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In Dubai, nothing succeeds like excess.

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Twenty-five years ago, Dubai was a dusty settlement of 275,000 on the Persian Gulf. Its prosperous pearl-diving industry had collapsed with the rise of cultured pearls, and those who thrived best in the region were nomads moving through the desert on camelback. Today Dubai is a million-plus member of the United Arab Emirates and a city whose indulgences fascinate and confound the rest of the world. Contrary to expectations, its stunning economic growth rate of 11 percent per year isn’t fueled by fuel (oil revenue accounts for only 5 percent of the emirate’s GDP), but rather by an exploding commercial and service sector. Outrageous extravagance is Dubai’s status quo. The Burj al Arab hotel is so exclusive it offers a helicopter pad in case you’d rather not drive up to the main entrance. Chopper’s out for repairs? Just dock your yacht in the private harbor next door. The city is also home to the Burj Dubai, which at more than 2,200 feet—and rising—is the world’s tallest building. Off the city’s coast, an artificial island shaped like a giant palm tree is visible from space. The World, a manmade archipelago with 300 islands each resembling a country, is nearly sold out, though the islands range in price from $15 million to $250 million. Rod Stewart is said to have bought England. Tommy Lee owns Greece. The party has to end sometime, skeptics insist. But they’ve been declaring that for a decade. Meanwhile, Dubai dances on a table in the VIP room of the world, swigging from a magnum of Cristal.

Teun Voeten is an award-winning photojournalist whose work has been published in Vanity Fair, Newsweek, and The New Yorker, among others.

Photography and text by Teun Voeten