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Unlike a traditional Middle Eastern autocrat, Sheikh Mohammed (known to many as Sheikh Mo) manages Dubai like a good CEO. Besides keeping a full schedule of public appearances, he's often seen driving himself around the backlots of Dubai, surveying his construction sites, as his father did, at the crack of dawn. He'll sometimes show up unannounced in the workplace to ask tough questions, fire poor managers on the spot, and reward the hardest workers. From these he handpicks Dubai's next generation of executives, including many women. "Hire the best women you can find," he told Anita Mehra Homayoun, the head of marketing for Dubai's airport, when he tapped her for the job in 1996. Mehra Homayoun herself rose through the ranks of the airport's duty-free shopping operation and caught Sheikh Mo's attention by organizing car raffles and celebrity golf and tennis tournaments, and by attracting top retailers to the airport's duty-free empire. "Sheikh Mohammed makes you believe you can do anything," she said. "His vision is contagious."

Another of the chosen, Mohammad Alabbar, grew up, like many Dubaians, in a tent made of palm fronds. His father supported a wife and 12 children with his fishing net. Then, in 1966, Dubai struck oil, and Alabbar went to college in the United States on a government scholarship paid for by oil revenues. (Though a windfall early on, Dubai's modest oil reserves now account for only 6 percent of GDP.) After graduation, he impressed Sheikh Mo during a six-year stint in Singapore, where he turned stagnant retail enterprises into thriving businesses. That led to a posting as Dubai's director of economic development, a role that showcased his ability to boost commerce by cutting red tape. As a reward, the government granted him land at little or no cost, and he started building.

Today he travels the world in a private jet and oversees Emaar, one of the richest real estate development companies in the world. "We have come a long way," Alabbar told me at the project site of the Burj Dubai, a towering, torpedo-like structure that will be the tallest building on the planet when it's finished in 2008. "But we must always remember where we came from. Our kids must know that we worked very, very hard to get to where we are now, and there’s a lot more work to do."

Who actually does that work is a touchy subject. Dubai is not, demographically, an Arab city-state: Fewer than one in eight residents are citizens of the U.A.E., and South Asian guest workers make up more than 60 percent of the population. Many educated Indians live a comfortable life in Dubai, and a few have become rich. ("Dubai is the best city in India," quip the fortunate.) For others, however, Dubai is a dead end.

The local press had been reporting labor unrest the evening I visited one of the squalid neighborhoods where tens of thousands of guest workers live. The laborers' barracks stood among many battered, squat buildings along a dirt and gravel road littered with garbage. Hundreds of men with sun-soaked brown faces scuttled past in tank tops, baggy slacks, and torn flip-flops. Some of these workers joined in recent strikes, fed up with being treated as "less than human," in the words of Human Rights Watch. The average laborer makes about five dollars a day, working 12-hour shifts in scorching heat. (Human Rights Watch reported nearly 900 construction deaths in 2004, including deaths from heatstroke.)

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