Saturday, 14 March 2009

Everyone back home in Hawaii knew about Dubai, a half-hour drive from Sharjah. It seemed all of America knew about Dubai except for me.

The city with the world's tallest building-to-be, the indoor ski slope of the desert, the man-made islands, the gold markets. "I'm going to Dubai," I said to a conservationist friend in Hawaii, wincing. "For shopping?" he asked, smiling. I had dedicated my career to environmental conservation and now I was going to set aside the very principles I cherished most.

Forty years ago this city--this country--did not exist as it does today. It was a fishing port, an ancient trade stop held among ruling sheikhs. Now from the desert arises glass, gold, steel and a carbon footprint like no other. Drinking water, the desalinized Arabian sea, costs more to produce than oil. And people whisper that the oil is almost gone. Thinking ahead, she has remade herself as a world class tourist destination, the financial capital of the Middle East.

We are at the famed Mall of the Emirates, a Vatican City with domed glass and vaulted ceilings. Beautiful Emirati click and flow in Gucci heels and robes across granite mosaic tiles. Jeweled black silk folds over hands and cell phones. This chilled glass city is multi-level and multi-directional. It's a maze you can't get out of. I need a map that gives me scale in miles and elevation. 'Ski Dubai' is here.

At the entrance, the call to prayer pipes through the sound system. People are praying somewhere in


this beautiful maze. They are shopping and praying. I feel I've been outdone.

Outside, the world's highest concentration of construction cranes stand still, motionless. Architects and engineers must love the freedom and gymnastics Dubai demands even as their instruments lie dormant. Artists like me from around the world flock here to exhibit.

Do her neighbors secretly smile at the thought of her ruin? Do they think it a vanity, this intersection of east and west, of capitalism, art and Islam--the decadence we've heaped upon her?

We head to a bonafide cultural site, the Jumeirah Mosque among a sea of condos and high-end boutiques. We were crossing paths with my friend from Spain whom I'd met a dozen years before in California. I brought two changes of clothes--one for the mosque and the other for the night club. Here, unlike in Sharjah, I could order a cocktail and reveal my arms without stinging embarassment. We drove to the Atlantis hotel, a vacant palace rising from the man-made Palm Islands. We took in the final extravagance. < next >