DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- First things first: To get here, you do not have to travel over a war zone. The flight from New York crossed eastern Turkey in late afternoon, with the on-board monitor showing the plane making a standard course correction away from Iraqi air space.
You also do not need to be apprehensive about casual garb. I packed shorts -- how else to cope with Dubai's 100-degree days? -- but when I sauntered into the main dining room for my first breakfast, I realized I was the only person showing his legs. Careless faux pas, or was I being overly sensitive to the local culture? Most of the guests staying at the Madinat Jumeirah, The Arabian Resort -- Dubai, were of Middle Eastern origin, the men wearing flowing white dishdashas and many of the women in black, chador-style abayas that covered all but their eyes and hands.
Later, Awadh Al Seghayer, director of the Dubai Convention Bureau, allayed my fears.
''That's the least of the issues we worry about, both in terms of tourism and in terms of people living there," he said. ''Shorts are very well accepted, skirts are very well accepted."
Dedicated to a peaceful embrace of both oil-free commerce and a tourism industry built around shopping and the exoticism of the Middle East, the emirate of Dubai, one of seven that make up the United Arab Emirates, has emerged as one of the world's must-see cities. In 2003, when it had 5 million visitors, the World Trade Organization named Dubai the world's fastest-growing tourism destination.
Abu Dhabi is the largest and historically the wealthiest of the emirates; Dubai represents just 5 percent of the UAE's territory, roughly the size of Rhode Island. Oil was discovered in 1966 when the emirate was a lowly Persian Gulf fishing and trading port with a population of just 59,000. Today, Dubai is predicting the end of its oil reserves in 10 to 18 years.
Credited as the visionary behind remaking Dubai, Sheik Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum anticipated the end of oil revenues. With just a few elements to work with (duty-free trading port, 40 miles of beachfront, sand dunes as far as the eye can see), he initiated Dubai's dramatic transformation into a city of 1.2 million and Middle East hub for information, technology, tourism, and transportation.
For the moment, American visitors are few. If you want to see a startling new vision of what the Middle East could become, however, Dubai is it.
''Middle America tends to tar everything between India and Turkey with the same brush," said Timothy Clark, president of Emirates airline. ''But in the last 14 years, Dubai has surged ahead, and in the next five years, Dubai will emerge as something that has to be seen to be believed."
The government-owned airline is planning to acquire an average of a plane a month for the next eight years and is the single largest purchaser of the new Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger aircraft, having ordered 41 planes. Dubai's airport is undergoing a $4.1 billion expansion that will increase capacity from 22 million passengers a year in 2004 to more than 70 million in 2008.
Elaborate resorts are emerging along the coastline. The largest shopping mall in the world -- with an indoor ski slope -- is under construction, and an astonishing collection of man-made island developments is being manufactured out of rubble quarried from nearby mountains and sand vacuumed up from the gulf.
The first of these islands, the Palm Jumeirah, in the shape of a three-mile-wide palm tree, is a few hundred yards offshore and has an eight-lane throughway along its trunk. Apartments, villas, and town homes for 5,000 residents are being built; the first is expected to be occupied late this year. The development also includes 30 hotels, including one themed with Venice-like canals, and another that replicates the Atlantis resort of the Bahamas.
A second island, the Palm Jebel Ali, is to be completed in 2008 and is even more leisure-focused, incorporating a monorail, marinas, and over-water homes. Combined, the two projects add almost 75 miles of coastline to Dubai. Both Palms are sold out, and a third island has been proposed.
Another archipelago of 300 man-made islands will loosely reflect the map of the world, including outposts shaped vaguely like a few American states. Buy your own island: Prices start at $7 million.
Environmental groups are troubled by the islands being manufactured atop the gulf's coral reefs and oyster beds. Divers complain that visibility along the shores is now ''zero," due to silt brought up during dredging. To help alleviate those concerns, part of the Palm plans include artificial reefs to create the world's largest man-made dive park.
''There's nowhere in the Arab world that's the center of anything," said James Mullen, spokesman for Nakheel, the government-controlled developer. Thus, Dubai can position itself as an axis for information-technology commerce, an airline, and duty-free shopping.
The shopping, for which Dubai is renowned, historically has been concentrated in the souks of Deira, a neighborhood along the east side of the Dubai Creek that divides the old city in two. One can board an abra, one of countless water taxis that putter along the creek, ferrying passengers from one side to the other.
In the Gold Souk, dozens of fluorescent-lighted, air-conditioned shops glimmer with jewelry, much of it handcrafted in India, while other items are name-brand pieces from companies like DeBeers.
In the half-dozen shops of the Spice Souk, bags brim with saffron, peppercorns, frankincense, and myrrh.
By the end of my visit, it dawned on me that I hadn't actually met a Dubai citizen. I had encountered many British, a number from Mauritius, South Africa, and India, and the taxi drivers seemed all to be Pakistani. Dubai's population is 82 percent from somewhere else, many enjoying high wages and no taxes. They provide the muscle for construction and the services in hotels, most of which cater to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They cannot become citizens, and the citizens don't mingle with visitors.
Still, the mix of cultures seems to percolate affably.
''We are travelers ourselves, and we respect all cultures," Awadh Al Seghay said. ''Most of the tourists who come to Dubai also respect our customs."
Most visitors will remember the modern, sometimes majestic architecture, especially the Burj Al Arab, the world's tallest all-suite hotel. It sits on a small man-made footing a couple hundred feet off the beach, its outline, visible for miles up and down the coast.
The rooms are all two-story suites, with 22-karat golf leaf decorating the doorways and mirrors above the beds. One restaurant is lined with fish tanks and reached by an ersatz submarine ride, and the 27th-floor bar reveals a staggering panorama. Magnificent, gaudy, and outlandish all at once, a stay there runs $1,486 a night.
It made me think that Dubai could well emerge as a Middle Eastern Vegas on the sea -- sans gambling.
David Swanson is a freelance writer in San Diego.