Dubai: boom or bust?

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I look rested on that picture, don’t I? Sadly, that’s because it was taken years ago, when I was 29. Incidentally, the same age I am now. Funny how that works.

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How much has Dubai changed as I was repeatedly turning 29? A lot! This entire area, the Dubai Marina, is not ten years old and when it will be completed, it should house 120,000 residents. This particular cluster is supposed to be the “highest city block in the world”, with all the buildings being between 250-300 m high.

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Everywhere around the marina, clusters upon clusters of new mixed use towers…

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With more being built everyday.

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I am not sure what definition Dubai uses to classify a building as a high-rise, but in 1991, they claim they had a single one. There are now over 900.

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So, it is too much? Who knows. Dubai came very close to a catastrophic collapse in 2009, but seems to have rebounded, thanks to a massive bail-out from Abu Dhabi. One of their big Government-owned conglomerates put a 63 story, 542 apartments building on the market two months ago and all the units were sold on the first day. Trade, finance, tourism, regional headquarters; there’s a lot happening in Dubai and oil only represents 2-4% of GDP (less than half the figure in Canada!), but that doesn’t erase the crippling debts they face.

In the long-term, it will be interesting to see how – or if – a city can grow, without any immigrants. The big metropolis of the world were all built by migrants, either from the countryside, other less dynamic cities, or other countries. Dubai’s citizens are a tiny minority in their own city (and country). The millions of foreign workers are not helping create the Dubai of tomorrow, the way Southern and Eastern Europeans changed the face of North America in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. They do their job, build the infrastructure, send the money home and, eventually, leave. Plus, while a walk in a big mall will show you how cosmopolitan Dubai is compared to anything in the region, a walk in a less touristy area will show you the more depressing reality: Dubai is a city of working aged men from the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia (for some reason, unlike Kuwait, there are virtually no Arab expats in Dubai). The gender imbalance is by far the greatest in the world, at 1.5 men per woman. So, as a real estate investor myself, would I buy? I wouldn’t touch a Dubai deal with a 10 foot pole. Will a lot of people make money there? Absolutely, but they will do it by taking the kind of risks I don’t take.

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Beyond the numbers, how’s the marina, you ask? Well, I would say Dubai got it right. Or to be exact, they picked the right designer, a Canadian office of architecture giant HOK. In this part of the world, I would have expected to see it surrounded by a highway, big Government buildings and Embassies. There is none of that rubbish around the marina. Shops, restaurants and cafes. Did it catch? Honestly, I don’t know. I went in the middle of the afternoon, and it was pretty dead. But that is not generally a busy time for going out anywhere in the Arab world (most of the year, it’s just too hot). Furthermore, many parts of the marina are almost deserted because construction of the commercial spaces is not complete yet.

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But Canadians would certainly feel at home!

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I generally have little interest in this kind of toy, but that one caught my attention. Very James Bondish. I bet it has machine guns.

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Another thing Dubai got right is the metro they built since I was last here (this was actually my 5th visit, but the previous ones were all very short and work related). Elevated rather than underground, they built it in only 4 years, using an army of 30,000 foreign workers, mostly from Norway. OK, a hint: out of 4 facts in the previous sentence, one is not true.

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The Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding organizes events such as luncheons and dinners for tourists and expats, during which you can discover that not all Muslims are suicide bombers, and other such eye opening things. I couldn’t fit the meals in my plans, but I went to a morning mosque visit. I thought the whole thing was very well done, but let’s just say it’s a bit of an Islam for dummies affair. If you know a bit about the religion, say you can name a few pillars, you won’t learn that much. The tour started with an explanation of the ablutions process prior to prayers.

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And went on to discuss a number of things, with a Q&A led by this British convert, a Christian who married an Emirati but converted only after living 7 years in Dubai, if memory serves.

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When people make the argument that some Muslim women, out of personal choice and without any social pressures, prefer to wear a burqa, be chaperoned every time they leave the house, etc… I am always a little sceptical. But what about the fact that when there isn’t a separate room for women in the mosque, a common situation in poorer countries, men stand in front, near the Imam, and women stand behind. During this demonstration of how an entire prayer process unfolds (only a 2-5 min affair), the guide made the point that given the praying posture, women actually prefer being at the back. For this time, and this time only, I’ll buy it! It could even explain the general disapproval of miniskirts in the region. Ouch, this latest comment caused a painful thought to appear in my mind. I really, really hope Islam never becomes popular in Scotland.

The one thing I did learn is that both men and women have to pray five times a day, but the men get “greater reward” if they do it at the mosque, while there is no such requirement for women. Nice of God, as women historically had to deal with all the babies, the cooking, etc. Of course, being God and everything, he also could have made the babies self-raising and ready-made shawarma sandwiches grow in the trees, but that’s just not his style.

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I also went on a walking tour of old Dubai. The guides were nice and interesting, but the whole thing was unremarkable. Truth is, old Dubai was a small village and there isn’t much to say about it. The Chinese tourists did what they do best!

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Both guides were wearing really tight jeans, with rather loose and – outside in the sun – transparent abayas over them. Normally, I wouldn’t particularly have noticed these girls, but because the skinny jeans were sort of forbidden and I could sort of see them, it made the whole attire vaguely sexy. How ironic.

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The Dubai museum, also quite unremarkable in its displays, but with very informative panels, especially if you don’t know much about Dubai. As it turns out, Dubai started becoming a commercial hub way back when the ruler of the time gave tax exemptions to foreign traders, in 1894! In the 1960s, oil was discovered, the various rulers got their independence from Britain, the United Arab Emirates was formed (1971) and in the space of 8 years, the population exploded from 59,000 to 207,000 residents. It stands at about 2.1 M now (Dubai, not the whole UAE).

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Traditional lifestyle. Now things have changed: the person serving the tea is a woman, from The Philippines.

Finally, I will paraphrase a comment I read online about an article in The Economist. You can write a page full of very valid criticisms about Dubai, but there is no better place to be within a 4h flying radius. Depending on the kind of experience you seek, I would say that can often be the case.

Next, the Burj Khalifa, because when you are the tallest building in the world, you get your own post on my blog. My latest rule!

#UAE

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