Saturday, June 27, 2009

Dubai After the Fall

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Much has been written, broadcast, tweeted and otherwise disseminated about the Fall of Dubai during the global economic meltdown. But don't believe everything you hear. Dubai has indeed slowed from its feverish peak, but neither the deep global recession nor desert heat that can hit 130-plus in the summer has stopped this tiny statelet from pursuing its ambitious plans.

Truth be told, Dubai is not the most fun-loving travel destination in the world. But it is a prime business center, a place to see a world-class boomtown in situ and a playground for the world's rich - at least in the good times.

For the better part of this decade, Dubai has put in motion a construction boom matched only by the most dynamic cities in China. A credit squeeze had put some of Dubai's building plans on hold, and real estate values plummeted 41 percent since this time last year, but projects already underway are continuing to be built. And that's still a lot of construction, as I discovered on my first visit here.

Across busy, 16-lane Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai's main drag, the Burj Dubai, a slim, irregular structure that will be the world's tallest building when it is finished, is still rising apace. Too much money and prestige are on the line in this showcase project for it to stop. Directly across from my hotel, the Shangri-la Dubai, a modern, highrise business redoubt, construction continues 24/7 on a glass and steel curtain of skyscrapers. I wore earplugs at night to muffle the noise. The light, the hum of traffic on new roads, the clamor of construction are as ubiquitous as the dust blown around town by the desert wind. At Dubai's glittering main airport, the designer shops, lounges and restaurants were absolutely packed.

In short, Dubai may be falling, but it is falling from such giddy heights that it is far from touching the ground.

Some of the broadly shared perception that Dubai is dying stems from a story published by the New York Times on Feb. 12 citing unamed newspapers reporting that foreign workers - fearing debtors' prison, which still exists here - had abandoned 3,000 cars at Dubai International Airport in their haste to escape the collapsing economy. That number - 3,000 - has since pinged around the world in stories that duplicate other stories - but are largely free of original reporting - in an endless feedback loop. Neil Rumbaoa, the Shangri-la's director of communications, told me some cars had indeed been abandoned at the airport by departing expats. But no one could verify the number, and 3,000 may be far too high.

Early this years, fellow UAE member Abu Dhabi lent Dubai nearly $10 billion to deal with the slowdown. While not as high-profile as Dubai, Abu Dhabi is much larger - it covers 85 percent of the federated UAE - and richer - i.e., it has most of the oil. On April 18, Agence France Presse quoted Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammad, as saying he expects the UAE's economy to grow 3 percent this year, down from 7.4 percent in 2008. However Sheikh Mohammad insisted, the worst is over.

In the meantime, the gorgeous, sail-shaped Borj Al Arab Hotel, which claims to be the world's first 7-star hotel, thanks to its opulence, pampering service and exorbitant room rates (think $1,000 a night to start), continues to tower near the construction site of Dubai's palm-shaped artificial island. A seaport that will supposedly be twice the size of Hong Kong harbor when its expansion is finished is also still being built out. Such grandoise dreams have earned the UAE the unflattering nickname "the Emulates.''

Wouldn't you know it, Dubai has the world's largest indoor shopping mall. When I checked it out, you could have rolled a bowling ball through and not hit any shoppers. This was one time I believed the reports of a meltdown were true. But on the whole, Dubai's economy seems to be stabilizing, not stopping. Dubai has announced it will build a new shopping mall twice the size of the present world's largest. It will probably happen.

Certainly, Sheikh Mohammad expresses confidence. And while he could be expected to spin the news, my sense of things following my brief visit to the UAE is: It wouldn't be wise to bet against Dubai (or Abu Dhabi, for that matter) in the long run.

"We are not building to be a model for the highest building in the world, the best airport and the most luxurious hotel, and the largest seaport and man-made islands,'' he told AFO. Dubai, he claimed, has "succeeded through investments in human resources, its unique geographical location (it is roughly midway between south Asia and western Europe) and trade expertise.''

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