You have to look deeper. . .
The Al Mahara restaurant at Dubai's famous Burj Al Arab hotel is commonly referred to as the “underwater restaurant" of Dubai. To get there you have to take a 3-minute submarine ride from the hotel's lobby down into the ocean floor.
If you're not staying at the Burj Al Arab, you need a reservation to one of its restaurants to even be allowed on the property. And while the hotel's rates are too much for my taste-the cheapest room is $1,500 a night-the idea of dining with a view of the ocean floor was too much to pass up. So I made a reservation for lunch.
The hotel claims its interior features over 80,000 square feet of 22-karat gold leafing. Looking at the lobby, I'd believe it: huge pillars of gold gleam amidst white walls and ceilings of a varying shade of blue.
To access the submarine to the Al Mahara restaurant, you have to take an elevator from the lobby down to a waiting room. The submarine itself seats 12 people and is filled with flickering meters and knobs. Once everyone has boarded it lurches forward with a “splash" and begins its journey three stories down to the ocean floor. As you go, the windows reveal a rich sea-life of fish, coral, and sea turtles.
The restaurant itself is stunning: the walls are beautifully carved stone and the ceilings are polished steel. In the center of the room is a massive glass tank that opens to the ocean floor. I experienced one of the best meals of my life-a seafood-based appetizer and main course, followed by dessert crepes prepared at the table-while watching tropical fish and the occasional moray eel swim past. It was truly unlike any dining experience I can think of.
Except for the fact that it's not totally real.
The “ocean" is in fact a giant 10,000-gallon aquarium. The submarine isn't a submarine at all, but a simulator: its windows are actually video screens. And the restaurant isn't even underwater: it's on the same floor as the hotel's entrance.
Realizations like these are what separate the tourists from the investors in Dubai. And the Al Mahara can be used as a metaphor for the Middle East's current economic expansion as a whole: it's incredible. . . but it's not what people think. If you're going to invest in Dubai, or any market in the Middle East, you need to get past the glitz to the real value.
It's not easy.
The list of development and infrastructure projects is indeed astounding. The Gulf Cooperation Council-Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is one-plans to spend an estimated $1.4 trillion on infrastructure in the next five years alone: more than India and China combined.
The poster child for this development is Dubai. Led by Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum-a rare visionary among the world's political leaders-Dubai has jumped from developing world status to “nearly developed" in the span on one decade. I've seen this incredible growth firsthand.
During my trip, a contact of mine put together a driving tour for me. After looking at the some of the more glamorous projects-the giant palm-shaped peninsula, the Burj Al Arab-we drove through one of the areas currently under construction.
After 20 minutes of seeing nothing but cranes and half-finished skyscrapers, I asked the driver to stop driving in circles-I thought he was trying to delude me into believing the construction was larger than it really was. With a grin he informed me that we'd been driving in a straight line.
The area we passed through must have been larger than Atlanta.
However, the real opportunity in the Middle East concerns the development of its financial sector. Today, the Middle East is one of the few markets that is uncorrelated to the U. S. So while the S&P 500 has become a roller coaster, many indexes in the Middle East continue to rise. For instance, last year the Kuwait Stock exchange rose 20%. Over the same period the S&P 500 rose a little over 2%.
I'm going to poke around for some plays on the Middle Eastern financial boom. I'll report on them here as soon as I find any. Until then. . .