Updated on 09/16/2011 7:02AM

Dubai Diary: Part III


Dubai has hit the geography lottery twice. It is the only natural deep-water port in the Persian Gulf, featuring a huge creek that bisects the city. In the 1800's, that made it a key stop for trading ships on the Britain-India route.

The Maktoum family parlayed that unique status into a deal with Britain that protected them from any outside threats, while allowing them to conduct whatever business they wanted to. The business that made them wealthy was smuggling, and after a time, the big money item was gold. Much of it stayed in the country, and Dubai is now known as the "City of Gold."

The creek area of old Dubai is now home to some ugly apartment buildings packed with foreign workers and the Gold "Souks", or markets. It is an area that would bring even Mr. T to his knees. Some three hundred jewelry stores, all packed to the gills with gold and diamonds of all shapes and sizes, are packed together in a maze-like series of "walking" streets.

The men running the stores, and they are all men, expect customers to haggle, and it is quite the dance. They knock about 30% right off the top, then wait for you to make an offer and upon hearing it, shake their heads, then begin punching their handy calculators. Eventually they come down to what at least four different jewelers said was "My final price, no profit for me sir, it is my cost."

Suffice it to say I had a fine time going back and forth, albeit without any sense of what things were worth to begin with. The point was to win the negotiation, and since they made me feel like I did, I'm now sure the opposite was true.

The other geographical Pick Six hit by Dubai came in the form of oil fields just off its coast. Mined by American companies starting in the 1960's, the oil has made the Maktoum family billionaires, and since the late 70's, they've poured almost $2 billion of it into Thoroughbreds.

Having built the biggest stable in the world, they are presently trying to win every big race in the world, with a special eye on the one that matters most to American racing fans, the Kentucky Derby. The underlying reason for the monumental investment, and the obsession with the Derby, is to publicize Dubai and make it a tourist destination.

The was created for exactly that purpose, and it has worked well, especially after the great Cigar won the inaugural running. The problem with the plan is that it is unbearably hot in Dubai from April through October. In fact, it was brutally hot and humid this week, making sitting by a pool or beach a thought, and nothing more. Not exactly what most tourists are looking for, but hey, the geography worked pretty well for them on two fronts, so don't feel sorry for the billionaires if nobody shows up seven months out of the year.