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Travel: Dubai

A benign, pinkish sun is setting over the Arabian skyline.

Dubai has prospered thanks to its location on the Persian Gulf, where it profits from the shipping industry. Photograph: Shutterstock
Dubai has prospered thanks to its location on the Persian Gulf, where it profits from the shipping industry. Photograph: Shutterstock

A caravan of 4x4s zig-zags its way across the dunes, before one screams into an apex of sand, topples over the edge and disappears into the valley beneath. Inside our jeep, the squeals of terror are accompanied by howls of delight by our Jordanian driver Haynith.

"It takes one-hour lessons every day for 50 days before you can sit your test," he tells us in between roller-coaster manoeuvres on our safari in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. "I passed in eight." A roar of laughter accompanies the revelation.

We close in on a Bedouin Arab, the once-nomadic people resident on the fringes of the reserve, aboard his camel. At dusk, against the high-duned backdrop, it is a picture-perfect shot and Haynith slows before telling the weather-beaten Bedouin "See you next century." The wheels squeal again, as do the passengers.

The jeep finally comes to a rest inside an Arab encampment. The air is heavy with the scent of charring chicken and lamb from the barbecue; mixed with smoke from a shisha pipe it's a heady combination. The food is delicious, the pipe a welcome experience. The presence of a belly dancer enhances further a scene redolent of old Arabia.

Fifty miles into the wilderness, this setting is far removed from the skyscrapers of new Dubai where architectural feats of unlimited scale dominate the skyline, the centrepiece of which is the Burj Khalifa, at 2723ft (830m) the tallest building in the world. Inside, you will find the ultra-modern Armani Hotel; outside, a car park filled with Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Across the road, the Address Hotel is more laidback, its casual vibe more suited to spending your day people watching by the pool. The family-friendly Movenpick Hotel at Ibn Battuta Gate and the hip Pullman Hotel at Mall of the Emirates were my favourites, though, both exuding the warmth and character associated with the Arab world.

Dubai abounds with contradictions. It is Vegas without the vice, where you can ski in the morning (at Ski Dubai's indoor slopes), shop in one of 60-plus malls in the afternoon and feast in the desert at sundown. Gambling - despite the multi-million-pound horse-racing track at Meydan, a testimony to ruler Sheikh Mohammed's fascination with all things equine - is forbidden.

Other paradoxes are prevalent. In a recent poll, would-be travellers were asked for their biggest concerns over holidaying in the Middle East. The top three responses were safety, a lack of things to do and a dearth of culture. And, while Dubai has been unaffected by the Arab Spring and has low levels of crime, the British Foreign Office warns of a high terrorist threat. The Dubai Tourist Board works hard to dispel certain myths such as the belief that shopping is the only pursuit. It is a truism that the high-end Dubai Mall (a five-hour expedition if you walked past every outlet inside) and Mall of the Emirates make Glasgow's Buchanan Galleries look like a flea market but they contain more than just shops. At Kidzania, the children can check-in at the departure desk and board a flight for a mysterious land where they sign up for a day's tutelage in the job of their choice - all under the watchful eye of experienced childminders. If that speaks to rampant capitalism, the Dubai Aquarium, housed in the mall, also takes a nod to the big fish where more than 70 varieties of shark patrol inside the self-proclaimed world's largest aquarium.

Once a stopping off point on the spice route to India, Dubai has built its wealth around shipping charges and landing rates rather than oil, which accounts for a small percentage of domestic production. Today business, property and tourism underpin state finances.

Alas, much of the city's history has been brushed into its museum or washed away in its famous Creek, yet here a semblance of old Dubai remains intact as traders barter in the souk and sailors load decrepit boats with cargoes for the journey across the Persian Gulf to Iran. It is this sight which reminds us of what Dubai was, is and shall remain. A stop-off point for traders and travellers, a state where only 17% of the population is indigenous, a place built on the transience of an often- exploited expat community. The government wants to entice those travellers and passers-by to stay, to make Dubai their return destination for business and pleasure. To this end, Free Zones, in effect tax havens, have been set up to encourage new businesses to invest. Attracting more tourists, though, presents the far greater challenge.

TRAVEL NOTES

Getting there

Emirates has return flights to Dubai from Glasgow from £428.98. Emirates flies twice daily from Glasgow to Dubai, where passengers can connect using the airline's global network of 120 destinations. Visit emirates.com.

James Morgan was a guest of the Dubai Tourist Board. Call 020 7321 6110 or visit definitelydubai.com.

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