Dubai and nature have a special relationship. Nature puts up certain challenges - desert sands, when Dubai needs golf courses, for example - and Dubai's visionaries overcome them. In 1988, the Emirates Golf Club was opened: the desert turned green, thanks to grass imported from the US, a huge state-run desalination plant, and a nightly 4 million litres of water pumped from the Persian Gulf.
Such achievement may have been enough for most nations. But not Dubai. The rulers of this tiny city state in the United Arab Emirates are acutely conscious that their vast oil wealth won't last forever. Tourism is the new oil, and successful tourism requires ambition. Two months after 11 September, when the world was in gloom and expansion was madness, Emirates Airline decided to buy $15bn- worth of new aircraft. A massive expansion of the airport will double its passenger capacity to 45 million by 2015.
And then there's The Palm: a plan, first announced in May last year, to build an outrageous, audacious artificial island 300m offshore, 5km long and 10 times wider than the Great Wall of China. It would be shaped like a palm tree (in homage to Dubai's treasured date palms), plonked in blue waters and supposedly visible from the moon. Even to a cynic, it's breathtaking. There's its price tag, for a start - the $1.5bn Dubai's government is spending on each island (The Palm, Jumeirah will be open for business in late 2005, while a second, The Palm, Jebel Ali, will follow six months later) dwarfs the paltry $65m spent on creating the Emirates Golf Club.
The rest of the fact-box is no less impressive. The Palm, Jumeirah (as the fierce "Note to Editors" issued by the marketing company insists the project is called) is being con-structed using a team of 415 architects and 760 labourers, working 24 hours a day to get the 80 million cubic metres of rock and sand that construction requires. The rock is being quarried from local sources; the sand is being dredged, using six dredgers, 15 barges and seven tug-boats.
There will be over 3,000 villas, town-houses and apartments, many with private beachfront and mooring access, with villa prices starting at $550,000 (pounds 350,000). Prospective buyers can browse through the classy- yet-cheesy website to choose their style: Middle Eastern (Moorish arches), Italian (Venetian balconies, ornate) or Caribbean (plantation without the porches). "However," says Saif Al- Shamsi, commercial director of The Palm, "the houses have been designed in a way to allow a degree of flexibility for …