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Dubai: The Roaring Emirates

1/14/05
by Ryan Carlson

The topic of Dubai has been on the list a couple times so I thought I'd send some thoughts while I wait for my flight out.

My initial trip to Dubai last year left the impression that it's the most dynamic, bold and important city on Earth and returning recently has made me feel even stronger about it. No other place I've visited remotely compares with the ambitious scale and grandeur of the projects in Dubai. The amount of construction can only be compared with China but I still see far more construction now in Dubai than what I saw in Beijing and Shanghai a couple years ago.

The latest project is the Burj Dubai which is not just to be the tallest building in the world but the centerpiece of "the most prestigious square kilometer on the planet." Few cities could assert such confidence but Dubai has earned the right. Real estate is still very plentiful where the development will be so it appears to be an issue of prestige over function. However, the fortunes of the project can be tracked because the developer is a listed company and represents 10% of the entire exchange.

Other developments are:

Media hub of the region
Technological hub of the region
Education center
Outsourcing zone (to compete with India)
Humanitarian development including large warehouse
Regional medical center

Also of note are the wonderful hotels in the city. Most people think of Dubai as the city with "that" hotel . I visited it last year which costs about $40 (I think) in the form of a voucher which one could put towards a new Patek Philippe or other expensive item in one of the shops but it looked to me just like a very upscale Vegas hotel. Supposedly the hotel would have to be fully booked for 400 years to break even but I can't confirm that.

Of the residential developments, I think the most amazing are the three different Palms and the vast Jumeira Beach Residence.

It seems to me that most of the social scene is centered around enormous shopping malls which are already the largest in the region. The Mall of the Emirates will be completed this fall and will boast, "a 400-meter-long ski slope with varying terrain, a snow area the size of three football fields, over 6000 tons of real snow at any given time and a full capacity of 1500 guests -- all features of the newly named Ski Dubai snow resort."

Right now the Dubai Shopping Festival is going on, and there are serious deals to be had, especially in the form of rugs. Carpet dealers are the most difficult merchants I've ever dealt with so it's nice to have the region's best under one roof but with a product many degrees better than what's offered in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. No matter what the products are, it's easy to find oneself with the spending habits of Elton John whilst in town.

The dark side of the story is that upwards of 80% of the population is foreign and most I've spoken with are unhappy. For Westerners it's a fabulous environment to work but the majority of the labor force is from the Subcontinent and their days are characterized by very long days and very low pay.

From what I understand as well, for a foreigner to set up a business, a local partner is required. Thus, many of these local partners earn a nice living by doing nothing. For expediting projects, a member of the royal family is preferred, and this further concentrates their power and wealth.

One final issue is that I imagined Dubai to be the ultimate soft target for terrorists but then I remembered all the Bin Laden construction company signs around town (since removed) so I wonder if that is in part preventing any terrorism. The Crown Prince of Dubai is also UAE Defense Minister so I would assume he'd take the necessary steps (payoffs?) to prevent anything from happening.

Ryan (a traveler, not an expert...especially since my panel of advisors were bellhops, taxi drivers and anyone who sat on the same bench as me and spoke English)