Dubai to Hong Kong

Oil riches flooded the UAE with lots of silly ideas and excesses, but one Emirate invested heavily in hotels, industry and infrastructure, aiming to turn Dubai into the trading center of the Middle East.

By Ron Gluckman/Dubai, UAE

THE DRY DESERTS OF THE MIDDLE EAST have induced intensely personal delusions. The pioneers who gazed upon the barren plains of Palestine a half century ago saw farmland. Irrigation turned Israel into the world's leading exporter of citrus fruit.

Around the Gulf, drab cities now sparkle like Las Vegas casinos. All it took was a sprinkling of oil, and the sand sprouted high rises, hotels and beach resorts.

However, among desert dreamers, none has shown more foresight than Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the late ruler of Dubai. Even as oil gushed from the ground, Maktoum recalled the parched dunes of Dubai and dreaded the day that the desert would reclaim his people.

"My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel, " the Sheikh was fond of saying.

However, Maktoum ensured such proverbs won't be prophecies in Dubai.

In his accruing oil wealth, the Sheikh saw salvation. While other Gulf leaders invested in mansions and munitions, Maktoum's black gold bought infrastructure, offices and modern communications. Many observers thought old Maktoum was suffering from sun stroke, when, in the middle of Dubai's flat desert, he erected the tallest building in the Middle East. Now, Sheikh Maktoum's World Trade Center is no longer surrounded by sand, but by bustling conference halls and hotels.

Detractors snickered when he said he would turn Dubai into a Hong Kong of the Middle East. Nobody is laughing anymore.

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