Dubai’s Sheikhy foundations

A freelance writer in Dubai says snobbery about its wacky buildings is a poor substitute for serious debate about its economy.

Vicky Francis

Topics Politics

‘When Dubai sneezes, the whole world catches a cold.’ Okay, I made that up, but it’s the sort of thing the PR companies in Dubai Media City might have pumped out. Or the sort of doggerel that crown prince Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum might put on his website (1). In fact, it is not inconceivable that his dad, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, would build an artificial archipelago in the shape of Arabic letters spelling out such a message. Oh wait, apparently Dubai can’t afford such construction projects anymore…

The announcement that Dubai is heading for crisis, and that Dubai World needs more time to pay back its not inconsiderable debts, has generated much commentary. Some are reminding Sheikh Mohammed of something he said recently:

‘I would like to tell capitalists that Dubai does not need investors, investors need Dubai…When I encourage you to invest, I am not asking you to put your money into a fire. I guarantee that your money will be invested in carefully studied projects. I want to be frank with you: I have the courage to take decisions and to bear the responsibility for the consequences. Do you have the courage to be frank and decisive?’ (2)

Sheikh Mo’s decisiveness seems to have deserted him, or at least has been temporarily delegated to Abu Dhabi.

The bursting of the Dubai bubble has fuelled the idea that Dubai was ‘asking for it’. Where Lehman Brothers got flak for what the company had ‘done to the rest of us’, by bringing the ‘good times’ to an end, pundits’ joy at the collapse of Sheikh Mo’s fairytale kingdom has all but eclipsed any sense that this might potentially drag other parts of the world economy down with it.

In the eyes of its critics, Dubai had a toxic combination of conspicuous consumption, unsustainability and bad taste (3). The authoritarian city-state – despite being more liberal than the six other Emirates – provoked a well of crocodile tears for the indentured labourers who probably make up the majority of the population, cried by journos who cared little for these migrant workers when they lived lives of grinding poverty in their home countries. Indeed, the labour issue was often used to illustrate a pornography of despair, written by pundits who were unlikely to support Dubai workers winning the sort of pay rises that would allow them to get out of crowded and rundown labourers’ camps like Sonapur and on to the consumer gravy train.

When investment fund Dubai World called for a six-month moratorium on paying the interest bill on its loans, it looked like the game was up. Since Dubai World is, more or less, a government institution, it resembled an admission that the city-state itself was going bankrupt. Add the timing of this announcement – on the eve of the Eid al-Adha long weekend – and the financial markets would inevitably start sweating. Throw in the lack of transparency associated with Arabian Gulf sovereign wealth funds – hence the widespread suspicion that the same money is in constant rotation between a bewildering array of fronts – and the scope for panic grew.

Unlike others who skip repayments in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is unlikely to go to debtors’ prison. A south-westerly trip to his cousins in Abu Dhabi should help him settle the tab: last month the sheikh told those who predicted a wobbly response from the UAE’s lender of last resort to ‘shut up’ and stop speculating about relations between the two main Emirates. An uneasy weekend’s wait produced indications of a pending cull: Abu Dhabi has said it will review Dubai World’s indebted projects on a ‘case by case’ basis before bailing anything out (shortly before its stock exchange crashed by 8.3 per cent).

At the heart of the national and international speculation about Dubai is its real estate sector. Back in boom times, Western commentators divided into two camps, either blown away by some of the architectural projects or quick to condemn them as tacky and arriviste. Snobbery was part of this agenda, especially when it turned out that footballers and Pamela Anderson were prospective investors. By the time people like me were renting in Bur Dubai and Deira, talk of a chav invasion was rife. Stripped of the genuine class conflicts unfolding up the road at Sonapur, Euro-expats tried to reconcile chav-baiting with deriding the born-to-shop Jumeirah Janes who whine about ‘the servant problem’ over a latte. The naysayers’ blanket complaints were directed at ‘new money’ rather than at the flaws inherent in any actual construction project.

The Imperial-era explorer Wilfred Thesiger eventually found himself ‘reconciled to the inevitable changes which have occurred in the Arabia of today’ (4), but many of Dubai’s critics would have preferred that it stuck with the dirt-poor, brutal yet sustainable way of life recorded in Thesiger’s Arabian Sands. Abu Dhabi may now be prepared to work on a case-by-case basis with the struggling Dubai parastatal sector, but few London-based journalists adopted the same differential approach. Would they have us go back to a time when the Empty Quarter really was empty, and guidebooks boasted of ‘the spectacular Trade Centre Building’ (5), a mere 33 storeys high?

Let’s be frank: a lot of the proposed real estate schemes were, frankly, shit. Do you want to live in a bungalow surrounded by animatronic dinosaurs? Then City of Arabia is for you. Fancy a flat in the world’s largest, largely Dubai-themed theme park? Try Dubailand (not to be confused with Dubai World). A gated community in the shape of a falcon, festooned with replicas of the seven wonders of the ancient world and a larger than life-sized copy of the Eiffel Tower? Step forward, Dubai Falcon City.

Yet other ‘big projects’ have more potential. Dubai Sports City, for instance, completed some of its facilities prior to the crash, including a cricket stadium, a system of interior roads and walkways, and some districts for mixed-income housing. Despite the comparative strength of this development, the presence of sports stars has left it condemned as a vanity project. Manchester United’s Michael Owen is a brand ambassador for a UK-based property developer there, and when BBC Panorama investigated wage slavery in Dubai, he came under fire. Cue media gloating about the project’s pending failure (6).

The same goes for the Emirates’ now infamous artificial islands. Too often the low-paid, cack-handed and PR-led development of the Palms Jumeirah, Jebel-Ali and Deira (plus The World and the never-to-materialise Universe) has been used to treat any attempt to extend coastline as folly. Yet the world (not The World) would be a better place if more state, private and state-private sector resources were spent keeping valuable land out of the sea (even if Dubai has made a shipping hazard of it on this occasion).

Palms developer Nakheel is central to the recent debt restructuring efforts of Dubai World. Two years ago, Sheikh Mohammed treated the firm as a prize asset on a ‘case-by-case’ basis, by publicly snubbing its stablemate Emaar – still building the Burj Dubai – at Cityscape 2007. Rumour had it that Emaar execs had been treating company reserves as a personal slush fund, while continually crying out for more subsidies. Now that Nakheel is in similar financial straits, the commentariat are gloating. Given that such criticisms emanate from places where it can take years to get the planning permission for a loft conversion, it seems pretty clear that Dubai’s critics are really putting innovation and development themselves in the firing line.

Western commentators seem to apply one rule at home and another to Dubai. Since when have redundancies and abandoned construction projects been something to celebrate? Why would these be a ‘good thing’ in Dubai? After all, it would mean that those poverty-stricken workers would become poorer still, having been thrown out of work. My suspicion is that Dubai’s explosive growth attracts clichéd anti-prosperity sentiments, albeit in a more concentrated form, when a less jaded, more rational response would be to have an open public discussion about what sort of state the 1,241,000-plus population of Dubai want to live in. My immediate preference is for majority rule, retiring the ruling Maktoum clan to concentrate on its poetry. This would entail authentic democracy and probably mean the chop for some of the dafter projects, too.

On that subject, does anyone want to buy my Dubai flat?

Vicky Francis works as a freelance writer in the Arabian Gulf.

Previously on spiked

Vicky Francis reviewed Dubai: the Vulnerability of Success. Alastair Donald talked to the architect of the world’s first rotating skyscraper. Brendan O’Neill compared Beijing 2008 to London 2012 and asked ‘Can only dictatorships dazzle?’, and after a terror attack wondered if Mumbai is hated because it is modern. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning.

(1) See His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohamed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

(2) Mohammed announces Dubailand, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 21 October 2003

(3) Castles in the Sand: fairy tales of Dubai’s desert kingdom, by Vicky Francis, Rising East, Vol 1, Series 1, No 8, June 2009

(4) p10 ‘Preface to the 1991 Reprint’, Arabian Sands, Penguin, 1991

(5) p134, ‘Camerapix’, Spectrum Guide to the United Arab Emirates, Interlink, 1998

(6) Sports stars feel the squeeze as Dubai runs short of cash, Owen Gibson, Guardian, 27 November 2009

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Topics Politics


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