Dubai's Last Hurrah

In her classic account of World War I, Barbara Tuchman sets the scene for the passing of the prewar era with a vision of epochal pomp, the funeral of Britain's King Edward VII. Nine monarchs rode in the procession and the pageantry evoked "gasps of admiration," wrote Tuchman. But when it was over, one British peer reflected that "all the old buoys which have marked the channel of our lives seem to have been swept away."

In Dubai last month, a very different kind of pageant was held, but if Tuchman were still around she'd have been taking notes. This triumph was billed as a world-beating blowout, a $20 million star-smacked extravaganza with the likes of Charlize Theron, Lindsay Lohan, Michael Jordan, and Robert De Niro in attendance. The fireworks display was so enormous it could only truly be appreciated from the heavens (literally—it was visible from space). The occasion was the opening of the $1.5 billion Atlantis resort complex on an enormous artificial archipelago shaped like a palm tree. The point of the party, its promoters explained, was to show the world that Dubai is a land of fantasies come true, an over-the-top destination for good times. But among many of the guests, the mood was funereal. As the fireworks exploded, the global economy was imploding. Many of Dubai's overleveraged fortunes were crumbling, and no one was sure where to turn. The old buoys seemed to have been swept away.

"It's a tragedy in the making," said a senior executive with one of the city's biggest real-estate-development companies as he peered into his champagne. "A lot of people are going to get hurt. A lot of dreams are going to be shattered," he said, referring not only to the erstwhile rich and the speculators. Imported workers are already being exported, jobless, back to their homes. Skyscrapers are standing unfinished, baking in the sun. "Have you seen all those ships lined up on the horizon?" he said, gesturing toward the open gulf. "They're stuck out there full of steel and concrete nobody wants anymore."

While it may be an exaggeration to say that as goes Dubai, so goes globalization, it has become hard to imagine one without the other. More than any other place on earth, this city-state in the United Arab Emirates is the creation of worldwide commerce, a specialty-built magnet for the kind of hot money that seeks the quickest, highest profits and then moves on when they disappear. A lot of that cash comes from nearby Arab oil powers, most notably the adjacent emirate of Abu Dhabi, which has 90 percent of the UAE's crude. But many billions more have flowed in from Iran, India, China, Russia, Europe, the United States, and indeed just about every other corner of the world.

For the past decade at least, real-estate speculation has been the national sport. The price of houses and apartments, many not yet built, rose by 43 percent in the first quarter of this year alone. Mortgage money was easy to get and speculators commonly flipped properties for substantial profits in a matter of weeks, sometimes even days, before the first monthly payments came due. Everybody wanted in on the game. "Employees didn't focus on their work anymore," complains the chairman of a regional transport company. "They all wanted to go buying property for 10 percent down, if that." As of June, Dubai had 42 million square feet of office space under construction, more than any other city in the world, even Shanghai. What was a flat desert 20 years ago is today an urban canyon. Such is the frenzy that the Hard Rock Café, built among vacant lots in 1997, is now surrounded by skyscrapers—and plans to tear it down for another high-rise are being debated as if the Hard Rock were a heritage site.

But Dubai wasn't just a receiver of world capital. It was also an important global investor. In 2006, its DP World acquired the management of six major U.S. container ports—until an explosion of xenophobic protest in Congress made the deal politically untenable. Today, among many other holdings, Dubai owns a 43 percent share in NASDAQ OMX and a 20.6 percent share in the London Stock Exchange. Its wholly owned subsidiaries include Travelodge in Britain, Mauser in Germany, and Barney's and Loehmann's in New York. By early 2005 the "liquidity gift," or windfall profit, created by rapidly rising oil prices started to look like it would last, and Dubai's boom really picked up steam. Some of the city's top financial officials started warning privately that a bubble was forming and so sought to keep diversifying their holdings as widely as possible. But as oil prices continued to climb, more and more fresh cash poured into Dubai's freewheeling economy and the public started to feel protected from global shocks. Nobody was ready for the plunge in prices over the past four months, which has taken oil down to less than a third of its price last summer. Dubai turned out to be "insulated but not isolated," says Mary Nicola, an economist with Standard Chartered Bank.

As with so much in the interconnected world economy, the ripple effects of the current crisis keep spreading, exposing some of the more unpleasant facets of the Dubai dream. Layoffs, which have already begun, will have an impact not just in Dubai but also in the working-class neighborhoods of Manila and Mombasa and Thiruvananthapuram that sent their workers to the gulf. Thousands are expected to leave when the holiday season is over, with little fanfare. The guest workers' invitations can be revoked any time, so few complain—but bitterness is widespread. Meanwhile, prices for houses and apartments still on the drawing board have dropped almost 50 percent in some areas, mortgage money is simply frozen, and major projects are stalled or being scaled back. Rumors abound that Dubai may have to sell a substantial stake in Emirates Airlines, the national carrier that's vital to keeping it connected to the outside world. And in a business culture built on inside dealing, the official denials of such a sale have had little credibility out on the street.

The sense of uncertainty and fear has grown so much that even in Dubai's famous gold souk, which was a center of trade long before the word "globalization" was invented, there's now a pall of confusion. "Not only are gold prices dropping," says Firoz Merchant, the owner of one of the shops. "Everything is uncertain and moving in different directions." As if to underscore the gloomy mood, last month the Dubai Marina suddenly started filling up with excrement. Apparently many buildings in the city can only dispose of their wastewater by having it trucked to a treatment plant. But the drivers got impatient with long lines and started pumping it into storm drains that led straight to the sea.

In an effort to restore confidence just days after the Atlantis resort blowout, Dubai announced the creation of an "advisory council" headed by Mohamed Alabbar, the chairman of Emaar Properties, which is building, among many other projects, the tallest skyscraper in the world in the heart of the city. Emaar's stock price, it is worth noting, has plummeted more than 80 percent this year, and the sale price of luxury apartments in the hyper-high-rise has dropped by 40 percent.

"Here in Dubai we are realists, and we are also optimists," Alabbar told a forum at the Dubai International Financial Center on Nov. 24. To reassure his audience and the world he promised transparency, a rare concept in Dubai, and addressed the question of the emirate's debt, long rumored to be astronomical. Alabbar said the government and its many affiliated companies had obligations of $80 billion, but assets of $350 billion. "Let me therefore state categorically: the government can and will meet all its obligations going forward."

Such semi-official figures have never been made public before and their details have still not been divulged. So neither the liquidity of the assets nor the basis for their valuation is clear, and it's hard for analysts to judge just how realistic Alabbar's optimism is. "The important thing is not to focus on Dubai's assets and liabilities, it is about moving forward to rectify the situation," says Mushtaq Khan, an economist at Citigroup who authored a recent report on the Gulf.

If there is good news, it's that Dubai's leaders were quick to take some corrective measures in the earlier stages of the crisis. In September and October, the Central Bank implemented a $32.7 billion plan to support the country's financial institutions. Alabbar announced last month that the two main home-mortgage lenders, which had run out of money, would in effect be nationalized. And he promised that the three largest developers in Dubai, which control about 70 percent of the supply on the real-estate market, would work together to keep it under control. The crash of the moment is really "a healthy correction," he said.

Perhaps. Certainly many Dubai residents say they'd like a chance to catch their breath, and there are ample signs the city needs to catch up with itself. Just 50 years ago, the place was a dusty outpost of a few thousand people on a forgotten corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Forty years ago, one of its biggest businesses was smuggling gold to India. After British forces withdrew in the early 1970s from what were called the Trucial States, the seven local sheikhdoms became the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi had the greatest share of wealth because it had by far the greatest share of oil. But Dubai had entrepreneurial spirit.

In the 1980s, under Sheik Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and then his son Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai developed its enormous free port—even as Iran and Iraq fought a war on the horizon. Golf courses that were kept green with millions of gallons of desalinated water started changing the landscape, and by the 1990s, Dubai was building landmark resorts like the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab Hotel. It also started cashing in on new technologies with special Internet and media "cities" built to make it as important a hub for communications as it was for shipping and air traffic. In just five years, from 1995 to 2000, Dubai's population grew 25 percent, and now stands at about 1.6 million people. The vast majority are expatriates coming to work at every level of society, from menial labor to senior management. In 2007, the Emirates as a whole counted only 864,000 citizens, compared with 3.6 million foreign workers. "While infrastructure development was rapid, the number of expats flocking to the city overwhelmed it," says Citigroup's Khan.

But even if Dubai needs an enforced breather, it's not likely to get through the downturn unscathed. Abu Dhabi, after many years of quietly helping to fund Dubai's growth and watching Dubai develop a reputation for innovation and excitement, is now looking to take a bigger share of the action. "A formal statement is unlikely," says Khan, "but strategic assistance from Abu Dhabi is likely." And so is increasing control. Abu Dhabi dominates the UAE's federal government and last week the federal constitution was pointedly amended to bar the prime minister (Dubai's Sheik Mohammed), his deputies and federal ministers from "any professional or commercial job" and to prohibit them from any business transactions with the federal or local governments. How this can be enforced is an open question—to a large extent, Dubai is Mohammed Al Maktoum—but the message was clear enough: Abu Dhabi is now in charge.

Meanwhile, the Emirates are literally taking some time off, first for Muslim holidays and then for Christmas. Few big new initiatives are likely to be announced before the beginning of the year, if then. But the cracks continue to show. Take the new Atlantis resort, for example. It is a joint project between South African developer Sol Kerzner's group and Nakheel, the Dubai development company that built the Palm Jumeirah island and other even more extravagant real-estate follies up and down the coast. Days after the grand opening, Nakheel announced it was laying off 500 people, or roughly 15 percent of its global workforce. "The people with Nakheel spend $20 million on fireworks and don't have money to pay their own people," says a Lebanese businessman with extensive interests in Dubai. "It's a disaster."

Meanwhile, even the rich are feeling the pinch. Last week the owner of a Mediterranean-style villa on one of the Palm Jumeirah's beachy fronds facing the Atlantis dropped his asking price from $4.9 million to $3.6 million and then $3.13 million, and offered to throw in his Bentley as well. "Our client has his money stuck in the markets and he desperately needed it to run his business," says real estate agent Anthony Jerish. "Still, nobody bought it. Maybe we will sell the Bentley separately. I don't know." No, this isn't the old Dubai at all.