In the 1950s, Dubai’s population of a few thousand scraped a living in a near waterless desert by picking dates, diving for pearls, or sailing in wooden dhows to trade with Iran and India. The town was as poor as any village in Somalia or the Sudan.
Today freewheeling Dubai is everything the rest of the Arab world is not: capitalism on cocaine, Las Vegas without the gambling. Until last year, it was the fastest-growing city in the world, with shimmering skyscrapers hiding gritty 24-hour construction at ground level, and an economy whose growth outpaced China’s while luring more tourists than all of India. It is one of the world’s safest places, but it lies a stone’s throw from some of its most dangerous. The city has become a metaphor for the lush life, where celebrities mingle in gilded splendor and where so many luxury cars fill the streets that crashes between Porsches are not uncommon. Yet it is also beset by a backwash of bad design, environmental degradation and controversial labour practices.
This small Arab sheikhdom has become both an icon of the future and a rising power in the Middle East: Dubai tells its unique story.