The Brancatelli File



March 4, 1999 -- From the moment darkness falls to the instant Dubai is roused by the calls to morning prayer, you can wander along the wharves of Dubai Creek and peruse the output of the world's economic powers.

There on the docks, stacked in piles in front of the wooden dhows that navigate the shallow creek, is a global cornucopia of consumer goods: Japanese tires, Korean televisions, Chinese refrigerators, Taiwanese computers, French appliances, U.S. groceries, Italian furniture, Indian soft drinks and even German music systems. At two or three or four in the morning, the merchandise stands, unguarded and undisturbed, all along the side of the creek that meanders past the soaring glass towers in the heart of the Middle East's primary commercial center.

Since there's virtually no crime in this tiny Emirate on the Arab Gulf, no one thinks twice about the odd warehousing system. In fact, what distinguishes Dubai from most business centers in the region is what it doesn't have.

It doesn't have crime. It doesn't have conspicuous consumption or incalculable oil wealth. It isn't rigidly religious or dissolutely secular. There's no terrorism or kidnapping. It doesn't have erratic strongmen like Syria or Iraq, its neighbors to the north. It doesn't have a fundamentalist Islamic government like Iran, its neighbor across the Straits of Hormuz. It doesn't have a xenophobic ruling family like Saudi Arabia, its neighbor on the Arabian Peninsula.

"For better or worse, I tell folks we're sort of an Arabic Switzerland," says William Harlington, an Oklahoman who worked in Geneva before moving to Dubai. "You come here to do business, you live a good life, you meet people from around the world and, by and large, everyone gets along."

Kevin Daley, who's had a dozen international postings for his Japanese trading company, is convinced that Dubai has figured out the formula. "This place lives and dies on trading," he says. "They won't let religion or politics or the transient oil money get in the way. They've been merchants for hundreds of years and they expect to be trading hundreds of years from now. Whatever it take to keep the economy humming--guest workers, an ex-pat community, a comparatively open society--is what's allowed here."

Dubai's major international hotels are big, bold, bustling places, befitting their stature as the linchpins of both business and social life … The Sheraton Dubai and the Inter-Continental dominate Dubai Creek and offer charming views. The JW Marriott, Hilton International, Renaissance and Hyatt Regency are also extremely popular. … Dubai has grown so fast that street references are useless and addresses aren't even listed in the phone book. Metered, cream-colored cabs are cheap and reliable, but traffic is a problem, so ask your client or sponsor which hotels are closest to your business destination. … A small, stunning Ritz-Carlton opened last fall on Jumeirah Beach, but the resort is too far from the central business district for most business travelers. It's excellent for a weekend extension, however.

Liquor is the exclusive franchise of hotel bars and restaurants, so that's where the business community entertains. Your hosts or clients might suggest the safe choice--a hotel's continental dining room--but the real action is at the hotels' ethnic restaurants. … Ashiana, an Indian restaurant located in the Sheraton Dubai, is superb, as is Creekside, the hotel's Japanese teppanyaki and sushi bar… Odd as it may sound, Cucina, located in the JW Marriott, serves surprisingly authentic Italian fare. … Thai House, in the Sheraton Deira, is great for casual entertaining. … Many major hotels also have an Iranian restaurant. Locals can't agree on which is best, but caviar is the de rigueur first course.

Emirates, the Dubai-based international carrier, is among the most highly regarded airlines in the world. It expects to launch service to the United States within several years. For now, however, Emirates relies on a code-share with United Airlines via London's Heathrow Airport. … Malaysia Airlines flies nonstop to Dubai from New York. … British Airways and Lufthansa offer excellent connecting service. ... The normally super-efficient Dubai International Airport is a bit off-kilter these days due to a US$540 million expansion and renovation. Even the nearly mythic Dubai Duty Free Shopping facility has been temporarily relocated and reduced in size. … Dubai International is only about 10 minutes and $10 by cab from most hotels.

Dubai still requires a visa--and, technically, an invitation--for entry, but the process is relatively painless. Check with your host, client or airline for details. … Although hotel rooms are well wired, Internet access is difficult, if not impossible, from your laptop. The problem: The Dubai government polices Web access in an attempt to curb pornography. Business centers at the major hotels, working through, offer good, if costly, access. If you're not a hotel guest, however, be prepared to produce your passport.

Although Dubai isn't rigidly fundamentalist, Islam is the guiding force behind daily life. Standard Islamic cultural, legal, business and social customs apply. … The English-language Khaleej Times prints the times of the five daily prayer periods on page three. … Guest workers and expats make up about 80 percent of Dubai's population of about 750,000. British and Indian influences are strong in the middle and upper tiers, but Malaysians and Filipinos dominate the labor force. … Locals don't understand why Americans aren't savvier about the Gulf region and they hate it when Americans generalize about "the Middle East."

This column originally appeared at

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.