THE day I leave for Dubai, the London papers are filled with hysterical headlines warning of another 'Massive Showdown In The Persian Gulf'. Clinton's promise to deploy 30,000 troops to the region has given the 'looming crisis' a decidedly more exciting flavour. And when Whitehall pledges a flotilla of Royal Navy warships, two important issues are highlighted: once again, war can only be a matter of hours away from our living-room screens. And two, I have to scramble to get to Heathrow before I lose my seat to CNN. Ten hours later, my Emirates Airbus is carving a gentle arc over the Gulf on its final approach to Dubai, the CNN contingent are nowhere to be seen in business class (I am hoping a budget-conscious Ted Turner is making them slum it in economy) and from my window the lack of black smoke tells me Kuwait's oil fields have yet to be ignited. As I step through the doorway and squint across the tarmac, I am rudely greeted by what feels like an oversized hair-drier held at close range at 7 am on an early October morning, Dubai's temperature has already topped 30 degrees Celsius and is on a steady course to hit 40 by midday. I dread to think how it would feel further up the coast if Kuwait went up in a fireball. Fumbling for some form of eye protection, I am also shocked by the lack of military movement around what is supposed to be the Middle East's busiest and, by default, most strategic airport. Where are the hulking American Galaxy transport planes disgorging batteries of Patriot missiles? What happened to the pre-deployed squadrons of Blackhawk helicopters? And why are there so many sad-looking Russian aircraft lining the tarmac? While the Soviet Union had taken a back-seat diplomatic role in the first-edition of the Gulf Games 1990-91, perhaps this strong show of clapped-out Aeroflot rolling stock is the new face of CIS foreign policy? I figure an airfield full of Illyushins, Tupolevs and Yakolevs is the product of a bit of late-breaking, overnight diplomatic brokering between Washington and Moscow. Inside the immigration hall of Dubai International Airport, however, the arrival boards announcing flights from Rostov, Moscow and Alma Ata tell a different story. All those flying Russian death-traps outside have nothing to do with the unfolding situation on the Kuwait-Iraq border. They represent an invasion of a different kind. WHEN I first hear the noise in the baggage hall it sounds like a container-load of ball-bearings spilling on the polished granite floor. But then, as a sweaty, jet-lagged horde rounds the corner, I realise the clatter is coming from hundreds of steel-heeled stilettos on hundreds of swollen Russian feet just off a flight from Chelyabinsk. It is a sound that will come to punctuate, if not haunt, the rest of my stay in Dubai. Shuffling through the customs channel, dutifully placing their bags on X-ray belts, the acid-wash denim and peroxide-blonde Chelyabinskies grunt and make an attempt to smile at the police. The police make no attempt to smile back. Standing outside the air-conditioned safety of the terminal, groggy from their overnight flight, the irritable mass of maybe 150 women and 25 men start piling into their hotel's Toyota courtesy bus, bound for some seedy two-star in the city centre. It's a scene that is played out several times a day, hundreds of times a month in what is fast becoming the former Soviet Union's newest land of opportunity. For the Chelyabinskies and their ex-SSR brethren, prosperity these days is less about going west and more about going due south. And the Russians are just the latest wave in a stream of Lebanese, Iranians, Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Egyptians and Mancunians who come to Dubai in search of a sun-filled, extremely safe, tax-free life. Regarded as a duty-free mecca and the place to refuel on the way to Thailand, Dubai - one of seven sovereign sheikhdoms that form the United Arab Emirates, an Austrian-sized patch of sand with slightly more oil - is something of a geopolitical miracle. Nestled among some of the most horrifying neighbours a 14-year-old country could ask for, the UAE has sailed through the last two turbulent decades largely unscathed. It typifies the romantic, rich, well-scrubbed version of the Middle East that most Western liberal democracies would like to see copied by its otherwise loony neighbours. While it is certainly no Netherlands, the UAE is also no Saudi Arabia (where a petty drug trafficker was beheaded two days before I arrived) or a fundamentalist nightmare like Iran, or a local exhibitionist like Iraq. Given its position, the UAE, and Dubai in particular, is about as good as you get in these parts. Frequently dubbed the Hong Kong of the Middle East, due to its centuries-old history as a trading centre, Dubai is trying to shake off its reputation as a sprawling minaret-capped duty-free store - although the arrival of the Cheylabinskies and their ilk has thrown the emirate into a tailspin of Pakistani shopkeepers learning how to speak Russian and beach patrols telling 100-kilogram 'babushkas' to keep their bathing kit on. Lithuania meets Las Vegas in the Middle East. It is known locally as The Russian Phenomenon, which my driver, Shafiq, tries to explain as we race along the Abu Dhabi Highway in a white Toyota Cressida. 'You see sir, we have too much Russian peoples coming. Too much Russian women and she's no good, sir. She makes sex with men, takes his money, then goes shopping and then goes back to Russia, sir,' he says. 'Sounds like a fair deal for everyone,' I say. 'Surely you have local women who do exactly the same thing?' 'No, sir,' he says. 'No one does it like the Russian women.' Shafiq is an example of your average, hardworking Dubai resident. He came from Islamabad 20 years ago, sends his children to the top Pakistani school, where he pays very low fees, has access to excellent medical care and feels that Dubai offers the best standard of living in both Central Asia and the Middle East. 'See him?' asks Shafiq pointing at a policeman. 'He's Yemen man. We have too much Yemen people here. Too much Oman people here. Too much Afghan peoples. Everyone wants to live in Dubai.' ITS role as an emigrant's dream is just one of the many things the UAE has in common with the USA - besides a mutual fear of what Saddam Hussein is up to along the border with Kuwait. Perhaps the most obvious example is that uniquely 'new world' feeling of invincibility and optimism. Dubai provides the same sensation you get when you drive into cities like Dallas and Atlanta, places where all the buildings glisten and reflect a sun that shines 365 days a year, where imported German cars all seem to be 1995 models, where the infrastructure, at least on the surface, seems to work and even the men who keep the medians lush and well-pruned feel like they've got a shot at something bigger than being a labourer for the rest of their lives. Ruled by the Maktoum family, famous for their racehorses, Dubai wouldn't look out of place if it were plonked in the middle of the Nevada or Arizona desert. Though the city's comfortable suburban feel might be a product of several of the younger sheikhs who were schooled in America, the emirate's whiff of brand-new Americana might have more to do with the obsession local men have with their white Cadillacs, Caprice Classics and, though it sounds like a contradiction in terms, butch white four-wheel drives. In fact, if you got the local Arabs out of their dishdeshes and ghutras (the Gulf Arab drag of long white gown and headdress) they would probably look right at home in stetsons, Tony Llama cowboy boots and faded Wranglers. Well, it was just a thought. Hugging the Gulf coast, cut in half by the creek which acts as a major water-taxi thoroughfare, the city is made up of Dubai (upmarket) on one side and Deira (downmarket) on the other. Lined with new mosques and shiny banking centres, there is a sense that things haven't changed much in this ancient merchant centre - the slave trade has been replaced by the hi-tech trade, the sheikh's fleet of dhows are gradually being phased out in favour of a fly-by-wire airline of A-310 Airbuses, craggy old Omani sailors are being retired to make way for American pilots named Mike and Welsh flight attendants named Sheryl. 'What we're doing is following the example of KLM,' explains Sheikh Ahmed, the 34-year-old chairman of Emirates Airlines. 'Holland used to be a great seafaring nation and now they've created one of the world's greatest airlines, they followed their tradition of trade and just added new technology. We have a similar story here in Dubai and we're managing to do much the same thing.' The only difference in His Royal Highness' case is that KLM is the world's oldest carrier and Emirates, being one of the youngest, has managed to do much the same in just nine short years. For a country with a small diplomatic base and limited international political clout, the best way to make a name for yourself is to build an internationally respected airline. Sheikh Ahmed is doing this by building a young fleet, buying lots of expensive advertising, winning awards (including this year's Airline Of The Year), hiring blonde European flight attendants and getting as many people as possible to fly through the airport (which he also happens to own). While the sheikh tells me that more than 68 airlines now use the airport, half of them seem to be shopping charters from the CIS. Air Azerbaijan, Lithuanian Airways, Moscow Airlines, Baku Air, Stavropol Airlines and Kish Air have all contributed to The Russian Phenomenon. It started as a trickle just over two years ago and now Dubai receives almost 15,000 Russians a month, with neighbouring emirates like Abu Dhabi and Sharjah attracting a further 5,000. 'It was about two years ago that we figured out there must be enough Russians out there who wanted to buy Western goods, have a week in the sun, go home and re-sell the microwaves they just bought at inflated prices,' explains Mani of the Deira Park Hotel. 'Aeroflot was collapsing, making aircraft cheap to charter, so we just started filling airplanes and bringing them in from Moscow and it hasn't stopped.' Nowhere is this Russian invasion more apparent than in Deira, a warren of old soukhs, schwarma stands, juice bars and streets packed with every type of merchant imaginable. Set in the middle of it all is the Deira Park Hotel which caters exclusively to Russians. All signs and notices in the beige marble lobby feature the Cyrillic alphabet and on the leatherette banquettes Russian men in Adidas flip-flops are comparing prices for a Sanyo Hi-8 video camera. The Russian hotels are easy to pick out, they're the ones with entrances obstructed by small mountain ranges of cardboard boxes full of all things electrical, made in Taiwan and probably of very little use in Tashkent. After passing a dozen hotels, each with hundreds of boxes out front, you have to start asking yourself: what's the point of a Panasonic microwave in Kiev when you don't have the TV dinners to go with it? How much fun can a Sony VCR be when there's no video shop in Pavlodar? And what good is a toaster in Ashkabhad when you can only get crusty buns? Pass along the shopfronts on Sabakha Road and, providing you're white and badly dressed, all the Indian and Afghan traders will yell 'Privyet, privyet' (hello in Russian) and try to pull you in to look at Tiffany-style lampshades (very hot in Kazakhstan at the moment) or walls full of cheap plastic toys. On the first day it's sort of funny to be spoken to in Russian by an Iranian selling you plastic holly and Richard Clayderman Christmas CDs in the middle of a moderate Arab country. Spend a day at the beach, however, and you start to think that being mistaken for a Russian is the worst possible insult. Early morning on Jumeira Beach is best described as an extremely freaky and disturbing scene. The day starts when the hotel courtesy buses arrive just before 9 am with patrons from the various republics. With men stripping down to nylon thongs and women disrobing to reveal generously cut one-pieces, the cooler mornings are the time to try out the video cameras bought the day before. 'Look, no SPF [suntan lotion], very crazy are the Russians,' says Magdi, one of Jumeira's lifeguards. 'Sometimes they even take their tops off and I have to blow the whistle at them. They forget where they are.' Shortly after the CIS shoppers have staked out their bits of sand, local Dubai men start to arrive in their Ford Broncos and Toyota Landcruisers. Parking their vehicles close to the promenade, they sit along a wall at the back of the beach shielded behind standard-issue Ray-Ban Aviators. For the next hour they will stare at the ample mounds of Russian flesh. A little after 10 am sees a substantial shift in the glamour quotient when the English, Irish, Scottish, Australian and Dutch flight attendants from Emirates Airlines come down for a bit of pre-flight bronzing. The assembled Ray-Bans re-adjust their gaze. Interspersed among all the prawn-pink flesh and pert young stewardesses are little groups of local women in full head-to-ankle chadors splashing in the water. I can't help but wonder if they look miserable because their husbands are sitting along the back wall ogling the basting cabin crew or because their dress is stifling under the noon-day sun. There are no sightseers over at the Forte Grand Hotel, where the expatriate pool scene is in full swing. It seems most people work from about 7.30 am until 1 pm and then spend the rest of the afternoon luxuriating at one of the city's five-star hotels (the only places allowed to serve alcohol). The Forte Grand is a low-slung two-storey affair that has more in common with a '60s motel than a five-star Leading Hotel Of The World; these are probably not the emirate's hippest expats. Apart from hanging out at the pool or beach and watching TV (very popular judging by the number of satellite dishes adorning the rooftops of the massive concrete villas in the smart suburbs around Jumeira), camel racing is the biggest pastime in Dubai. The camel track outside the city provides a real slice of Arabia. Lost in dust clouds as fine as talc, little Pakistani and Sudanese boys, probably no more than eight years old, suddenly burst through on their camels, cheered on by their owners - Mahmed and Hamad - who drive alongside in Range Rovers. There has been a lot of international protest over the use of child jockeys but the kids seem to be having fun, even if their cast-off Canadian hockey helmets fall over their eyes. Mahmed and Hamad are probably the closest you get to homegrown Dubai lads. Dressed in crisp cotton dishdeshes, red and white Arafat-style ghutras and Persol sunglasses, their main line of work is managing a trading company that has been in the family for more than 150 years. They and their friends - who all have the right Range Rover or Landcruiser, wear their ghutras in a stylised manner, love a bit of hotel lounge cabaret and seem a bit lost - are the reason the Russian prostitutes are here. 'A Russian girl can come to Dubai for two months and not have to work for the next three years,' explains a member of staff at the Hyatt Regency. 'Last week, they deported a girl back to Rostov who had been here for two months and made over US$80,000 [$616,000].' Sitting in a booth at the Glass Suites Hotel, a pair of Russian girls are being entertained by a couple of local boys. Both dressed in red jackets that are a take on Michael Jackson's Thriller look, one in a black wig and the other looking unnaturally blonde, they're sipping at drinks festooned with fruit. The lads seem to be happy with their Perriers on the rocks. I'm told (by the porter) that if the men are impressed with the girls, they might buy them out for the next two weeks and the women could stand to make upwards of $10,000 each. 'It's becoming a bit of a problem,' says Mani of the Delhi Park Hotel. 'You have prostitutes robbing prostitutes and other shoppers ripping each other off. It's starting to get quite ugly. The other day two ladies sharing a room got into a huge fight because one lady stole the other's stack of cash.' Though they tend to behave themselves for the most part, there is a fear among the emirate's performing arts community (read: showgirls) that the behaviour of some of their former countrywomen is making it more difficult for legitimate, hardworking girls with dreams of getting visas. IT IS just after sunset, when the sky is still a misty pink, that Deira takes on the most attractive personality I've seen in any Middle Eastern city. Rivalling downtown Vegas with its blinding neon signage, the streets off Nasser Square are packed with frenzied Russian shoppers buying everything they'll need for a Merry Christmas in Kubyshev. Blocking the pavement outside the Hassam Trading Co, Natasha and Mila from Tblisi are buying ratty metre-high plastic Christmas trees. 'How many you want?' asks Hassam Jr in broken Russian. 'We take 300,' says Mila, writing it down and shoving it in his face. 'OK, seven dhiram for you,' he responds. Having just netted a small synthetic forest for just over $450, the pair look quite pleased with themselves. They will now return to Georgia and turn a 200-300 per cent profit on the scrawny shrubs; decorations not included. As Mila and Natasha's attention is drawn to some 10ml bottles of Playboy perfume in another shop, the trees are already being loaded on to a cart to be taken to the pair's hotel. From there, they will be packed in bags and loaded on a cargo plane back to the troubled republic. As this is the first night of a four-day shopping trip, the pair still have about another $15,000 in cash to spend. But the shops aren't the only money-magnets in town. Catering to a different crowd is the Leisureland complex on the outskirts of the city. Packed out on Thursday evening (the Gulf version of Friday night), the whole complex is like an artificial expat's oasis and for some reason Vegas springs to mind again. Maybe it's because they've packed six themed clubs under one roof, or perhaps it has something to do with all those live acts, or maybe it's just all the fat people who are making me think of Vegas' Strip again. And, judging by the crowd of no-neck, long-torsoed, stumpy-legged men hanging out in Cheers - yes, there's a bit of Boston just south of Bahrain - it seems the US amphibious assault task force has pulled into port and some of Clinton's finest are out on a bit of shore leave. The complex is managed by Mark Hutton, who has just moved to the sheikhdom from Reading. Not unlike his Filipino waitresses and Egyptian bouncers, he came in search of a better standard of living. 'See all those guys there?' he asks. 'They're from the USS Tripoli and they're the most well-behaved sailors you could ever ask for.' (The only sailors who have ever caused a problem, he says with a mix of satisfaction and sadness, are from the Royal Navy 'and we've banned them'.) Beyond the well-behaved Marines, a female DJ from Manchester is asking all the flight attendants to clear the dancefloor for the evening's floorshow. 'I tell you, if people want to sing, dance and just generally perform, this is the place to come,' says Hutton. 'You get a lot of people who come out here who are really crap but when you see these girls from Lithuania, it sort of proves that people from anywhere can come out here and carve out a future for themselves.' Out on Rockefella's hardwood dancefloor, Regdance from Vilnius are giving it their all in marabou headdresses and sequinned bikinis, doing a sort of up-tempo cheerleader routine to the strains of Madonna's Express Yourself. Beyond the swirling disco ball, the bankers from Frankfurt and the brokers from Sydney and the pilots from Amsterdam and the small battalion of troops are totally fixated. 'What future do we have back in Lithuania?' asks Regita, the group's choreographer, removing her headdress post-show. 'Big mafia men with bigger dogs ask you to sleep with them and they take most of the money you make doing shows. Here some of the local men might bother you but no one's going to kill you.' Another dancer, called Yolanta, adds, 'We like this place because it's so safe. Everywhere now is so dangerous back home, most of us want to leave.' It's a story told by many of their ex-comrades as well, Russian women are trying to marry local men in order to stay, Russian men are trying to set up companies in the hope that they can get residency, women from Baku tell how life was so much better when they were posted in East Germany with the Red Army and, for the moment, the sheikh's immigration people seem happy to oblige and let a carefully screened few stay. 'We've always taken people in,' says Sheikh Ahmed. 'First it was the Lebanese during their war, then came the Iranians and now we have the Russians. Who knows who comes next?'