Dubai: Bling City is dead, but the desert dream lives on

Posted: January 11, 2010 in General, Social, Political
Tags: , ,

Three years ago, when Dubai’s debt-fuelled boom was at its height, the emirate launched its most ambitious project yet – a gigantic offshore replica of the planet Earth, made from sand dredged from the deserts and beaches of Arabia, with countries and continents carved out among a man-made archipelago of 300 islands. That project is unlikely ever to be completed. Deprived of essential maintenance and reinforcement, the islands are slowly slipping back beneath the waves. The emirate’s carefully crafted image of brash, glitzy modernity dissolved into chaos as “Dubai World”, effectively told its bankers and investors that it could not pay its debts.

Bling City Dubai.jpg

With some $60bn (£36bn) at stake in loans, bonds and outstanding bills, the news sent shockwaves around the real world. Investors deserted Dubai in droves. The emirate became as “toxic” as Lehman Brothers and spread its contagion around all the Gulf countries, from Abu Dhabi to Kuwait. Some analysts feared it might be the spark for the feared W-shaped, or double-dip, recession, just as the global economy seemed to be recovering from the credit crisis.

Life in the emirate is good – great weather most of the year, cheap cars and petrol, and a touch of high life in the swanky hotels. Property prices were a worry. “The things I liked best about Dubai were summed up in four words: no tax, valet parking.”

There is no doubt that Dubai has had a bad year, image-wise. There’s a “dark side” to Dubai, like there is to any big city anywhere in the world, in every era of history. Labour exploitation is probably the most obvious scandal. Construction workers from India, Pakistan and China are lured to Dubai with the promise of wages big enough for them to give their families a better life back home, only to have their passports confiscated on arrival as they are hit with huge “fees” for their travel and accommodation. The conditions they live in are primitive compared to the rest of the city and the west.

How the emirate resolves the current dispute with its international creditors will determine whether it remains the best hope the Middle East has or reverts to some kind of Islamic isolationism. There’s a hope that Dubai’s unique economic, cultural and social experiment should be allowed to continue.

Jack Hughes is the pseudonym for a writer who lives and works in Dubai

Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The Observer, Sunday 29 November 2009

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