Dubai; over to you, rent-a-crowd

Sitting outside a restaurant in Dubai recently our evening was disturbed by a raucous and rude party who were perhaps drinking more than was appropriate and who began shouting and intimidating the staff. They happened to be Russian [there are a lot of Russians in Dubai] but could have been British or German or any other of around 200 nationalities that are represented by the people now living and working there. What they weren’t was Emirati. There was a time – and not so long ago either – when the principal reason for being in Dubai would have been work-related. It wasn’t hard to get into the country but there was a process one had to go through and an implied level of obligation was imposed of the visitor. We were frequently reminded that we were guests and there was an unwritten but well-understood code of conduct. These days the doors are not only wide open but hanging off the hinges. Dubai does tourism and shopping in a very big way but, in embracing anyone who wants to spend, has been the architect of its own downfall. Consequently, one of the less endearing aspects of selling itself and its glamorous lifestyle across the world is that rent-a-crowd has moved in.

The dilemma that arises from the occasional clash of culture is well-publicised; tales of medieval punishment emanating from a stolen lip-smacking kiss in public tend to exaggerate the extremes and aren’t typical but there appears to exist now a level of communal disrespect that is both alien to the culture and saddening to witness. My experience has been that even in the most trying of situations Emiratis are by nature respectful, polite and dignified; qualities reflected in a legal system that will tolerate dangerous driving – to some extent, anyway – but which will lead to deportation for showing the finger to another driver. Rowdiness and injudicious dress amongst tourists are not only commonplace now but are justified by ubiquity. I guess this attitude comes with the proliferation of bars, clubs, restaurants, shops and leisure facilities that have swamped the place but, in many ways, the removal of exclusivity and the relaxation of entry regulations have combined to lower the bar.

Of course, expatriate life has changed a lot since I first stepped off a VC10 into the heat of Dubai. That was a long while ago and I’ve gone on to spend many years since then living and working in the region. Whether living in the Middle East is better or worse in 2011 falls to personal opinion, unless you’re in Syria, Bahrain or Yemen I guess, so I’ll avoid nostalgic anecdotes of a life when we had to use handwriting and telex, before we e-mailed each other and kept in touch constantly with mobile phones and before fax machines, computers on every desk and two-day weekends. Going to the souk a couple of times a week and bargaining the price of fruit and veg was just a part of life then; in Dubai last week we shopped at Waitrose for the same stuff you can get at our local store in England. We were spoiled for choice so breakfast was organic muesli instead of the flat bread I used to get in a pack from Sharjah Modern Bakery. And there are no weevils in the flour any more, which I suppose is progress of sorts.

There used to be very few amenities and whilst hotel bars, the Rugby Club and one or two other celebrated watering holes were always popular, one’s social life tended to develop around a dinner table or barbeque. In Dubai today you are spoilt for choice and you go out but, despite there being so much, there is a wearing sameness to what’s on offer. Before the move towards tourism the community was much smaller and less diverse than it is today. Expatriate society then was dotted with real characters and I’m often left wondering, dealing now with the mind-numbing ordinariness of the Facebook generation, where they’ve gone. Perhaps the paucity of people with charisma, individual qualities and original opinions reflects the manner in which society has changed but whatever it is, fewer occasions these days in Dubai leave you thinking that you’d just spent time with someone special. Often, it’s quite the opposite. Social life used to be a joyride that ricocheted between sumptuous feasts and evenings of inedible food, memorable occasions highlighted by adventurers, raconteurs, personalities of questionable background and a share of lost souls. Now we go to a sports bar, compete with flat screen television and look away as the bare-footed untravelled in cut-down shorts loudly demand service.

The Middle East and Dubai in particular is overflowing with the mile markers of our ‘improved’ and accessible lifestyle. It likes to wear it’s modernity on its sleeve so the tenets of what the USA upholds as ‘freedom and democracy’ are on every corner; Starbucks, McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza and Baskin-Robbins proliferate and the fast-food courts in the malls are full.

So while I watched as restaurant staff were insulted and intimidated I wondered if the Emiratis who wanted Dubai to be the destination of choice have got what they wished for. And in an obtuse kind of way, I think they have. It’s busy, a lot of money washes around, it’s unquestionably safe and the Emiratis don’t have exposure to what I watched last week.

I am nostalgic for how it used to be but being an expatriate is of course enjoyable and more comfortable in different ways now. Variety and accessibility, however, don’t necessarily equate to richness and it seems to me that what’s on offer in Dubai sacrifices life experience for gratification. It sometimes feels like Ibiza.

I’ve made good friends in Dubai, some of whom I’ve known for more than thirty years; spending time with them these past few weeks has been an absolute joy. And we didn’t sit around groaning at how much better it all used to be, either – the steak and Argentine wine we had at Jumeirah Beach Hotel were as good as it gets. But it’s sad to think though that what made Dubai special and kept us coming back over the years has gradually been eroded. Things do change, of course, but it seems that the majority of visitors these days don’t really mind where they are, as long as the sun shines, they have money to spend and restaurant staff doesn’t answer back.






Dubai; build ‘em high and sell ‘em fast

When I was working in Dubai recently I enjoyed a privileged position in an office that had relatively close links with the government. Aside from the obvious advantages that arose from having an ear close to the ground my clients were also principal developers so, when approval was given at the highest level to develop, say, more housing, another group of towers, a new seafront, an opera house [yes, really] or a conference centre, we were right there on the front line. Through this association I became, by default, a member of a rather exclusive club; my name found its way onto the limited list of individuals who were offered first choice of many irresistible development investment opportunities. So, my working day would frequently start – after the essential cup of strong coffee that was required to gain some degree of perspective on life in an unreal world – with the discovery of a discreetly delivered and personalised envelope that had appeared on my desk overnight. There was always a degree of secrecy about these invitations; I never saw an envelope arrive although I wondered how someone had got past our security, had no idea who sent it and never really understood why someone thought I might be interested in investing in a new island that would be close enough to Iran for the Revolutionary Guards to hit with brick bats. We were, however, swept up in the euphoria of the economic miracle so I would slip the invitation discretely under my jacket and head off to the restroom to peruse it undisturbed. I think there were one or two others in my office that had been elevated to the same Masonic order but I never found out who and never let it be known that I was also one of the chosen few. Of course, there were suspicious and envious glances from colleagues and a few searching questions but I’m cool under pressure and pretty sure that I never gave away what was happening under cover of my day job.


Victory Heights reaches a low point



The pattern of the invitation was always similar; hand-made paper, script and edge embossed in gold, an illustration of an idyllic environment or particularly attractive family group – you’ll have seen it elsewhere; handsome and successful husband, attractive home-making wife and intelligent child, sometimes a dog and nearly always seagulls. Then there was a logo of entwined letters forming a distinctive, iconic symbol and, encompassing the essence of it all – the slogan. I was invited to ‘turn my dreams into lifestyle’ and exhorted to ‘live the reality’ or ‘experience the freedom’ and let ‘vision become living’. No, I never really got that one either but I have to say there were times in that locked restroom cubicle, as I slowly turned the glittering pages and marvelled at the glimpse of Eden that unfolded before me, that I was sorely tempted. I never got beyond that, however, eventually taking to reading the international edition of the Guardian instead.

But a lot were tempted and this is how it worked. An exclusive launch would be in one of the ubiquitous sales centres, plush and adorned with extensive wall displays, digital imagery and designer furniture. The lavish welcome would include liveried waiter service before a cultured presentation team ran through the expensively-produced client packs. These would outline ambiance, investment, yield, likely profit and a few cursory dates to indicate project start and completion. Add to that a fly-through video [accompanied by some appropriate Baroque music] and then the money-shot – the invitation to sign-up for the unique opportunity.

Now, it should be noted that the dates presented would have little or no importance at all and this is a part of the reason for the exclusivity of the invitation. The whole point of this exercise is that you sell your investment as soon as it has increased in value. That might be in three months or even three days, but almost certainly it’s before the project is finished and, more often, before it has even started.  So, you commit to a 10% down-payment on, say, a sea view apartment on the 40th floor of a proposed tower and a promise to pay ten stage payments that match progress of the building, which is due to start on site, well, soon. Having seen your cheque cashed with frightening speed you don’t go near the site to look for progress because that will lead to bitter and worrying disappointment. Instead, you go back to your office, get on with your job and await the next envelope to appear on your desk.

You see, the developer won’t even consider starting work until he has commitments on the whole project, all the deposits are in his account and stage-payment contracts are ratified because he’ll need all that in place to convince his bank that he has a viable project and sufficient funds to kick it off.

Back in your office a new envelope has appeared, complete with gold lettering, iconic logo and a slogan that reads ‘where dreams and diversity unite’ or some such nonsense, so it’s off to the restroom. This time the invitation is for the launch of another imposing tower development with even better sea views. While you ponder that and after returning to your desk you get a call from an agent who explains that the value of the contract you signed on the sea view apartment [where they haven’t even started clearing the ground] is now worth, say, 20% more than you committed to and ‘would you be interested to sell?’ Well, you’d be foolish not to, wouldn’t you? And how did the agent know you’d invested? Anyhow, you sell at a profit along with your fellow investors and take a more serious look at the latest invitation. Meanwhile, the developer that you paid the original deposit to finds that the market activity has inflated the value of his project, even though he still hasn’t started it and has spent only consultancy fees. So he speaks to his bank and borrows money against the increased value of his yet-to-be started tower. The profit gives him the capital to invest in a new project so he instructs his team to compose a slogan and get the invitations ready.

In those heady days some projects were sold on three times before they were completed, each time inflating the value of the development. There were also a few little local problems – if you were the second or third purchaser of a sea view apartment you might not know until after you’d bought it that the developer had used the profits from the earlier sales to reclaim land in front of your window and was planning to construct a higher tower than you were going to live in. And other developers never quite managed to sell enough deposits and stage-payment commitments to start their projects, so you were left in a position where the project wasn’t really being progressed but wasn’t cancelled either. Bad enough but if you missed a stage payment you were in breach of contract and meantime the value of your investment was going south very fast.

I’ve been back to have a look at some of these iconic developments, those that were started using the increased value that never really existed. The scale of the waste is eye-watering but is nothing in comparison to the scale of the greed that drove it and I wonder now where the money and the intent will come from to complete them.

I’ve not always liked everything I read in the Guardian but I’m glad I found the contents a more interesting read than the numerous invitations that appeared mysteriously on my desk.


Lights, landscaping and not a lot else




Abandoned villas and condominiums outside town




Abandoned villa development




Completed villas surrounded by abandoned towers at International Sports City




An iconic tower on Emirates Road, a major truck route




Villa development in the desert about 20km out of town; undesirable even if it was complete




Another abandoned tower - but what is it?



Dubai; cool and staying out of the heat


Dubai's icons; Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach Hotel and the Burj khalifa. The Address is at the extreme right



Back in England after some time in Dubai where it was overcast and the temperature a cool 23C. The locals tell me it was even colder a few weeks ago and it certainly felt chilly on our beach below the apartment. The fabulous city-state is still emerging from the hangover of the economic recession; bruised certainly, but not bowed and whilst one wouldn’t use analogies that include ‘phoenix’ and ‘ashes’ there’s no doubt that the prevailing mood is one of guarded optimism.

And Dubai is busy. Very busy. Cars with Saudi and Bahraini number plates are more common in the much-reduced traffic queues than we’ve been used to and testify to a huge influx of people from around the Gulf seeking solace from turmoil on their own squares and roundabouts.

Tourist numbers – now so important to the economy – have also increased. 2010 saw over a million more tourists than the previous year together with the opening of thirty new hotels. The Gulf News reported that occupancy was averaging above 70% but my straw poll suggested that hotels are running at 90% and over. Several that I visited were full and one manager assured me that earlier this year Dubai was full, completely full’ with not a single room available to rent. Well, perhaps.

Shopping is more popular than driving badly and has always been a major recreational pursuit in Dubai so the malls, even in these post-recession days, remain vibrant and busy. They say in the shops that there are more people browsing and less people spending, which may be the case, but for me the real attraction is being able to sit with a coffee and take in the diversity. With something approaching 200 nationalities registered in the emirate – try listing just half that number of different countries – time spent in Dubai’s shopping malls provides a window on the human race that occurs nowhere else I know. The Dubai Mall is the largest in the world, if you count the 22-screen cinema complex, aquarium, underwater zoo and ice-skating rink. The development also includes the world’s tallest structure, Burj Khalifa, as well as its own luxury hotel, The Address. Dubai is spoilt for bars located above the tree line but the Neos on the 63rd floor of The Address has views that are matched only by its prices. The whole area, which includes the new Old Town, is without doubt very impressive; watching the crowds drift between the Dubai Mall and Souk Al Bahar as the huge fountain sends jets of water some 270m into the air makes it difficult to reconcile the incomplete and abandoned projects that litter the edge of town. The contractors and developers are staying below the parapet for the moment but sightseers, shoppers, diners and strollers are here en masse – people enjoy and indulge in the place on many different levels.

There’s little in the way of active construction but it’s not completely dead – amid the skeletons of incomplete towers and iconic developments infrastructure and a few projects are slowly being completed. That these have missed a ship that has already sailed doesn’t deter developers from adding yet more accommodation to an already over-provided market. Unlike a couple of years back, Dubai isn’t buzzing, but now the combination of a fair wind and reduced traffic and construction noise makes it possible to detect a gentle humming. The hiatus caused by the economic downturn has seen projects completed or abandoned in equal measure and has also presented an opportunity to tidy-up some derelict areas so it was good to see condominium towers and roads finished in Dubai Marina and Marina Walk. Having said that, the traffic on roads that now have no escape route through construction sites was horrendous; one wonders what they were thinking when the layout was designed or, as I suspect, if they were thinking at all.

North Africa, Yemen and Bahrain are in turmoil as I write and there are problems in Saudi Arabia and Syria. There’s no doubt that unelected administrations such as Dubai’s are keeping a watchful eye over their shoulders as the sound of dissent rumbles on the horizon. In this part of the Muslim world there is probably less to fear than elsewhere and, for the most part, the citizens are not turning ugly. That stems from a multitude of factors; a small population, relative wealth, a genuine and far-reaching respect for the ruler and the laissez faire approach to business that provides, above all, opportunity. When it comes down to it, democracy isn’t really what it’s all about – repression and a lack of opportunity have driven the people out onto the streets. Neither appears to afflict Dubai. The western press revels in reporting the eccentricities and extremes of despotic regimes and is smug in implying that our deeply-flawed model of democracy is the only way forward. But the fact of the matter is that, despite the cranes and scaffolding, unfinished projects, a doubling of fuel prices at the pump, some nonsensical legislation and some truly monumental errors, Dubai actually works. And it feels safe. Just ask the Saudis, Bahrainis and Egyptians who are relocating their families there.


Forever optimistic in Dubai and prepared for the next boom