Dubai, where they play for high stakes

On the track, a horse is on fire. A snow-white Lippizaner on a long rein, it makes its way slowly, trembling and wide-eyed, past the grandstand at Nad Al Sheba racecourse in Dubai. It is almost nine at night and, in the dark, the horse, with its entire hind-quarters aflame, makes an astonishing sight. Beyond the winning-post, to the relief of the queasier Europeans who are watching, the flame-retardant blanket is taken off and doused.

In this city, nothing is done in moderation. The Dubai World Cup race meeting, which took place last Saturday, was the most valuable in the sport’s history, with more than $21m (£10m) of stake money to be won. At the height of proceedings, there was a spectacular display, of which the horse-fireball was part, while on a gigantic screen a film celebrating the wildness of the horse was shown.

Elsewhere on the racetrack, other kinds of wildness were in evidence. The Dubai World Cup takes place at the end of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, during which no alcohol must be served, but the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, had exempted the racecourse. In an enclosed area known as the International Village, one of the biggest parties of the year had been under way since late afternoon and would continue until almost midnight amid scenes of excess that would raise eyebrows at any English course.

The deal in Dubai is straightforward. Foreigners contributing to the feverish expansion of the economy – that is, the vast majority of the population – are given significant tax breaks and the chance to enjoy themselves as if they were on holiday, so long as they stay within their own community. Public displays of immodest behaviour are subject to swift and harsh punishment.

The vast majority of those at Nad Al Sheba racecourse would say that the compromise has paid off handsomely. The vision of the ruling Maktoum family was for Dubai to become both the business centre and the most favoured tourist destination of the Middle East. It would be where West and East met to make money and enjoy themselves. Today the skyscrapers are being built on a 24-hour schedule and the city seems to be taking shape before one’s eyes.

A combination of Sheikh Mohammed’s feudal power and his grip on the media, which fans the flames of adulation on a daily basis, have enabled the vision to take shape without some of the messier side-effects of unrestrained economic growth.

Human Rights Watch has just published a report on Dubai’s use of labour from the Indian sub-continent, which suggests that the price being paid for those skyscrapers is not only financial. Workers routinely have their passports and salaries withheld, or are forced into years of debt for alleged “recruitment costs”, or are deported or jailed for objecting, or live in squalid housing camps out in the desert. It is a brutal system.

Wealth against freedom: it is not as straightforward a choice as those who live in quieter, less rumbustious parts of the world might like to think. The result of the Dubai compromise is an exciting, optimistic city which seems to live in sort of a cultural vacuum, where all nationalities and colours seem united by a shared dream of personal wealth and fun.

As a vision, even as a social experiment, it is, like the horse in flames on the racecourse, both impressive and slightly scary.

Spare a thought for Saint Julie

It is said that evidence of the divine presence is to be found in everyday miracles, and so it has proved. Julie Burchill has just found God. She has what she calls “saintly feelings”, and does voluntary work twice a week at a centre for the mentally disabled. There will be the usual sneers, of course. Some will mention her previous admiration for Stalin. The fact that Julie offered her fellow workers at the centre a line of cocaine will be held against her.

All of which is profoundly unfair. At a time when only one in 10 people go to church, Julie, the Christian soldier, should be on the frontline, contributing to Thought for the Day, or debating with Richard Dawkins. She may need the Lord but, right now, He needs her, too.

* Breaking news from the wilder shores of neuroscience: dirt makes you happy. In a study by researchers from Bristol University, the “friendly” bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae, normally to be found in soil, has been found to increase feelings of well-being in humans.

A series of experiments on mice revealed that the bacterium stimulates the release of serotonin in the brain, thereby countering stress and depression. The results of the research, says Bristol’s Dr Chris Lowry, “leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all spend more time in the dirt”.

Of course we should. Take one look at a pig or a child caked in dirt and you will see that their bodies are positively singing with serotonin. A hen taking a dust-bath is experiencing the same beneficial effect and so – taking it, admittedly, to a rather disgusting extreme – is a dog rolling in excrement.

This important research highlights a secret of tranquillity which is rarely mentioned in the great religious tracts. Get a compost heap.