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Desert symphony


Thirty-five years ago, this was a town on the tidal flats. Today, Dubai aspires to be the trade and tourism hub of the world.

Open Sesame... a king's ransom in this gold souk.

THE sun's just rising over Dubai, glistening off the tall towers, touching the apartment blocks with a soft, golden, light. We're sitting on the balcony of our room in the Taj Palace Dubai, our biological clocks still attuned to a Himalayan cadence, 1½ hours ahead. Last night we had fallen asleep at 9.30 before we could write our travel diaries, which is why we're sitting here dictating them into our tape recorder.

Yesterday, we drove out on a superb, illuminated, highway through the desert. Slim, racing camels plodded behind a barbed-wire fence; bare hills, pitted and eroded like Gruyere cheese, hemmed the left of the road. Then the treeless range gave way to sensuously undulating dunes on which those fat-tyred scooters called Dune Buggies raced and roared with maniacal intensity, billowing clouds of choking sand. On the other side of the road, tourists beamed as they were photographed standing beside two camels. Clearly there are a lot of Unique Selling Propositions in the seemingly barren desert!

Then, more mountains appeared in the distance: mauve and blue, rising out of scrublands. Clearly this desert scrub was sustained by ground water. We were told that in those mountains of the Hajar range were the famed Hatta springs, tiny waterfalls and little running streams. We had no time to experience these oases but we did drive into the Hatta Resort with its swimming pools, palms, lawns and happy families of vacationing expats. They escaped to Hattta during the weekends or even just to have lunch and a swim. A straw blonde with a rather exaggerated Mayfair accent drawled "I had no idea that Dubai.." ..she pronounced it Dew-buy.." had mountains and swimming pools! Brilliant!"

We met her again in the heady aromas of the Spice Souk. She was trying to persuade a trader sitting behind enormous sacks of spices to sell her the ingredients of Chicken Tikka Masala. "My husband said he'd shower me with rose petals if I unearthed the secret of CTM... " The heavy lidded trader gazed at her phlegmatically and rumbled: "Rose petals, two shops that way. Also incense, terra-cotta scrubbers and pumice stone. Have a nice day.." At eight o'clock at night there wasn't much of the day left and we had begun to wilt so we dined in a Turkish restaurant where two men sang mournful songs, and other diners spoke in French, English, Hindi and Malayalam; and we wondered about the genesis of Dubai.

Today, we intend to find out when Hanif, our driver, arrives after breakfast.

* * *

We did, and it's been a revelation. The Dubai Museum lies in, but mostly under, the old Al Fahidi fort which once defended the creek-centred pearl fishing and trading village of Dubai. Oil was discovered in 1967 and the visionary Makotum rulers decided to use their oil revenues to build the world's largest man-made harbour in 1975. International trade has been booming ever since. Today, oil accounts for only six per cent of the Emirate's GDP.

We walked through replicas of the old houses with their cooling wind-towers, and then down a spiral staircase to the underground galleries. Here, interactive displays led us through the past when the ancestors of the present citizens of Dubai were nomads, living in the desert, sitting around their campfires, guarding their flocks and herds. When they settled in Dubai, they became farmers and traders, metal-smiths and scholars. The dioramas, which fascinated Caucasian visitors, were familiar to us: the lifestyles of many of our own people have been frozen in the age captured by these exhibits. The people of Dubai have, however, moved on to a per capita income estimated at Drh. 69,000 by a reputed local travel guide. That's over Rs. 8,97,000, approximately at the current rate of exchange.

And Dubai is proud of its prosperity. The Burj al Arab hotel, and Dubai's icon, towers like a jewelled finger into the sky. Built to pamper the very rich and famous, visitors have to pay an entrance fee to walk round the areas open to non-residents. We found the dιcor a bit over-stated as if everything, from the glistening floors through the gilded pillars to the glittering ceilings, was shrieking to be noticed. But then perhaps some people would call us philistines, unable to appreciate the ostentatious things of life. We felt we had more in common with the ordinary expats on one of Dubai's clean beaches. They merely wanted to marinate slowly on the sand, soaked in tanning oils and sunlight.


When hordes of hard-working foreigners swarmed into this tax-free trading haven they spurred the development of Dubai's tourism and entertainment industry. We visited the Emirates Golf Club, rated as one of the best in the world. One of its employees showed us the Majlis Course where Tiger Woods would play in the Desert Classic from March 4 to 7. The tournament might be called the "the Desert Classic" but the cool, green, stretches of the club could well have been transported from cooler, more benign, climes. All Dubai's greenery is fed by recycled and purified waste and sewage water.

From this green wonderland for golfers we drove to the Wonderland for children. This amusement park has everything that the most excitement-hungry child, of any age from six to 60, could hope for, including some we wouldn't. One of us came too close to being washed away by the surging Beas to welcome a ride in the Log Flume, and the hissing Free Fall tower offers the sort of air turbulence experience that frequent flyers like us would rather avoid! But, clearly, the kids loved the swinging, swirling, whizzing, high speed rides, and the air was filled with their sharp, abrasive, screams of delight.

It was late evening when we left Wonderland for a third wonderland: the Gold Souk. It almost seemed as if the legendary King Midas had breezed through these glass-fronted shops, touching everything in sight: bangles, necklaces, rings, ear-rings, chains, pendants, brooches, belts. Gold shimmered and winked and dazzled; gold flowed in, flowed out; gold, enchanted, lured, enticed, inveigled... A visit to the Gold Souk is one of the most equalising experiences anyone can have. Even if you don't buy anything, the sheer display of all this gold can humble you.

We were rather drained when we left the souk and headed for one of the largest shopping malls in Dubai: the City Centre. Here lay a different sort of experience: the sheer variety of goods on offer is reassuring: as if Santa Claus had opened his bag and said "There must be something you like?"... Here, too, there was plenty of space to linger and explore, to sit in the broad passages and corridors, to mull over the choices, to take one's time without having uniformed guards view you with beady-eyed suspicion. Somehow, it's all very relaxing.

We're back on our balcony now, gazing out over the blazing lights of Dubai. Thirty-five years ago, this was a small town on the tidal flats. Today it aspires to be the trade and tourism hub of the world. Clearly, a family called Makotum, has orchestrated a desert symphony.

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