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Dubai: 1908 to 2007

In 1908, this humble little sheikhdom listed its "wealth" in an inventory document that now resides in a local museum.To wit: 4,000 date trees, 1,650 camels, 45 horses, 380 donkeys, 430 cattle and 960 goats. Life was eked out from the least of resources, an existence of minimalism.These days, Dubai is all about the oasis bling and the superlatives – richest, tallest, vastest, grandest – that stagger imagination.World’s tallest skyscraper, rising one floor per week and designed to accommodate future storey additions, should a challenger arise.World’s largest cultural project, which has a strong Canadian component through Toronto-based Lord Cultural Resources.World’s largest theme park in Dubailand, eventually growing to three times the size of Manhattan World’s three largest artificial islands, the development constructed to resemble a palm tree and a map of the globe.More shopping malls per consumer and more gold per resident than in any city on the planet. Etcetera.It is material gluttony and, while Islam is the official religion in the United Arab Emirates, the god most fervently worshipped here is Mammon.And it was all imagined from sand scratch, not four decades past, when oil was struck offshore and a sleepy emirate, known primarily for fishing and pearl diving – as well as a hub for transhipping contraband goods – dreamed big, even then looking far beyond the finite era of petrodollars.Relatively speaking, Dubai has very little in the way of oil reserves, far less than the capital of the seven-emirate UAE federation, Abu Dhabi, which boasts some 10 per cent of the global total.Indeed, Dubai’s oil stores are expected to run out within a few years, perhaps as soon as 2010.Not that it will matter. The emirate has transformed itself into a financial, real estate, trade and manufacturing colossus, squeezed in between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, invulnerable to the vicissitudes of the oil industry. Dubai intends to secure status as a world tourism leader – more than 6 million visitors last year; aiming for 15 million within three years. Already, 700,000 Britons visit annually. Last week, United Arab Emirates Airlines announced it was launching a direct Toronto-to-Dubai route. Endlessly, and despite its pocket-sized geographical dimensions, Dubai keeps growing – more, more, always more, as if it can’t get enough of itself.There are more cranes in tiny Dubai, reportedly, than in all of China. The emirate, tangled in traffic where once camels grazed, is a giant and non-stop construction site, ever more ambitious projects adding to the 46 themed mega malls that already exist, the posh highrises, faux ski hills and rollicking nightlife complete with blatant prostitution.Modesty persists in the details. There are pink, female-only taxis, driven by women. And Arabic grace notes can be found in the few surviving historical buildings, the cacophony of the gold souk, the desert picnics for families hanging on to a shred of their simple past, the pristine white dishdashas still favoured by many men as they juggle prayer beads and cellphones, the women covered to their eyeballs perambulating among the miniskirts.An autocratic city-state ruled by a hereditary dynasty, Dubai is stoically apolitical, no anti-West or anti-American sloganeering here. It is also an improbable oasis of peace and prosperity in the Middle East, resounding with self-confidence unknown in most of the Arab world, unapologetic in embracing the modern. No significant attempt has been made to impose democratic ideals and the sheikhs aren’t being pushed for electoral reform by any grassroots movement.In this benevolent sheikhdom, the native-born are guaranteed white-collar management jobs, qualified or not, and cradle-to-grave benefits. Alarmed by the growing number of marriages to non-nationals – in all of the Emirates, fewer than 1 in 10 people i

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