The most populous (and popular) city in the United Arab Emirates seems to have as many cranes as skyscrapers.

After a brief setback in 2009, the Wild West business environment a decade ago has returned to Dubai, the most populous (and popular) city in the United Arab Emirates, where there seems to be as many cranes as there are skyscrapers.

In 2010, Dubai opened 30 brand new hotels (7,700 rooms) for a city total of 382 (or 51,000 rooms). Despite a wobbly global economy, the emirate welcomed 8.6 million visitors that year, a 10% increase over the 7.8 million who came in 2009 according to tourism officials.

Business travellers from around the world congregate in the Persian Gulf city to attend regional or global conferences, or to dabble in the many real estate or construction opportunities in the region. They also come to have fun at sporting events, get pampered at luxury hotels, soak up the sun and heat, visit superlative architectural sites such as the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world, or shop in the many traditional souks and large western-style malls.

But Dubai could be reaching the saturation point. New hotel room growth exceeded visitor growth in 2010, so occupancy rates remained flat (at 70%) compared to 2009. This has pushed several hotel companies to put the brakes on development until they see more demand. Nonetheless, Emirates airline plans to move its Airbus A380 operations into new digs in the massive 20-gate Concourse 3 at Dubai International Airport later this year. Also, Al Maktoum International (Dubai’s $34 billion second airport, currently used for cargo only), should welcome its first scheduled commercial passengers in 2012.  

Hotel: Elegant or Edgy?

Elegant
At the brand new 160-room Armani Hotel Dubai in the Burj Khalifa tower, everything from the slick, minimalist lobby décor to the restaurant menus and in-room amenities are designed by Giorgio himself. If peering out at neighbouring skyscrapers from the world’s tallest building gets old, you can browse the hotel’s three Armani boutiques selling clothing, chocolates and flowers, dine at one of its five restaurants, or dance the night away at the super-chic Armani Prive nightclub. The more traditional Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai is one of the city’s finest, and that is a feat in a town packed with hotel jewels. The hotel’s business-minded focus, blended with top-notch care, attracts a regular stream of CEOs, diplomats and celebrities. Its two towers rise high above the city at the end of busy Sheikh Zayed Road, offering unimpeded views of the new Burj Khalifa tower (breathtaking as it peaks through the clouds in early morning fog). Guests of the posh Horizon Club located on the top floors have access to a private lounge and swimming pool with an infinity edge that seems to spill over the side of the building. Internet access is complimentary. Last January, a new 341-room Ritz-Carlton opened nearby. The 14-storey property, sheathed in French limestone, is connected via walkway to the busy Dubai International Financial Centre.

Edgy
If the Armani Hotel aesthetic (or price) is too over the top for you, there is the contemporary, cosmopolitan (and less expensive) 244-room Address Hotel nearby. Both are adjacent to the sprawling Dubai Mall, a great place to wander when temperatures soar outside. When you tire of glass and steel skyscrapers, consider the relatively small, avant-garde Desert Palm Hotel, located about 20 minutes away from the glitzy downtown area and next to the Dubai Polo Club’s four verdant playing fields, offering a secluded atmosphere and more wide-open spaces. With only 28 suites and villas from which to choose, the most popular go quickly. Depending on your agenda, the choices range from the private pool villas, ideal for those who prefer to sunbathe in privacy, to the more business-focused ultra-modern suites in the main building with sleek furnishings and luxe baths, with rain-drenching showers and deep-soaking tubs. The private riding school, stables and endless greenery make this one of Dubai’s more unusual and surprising hotels.  

Do not do this!
Since Dubai is a very progressive and modern city full of tourists and expats, it is easy to forget that you are in a Muslim country. Do not schedule business meetings on Fridays. The workweek runs Sunday through Thursday. Also, follow the lead of your host when it comes to shaking hands; this is especially important for visiting women. Public displays of affection, such as holding hands or hugging are forbidden, although “air kisses” of greeting are okay between close friends. “Having drinks” with a client or contact usually means coffee or tea and alcohol consumption is allowed only in hotels and restaurants. Westerners should also be observant of holy fasting days during which they should not eat, drink or smoke in public. If you travel to other nearby emirates such as Sharjah or Abu Dhabi, expect even stricter rules around such behaviours. 

Go local
Escape the confines of touristy Jumeirah Beach and the hustle and bustle of Sheikh Zayed Road by heading to the souk markets along Dubai Creek for good deals on jewellery and fabrics. There are plenty of visitors, but this is considered more of a residential area, so it gives a glimpse into local life. Also, the souk markets offer a traditional Middle Eastern shopping experience (sharpen your negotiating skills!) that is more exotic than one of the many large, modern shopping malls here.

Expense account
In Dubai, invitations to dine out should always be reciprocated. Since hotels hold most of the city’s alcohol licenses, that is where visitors flock for fine dining. For example, the sprawling Jumeirah Beach Hotel offers nearly 20 different options, one of which is the Lebanese Al Khayal where elaborate mezze spreads are laid out at each table allowing diners to sample dozens of dishes (watch the bill, it racks up quickly) as nimble belly dancers entertain with their trance-like talents. Closer to the commercial area is the authentic Marrakech Restaurant (one of six choices in the Shangri-La Hotel), known to locals and repeat visitors as home to some of Dubai’s finest tagines (stew), prepared and served by a friendly Moroccan staff. 

Off the clock
One of Dubai’s iconic images, Jumeirah’s Burj al Arab hotel, which rises like a large white sail on the edge of the Persian Gulf, is off limits to the casual or curious non-guest. However, insiders know that you can get in for a look-see by reserving a table in advance for one of the hotel’s four sumptuous tea services in various locations throughout the building (prices range from AED 295 to AED 495).

Visitors can also escape the road traffic and heat of the city with a traditional dhow boat tour along Dubai Creek, an inlet running through the centre of town. Dhow boats are traditionally used to transport goods and can still be seen in use along the creek every day as workers unload stacks of goods such as electronics and clothing. Another option: sand-duning in specially equipped jeeps on desert safari tours. Inquire about dhow boat or desert safari outings at your hotel.

Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel