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Listen to their stories, and you learn that many workers are trapped here, mired in debt to unscrupulous agents back home who charged them exorbitant fees for their work visas. "If I didn't have to pay back my fee, I'd go home today," one man told me. "We have nothing," said Kutty, a short, sunken-cheeked 25-year-old from the Indian state of Kerala. "We are living a nightmare here, and nobody cares."

Reacting to such abuses—and the bad publicity they generate—the government recently announced it would allow workers to unionize, and ordered all contractors to halt work for four hours a day during the heat of July and August.

Dubai's troubles don't end there. Creating man-made islands offshore, for example, may have been a brilliant, if outrageous, business decision—waterfront properties sell for 7 million to 30 million dollars—but in the process, environmentalists say, Dubai has killed coral, destroyed turtle nesting sites, and upset the marine ecology of the western Persian Gulf. And behind the glittering skyscrapers lies a late-night world of fleabag hotels and prostitutes, Indian and Russian mobsters, money launderers, and smugglers of everything from guns and diamonds to human beings.

The night I stopped by the Cyclone Club, the prostitutes on hand hailed from Moldova, Russia, China, eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and various countries in East Africa. Their clients were Arabs, Europeans, Asians, and Americans. Music throbbed, drinks flowed, and soon the couples headed for the exits. I met a Chinese woman who goes by the name Muri. "I only go Cyclone two times a week," she said in halting English. During the day she works as a chef at a Chinese restaurant. Her clients, she said, tend to be Europeans or Americans on leave from the war in Iraq. "The Arabs like the European girls and Russians." I asked if she knew of trafficking rings that deal in Chinese girls. "Yes, of course," she said, wrinkling her eyebrows. "Very bad. Some girls very young."

A few days later I asked a top aide to Sheikh Mohammed whether Muri was right about the influx of Chinese prostitutes and traffickers. "It's not easy to stop the ones who come to Dubai by choice," he told me, "but we have no tolerance for traffickers." The U.S. State Department, however, reports that Dubai's efforts to curtail the trade fall short of even "minimum standards," and estimates that some 10,000 women in the U.A.E. may be victims of sex traffickers.

Dubai's relaxed approach to these and other problems does prompt criticism, though carefully muted. "We need to slow down, things are going too far," one prominent writer told me, referring to unrestrained development running roughshod over local culture. He asked that I not use his name. Said another native, "I know that some of my Arab friends only visit us because we have foreign prostitutes here. This is shameful."

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