From certain angles, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, looks like a slightly more benign version of Superman II's grim-visaged General Zod, desirous of world domination. This could be one reason why I'm alarmed by Dubai's transparent efforts to become the world's ultimate tourist destination: to be bigger, showier, more eye-popping than anyplace else; to be all things to all people, with every sort of landscape within arm's reach (we have beach resorts! and mountain ranges! and desert camps! and fancy cruises! and cavernous, country-themed malls rubbing shoulders with heritage villages! and even a skiing slope, the only one in the Middle East). The staggering World archipelago project, currently under construction off the coast, is like a giant symbol for what the city wants to be.
It isn't enough to merely be the biggest or shiniest for now; safeguards must be set in place for the future too. A tour guide tells us that the Burj Dubai, proposed to be the world's tallest building, is being put together in such a way that the top can be extended – "so if some other country makes an equally tall structure, we can increase the size of this one to maintain our position". This is fairly representative of the attitude of Dubai's planners. Give no one else a chance.
Everywhere you go, you see signs proclaiming future glory. Impressive as parts of the city already look (if you're impressed by large glass-and-concrete structures, that is), Dubai is apparently only 20 per cent complete at this point. Given the pace of construction – one-sixth of the world's cranes are currently in or around the city, and working round the clock – the remaining 80 per cent should be finished quite soon. It's easy to see the reason for the haste. Dubai's petroleum reserves will be exhausted in less than 10 years' time. By then, the idea is that the city won't need the oil – all the money will come in from tourism.
The building that houses the Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) office resembles a pregnant woman, with a few of the middle floors jutting out from the rest of the structure. This is bizarrely appropriate, for more than anything else Dubai gives the impression of being perpetually in labour, straining to produce one of the great metropolises-cum-tourist centres. It remains to be seen whether that happens or whether this gestation period produces a monster-child incapable of sustaining all the infrastructure, with the already-considerable gap between the rich and the poor widening even further.