Two huge seated pharaohs stared at me, unblinking and unseeing, frozen in time. I wasn’t anywhere that you would normally associate with these divine beings — Egypt, the British Museum or even Las Vegas.It was December, the beginning of the Christmas season, and I was in Dubai City, outside the entrance to the ultra-modern Wafi City Mall. After a quick glance at the mall directory, I thought, “The pharaohs could have found everything they needed for the afterlife and more right here.”
I’d just hopped off an open-air, double-decker tour bus. I was parched and ready for the cool embrace of the air-conditioned mall. I hadn’t expected to be greeted by the pharaohs or to find the London-style tour bus offering city and beach tours. After several hours exploring the city, however, I understood the guide’s oft-repeated refrain: “Dubai is a country full of surprises.”
Dubai, a member of the federation of seven United Arab Emirates (UAE), pulsates with a cosmopolitan mix of Arab, Indian, Asian and Western lifestyles and cultures. With 1.2 million inhabitants, it is the most populous emirate. Most people live in Dubai City, the country’s capital, on the Persian Gulf.
In contrast to fellow UAE members, Dubai generates only a small part of its gross domestic product from oil reserves, which are considerably smaller than those of its neighbors. Fueled by a visionary leadership, the sheikdom has capitalized on its history as a trade hub to build itself into a cosmopolitan center of finance, manufacturing and tourism.
From the exotic dhows laden with everything including the kitchen sink that still ply Dubai Creek to the glistening glass and steel of modern skyscrapers to the carefully irrigated roadside beds of petunias and marigolds plunked down in the desert sand, my quick tour of the capital underscored the guide’s sentiment that nothing is predictable in this country of contrasts.
I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw as I entered the Wafi City Mall. A 50-foot-tall (15 m) Christmas tree towered over the lobby. Christmas carols floated through the air. Traditional red and green holiday decorations festooned the store entryways.
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