Dubai: Built on Sand

[In advance of the BBC World Service documentary]

My memory is like the desert at midday; there’s a permanent haze in the middle distance. I first came to Dubai in 2000. The property boom was only just beginning, but there were glimpses of the future even then.

There was a framed photo in the art gallery in Jumeira Beach Hotel, of Dubai in the late 1960’s. It was a traditional clay-built arab town with the remnants of post-colonial town planning; a town square with a circular fountain and some half-made-up roads emanating from the centre. The Creek was lined with traditional fishing dows and empty of other traffic. All the rest was sand…

The picture hung in a thirty-storey, glass and steel tourist hotel. Outside, the new concrete breakwater which encircled the marina was already dwarfed by the near-finished Burj al-Arab hotel. Now an international landmark, the Burj sits surrounded by the Gulf waters, it’s iconic sail-shape a dramatic architectural statement. It was the world’s first seven-star hotel. At the time, it was the declaration of ambition of this tiny Gulf state. The City Center was an immaculate shopping mail which managed to mix the cheapness of Woolworth and J C Penney with the excesses of the designer label stores. The first indoor, real-snow ski-slope was already open next door. On the way, you passed a billboard for Nokia whose tag-line was simply “the most expensive mobile phone you can buy.” Emirates Airlines was trebling the size of the airport, masterminded from a headquarters office built in the shape of an airliner.

All this emerged because Dubai has very little oil. The ruling Al-Maktoum family saw early the potential of building a financial, tourist and commerce centre, looking to the end of the black gold-rush.

By 2008, all this seemed paltry and limited. There were more skyscrapers under construction than you could count and the high-tech rapid transit metro system whisked you silently from one end of town to the other. The Burj Khalifa Tower rising from the sand was aiming for the record of tallest structure on the planet. Out at sea, man-made island chains beginning with Palm Jumeira and The World were world-famous millionaire’s play-grounds.

Culturally Dubai seemed to have bridged the divide between Arab and Western thinking. Powered by migrant labour (there are still less than a million native arabs in Dubai), Indians and Pakistanis provided the manual labour, Malays and Filipinos the domestic duties, Europeans and Americans the management grades. Dubai became the dream trading metropolis and tourist haven, skyscrapers beside soukhs, dows beside jet-skis.

Yet even Dubai fell victim of the property bubble and the global financial crash. Cheap debt became expensive, whilst massive amounts of overseas sovereign fund investments were suddenly worthless. With little oil revenue to underpin its borrowings, Dubai could not remain immune to the same economic realities as beset the rest of us. Construction projects stopped overnight, migrant workers were summarily sent home, visas cancelled.

Dubai might even have gone bust had it not done a deal, effectively selling a chunk of its soul, to neighbouring oil-rich rival Abu-Dhabi. It’s impossible to describe how painfully this sits with the proud and self-reliant Dubai Arabs.

Things are slowly picking up, but one suspects the pace will never be what it once was. Lessons have been learned. The ambition remains, but tempered by bitter experience. It will be interesting to hear Jonathan Glancey’s thoughts on this. AJS

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