|Sheikh Zayed Road high-rises frame a walk to prayers. (KAMRAN JEBREILI/Associated Press)|
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - The six-lane highway that runs from the airport toward the world's fastest-growing city skyline is dotted with neon signs in Arabic script. If you could read them, they would sound familiar: Applebee's, Chili's, Pizza Hut.
American fast food has found a home in Dubai, a once-impoverished desert kingdom now the frenetic, oil-rich financial capital of the Arab world. But Americans themselves are scarce.
In this burgeoning oasis of modernity, US citizens number 19,000 of the estimated 1.2 million foreigners living here.
If Dubai is a glittering slice of the future, a glimpse of a new world order, and a gateway to the deep pockets of the Middle East, then Americans are struggling to occupy just a tiny corner of it. Just 7 percent of hotel visitors hail from the Americas, according to the most recent statistics available from Dubai's Department of Tourism. (Europeans make up 32 percent, Arabs 30 percent, Asians 22 percent, and Africans 6 percent.)
In this city of man-made lakes and islands, where bureaucrats seed clouds to make it rain and where luxury hotels air-condition the sand, the population itself is artificial, imported. Foreigners make up roughly 90 percent of Dubai's residents.
In the mushrooming forest of skyscrapers, Pakistani and Afghan laborers march through the night like ants on 24-hour construction shifts.
In the palace-like Al Qasr hotel, where golf carts and gondolas ferry guests to villas, Russian and Saudi investors enjoy 24-hour butler service and views of the glittering Persian Gulf, while British lawyers bake themselves on the beaches.
Indian hawkers sell their wares in the old open-air gold market in historic Deira, as Iranian traders hold court in spice shops their families have owned since the early 1900s. But weeks could go by here without seeing an American.
In this city of symbols of Arab pride, where the tallest building in the world pokes like a bony finger through 120 degree heat, the Americans you hear of are celebrities: Brad Pitt, helping to design a new American-themed hotel; The Tiger Woods Dubai golf course and resort.
US companies are just dipping their toes into the market long dominated by the British (who, in the 19th century, exerted control over the ruling families that now make up the United Arab Emirates). Citibank,
But Ahmad Jamil Azam, an analyst on cultural affairs, speculated that Dubai is not yet a big enough financial market to attract many Americans. Still, he predicted that as Dubai's star rises and the United States' wanes "you will have more Americans coming here seeking jobs in the coming months and years."
For now, meeting an American is rare. On a recent afternoon at the Mall of the Emirates, the closest thing to a main drag in Dubai, a reporter searched for six hours to find a single US citizen.
Native-born Emirati men in long, flowing white robes ate ice cream with Emirati women sporting black hijabs with glittering decorations on the cuffs.
A French cafe was scattered with people in Western garb: four Britons, a Ukrainian, two South Africans, and one Serb.
The Serb, Ana Sapundzic, who works in a music store, said the only Americans she sees are sailors from a US aircraft carrier.
"They come like tourists, for one or two days," she said. Dubai may be too much of a rat race for most Americans, she speculated, as she downed her last drop of coffee before returning to work. Rents are high. There's too much traffic. Unless you are wealthy, the cost of living is high, she said, adding that she dreams of moving to Brazil.
At the grocery store, a tall man in shorts could have been a Midwesterner. But he turned out to be Dietmar Fromm, a hotel supervisor from Germany. He said he had never met an American in Dubai. Maybe the pay is not incentive enough for Americans to come. Or maybe Americans are too provincial. "American people only have the knowledge of their homeland," Fromm said.
No Americans sat near the virtual fireplace of the "lodge" near Ski Dubai, a giant man-made ski slope inside the mall, complete with ski lift.
Behind the glass, Arab children gleefully threw themselves down an ice tunnel as mothers in headscarves and long black puffy coats resembling hijabs pulled toddlers on sleds.
Nearby, teenage boys in white robes and baseball caps fooled around on the escalators. Above their heads hung a toy store billboard of a Barbie look-alike, a black shawl covering her hair.
As the afternoon drew to a close, the call to prayer rang through the mall, inviting shoppers to the third-floor mosque.
The day was over, and the only American who had been spotted all afternoon was in a rap video. But just as I was about to give up, I overheard a tall blonde asking directions.
"Are you American?" I asked eagerly.
"Yes," she replied tartly. "From New York."
But being a New Yorker, she was in a hurry and would not stop to give her name.
Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com.