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Dubai's tolerance can also be a good thing. Alongside its bars and nightclubs, there are mosques and churches and Hindu temples, and, for a city with so many competing religions and nationalities, it is remarkably free of ethnic conflict. "I don't know who's a Sunni and who's a Shia, and I don't care," Sheikh Mohammed told me during a brief meeting. "If you work hard, if you don't bother your neighbor, then there is a place for you in Dubai." Even Israelis can do business (quietly) with Dubai.

While the Dubai model—built on freewheeling capitalism, entrepreneurship, and religious moderation—might be a blueprint for other developing nations, Dubai is uniquely positioned for the 21st century largely due to the vision and ambition of one man. Other Arab leaders might emulate Sheikh Mo or his methods, but in the end—and some would say thank goodness—there's only one Dubai.

Before I left the emirate, I decided to do what millions of visitors have done over the past decade: Go to a shopping mall. Dubai reportedly has more shopping malls per consumer than any other city in the world, and day or night they are packed with the kind of crowd one typically finds in Dubai: veiled Saudi women browsing Victoria’s Secret; teenage Emirati boys in ghetto gear flirting with eastern European girls in black leather miniskirts; Senegalese and Egyptian and Iranian and Kazakh and Korean families, strolling amid the fountains and stores as Western pop music, globalization's soundtrack, plays over the loudspeakers. At one mall, the Hamarain Center, the theme song to Titanic, by Céline Dion, was played so often that local retailers complained.

I chose the Mall of the Emirates, one of Dubai's newest megamalls, a 2.4-million-square-foot behemoth that features an indoor ski slope. Entering is like crossing the threshold into an alternative reality: a lavish, artificial world of high-end clothing boutiques, edgy music stores, cafés, and restaurants that culminates at a massive, plate-glass window with ski lifts in the distance. I joined the crowd at the window to watch skiers descending a snow-covered "mountain," children throwing snowballs at each other, and instructors guiding beginners through their first runs.

I spotted what looked to be a group of Dubaians on a family outing. A middle-aged Arab man in a rented overcoat walked gingerly through the snow in street shoes. Nearby, a woman in a black abaya, also wearing a rented coat, nervously held the arm of an Asian woman, perhaps her Filipina housekeeper. A teenage boy with a wispy mustache approached them, skis strapped to his feet. He chatted for a moment, then labored off toward the lift for another run. The woman let go of the Filipina and took a few steps. Then she smiled, squatted down, and picked up some snow, a small white miracle in the desert of Arabia. She seemed to be enjoying herself. The temperature of the real world outside was 110 degrees, but in the dream world of Dubai it was just about perfect.

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