Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World

Skis and Skanks
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Jan. 10 2007 10:46 AM

Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World

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On a glaring, scorching afternoon in downtown Dubai, I wiped the sweat from my brow, turned to my friend, and said, "Wanna go skiing?"

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

We'd been considering this idea for a while. The enormous Mall of the Emirates features an indoor slope. And skiing inside a mall just seems like a very Dubai thing to do. Besides, I'm always up for a new sporting adventure: I've tried surfing in Baja, cricket in India, and skeet shooting in West Virginia, but I've never shooshed a graceful S-turn next door to an H&M.

The tricky thing about skiing in a desert is that no one owns the proper clothes. And indoor snow may be man-made, but it's still cold and melty when you fall. Luckily, Ski Dubai includes a rental parka and snow pants with your lift ticket. (They do not, however, include hats and gloves. That's how they getcha. Although I'm secretly pleased that I now own "Ski Dubai" mittens.) All told, the clothes, equipment, and ticket cost $45 for two hours on the slope. Which is not bad, given what it would cost to get to the nearest outdoor skiing.

Once we'd suited up, we walked through a revolving door into an enormous, chilly warehouse with fluorescent lighting. A four-person lift sped us to the top of the slope. And just like that, with a dig of my poles, I was on my way down—trying hard to avoid the three-story wall to my immediate left.

Ski Dubai offers two short runs side-by-side—a gently undulating beginners slope and a steeper hill for the more experienced. If you tuck, you'll reach the bottom of either one in about 20 seconds. Nothing here will rev your engines if you've skied for real before. But I will say this: Having grown up in New England, I've definitely seen worse snow and lamer trails.

Also, I've had a few "yard sales" before (wipeouts so disastrous that my hat, goggles, skis, and poles were strewn across the slope). But Ski Dubai, with its mid-mall setting, offers a unique opportunity for the reckless skier. Should you lose control wildly enough, it is possible to explode through the window of a T.G.I. Friday's.

On the slope with us were mostly expats. (Not surprising, as 80 percent of Dubai's population is foreign-born. At one point, we shared a lift with a pair of European teens who go to high school here. These kids told us they come to the mall nearly every weekend to snowboard. Which suggests that there's not a whole lot to do if you're a teenager in Dubai. By that point, I'd navigated the expert run three times, and already I was getting bored of it.

As for locals, I don't think I spotted any Emiratis on skis or snowboards. But there was an adorable scene going on in the little "snow park" at the bottom of the slopes. Emirati girls and boys—wearing loaner parkas over their dishdashas and abayas—were riding inner tubes down a tiny hill. Small children, some of them no doubt encountering not just snow but coldness for the very first time, were having a cheerful snowball fight. Also, there were Arab guys who work there adjusting bindings all day and operating the chairlift. Yeah, that's right: Dubaian ski bums. (And they've already got that aloof, barely tolerating the tourists thing down pat.)

Everyone I've met in Dubai tells the same basic story to explain why wacky ventures like an indoor ski slope have come to exist in this once-quiet corner of the world. As the tale goes, Dubai's royal family realized early on that their oil riches (not nearly as vast as those of neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi) would at some point run dry. So, with great foresight, these sheiks decided to broaden Dubai's economy with a two-pronged strategy: First, they would create a friendly business environment—where Westerners could feel comfy and secure as they grubbed after Arab wealth. Second, they'd transform Dubai into a world-class tourist destination.

With not much indigenous culture to promote (see yesterday's entry), it would take some modern sort of attraction to bring in foreign visitors. But how on earth do you lure rich tourists to a desert in the middle of nowhere? It seems like an impossible problem … until you remember that someone's already solved it. Viva Las Vegas!

Of course, the nominal draw in Vegas is the gambling. (Which isn't gonna happen in an Islamic country.) But is that what's really bringing people to the Strip—even folks who could make a short drive to an Indian casino back home in Connecticut or wherever?

I'd argue that it's more the sheer nuttiness of Las Vegas that packs 'em in. Its replica Eiffel Tower, and the indoor Venetian canals, and the scale model of the New York skyline. It's the over-the-top excess that truly fascinates us all.

This is the brand identity Dubai is cribbing from. The announcement of each new fantastical project (man-made islands in the shapes of continents; the tallest tower in the world; a theme park where the theme is to aggregate theme parks) keeps Dubai in the news. And it all sounds so very strange that we simply must see it for ourselves. Hey, that's what brought me here.

In another shrewd marketing move, Sheik Mohammed keeps the media abuzz with a lineup of international events. (Just during my 10-day visit, there were an automotive rally, the Special Olympics, and an exhibition tennis match between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.) Other than a 12-night run of shows from Barbra Streisand (which really isn't out of the question), how else might Dubai emulate Vegas? I suppose it could become a hub for prostitution—but, like gambling, that would never fly with an Islamic government in charge

Or would it? Before I left, I got this e-mail from an acquaintance—a guy who works on Wall Street and has done business in Dubai:

If you want to see the shady side of the city, go to Cyclone. The place looks like a typical club, but in actuality it's all hookers. I don't mean like the typical hookers-at-the-Oak-Room thing you see in NYC. I mean essentially a whorehouse in disguise. Hundreds of women of every flavor proactively pursuing their prey. Mostly businessmen traveling thru, but a share of the ex-pat community and Gulfy Saudis in town as well …

For research purposes, it seemed imperative that I check this out. So, late one night, after a couple of drinks, a friend and I asked a cabbie to drive us there. Naturally, the cabbie knew exactly where the place was. After paying a $20 cover each (and won't that be fun to expense to Slate), we bought a couple of $10 beers and took a lap around the club.

Our first sign that something was off was that there were dozens of attractive women—and each one was standing by herself. This simply does not happen in the real world. Also, the men here were generally older, pudgier, and balder than at other clubs we'd gone to. The scent of their desperation battled for prominence with the equally strong scent of a Hungarian hooker's perfume. Huge security goons roamed the room, keeping an eye out for anyone attempting to consummate transactions on the premises. The whole scene was disturbing—and not in a fun way—so we jetted after 15 minutes or so.

But, let it be said: I have witnessed sexual deviance being tolerated—or at least ignored—within the borders of a Muslim country. And I'm declaring it a promising sign. If there's one thing the West and the Middle East can come together on, it's a Hungarian hooker.

(Though that, of course, would cost extra.)

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