Dubai: Disneyland in the desert

In the heart of the Middle East, a few hundred miles from the tanks and terrorist bombings of Gaza and Iraq, a glittering Western oasis is rising.

Dubai, the best known of the United Arab Emirates, is expanding with remarkable speed in an area that, until the 1970s, was mostly empty desert. Thanks to the oil boom, liberal tax laws, a construction trade that operates 24 hours a day and billions of dollars invested by the world’s media companies, Dubai is a booming cosmopolitan landscape.

It combines the best and worst aspects of Disneyland and Las Vegas. There are replicas of global landmarks like Sydney’s Opera House, a scaled-down version of which houses the Dubai Museum; office buildings that look like the Arc de Triomphe; and a fountain resembling one in Switzerland. There was even a Global Village Shopping Festival, with pavilions from different countries.

I traveled to Dubai earlier this month at the invitation of my cousin, who has been living there for the past several years. Other relatives joined us — three uncles from India and a cousin from the U.K. (both countries are just three hours’ flying time away).

It was my first time visiting the UAE, but others in my family had been there several times before. For us, Dubai was a cleaner, closer version of India. We could get good Indian food, shop for clothes and jewelry and get a fairy-tale view of the Arabian nights with vistas of sand, camels and mosques.

Dubai is an interesting mix of Western and Eastern influences and people. The kingdom is beginning to grab headlines of a positive kind, fueled by tax-free and duty-free laws and bankrolled by the sheiks.

Over the past weekend, the horse racing World Cup was held in Dubai, and earlier this year, the Dubai Tennis Championships and golf tournaments brought Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Roger Federer and Andre Agassi there. (In keeping with the wacky tone of the place, the athletes were pictured playing tennis on a vertigo-inducing court at the top of the Burj al Arab hotel.) The “seven-star” hotel with no rooms — only suites (rates available on request) — was featured on “The Amazing Race 5.”

Meanwhile, construction is under way nearby on the Palms, two man-made islands that will include villas, hotels and apartments. David Beckham, Bill Clinton and Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan have reportedly bought property here.

Beyond the headlines and the skyscrapers, though, the Emirates is befuddling: There are no street addresses, so finding a place is difficult unless you have a really good cab driver; traffic is terrible at nearly all times of the day; billboards don’t just tout consumer products and properties but boast huge portraits of the rulers of the kingdom as well as slogans like “Our world is getting bigger and better.”

And although it’s a Muslim country, it’s considered the prostitution capital of the Middle East.

I visited Dubai Media City, which is beginning to make a name for itself. Finding the place was an adventure in itself. Media City is off Sheikh Zayed Road, but that’s like saying it’s off Wilshire Boulevard. Ask directions and you’re likely to be told to turn “after the new Burger King.”

In four years, Dubai Media City has attracted 960 companies from 45 countries to set up shop, including news outlets CNN, the BBC and Reuters. Last year, its owner, Dubai Media Holding, sponsored the inaugural Dubai Film Festival. Orlando Bloom and Sarah Michelle Gellar came, the latter to promote “The Grudge.” The event generated a few headlines, although no films premiered and no prizes were awarded.

Now DMH is working on Dubai Studio City. (What’s next, Dubai Videogame City?) Right now there’s no there there, but Amina al Rustamani, director of broadcasting, says the first phase will be ready by spring 2006. Soundstages, post-production and satellite facilities will be built on 22 million square feet of desert sand.

Bollywood filmmakers have already discovered DMC, while Egyptian and Iranian filmmakers have expressed interest in shooting there. Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney were there last year to film “Syriana.”

Al Rustamani says she’s not worried about competition from Morocco or other Middle Eastern countries. “We don’t compare with others,” she said. After all, whatever benefits they offer can’t top UAE’s tax-free propositions.

Whatever draws the filmmakers to Dubai, for me it was an unexpected chance to experience a place that revels in cultural melange — everything from “1001 Arabian Nights” to Vegas kitsch.

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