Losing Glitz and Glamour in Dubai

Article written for Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent and Broadcast in 2011.
Listen to the broadcast version here.

The last year has seen Dubai reel from economic crisis. Sarah Monaghan revisits the city and discovers that events have had profound effects on the personality of the glitzy Gulf emirate

Losing Glitz and Glamour in Dubai

Standing on the outdoor observation deck of the Burj Khalifa, with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls, I am so high above the earth that it feels as if I am on the wing of an aeroplane.

This is the world’s tallest tower – the one from which Tom Cruise was filmed recently dangling in a daring stunt for the latest Mission Impossible blockbuster.

I first visited Dubai 10 years ago but it is unrecognisable from then – the speed of development has been meteoric.

From this aerial viewpoint, Dubai could be a city on another planet, with its futuristic skyscrapers set against the heat-hazed desert backdrop.

I can make out the neighbourhood of Rashidiya where I lived in a whitewashed villa.

Then, you could walk all the way to the Dubai Creek, the city’s estuary, across open desert.

Now, that land is under concrete, transformed into luxury residential developments, high-rise offices and hotels.

There’s no doubt that this dream of a spire, which can be seen from 95km away, is an architectural coup.

But a year after its inauguration by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed, has it become the symbol of a city of remarkable vision or of one that overstretched itself in its bid to become the financial and tourist centre of the Arab world?

The tower was originally to be called the Burj Dubai – the Dubai Tower – but at its opening ceremony it was unexpectedly renamed Burj Khalifa – the Khalifa Tower – in honour of the leader of Abu Dhabi.

The oil-rich emirate had stepped in to bail out its neighbour to the tune of $10bn after Dubai World, the government conglomerate responsible for its foreign investments and real estate developments such as the famous palm islands, admitted to a staggering $25bn of debts.

The tower may have just had a change of name but since then, Dubai has not been the same.

In December (2010) it sold off part of DP World, its international ports and shipping group, and now must find other ways to pay its vast debts.

The Burj Khalifa is part of new ‘Downtown Dubai’, an area slated for massive development but the construction around it has ground to a halt. Half-finished skyscrapers bake in the sun, steel beams jutting out and tarpaulins flapping.

The Dubai Mall, the Middle East’s biggest shopping centre, is finished however. With 1,200 shops, it is the size of 50 football pitches.

But when I visited it was largely deserted, shop assistants looking out onto gleaming concourses as the occasional Emirati woman glided past in black abaya and Swarovski-crystal studded headscarf.

Hundreds of real estate projects in the emirate have been cancelled – a fact that is obvious from the giant hoardings that line the main freeway, the Sheikh Zayed Road, hiding the concrete mixers that sit behind them, gathering dust; the army of poorly paid labourers originally contracted from South Asia having been sent home.

Off the Sheikh Zayed Road I notice a vast enclosure, packed with cars. “They’ve been moved here by the police. They were abandoned at the airport by people fleeing who were made redundant,” a British friend Sophie tells me.

Dubai has suffered job heavy losses recently. Until last year Sophie worked in human resources for a property developer. “We laid off hundreds of people,” she says. “The last redundancy letter I wrote was my own.”

She lives on the surreal-sounding ‘Frond C’ of the Palm Jumeirah, the manmade palm-tree shaped island off the Dubai coast, in a four-bed villa with pool and maid accommodation.

Like the other expatriates from Europe, the Middle East and the Sub-continent that make up Dubai’s 1.8-million population, she was drawn by the sun-kissed lifestyle, tax-free income and liberal values.

Be they businessmen living in luxury villas, waiters working in five-star beachfront hotels, taxi drivers or construction workers, they’ve all come for the same reason.

As was Jenalyn, a Filipino woman I meet giving pedicures in a beauty salon in the wealthy beach suburb of Jumeirah. She is from a rural village and has left behind two children in the care of her husband, a tricycle driver, and her elderly parents.

She now rents one room in a cheap neighbourhood with seven other Filipino women, most of whom are housemaids. “I’m on two-year contract,” she tells me. “I hope Dubai will be good for me – that I can save money and give my kids a better life.”

My ears pop as the lift from the Burj Khalifa carries me down. It travels at ten metres per second but it is a long descent: a plunge that mirrors the emirate’s fall into its deepest financial crisis.

Time will tell how long it takes to recover but the chances of Dubai reaching the real height of its ambitions any time soon, look like a Mission Impossible.