7777, $$$$
One&Only Royal Mirage
Palatial accommodations with Arabian flair on the beach, home to the Middle East’s only Givenchy Spa with Oriental Hammam.Jumeirah Beach Road, tel 971 4 399 9999, $$$$
Park Hyatt Dubai
Popular with Americans, this oasis has marina, yacht club, golf course and Amara Spa. At Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, tel 971 4 602 1234, $$$
Watch exotic tropical fish in the enormous tableside aquarium at this contemporary seafood restaurant. Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach Road, tel 971 4 301 7600, $$$$
This restaurant in the Park Hyatt Dubai has been repositioned as a French brasserie with a new menu and new chef, Franck Detrait. Park Hyatt Dubai at Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, tel 971 4 602 1234, $$$
Hell’s Kitchen celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is the creator behind the modern European menu. Hilton Dubai Creek, Baniyas Road, tel 971 4 212 7551.
Checking in with John Peling
General Manager, Raffles Dubai
What is the latest news at Raffles Dubai?
Raffles Dubai will be re-launching its two signature and award-winning restaurants, Fire & Ice and The Noble House, enhancing their already highly successful concepts.
What are your main markets?
We see a healthy mix of corporate and leisure travelers. Raffles Dubai is a very popular destination for the Gulf Cooperation Council region, with residents from Saudi, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. Europe is a generally strong market for Dubai, especially the U.K., Germany and Switzerland. Due to its strong ties with the flagship hotel Raffles Singapore and with landmark hotels located in Cambodia and Beijing, the Asian market is very familiar with the Raffles brand and has been a reliable market from day one, especially Southeast Asia.
Do you foresee any expansion in markets?
Despite the current economic situation, U.S. visitors to the U.A.E. generated $733 million to tourism revenues in 2008, according to the latest Tourism Outlook: USA report from Visa. There is undoubtedly a strong potential coming from the U.S., helped by a large sales presence in North America through Fairmont Raffles Hotels International.
We see a lot more activity emerging from China, with travelers often stopping over on the way to Europe or the Indian Ocean resorts. While not a new market, India is a growth market, perhaps due to the high regard for the Raffles name in that country.
What is the outlook for Dubai for the coming year?
We are happy with the occupancy level to date for 2009. The future for luxury hotels in Dubai is bright. Visitors still want quality, but they now want a “deal” more than ever. Some hotels have discounted rates; many have preferred to add value. The important thing is that the basics do not change: Great, consistent service and product quality will always find a market. Since I arrived in Dubai in 1999, the development and the consistent success of the Emirate have been the envy of pretty much every other destination.
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