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Safe, cosmopolitan and fabulous for golf, Dubai beckons Western tourists

Alan KatzBy Alan Katz,

Dubai GolfDUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Tiger Woods' victory in the Dubai Desert Classic got people talking again about the fast-rising city in the United Arab Emirates.

When a high-profile American plays golf in front of large galleries in the Middle East, that's worthy of attention. Americans have been a hard sell for Middle Eastern cities promoting tourism, but Woods dramatized the fact that Dubai is a safe holiday destination. And with the national airline, Emirates, now flying direct from the United States, the stage is set for Americans to discover this new golfing paradise.

Flanked by desert and lying beside the calm waters of the southern Persian Gulf, Dubai City has very little crime, pollution, traffic jams or visible poverty. Although it is situated just across the gulf from Iran, its cultural orientation is decidedly Western.

A fast study of the nightlife, events and food in Dubai tells much of the story. There is little that is "foreign" about the cultural scene: You can go to a club and hear hip-hop, soul, reggae, jazz, R&B, salsa, pop or trance, just like you can in any major American city.

Dining is another facet of Dubai's cosmopolitan character. Whatever your culinary preference, be American, Chinese, Russian, Irish, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican, Pakistani, Indian or Thai, you'll find plenty to your liking.

The bar scene has an American slant. There's a "beach" bar, a cigar bar, an American sports bar, trendy bars for so-called beautiful people, a Hard Rock Cafe, a Planet Hollywood, a Cajun bar, a club called Satchmo's, a pub modeled after the imaginary Boston bar in Cheers and a nightclub advertising three levels of hedonism.

Although the native population is 95 percent Islamic, the city is really tailored to expatriates and tourists. One of the few compromises a foreigner must make is to dress conservatively. Women are requested not to wear revealing or body-hugging attire. But that's true in many parts of Asia, not just in the Middle East.

One fascinating aspect of life in Dubai is the shopping, much of which takes place in souks, where you can haggle over everything from spices to electronic goods.

Just be aware that the summer months are blazing hot, with temperatures sometimes topping 120 degrees. You'll want to schedule your Dubai holiday between November and May, when the climate is more temperate.

Dubai on course

The nightlife and dining scenes may range far and wide, but golf has become the centerpiece of the city's tourism trade.

"The city's tourism and business really depends on the sport extensively," says Mohammed Alabbar of Dubai Golf. "Golf is critical to Dubai."

Don't just take his word for it. Ernie Els, Mark O'Meara and a host of other PGA stars are openly impressed with the development of Dubai as a first-class international golf destination.

"Dubai has come a very long since I started coming here in 1993," Els said at the Dubai Desert Classic.

He believes the event is responsible for spurring the remarkable economic and tourism development that has taken place here in the last decade.

"That's why all of these buildings are going up, and all of these beautiful resorts are coming here," Els said. "Obviously with the resorts there will be golf courses, and I think that's what we're going to be promoting: Come to Dubai and play golf in Dubai."

Despite the international attention, the story of Dubai golf is really just in the opening chapters. Groundwork was laid in the last decade. The next decade will bring an explosion of new world-class courses.

"I'm getting busy with a golf course here," Els said. "Greg Norman is here. Nick Faldo is coming. All of the great names in golf design, they are getting busy here. We're going to be promoting golf in Dubai, worldwide."

One thing the pros agree on: Everything about Dubai is first-rate.

Peter Cowen, a former European touring pro and now the operator of the Peter Cowen Golf Academy in Dubai, raves about the good winter weather. "We're very passionate about it and we think it is a great place," Cowen said. We've sent thousands of people to Dubai and we've never heard a bad word about it."

O'Meara seconded the sentiment: "What you see here is just so impressive.

"The good players, the good golfers in the world love to come and play here. Everybody knows about it," O'Meara said. "Last week I was playing in San Diego, where Tiger won, and I was coming up to the 18th green when I heard someone yell, 'Good luck in Dubai next week, Mark.' It's pretty neat that they knew I was coming to Dubai this week to play in the Desert Classic. It's getting worldwide recognition."

Where to play

Obviously, golf is creating a lot of excitement. If you're planning a vacation here, where should you play? The choices are getting better and better.

Dubai Golf• The Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club beckons golfers with its shoreline scenery and distinctive clubhouse fashioned in the shape of a sail. Situated on Dubai creek, the 18-hole, par-72 course features a rolling terrain and several lakes. The 6,800-acre property also hosts a marina and a state-of-the-art gym.

• Home to the Dubai Desert Classic, the Emirates Golf Club attracts pros and fans from around the world with two superb courses. The par-72 Majlis Championship Course was the first grass course in the Persian Gulf region. Spanning more than 7,100 yards, the Majlis' signature par-4 dogleg eighth hole demands that you drive uphill with authority.

The recently added Wadi Course is similarly challenging. It features more lakes and a valley after the seventh hole. Taped swing analysis is one of the many self-improvement options available through the on-site Golf Academy at Emirates Golf Club. You can even practice past sundown on the floodlit range.

• The Abu Dhabi Golf Club by Sheraton also hosts two courses, each designed by Peter Harradine and each offering 18 holes in a natural desert setting. Both the National Course and the Garden Course are dotted with palms, lakes and bunkers. Nighttime is no obstacle for golfers here as nine of the holes are floodlit. In addition, the Abu Dhabi hosts 36 holes of putting greens, chipping greens, practice bunkers and the largest driving range (350 meters). Personalized coaching is also available through the Golf Academy. A gym, swimming pools, tennis and other recreational amenities are on the property as well.

Dubai Golf• There's interesting golf day and night at the Nad Al Sheba Club - all 18 holes are floodlit. The par-71, 6,400-yard course is more difficult than it appears. Deep bunkers, water hazards and holes above lakes demand careful shot placement. The back tees are elevated.

And here's more:

Dubai Country Club
The main Al Awir Course is 6,477-yard par 71. The nine-hole Creek Course is short enough for beginners and juniors. The entire course is sand; golfers are given a piece of artificial turf to carry with them and hit their shots from. Greens are soaked in oil and brushed for smooth, fast putting.

Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club
Ryder Cup star Thomas Bjorn has redesigned this club, which features a floodlit, nine-hold par-3 course as well as the 6,839-yard, par-71 Championship Course. The landmark clubhouse is designed to resemble the sails of a traditional Arab dhow (boat).

Jebel Ali Golf Resort and Spa
Jebel Ali overlooks the gulf with an 800-meter private beach. Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Darren Clarke and others have played in challenge matches here in conjunction with the Desert Classic. The course is nine holes, 3,299 yards, par 36. Four sets of tees allow for varying lengths on the second loop. A saltwater lake comes into play on five holes.

The Montgomerie Dubai
This 7,308-yard, par-72 course designed Colin Montgomerie and Desmond Muirhead features 14 lakes, 72 bunkers and the world's largest green: the 58,000-square-foot 13th, built in the shape of the United Arab Emirates.

Arabian Ranches Golf Course
A true desert course, sprawling 7,698 yards with no water hazards, designed by Jack Nicklaus and Ian Baker Finch.

Dubai Festival City Al Badia Golf Resort
Part of a mixed-use community surrounded by housing, this Robert Trent Jones Jr. design includes a hole with a 210-yard drive over water - if you feel up to the challenge. The course has 11 lakes, small streams and "rivers of sand."

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