How Oil Wealth Is Reshaping Tourism

Maybe because crude oil carries more than a whiff of hellfire and brimstone, those whom it makes rich (and perhaps a little guilty) often try to create paradise on earth. Like the fictional Citizen Kane, they pour money into one Xanadu or another: villas, palaces, opulent sanctuaries and grandiose monuments. The desert blooms with flowers. Water courses through man-made rivers and streams. Artificial snow falls on air-conditioned slopes. In the oil-saturated Arabian Peninsula, whole cities have erupted from the infernal sands to reach for heaven. And if what has been created falls far short of celestial bliss, it's still not quite like anything else on earth.

Any visitor to the pleasure domes of today's Xanadus quickly discovers that architecture is not all that makes them unique. They lure labor and talent from around the world—Americans and Europeans, Bangladeshis, Thais and Indonesians, "expatriates who may not be able to make their own countries work but who hire themselves out with the promise of making others' perform: the international brigades of efficiency," as I wrote in a book called "Expats," about travels through these lands of fossil fuels and futuristic ambitions on the eve of the 1991 gulf war.

Although the scale has changed since then—everything is grander, taller, denser, richer—the patterns remain the same. When I checked out of the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in Kuwait City recently, the desk clerks were from India, Russia and the Philippines. A boatman I met plying the Disneyesque canals at the Madinat Jumeirah hotel complex in Dubai started his career as a fisherman on the Swahili coast of Kenya. These are places where foreigners and locals create a blend of the convenient and exotic: in countless sparkling malls, Bedouin robes and shameless bling are all part of the same extraordinary scene.

What has changed dramatically over the last 20 years is the way these hybrid societies, which used to welcome only workers into the precincts of paradise, have begun to lure tourists. Dubai in the 1970s made its money as a safe haven for gold smugglers. In the 1980s it repaired ships shot up during the Iran-Iraq War. Now it is one of the world's top vacation destinations. To entice the masses, it drew on its own limited oil money and the much vaster riches of other emirates, creating spectacular and unexpected attractions, like a golf course that uses a million gallons of desalinated water a day to keep its greens green through the scorching summers. (Today, that "old" Emirates Golf Club looks rather quaint. There are other newer ones in the neighborhood—and, in any case, it is dwarfed by the nearby Palm islands reclaimed from the sea.)

The other oil capitals in the region, which are much richer in crude, have taken a slower and more deliberate approach to paradise. Abu Dhabi has none of Dubai's daring, but it has always had a certain class. Its highways are lined with flowers and fountains, while the natural beauty of the sea's turquoise shallows has been preserved. And when Abu Dhabi set out to build a stately pleasure dome that would beat Dubai for sheer luxury, it went for classic architecture and detailing. The $3 billion result is the extraordinary Emirates Palace overlooking the water. As a cultural grace note, Abu Dhabi also persuaded the French to open an extension of the Louvre.

Paradise need not be mindless. Up the Arabian coast, Qatar has used its phenomenal wealth from gas and oil to turn its sandy peninsula into a city-state that offers serious education along with the usual creature comforts. The emir's beautiful and imposing wife, Sheikha Mozah, has brought in major extension programs from Georgetown, Cornell and other U.S. universities; she also aims to make Qatar a center of top-flight medical care.

How long can all this last? In other parts of the world, crumbling mansions attest to the fickleness of oil wealth. A hundred years ago the city of Baku on the Caspian produced half of the world's oil supply. It was famous as a center of luxury and opulence. After a long decline under the Soviets, the capital of Azerbaijan is growing rich once again, but there is little or nothing left of the old elegance.

"You know, this is all going to end," an aide to the late ruler of Dubai, Sheik Rashid, once told me. He was an old man from the desert, and while he enjoyed being rich he mistrusted the speculative development he saw all around him. Eventually the oil would run out and the money would run out, he said. "It will be like a garden without water."

But that was 20 years ago, and there is no sign the old man's prophecy will come true any time soon. What the intervening decades have shown is that when oil states learn how to use their wealth to capitalize on their natural exoticism, whether in the placid Persian Gulf, the sunny Caribbean or the windswept North Sea coast, they are grasping the keys to long-term prosperity—if not, indeed, to paradise.