Sunday, May 17, 2009

Boom or Doom for Dubai's Desert Dreams?

A lot of hysterical doomsday scenarios have been written recently about the glitzy metackopolis of Dubai. Like the celebrities it loves to court, Dubai has been extolled in recent years and is now being knocked off its pedestal by a throng of told-you-so hacks. I have read so much in recent months about Dubai's apparent downfall. The FT even joined the schadenfreuders and pouted (based on little hard evidence) that Dubai would be lost to the sandunes in thirty years. 

Dubai has its dark side, what city doesn't. Its hoardes of migrant workers for starters have been treated dismally in the past and continue to fight against discrimination and dead beat wages. This is a story that is well documented but it is a story not unique to Dubai and journalists writing from the UK, US or Germany for instance could also look closer to home and save themselves the airfare and expense of going to the Gulf.
Maybe I have found myself being an accidental apologist for Dubai. I have had a long held fascination founded mainly on being in awe of its unbridled ambition. The scale of the projects undertaken in Dubai often verge on sheer folly but they never fail to stimulate and impress. The way the city state has strategically and successfully positioned itself to compete with its wealthier oil baron neighbours shows a wreckless cavalier attitude that I can't but admire.

I was again in Dubai last week and attended a media forum (the best organized event of its type I have ever been to) in a spectack hotel called the Atlantis. This place typifies much of the tasteless superficiality that annoys many of Dubai's detractors. But it is also daring, audacious, fun and even daft. 

They spent about $20m dollars on the opening ceremony last year - as much as many of my celtic tiger brethern have spent on the shoddy hotel developments that have fallen off the backs of trucks around Ireland during our recent rush to bust. 

The Atlantis cost $1.3 billion to build. Crazy? Maybe, but also extremely bold in business terms. It continues to have 80% occupancy. I enquired, for the craic, about one week in December for myself and the family. The price tag? $7,000 for the week, breakfast not included. 

It seems there are still plenty of customers for such hair-brained schemes. Meanwhile back in Ireland, we are arguing now for about 10 years on whether we will spend $300m on a national soccer stadium. Maybe a bit of Emirati brio could help the dithering suits at the Football Association of Ireland make up their minds (I'd better be careful or they will use this post as justification for on an all-expenses paid, fact-finding mission to Dubai).

For sure there are many hard luck economic stories coming out of Dubai but what I witnessed does not match up to the dire reports I have read in some newspapers. Yes, some of the more extravagant and crazy projects are at a standstill, such as the World - a fake island in the shape of the globe, sold off to unlucky punters who will never get a dime back. I heard of one 'overseas' investor who personally lost $50m on this never-to-be deal. But no, cranes are not at a standstill all over Dubai. Next to my hotel there was a massive skyscraper being completed in 24 hour shifts. I scanned and scoured several big building sites and all but one were bustling. 

I want Dubai to scrape out of this current crisis because I don't want its adventurous, brassy, courageous and enterprising spirit to be punished. It is somehow inspiring to think that only thiry odd years ago Dubai was a dustbowl of around 180'000 citizens. Today it is some 1.3 million people from all walks of life cooking up some of the greatest, tastiest, inventive, fusion dishes on the planet. 

Ten years of consolidation and survival before a strategy of controlled growth - that's what Dubai's future should be and that's what I hope it will be. Dubai's dreams should not be dashed in the desert. And HDEO does love dreamers. It can be a wonderful Arabian oasis in the heart of the Middle East (with all the mirages that such a metaphor implies). And now that it's bigger and more sensible brother Abu Dhabi has agreed to extend a helping hand, Dubai should look back on 2009 as nothing more than the year they received a much-needed reality check.


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