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Fri 21 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

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The celebrity cause

Carrie Buckle meets Hollywood legend Michael Douglas in Dubai.

Carrie Buckle meets Hollywood legend Michael Douglas in Dubai.

"I'm overwhelmed," says a bright-eyed, radiant Michael Douglas, gesturing expansively as if lost for words, in a huge boardroom tucked away at Atlantis The Palm. "I'm just trying to take it all in." It's the Oscar-winning actor and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones' first visit to Dubai, and the Middle East for that matter, and the booming emirate has clearly made a big impression on the Hollywood power couple.

Leaning back in a red leather chair, his hands relaxed on the armrests, Douglas is composed. He turned 64 last month (he has the same birthday as Zeta Jones, but 25 years apart), and since he married in 2000, has embraced his role as a husband and father with his Welsh actress wife and children, Dylan, eight, and Carys, five. "I've learned to kick back and be a family man," he said recently. "I'm enjoying it immensely. And my priorities have changed enormously."

With a lightly-tanned face which looks younger than his years, he has twinkling blue eyes, and a healthy head of sandy grey hair. Instantly likeable, he listens carefully and maintains eye contact. The son of acting legend Kirk Douglas, he may be Hollywood royalty but he seems genuinely grateful for the opportunity to experience Dubai.

"I'm just impressed how they get it all done here. It really is incredible, especially in terms of how long things take in the States with all the bureaucracy," he says in his East Coast drawl, with a roar of laughter.

Douglas is here to accept a cheque for 7million dirhams from property developer Nakheel for the charity Free The Children, but he and Zeta Jones have also managed to take a well-earned break from their hectic schedule.

"We were fortunate enough to take a helicopter ride yesterday, from pretty much from one end of Dubai to the other. It's only 70 km," he jokes. "But it was an amazing sight. It's much larger than I anticipated, and seeing what the plans are for the future, exponentially, it's amazing.

It's just an amazing commitment and it seems to be very effectively done - I can't relate it to anywhere else in the world. I'm just enjoying the unique logistics of creating islands from dredging, and the infrastructure."

Douglas is also very passionate about his humanitarian work - which is why he's flown halfway across the world, from New York via London, to support the charity Free The Children. As a long-time campaigner for nuclear disarmament, as well as small arms, he has not only lent his name to charities but has rolled up his sleeves and visited war-torn, poverty-stricken areas of the developing world.

Founded in 1995 by Craig Kielburger in Canada when he was just 12, Free The Children works on freeing children from poverty and exploitation, and has built more than 500 schools around the world.

Douglas is a United Nations Messenger of Peace in the disarmament area and he went to Sierra Leone a few years ago where the charity were making a documentary on child soldiers. As well as viewing vast stockpiles of surrendered arms, he met children who had been abducted and forced to commit atrocious acts during the country's decade-long civil war.

One former child soldier touched him deeply - Abu Bakar Bangura told him, "I don't know how old I am. I was very young when I was taken away from my family." Douglas helped him search for his long-lost relatives, by marching for miles from one village to the next, until Abu fell into the arms of his mother in an emotional reunion.

The Nakheel donation will be used for water sanitisation programmes run by Free The Children in developing countries, including Kenya and Sri Lanka, hopefully improving the lives of 200,000 people.

After their whistlestop tour of Dubai, Douglas and Zeta Jones are flying back to their home in Bermuda the following morning to spend time with their children.

Then Douglas starts filming Solitary Man in New York next month, in which he will play a car magnate with a runaway libido, alongside Susan Sarandon and his old pal Danny DeVito. So will we see the actor back in the Middle East soon? "This is my first visit," he says graciously, with a smile. "But it's been amazing. We've really enjoyed our stay and I'm sure we'll look forward to getting back here again."

With that, he stands up for a quick photo, before breaking into laughter when his assistant quips dryly at the fact that he's flying back tomorrow morning: "He lives on an island, so don't feel bad for him. He'll get plenty of sunshine when he gets home."

Even if Douglas doesn't come back to Dubai for the sun, now he's experienced the emirate for himself, he's sure to return to see it growing into a world leader in philanthropy, as well as construction. After all, while he cannot help but marvel at what has been achieved architecturally, he believes, he says "Dubai's kindness, compassion and generosity is its greatest strength in my eyes."