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Dubai: 'Like Singapore on steroids'

Life in the UAE nation may take some getting used to for Westerners, but many believe it holds the next big fortune. Photos: Life in Dubai

DUBAI--The Burj Al Arab, one of the world's premier luxury hotels, doesn't have Wi-Fi.

It does, however, feature a personalized butler for each of the 202 rooms (suites, actually, which cover a few hundred square meters each), a helipad and Rolls Royce service to the airport. The hotel's 1,400-person staff includes a team of aquarium specialists from Britain who tend to the hotel's decorative fish tanks. Rates start at $1,250 a night.


It's only one of the many audacious buildings in Dubai, the latest frontier for Wild West investing. Another company, Emaar, is constructing the Burj Al Dubai, which could become the world's tallest building in a few years, while rival Nakheel is constructing man-made islands in the shape of palm trees, called the Palms, and another set of islands shaped like a map of the world. Add to the mix one of the world's biggest indoor ski slopes, which just opened, and an 8-million-square-foot amusement park opening in the near future.

You also see work by Bin Laden, the father of the al-Qaida leader. This explains the "Sorry for the inconvenience--Bin Laden" signs at detours.

A staggering rise in oil prices, combined with a fear that oil reserves may slow in the next few decades, has transformed what was a somewhat regional hub into what some believe could be the world's next megalopolis. The excitement is attracting an army of snazzy visitors, as well as an army of expats. Every day brings something new.

A few nights ago, Rabea Ataya, chief executive officer of, a Middle East version of, spotted former U.S. President Bill Clinton in the upper lobby of the Burj. On another occasion, while riding an escalator, Ataya spied Sir Richard Branson of the U.K.-based Virgin Group holding court about the Virgin Megastore that just opened here (and perhaps bringing space travel to the United Arab Emirates). Tennis player Roger Federer had passed through a few days earlier.

Stock market fever is in full swing. Growth of about 70 percent in the price of a stock in a single year is considered normal here. Some investors crowding into banks to buy shares in the IPO for Dana Gas erupted into a fistfight last week.

Though the country is pinning part of its future on developing a tech economy, oil is the engine behind the growth. Oil revenue from the Gulf Coast countries, or GCC, is expected to reach $240 billion to $250 billion this year, according to the Gulf News, a local newspaper. Every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil represents $5 billion of income for the GCC. Petroleum profits feed directly into the ongoing projects to diversify the economy.

The results are easy to see. Roughly 22 percent of the world's supply of construction cranes is here. In all, $224 billion in construction projects are under way in the UAE, the federation of states that includes Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with most of them occurring here.

Benefits for Westerners
Besides the abundance of white-collar jobs, Western expatriots are drawn to benefits like no income tax, sometimes subsidized housing and a chance to get in on something big.

For Westerners thinking of jumping into the froth, be warned that local circumstances take some getting used to.

Undercover police agents, for instance, are everywhere. "You can criticize the government in a bar, but watch out what you say in a grocery store," said one Western ad executive. Another source recalled how a friend got into an argument in line for movie tickets--the friend hurled an insult and his antagonist kicked him. Seconds later, a janitor dropped his broom and brandished a badge. So did about four other bystanders.

"Dubai is like Singapore on steroids," said James Adams, a marketing manager for Dubai Silicon Oasis, a tech park for silicon designers that's currently under construction.

A broad range of activities can lead to jail time. Living with someone of either gender who is not your spouse can lead to a sentence, though the authorities prosecute only in rare instances. Public displays of affection can lead to legal trouble. Giving the finger to another driver can also draw a warning from the police, one source said. In a letter to the editor, one person was recently incensed that American pop star Michael Jackson didn't get prosecuted for accidentally walking into a woman's bathroom on a recent visit.

"Maybe that sort of thing goes on in Western countries," the person wrote.

On the other hand, street crime is nonexistent and no terrorist attacks have occurred. "I am glad (undercover police) are there," said one British consultant who moved here after stints in the U.S. and Europe.

Also, the country isn't necessarily cheap. Until recently, landlords were regularly raising rents by 100 percent or so a year. A four-bedroom villa can go for 180,000 dirhams ($50,000) a year, while a two-bedroom apartment can go for about half that. The government this month announced that rent increases would be capped at 15 percent a year, but locals expect landlords to devise workarounds.

One young developer trying to live cheaply in a 28,000 dirham ($7,800) per year apartment recently got a notice that the apartment would now be furnished (though he already has furniture) and rent would climb to 40,000 dirhams. Shoddy construction and poor maintenance are common complaints.

The lure of being on the ground floor of possibly the next big thing, though, is tempting.

"I kept seeing the ads for Dubai International Airport on CNN," said one employee at a multinational consulting firm, "and figured I must be missing out on something."