A couple of years ago I stopped by Dubai on the way to India. Because many Malayalis work there, Kerala is better connected to the Middle East by air than to the rest of India. I wanted to avoid the maddening crowds at Mumbai airport and also look up my brother who worked in Dubai at that time.
It is the most bizarre place in the world I have ever been. The airport itself looks ordinary enough, but just outside the Sun burned like an inferno. The car radio blared Malayalam Film songs as my brother drove us around. We could see at least a dozen skyscrapers in different stages of incompletion. Stopped to look at a ski slope. Yes, a ski slope. The temperature outside is 40 degrees Celsius but they have cooled a gigantic enclosure to below freezing. In August in the middle of a desert you can go skiing.
We drove to one of the leaves of the big palm tree shaped island they were building. Past the hotel shaped like a sail boat, where there are suites that cost $17,000 per day. The many unfinished buildings made the whole place look like something out of a science fiction fantasy. An island archipelago modeled after the map of the World was being built, but we could not see it. You get the impression that the Sheikhs were sold unnecessarily extravagant projects by the mostly European architects and engineering firms. Who was supposed to occupy the more than a dozen, hundred story buildings? More than in Manhattan when the total population was just 1.6 million.
The shopping mall had scantily blondes walking side by side with Arabs covered head to toe in black robes. Four out of five people living in Dubai are foreigners. Malayalam is spoken everywhere: I met people from villages near mine, including some long forgotten cousins. The mall was astonishingly opulent. We bought a small digital camera, cheaper than in the US because there are no taxes.
Real estate was booming then. The wives of the MNC executives passed time selling condominiums to each other as Real Estate Agents.
Now it has all come crashing down. Despite all the money being thrown around, Dubai never had any income of its own. Its neighboring Emirate, Abu Dhabi is the one with oil. Dubai is a sort of spendthrift cousin. Their idea was to establish a tourist destination, which would last beyond the oil boom. But in a region where alcohol, gambling and sex are frowned upon, what kind of Las Vegas are they going to build?
Dubai tried to attract tourists by sponsoring sports: Tennis and Golf mainly. They hoped to attract affluent Arab families -men with several wives, each with several children- who may not feel comfortable vacationing elsewhere. Michael Jackson has been rumored to spend time there. But it didn’t work out.
After a spike, oil prices have tanked as the world economy teeters on the brink of collapse. All Dubai banks are rumored to be broke. But then so are all American banks. The Emir has dealt with the banking crisis with a firm hand: by banning all newspaper articles that report the truth. Abu Dhabi bailed out its own banks but not yet Dubai’s. Construction has stopped. The legions of Malayalees workers are being sent home.
Dubai is also mired in controversy. An Englishwoman was prosecuted for adultery; for having tea at home with a male friend. A conference of writers was marred by censorship. An Israeli tennis player was denied admittance to play in a tournament: Murdoch dropped his sponsorship in protest. The WTA imposed the largest ever fine on the tournament.Dubai didn’t change its rules, but when you are rich people are more forgiving.
Christopher Davidson, a specialist on the United Arab Emirates and a lecturer at Durham University in the United Kingdom:
When Dubai was rich and successful, everyone wanted to be its friend. Now that it has no money in the pocket, nobody wants to be pals anymore.