Published: January 2007


Dubai hotel construction

Sudden City

A feverish dream of the future springs from the sands in Dubai.

By Afshin Molavi
Photograph by Maggie Steber

There once was a sheikh who dreamed big. His realm, on the shores of the Persian Gulf, was a sleepy, sun-scorched village occupied by pearl divers, fishermen, and traders who docked their ramshackle dhows and fishing boats along a narrow creek that snaked through town. But where others saw only a brackish creek, this sheikh, Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, saw a highway to the world.

One day in 1959, he borrowed many millions of dollars from his oil-rich neighbor, Kuwait, to dredge the creek until it was wide and deep enough for ships. He built wharves and warehouses and planned for roads and schools and homes. Some thought he was mad, others just mistaken, but Sheikh Rashid believed in the power of new beginnings. Sometimes at dawn, with his young son, Mohammed, by his side, he’d walk the empty waterfront and paint his dream in the air with words and gestures. And it was, in the end, as he said. He built it, and they came.

His son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, now rules Dubai, and around that creek has built towering dreams of his own, transforming the sunrise vision of his father into a floodlit, air-conditioned, skyscrapered fantasy world of a million people. With its Manhattan-style skyline, world-class port, and colossal, duty-free shopping malls, little Dubai now attracts more tourists than the whole of India, more shipping vessels than Singapore, and more foreign capital than many European countries. The people of 150 nations have moved here to live and work. Dubai has even built man-made islands—some in the shape of palm trees—to accommodate the wealthiest of them. Its economic growth rate, 16 percent, is nearly double that of China. Construction cranes punctuate the skyline like exclamation points.

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