DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Erupting from the flat, featureless desert of this Persian Gulf city-state like a space-age mirage is the tallest building in the world, the Burj Dubai.
It is rising at the rate of a floor a week. Some predict it will reach half a mile heavenward, but no one knows for sure. The builders won't reveal its final height for fear of tipping off would-be competitors and — heaven forbid! — being trumped. To ensure its place in the record books, the tower — which will house shops, apartments and a 172-suite Armani hotel when it's finished next year — can be even further elevated in the future.
PHOTO GALLERY: Dubai
Shattering records is the mantra these days as this Arabian field of dreams aspires to become the top tourist destination in the world.
One of the seven United Arab Emirates, the oil-rich sheikdom is strutting onto the global stage with all the speed and energy of its famous Arabian thoroughbreds. Naysayers are not welcome. Consider that it boasts the world's first indoor black-diamond ski run (despite the 110-degree outdoor heat), largest gold souk (with jewelry sold by weight), richest horse race, only seven-star hotel and more shopping malls per consumer than any other city in the world.
If that's not enough, developers are racing to build the planet's largest amusement park (twice the size of Walt Disney World), largest shopping mall (eat your heart out, Mall of America), only luxury underwater hotel, first rotating skyscraper, and offshore artificial islands audaciously shaped like palm trees and the map of the world. (Rod Stewart reportedly already snapped up "England.") Not to mention life-size replicas of world wonders, including the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. And a Vegas-style strip (minus the gambling) where one hotel alone would have 6,500 rooms, making it — what else? — the largest in the world.
Always a full house
All these in-your-face trophy projects seem to be working. Dubai has the highest hotel-occupancy rate in the world at 86%, tourism official Hamad Mohammed bin Mejren says in his office, where he's dressed in a traditional white dishdasha. Today's 6.1 million hotel guests, most of them from Europe, the Middle East and Asia, are projected to reach 15 million in three years. They will be accommodated by a frenzy of hotel building.
"What you see now is nothing compared to what's to come," he says, pointing to a crane-speckled skyline.
Is it any wonder that Dubai's proud icon, the Burj Al Arab hotel, is a glitzy, gilded sail-shaped fantasy that even adorns license plates?
The can-do wizard in this sci-fi land of Oz is 57-year-old Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum ("Sheik Mo"), the ruler of Rhode Island-sized Dubai.
"Sheik Mohammed says that what we have now is only 10% of what he envisions," says Belgian tour guide Claudine Dierickx. "What I like is that everything is moving in an upward spiral. I don't have hours enough to do everything I want to do."
As in Shanghai or Singapore, the energy is contagious. Billboards blare: "Where Tomorrow Lives." "There's no Limit to your Dreams." "Reinventing the Arabian Enterprise."
"We're all accelerating around here," says Arkansan Mona Hauser, who owns the XVA art gallery and B&B and has lived here 14 years.
The head-snapping changes can disorient even Dubaians. "The change is going too fast," says Sultan Al Shanqiti, 29, a tourism worker at the Heritage Village. "If you leave for a month, you can't recognize the streets."
Or the L.A.-style traffic that now clogs them, which makes traversing the Dubai Creek that splits the city harder than finding litter, graffiti or beggars.
But everyone, it seems, wants his own castle in these sunny sands. Cirque du Soleil makes its debut this month with an eye toward a permanent home in the city. Tiger Woods is creating his signature course and 25-million-square-foot resort community, to open in late 2009.
Why Dubai? "There are so many landmarks in Dubai. I hope that one day people will consider this golf course on that scale," Tiger Woods told the Business Gulf News. And such brand-name hoteliers as Donald Trump and Sol Kerzner (of Nassau-based Atlantis fame) have hotels going up on one of the three man-made palm-shaped islands, The Palm Jumeirah. All of its 2,000 villas were sold out pre-construction — in just 72 hours.
Not to be outdone, the second palm island, Palm Jebel Ali, will feature homes on stilts arranged to spell out a poem by Sheik Mo. And the third, Palm Deira, will cover an area larger than Manhattan. (Waterfront properties sell for $7 million to $30 million.) Together with The World, these archipelagos will double Dubai's 25-mile coastline, providing more beachfront for more vacationers.
Cruise lines, too, are lining up. Costa just became the first major line to base a ship here for an entire season. And the Queen Mary 2 and others are starting to call.