width=200Superlatives matter in Dubai: biggest, highest, best, newest, most expensive. In the city's building boom heyday, half the world' scranes were situated here, and any skyline view was filled with them. Has the economic downturn slowed construction? Some, but slow for Dubai is fast for anywhere else in the world.

Already this year, the first phase of the above-ground Metro has opened. Next on the drawing board is the 3 million-square-foot Dubailand with theme parks, rides, cultural adventures and more, including Universal City, Six Flags, Sports City, City of Arabia and Motor City, as well as The Tiger Woods Dubai Al Ruwaya, a residential golf community, course and resort. The name means serenity.

Dubai, one of seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates, has emerged as a world-class, luxury destination in just 50 or so short years. It is located on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf and the eastern edge of the Arabian peninsula, between Saudi Arabia and Oman, across the gulf from Iran. Dubai's bragging rights include the world's largest manmade islands - three - including Palm Jumeirah, home to the newest Atlantis resort and featured in a CBS-TV episode of The Amazing Race; the world's tallest tower, the Burj Dubai, with 160 floors and a $1.1 billion price tag; the world's largest mall, with 600 stores; and the Middle East's first indoor ski resort. There's also the world's first 7-star property, the iconic, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab on its own island with helicopter pad on top and standing almost as tall as the Empire State Building. The 72-story Rose Tower, at 1,092 feet, has overtaken the Burj Al Arab as the world's tallest hotel. And yet, with all its grandeur and glitz, Dubai remains an international place where North Americans feel quite comfortable.

width=269During our visit, we asked American Grady Walker what it's like to live and work in Dubai. He moved here a couple of years ago for his job as vice president for an energy solutions company. He's now among the country's majority: 85 percent of the population are ex-pats.

Businesses want to be here, Walker said as we took in the view of Dubai Creek over drinks at Park Hyatt Dubai. The area rsquo;s top revenue-producers are tourism, real estate and financial services. Prior to World War I, the area was known for pearl exporting.

This is a really easy place to adjust to, Walker added. I use 'over-the-top,' but it's a livable place. I feel safe. It's very energetic. It's very captivating. It's quite innovative, pretty special, what they've accomplished here.

The Emirates are very tied to Saudi Arabia, and there are fortunes that flow here. It's really not deposits of oil and gas anymore. Most of the stuff we're shipping, the services we're providing are in Oman and Abu Dhabi (the capital) and Dubai. This place, Dubai, is a little more aggressive fortourism.

Last year, 7 million people visited Dubai; 10 million are expected in 2010, and the aim is 15 million visitors a year by 2015 - more than double last year's figure. In fact, many hotels are sold out; an impressive statistic in light of the world economy. Hotel room rates in Dubai are the highest in the world: The average rate for a single night in October was $226, a figure only matched by hotels in New York City.

width=374ArabianBusiness.com reported, 2009 has been extremely challenging for the hospitality industry in Dubai, the drop in demand for hotel rooms as a result of the recession coupled with a huge increase of 17 percent in rooms inventory drove occupancy down by 15 percent andrevenue per available room by 35 percent so far this year as compared to 2008.

According to Neil Rumbaoa, head of communications at Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai, Dubai is a 21st-century city. Everything is nice. It wants to impress everybody. The markets are into play and luxury. There are a lot of American-interest businesses ... but with (American) consumers and travelers, not yet.

Perhaps one reason American tourists are still a minority is that a direct flight from New York takes about 14 hours. For some who do visit, the culture they find here is vastly different.
We met Nasif Kayed on our visit to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding at the Jumeirah Mosque, one of 1,200 mosques in this city of nearly 1.5 million. He aims to help non-Muslims understand Islamic culture and faith - the pre-worship washing, the five daily prayers, the required pilgrimage to Mecca.

Kayed was born in Palestine, grew up in Kuwait and came to live in the United States more than 20 years ago. He and his family were living in North Carolina when 9/11 occurred. Suddenly, their customs, including Islamic dress, caused suspicion and distrust; they were ridiculed at school and in the malls. Fearing for their safety, the family moved to Dubai. Having felt first-hand the sting of being misunderstood, Kayed now volunteers regularly at the mosque.

Visitors on the tour don traditional Islamic clothing, including the long jilbab robe and hijab head covering for women. Kayed asked for volunteers from our group to demonstrate the washing before entering the mosque for prayer, explaining the steps in the ritual.We struggle, he said, to tackle the misconceptions.

Dubai is a city of high-rises, glitz and glamour, high fashion and shiny cars. But conservative Islamic law prohibits gambling in those lavish hotels and outlaws public displays of affection. Within this world of contrasts, visitors and business people play and work.