Dubai Rides the Oil Boom

With money pouring in faster than ever, the emirate's ambitions soar.

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Indeed, the breathtaking scope of Dubai's ambition is difficult to capture. Along with building a financial and business center, it also wants to be a global tourist destination attracting 15 million visitors a year by 2015, more than double the current traffic.

At times, it is hard to understand where all these tourists will come from. After all, Dubai is not blessed with great natural beauty or a friendly climate. The summer heat and humidity are so suffocating that its swimming pools need to be chilled. Tourism officials are counting on the Persian Gulf region, as well as the emerging middle class in places like India, which is a relatively short plane ride away. (The flights from many Indian cities to Dubai are no longer than those from Minneapolis to Orlando.) And Dubai already attracts hordes of European tourists looking for sun and tax-free shopping. "When you invest this much money into a small place, you need to rely on the whole world to see it," says Malik, whose company, Tatweer, is charged with developing industries like tourism in Dubai.

The centerpiece of the plan is Tatweer's implausibly massive Dubailand entertainment complex, which has become one of the biggest construction projects in the Middle East, estimated at $110 billion, according to Fast Future. This behemoth is not simply a large theme park. Rather, Dubailand is expected to house as many as a dozen full-scale amusement parks, including ones from Six Flags, Universal Studios, DreamWorks Animation, Legoland, and Marvel Entertainment, along with several more Arab-themed parks and one filled with 100 animatronic dinosaurs. There have even been conversations between Dubai and director George Lucas about a Star Wars park, says a knowledgeable source. "If you don't take risks," Malik says, "you're not serious." So, in case a dozen parks aren't enough, Dubailand is planning for a half-dozen golf courses, including the first one in the world designed by Tiger Woods; full-scale replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids at Giza, and the Taj Mahal; the world's largest shopping mall; and a related $54 billion, 6-mile-long Las Vegas-like strip, minus the casinos but jammed with shops and a staggering 51 hotels.

Of course, not every Dubai project materializes. In 2003, a developer announced a plan to build an underwater hotel, but sources say that construction has been suspended.

Coming and going. Dubai is nonetheless quickly expanding its infrastructure to handle all of these projected visitors. Dubai's airport, which has seen passenger traffic grow 15 percent each year since 2002, is opening a large new terminal this summer, and a third concourse is due in 2010. On top of that, Dubai is building an additional airport on the other side of the city, adjacent to its enormous port. That airport is planned to be the world's largest, with more than double the capacity of New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The second airport will also be a major cargo destination, given its proximity to one of the world's busiest ports, a key foundation of Dubai's economic miracle. This pairing would make it even easier for companies to bring goods into the port and immediately dispatch them by sea or air around the region, or vice versa. UPS, the world's largest shipping carrier, is already in talks about opening a logistics hub at the second airport. "We will see a totally new business model that does not exist in many other places," says Jamal Majid bin Thaniah, vice chairman of DP World, which operates the massive Jebel Ali port, already the world's seventh-largest container port.

Jebel Ali, built in the late 1970s, was one of Dubai's earliest building projects and helped turn the city into a huge import, export, and distribution center and the prime link between manufacturers in Asia and markets in the Middle East, Africa, and even Europe. "There is a lot of glitz and glamor, but the core element of Dubai's development plan has always been infrastructure," says Aamir Rehman, author of Dubai & Co.: Global Strategies for Doing Business in the Gulf States.