The road to the largest city in the United Arab Emirates is an eight-lane highway, paved through rolling sand dunes. An intricate wrought iron fence begins where the pavement stops, separating the road from land owned by the royal family. The camels grazing on these royal scrublands seem unfazed by the passing Ferraris.
The sand haze obscures the buildings until you are almost upon them; the wind-blown desert stops abruptly where the city begins. The streets are walls of glossy window, a sidewalk of endless mirrors as the horizon becomes lost in dark glass. But if you look up, many of the buildings stop abruptly. Half-constructed, their iron support beams are beginning to rust. The partially built apartments that used to flip many times a month are still empty. In front of the buildings that do have tenants, women in abayahs click their high heels as they clop from air-conditioned lobbies to air-conditioned cars, headscarves clipped with Gucci pins.
Over dinner at the top of the World Trade Center tower, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Ali Al-Nuaimi looked out over Dubai’s skyline, pressed a silk napkin to his mouth, and said, “These are hard times. Anywhere in the world, these times are hard. You Americans, you have it hard too.” His son, the Crown Prince, fiddled with his second silver salad fork and I nodded, not knowing what else to say.
In the sandy scrub outside the odd graveyard of glass towers, I passed a run-over plover, flattened on the yellow center of the road. As a BMW roared by, the gusts of wind caused one stiff wing to flap in a pitiful flagging-down gesture. My instinct was to stop, but of course there was no reason to brake for a dead bird. Thirty years ago, there was nothing here but sand.