Around us, glass spires shoot skyward out of the desert floor. When Dubai began to run out of oil in the past few decades, the emirate poured its capital into creating a flourishing tourism industry — meaning most of contemporary Dubai was built in the past 20 years. Recently, an enormous canal was carved through downtown Dubai for the explicit purpose of commercial transportation, and the implicit purpose, a lifelong resident tells me, of selling more waterfront property. Man-made archipelagos rose from the sea — two in the shape of enormous palms, one designed to look like a world map, where development companies can purchase nations and turn them into a Utopian global society. (Just kidding! More hotels.)
Nothing in Dubai is fake. The snow that congeals over multiple ski slopes in the Mall of the Emirates is so real you could write a poem about it. The brand-new islands are so real, you could build hotels on them. The landlocked beach installed in a forthcoming gated community is so real, you could sink your feet into its imported white sand and forget you are not at the real beach…until you look up. Everything in metropolitan Dubai is coated in a thin veneer of something like deceit, which makes the experience of being here very unsettling.
Apa’s office is in Jumeirah Beach, the East Hampton of Dubai. Everything is white and trimmed in gold — every table, every custom office chair, every office manager named Mahsa Nikdar dressed in wrinkle-free white separates and gilded on her wrists and neck. She looks like the child of Nicole Scherzinger and Naomi Campbell, and on Saturday, she is one of four incredibly attractive faces that greet you at the door, a visual onslaught of hospitality and mascara. Tropical house music blares at club-bathroom volume, and Diptyque candles furnish almost every available surface, which creates a disorienting blend of Ibizan party vibes and French decadence.
Every morning at 8:30 a.m., Apa’s staff gathers in the white-gold conference room for a briefing on the out-of-town visitors and wealthy regulars who will stop by that day. For anybody who consumes situational workplace-reality television, it is eerily familiar: Seven or eight of the hottest dental professionals in the business making casual jokes about how deep one royal patient’s entourage runs, laughing heartily, complaining about air conditioning in the room, and thus being hot on various levels. Everybody is both severely attractive and an expatriate with a compelling backstory. I will list some of them for you:
Mahsa Nikdar is the most beautiful woman God ever created. She moved to Dubai 13 years ago to work as a buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue, and journalists have written about her closet.
Hayley Cartmell is from Wales and moved to Dubai to get in touch with her birth father. She now lives in Oman, but Apa flies her into town when he’s here. The office’s electrical mainframe is powered by her laughter, which ricochets up from reception, through the office halls, and into the hearts of everybody present.
Tarek Hafez, a man, is brain-meltingly handsome, and also a dentist.
The dental professionals are there because Apa is at the top of their game. The nondental professionals are surprised to find themselves in the dental industry but assure me that they wouldn’t have it any other way. They were seduced by the house music and stayed for its charismatic DJ.
Some 6,800 miles west, in a town in upstate New York with roughly 99 percent fewer marble statues and indoor ski slopes, Michael Apa was born and raised. He was, in his own words, “chubby and a skateboarder and kind of an outsider” who idolized his older brother, who was his antithesis. Around the time his brother left for college, his father, an insurance adjuster, was made partner at one of the firms where he worked, which doubled his earnings, says Apa. Suddenly, they had an in-ground pool and a used Porsche, achievements that made a big impression on Apa when he was growing up. “I was the one who my parents were like, ‘Good luck in life, we hope you figure it out,’ ” he says. But after his dad’s promotion, Apa was struck by a sense of economic possibility.