08 Nov 2000
Flying across the gulf states towards the United Arab Emirates your pilot will navigate a zigzag course in order to keep to friendly airspace.
Once you reach Dubai, however, hospitality is everywhere.
And nowhere more so than at the Burj Al Arab - the emirate's flagship hotel. Built by the Al-Maktoum royal family at huge but undivulged cost, this sail-shaped hotel has become an icon for modern Dubai.
Standing on its man-made island 300m offshore and towering 321m above sea level - this glass and steel structure has come to symbolise all that Dubai has to offer as a commercial hub: a beach resort for armies of tourists, high luxury for the celebrity on retreat, cultural experiences for the seasoned traveller and a unique level of hospitality and service for the 'seen it all before' business executive.
For a stay in the Burj Al Arab is an experience that no other hotel can offer. While western hotel chains trade on their consistency - a stay at a Thistle Hotel or Meridian is much the same wherever you lay your hat - the Al-Maktoums have set out to prove that Dubai is no Arabian backwater and that this hotel can offer personalised service on a grand scale.
For a start, visitors are transferred from airport to hotel by one of the hotel's six Rolls Royce Silver Seraphs, (although you can, should you choose, take a 15-minute helicopter flight across the city to the 28th floor helipad).
Next comes the hotel's welcome. In front of the building is a huge waterfall flanked by four black marble pillars each propelling fireballs eight metres into the air. Once inside guests take an escalator past two glass-encased coral reefs and another vast waterfall to the main reception area and a view of the world's tallest atrium. The sail, made of a vast stretch of teflon-coated woven fibre-glass, has a light display projected onto its interior day and night.
The hotel is justly famous as an engineering and design feat. It is the tallest hotel in the world and it is supported by foundations 45m deep.
Some 9,000 tonnes of steel went into its construction along with 43,000 square metres of glass panels. Inside there are 24,000 square metres of marble flooring and 8,000 square metres of gold leaf.
Along with this visual extravagance, there are five restaurants including Al Muntaha - the 'ultimate' or 'highest' in Arabic - suspended 200m above the Arabian Gulf. Al Mahara, a seafood restaurant, is reached by submarine tunnel from the lobby.
With six staff to every guest, you'll find more than enough offers of refreshments or help. Dubai as a whole draws some 1.5 million Asian ex-pats many of whom stay for 20 years or more. In Dubai they can earn three or four times what they can at home.
And even though their salaries are reckoned to be only one-tenth of those available to a western ex-pat, a position at the Burj al Arab must rate as one of the most sought-after jobs.
Which brings me to the matter of the butler.
Each of the Burj's 202 suites has its own butler kitted out in black tie and tails. These butlers are on call 24 hours a day to bring you tea, arrange your appointments at the sumptuous Assawan spa, see to your laundry and guide you around the technology in your suite.
Because apart from the unavoidable opulence - gold leaf and marble surfaces everywhere you look - it is the technology that really sets these suites apart. This may be a dream world, but it's a highly functional one. A laptop, printer, scanner and fax, plus two plasma wide-screen televisions with internet access, satellite channels and video on demand. And the all-important remote control. This is not any old remote control, of course.
This one will open the main door of your suite, operate the lights and open the curtains onto a floor-to-ceiling view of the sea. The hotel's two royal suites also boast their own elevators, revolving beds and private cinemas.
If you're a business traveller, the suites are large enough to work and even conference in. They range from 170 up to a massive 780 square metres and each one has at least 14 phones.
But the hotel also offers conference space in its 27th floor Al Falak ballroom and an additional two boardrooms. These have a capacity for 20 people and are equipped with simultaneous translation booths.
If you're doing business in Dubai you can expect a relaxed approach to time-tabling. Agendas are considered too rigid by many Gulf Arabs, who prefer to discuss matters as the mood takes them rather than according to a list of items. Many Gulf business people do not make great distinction between business and pleasure, so meetings may occur after hours, over coffee or dinner. Expect your meetings to begin slowly with much small talk by way of preamble.
Most Dubai hotels are geared towards the business traveller. Less opulent but almost as exclusive is the Emirates Towers Hotel. Standing next to the Dubai World Trade Centre, the twin towers are the Emirates Towers Office and the 400-bedroom hotel tower, which at 305 metres is the third tallest hotel in the world. There's still plenty of marble and glass but the emphasis is modern and corporate and certainly more restrained than the Burj Al Arab.
Emirates Towers has 17 boardroom-style conference rooms with audio-visual and teleconferencing facilities, a business centre plus 14 offices equipped with ISDN and IT connections for long-stay business guests.
Deluxe rooms are 44 square metres and are kitted out with modem connections, dedicated fax and printer and interactive TV with mobile keyboard offering internet and email connection.
Opposite the Burj Al Arab is the wave-shaped Jumeirah Beach Hotel. Perhaps better known as a beach resort hotel, the Jumeirah also has its eye firmly on the corporate market and offers a fax with a dedicated number in all of its 600 rooms. Business guests also have access to a purpose built conference centre with 12 meeting rooms and a 400-seater auditorium.
Business and tourism have accelerated in Dubai in the last decade. And the city has become an even greater magnet for western ex-pats, business people and workers from across Asia. The emirate's prosperity rests on trade rather than oil, which was only discovered in the 1960s and is steadily running out.
The explosion of luxury hotels marks Dubai's determination to be less reliant on its oil supplies and to continue to lead the way as a commercial hub in the Middle East.
Architecturally too, it has become a melting pot with the postmodern glass and steel structure of the Burj Al Arab and skycrapers of the business district alongside traditional mosques and windtowers. Culturally, the emirate is tolerant of western habits; traditional Bedouin and Arab ways of life accommodate a growing commercial centre along the banks of Dubai creek, and the city is also an internationally renowned shopper's paradise.
If the Burj Al Arab makes a statement it is that Dubai is forward looking - even futuristic in its ambitions. Luxurious and hospitable, certainly.
Opulent, definitely - this Arabian tower looks certain to take its place in the world's top destinations and without succumbing to the scourge of the brand.
WHAT TRAVELLERS CAN EXPECT TO PAY
Room rates at the Burj Al Arab start at £570 for a one-bedroom suite excluding tax and service charges. Call the hotel direct on 00 971 4 301 7777 or visit the website.
A five-night stay in a one-bedroom suite at Burj Al Arab costs from £1,380 (suite only) including flights with Emirates from Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester, private car transfers and hotel taxes. Call Elegant Resorts on 01244 897888.
A three-night stay at the Burj Al Arab combined with three nights at the desert resort Al Maha costs from £1,750 per person with Elegant Resorts.
Other operators featuring the Burj Al Arab are Carrier Travel (01625 582006); Classic Connection Indian Ocean (01244 355320); Tradewinds (0870 7510003); Kuoni Travel (01306 743000); Airline Network (01772 727757).
Luxury double rooms at the Emirates Towers Hotel start at £190 excluding tax and service charges. The hotel can be booked through Airline Network (01772 727757); DNATA UK (020 7932 9900).
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