2001 Arabian nights THE atmosphere at the Nad al Sheba racecourse is electric.
It is about 7.30pm and a warm, soothing breeze blows across the track as the runners for the main race enter the stalls. It has been a great day's racing and the Dubai World Cup is the big event. It is one of the richest races in the world, worth $6 million (about 4,125,000), and the favourite is Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum's wonder horse Dubai Millennium, ridden by Dubai's and the Maktoums' favourite jockey, Frankie Dettori. The grandstand is packed with visitors from everywhere horse people from Tennessee and Georgia, wealthy South Africans, a large contingent from the English countryside, from the shires and the Home Counties, small time soap stars, big time rock stars, more than a few models from Croydon all mingling, Champagne glass in one hand, a small plate of Beluga in the other, with their Middle Eastern hosts. A strange mix of ancient and modern. Standing next to me is Bryan Ferry and his son, Otis; just behind is Ron Wood, his wife, Jo, and a gaggle of family and friends. Ron Atkinson is holding court at the bar, and over the far side is the sad, emaciated figure of Alex Higgins, the former snooker wildman now gravely ill and seemingly a little confused. Scruffy and shambling, and dressed in black, he stands out in a VIP enclosure clad in Armani and Jimmy Choo. All around, people are on their mobile phones, talking to their bookies back home. Gambling is forbidden in Dubai, but nobody minds the transcontinental laying of bets and I manage to put 50 on Lear Spear, mainly because it is British and because there is little point in betting on the favourite. Sheikh Mohammed, the Crown Prince and Defence Minister, is one of the world's leading racehorse breeders and he says that Dubai Millennium is the best horse he has ever seen. They're off. Within a furlong, Dubai Millennium is at the front. The American favourite, Berens, together with Lear Spear, is leading the pursuing pack but Dettori's mount just keeps pulling away. He's gone too early, surely? But, no. With every furlong this astonishing horse pulls another length away from the field. By the time he turns on to the home straight, 50,000 people are on their feet yelling and screaming. The noise hits a crescendo as the horse crosses the finish line, smashing the course record and leaving the field seven lengths behind. In the main grandstand, where the sheikhs, their families and their entourages sit in rows jimmy choo silver shoes sale on sumptuous red sofas, there is bedlam. Sheikh Mohammed is surrounded by wild celebration and he leads a procession of flowing dishdashes on to the course to congratulate Dettori and the wonder horse, and to raise the gold trophy aloft and declare a stunning victory for Dubai. The celebrations go on late into the night. The area beside the grandstand has been turned into a fairground, with live bands, beer gardens, food stalls, rides, and raffles for Rolls Royces and Ferraris. Looking down on to the fairground, the VIPs dine at a splendid restaurant in the clubhouse and then repair to the enclosed gardens to dance to a very sharp band from England. When you have the money, even the house bands are top quality. If I were asked to name my most memorable moments of the first year of the 21st century, I would unhesitatingly nominate that evening in March as one of them. It was the high point of the biggest party on the Emirates' social calendar, a week long bash that featured golf competitions, a 24 hour go kart marathon, luxury cruises on board the Maktoums' yacht for a privileged few, and an Arabian Nights party in the desert for 2,000 guests. It was at the desert party that I saw Sheikh Mohammed close up for the first time. He was sweeping through the party, a true Arabian prince dressed in black robes, pressing the flesh just like an American presidential candidate on the stump. At one point, he stopped at Ron Wood's table. As the crowds and the Sheikh's entourage jostled around them, the Arab potentate and the rock star exchanged a couple of sentences. I couldn't quite hear but it sounded to me as if the Sheikh said: "Welcome to Dubai. I really liked Sailing." To which I'm sure I heard Ron Wood say, politely: "That wasn't me. That was Rod Stewart." I may have misheard, but it struck me as a rather good moment in East West relations. The presence of celebrities such as Ron Wood one of many all expenses paid guests of the royal family and the organisers of the World Cup is an indicator of how determined are the Maktoums to turn their little Emirate into a jet set centre. Forty years ago, Dubai was a poor, hardscrabble Bedouin town where the locals scratched out a living from pearl diving and small time trading. As everybody knows, they struck oil in the late 1960s and life suddenly changed. At the time of the first oil exports in 1969, the population of Dubai numbered 59,000; now it is a million, 80 per cent of whom are foreign workers. The ruling family, the Maktoums, is descended from Maktoum Bin Butti who settled here with some 800 tribespeople in the mid 19th century. The true father of modern Dubai is Sheikh Rashid, Mohammed's father, who preached diversification and development when so many others were rolling around in petro dollars without giving a moment's thought to the future. He understood that as suddenly as the oil came, so it will cease. The estimates are that the wells will run dry by 2020, and it is for this reason that Sheikh Mohammed has embarked on a programme of development, revolving mainly around tourism, but also designed to jimmy choo gold pumps make Dubai a business centre and a venue for international sporting events. Outside the furnace of the summer months (April to September) the Dubai climate can be most pleasing warm but not humid in the day and cool and clear at night. It is already on the golf and tennis circuit and the word is that it is hoping to land a Formula One grand prix in the near future. The buildings that have gone up in the past five years rival Chicago in terms of ambition and Shanghai in their speed of construction. Along the Dubai Creek, or Khor Dubai, are the Bank of Dubai building, which resembles a gigantic Bose loudspeaker, and the Chamber of Commerce building, which is very similar to Helmut Jahn's celebrated Diamond Building in Johannesburg. Then there are the Dubai Towers, twin skyscrapers that make Manhattan's World Trade Center look positively small town, and on Jumeira Beach the astonishing Burj Al Arab hotel, surely the first spectacular architectural statement of the new millennium. The Burj is completely over the top and had it not been built here, someone in Vegas would have commissioned it. Designed by the British architects W. S. Atkins, it looks like a 1,000ft tall dhow rising out of the jimmy choo glitter shoes sale sea. Outside, at night, a computerised light show plays on the sail and the hotel's hue changes from magenta to yellow to turquoise. Inside is an atrium, the world's tallest, which Liberace might have created had he been an architect. It is dominated by a fountain that provides a 24 hour show of light and water so stunning that the public is prepared to pay a $10 (about 7) entrance fee to come and stare at it. There is excess at every turn and the two storey suites come with every ornate flourish that Middle Eastern style can muster: gold leaf everywhere; azukbahia marble from Brazil that is the last of its kind in the world, and straccicario, the marble that Michelangelo used for his busts, is in all the bathrooms bathrooms that are the size of West End apartments, with whirlpool bath, the most powerful shower I have come across, and a range of Herms Rococo aftershaves and eau de colognes and deodorants that make you smell as rich as you have to be to stay in this hotel. The suites go for 650 a night. In startling contrast to the Burj and the other Jumeira Beach hotels is the centre of old Dubai, which lies in the middle of all this development, along the banks of the Khor Dubai. Here, a maze of alleyways and winding, congested streets is occupied by merchants and traders of everything from car radios and tailored suits to gold watches and Armani fakes. The souks the gold souk and the spice souk have a nice atmosphere, and are not yet overrun by overweight Americans squeezed into Bermuda shorts. This is probably the only taste left of the old Dubai. As the giant party at the Nad al Sheba racecourse began to peter out, I wandered through the dwindling crowds. It was faintly reminiscent of the last hours of a British rock festival, only without the mud and the threatening skies. Here, the stars shone bright and the skies were clear night after night after night. A rather raucous rock band was playing its last number on a large stage and 30 or 40 bitter enders were swaying in front of the speakers. At the outdoor bar, I came upon Alex Higgins demonstrating his snooker stance to a bewildered couple sitting at a table. "I used to be a world champion," he croaked. Then, jimmy choo gold glitter pumps probably the most poignant sight of the week long party: weaving his way towards the exit on rubber legs was a portly Arab dressed in what was once a pristine white dishdash, but which was now stained with great blotches of spilt claret. At the exit, he stumbled into two Dubai policemen erect, sober, incorruptible and their withering gaze so unsettled him that he fell to the ground. They picked him up and he wobbled off into the darkness, lost, confused and a long way from his roots. It was the first time that I had seen a drunken Arab and it was something of a shock, quite out of keeping with the disciplined sobriety of most of Dubai's natives. There will surely be a price paid for this breakneck rush from the old Arab world into what we like to call the modern world. But as the Maktoums realised when they foresaw that the oil would run out, the people of Dubai have no choice but to embrace the modern. It is something that they are doing rather well. Graham Boynton is the Travel Editor of 'The Daily Telegraph' and 'The Sunday Telegraph'.
Classic Connection (0870 751 9320) offers five nights at Dubai's Royal Mirage hotel and two nights at the Burj Al Arab from 2,094; the price includes b b accommodation, private transfers and return flights with British Airways. Seven nights at the Royal Mirage start at 1,532 and 3,396 at the Burj Al Arab. This year's World Cup is run on March 24.
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