Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and vice president of the United Arab Emirates, likes nothing better than foreign media reports depicting his emirate as the “economic miracle of the desert.” However, since this economic crisis hit, the foreign media has had a field day reporting everything that has gone wrong with Dubai. Headlines such as, ‘Dubai Property Scandal Claim Emerges Amid Media Blackout’ or ‘The Dark Side of Dubai,’ are just some of the stories that have made the headlines lately. In comparison, reporting within Dubai has been relatively tame and, if you didn’t know any better, the local press would have you believe that the economic situation was under control and life was as idyllic as ever. And that’s what the people at the helm want us all to think.
A few days ago, I received an email from a retired friend who until recently was an executive for a multinational based in Dubai:
“I guess Sheikh Mohammed and his marketing and PR [public relations] machine were more than happy to use the press and the [foreign] media to spread the message of the ‘economic miracle in the desert,’ but they should have realized that trying to use the media is a double-edged sword. Journalists love nothing better than a good story and what better story than the broken dream and the broken lives in the desert.”
Regardless of what the government wants you to believe, it’s no secret what is happening. There is no expatriate living in the Emirates who does not know at least one person whose “dream” has been shattered. In fact, most people could probably name a dozen friends and co-workers who were forced to pack up and leave.
For years before the financial crisis, Dubai was awash with money and the mere thought of it suddenly evaporating one day hardly crossed anyone’s mind. Dubai became a phenomenon all by itself, a place where everyone aspired to go to make more money. From the migrant laborer in India to the marketing wiz in the United Kingdom, everyone had their eyes on Dubai. For many laborers, their first brush with reality was having to repay their debt to the agency that brought them here, almost immediately upon arrival. For the well-to-do urban professionals, the first trap was spending money way beyond their means on everything from fancy cars to property. It seemed like everyone was over their heads in debt, punch drunk on the illusion that this was one of the last frontiers left in the world.
My friend was always skeptical about this line of thought and, like many others, viewed Dubai’s rapid growth as a bubble waiting to burst. I can’t recall how many times he endlessly argued at dinner parties, or while out sailing with friends. Often those who boasted about the “Dubai success story” acted as if they themselves were at the top of the food chain. In the same email he goes on: “All along, most of us knew that the Dubai miracle was nothing but an empty mirage. I really pity the suckers who got caught up in the massive real estate scam, which is what this whole mirage in the desert was really all about.”
It’s also no secret that Sheikh Mohammed surrounded himself with people who believed in his dream of transforming the desert into an oasis at any cost. The initial money was there, so too were the investors and the hand-picked team to carry out mission impossible. The list of “miracles” the ruler preformed is abundant and well documented: doubling Dubai’s coastline, building the world’s tallest tower and one of the largest shopping malls and making a ski slope in the desert. But then again, there was no one in the sheikh’s inner circle that was in a position to contradict him if they felt he had gone too far. A few years ago, the CBS program “60 Minutes” profiled Sheikh Mohammed, using interviews with him and his close advisors. Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the chairman of Dubai World, had this to say about his boss: “He’s always asking the impossible, not what you are able to do, but what you cannot do!”
The sad fact is that nobody can really afford to see Dubai disintegrate; too many livelihoods are at stake. Dubai, like the rest of the Gulf states, is a necessity for millions of laborers and workers who come here carrying hopes and dreams of improving their lot. I can only hope that when this crisis passes the leadership of Dubai will come to their senses and create a place that does not only sing its own praises, but looks after those whose sweat and toil have made this emirate what it is today.
Norbert Schiller is a Dubai-based photo-journalist and writer