Dubai - Boom & Bust
October 2010©Nigel Spiers

I wake at 4.00 am to the soft hum of the world’s largest and newest airliner – the Airbus A380-800. Breakfast is being served and a very attractive Emirati maiden asks if I want the cooked or continental breakfast. The dried egg powder omelette is so resilient that they could use it for warm ups at Wimbledon next year and it certainly has enough preservatives to last a five setter. Out my window an enormous red orb rises from the Gulf of Oman and the plane begins the descent into Dubai International Airport.

We have decided on a 2 night stopover in Dubai to break the Christchurch to Nice trip and after a long cool Christchurch winter

we just want to feel the hot sun on our backs and drink a few cocktails around an infinity pool.

I had no great expectations of Dubai before this trip. I imagined a very hot, dry version of Singapore, miles of hideous glass and steel high rise bad taste, a soulless stopover joint for weary world travellers.


Not so long ago some bright spark in the Dubai royal family came up with a cunning plan to diversify from their dependence on selling oil. In fact Dubai doesn’t have much oil compared to some of its wealthy neighbours like Abu Dhabi just 90 miles down the road and absolutely swimming in the stuff. So they decided to create a high tech tourism and trading hub with the west.

Not a bad idea because the world wants to do business with the Middle East and vice versa so why not centralise that process and make it a lot easier for everyone.

Step one – build hundreds of high rise offices, apartments and hotels on the sand. Then sell these off bit by bit to rock stars, soccer players, tycoons, corporations and tourists. The people of Dubai didn’t want to get their hands dirty doing all this so they imported inexpensive migrant workers from India and South East Asia. They also attracted ex pats to do all the servicing work such as real estate agents, teachers, hotel managers and lawyers all on the basis of tax free incomes.

And it worked – in less than 10 years they built a fantasy hi-tech city and over a 100,000 ex pats, mainly Brits flooded in to try and make their fortune on the back of the property bonanza. Then in 2008 came the financial crash and by the beginning of 2009 half of all the UAE's construction projects, totalling US $582bn were either on hold or cancelled, leaving a trail of half-built towers in the desert. Then the banks stopped lending and the stock market plunged 70%.

That’s when the mass sackings started. The exact number of unemployed is not known. The Dubai government does not release figures, and prevents the press from running stories that damage the economy. However here’s the killer - employees who lose work in the UAE automatically have their visa rescinded, generally giving them 30 days to leave and under Dubai's strict legal code defaulting on debt or bouncing a cheque is punishable with jail. Any ex pat in financial difficulty knows the safest bet is to take the next outbound flight. At the airport, hundreds of cars have apparently been abandoned with keys left in the ignition and maxed out credit cards in the glove

box. However the big losers have been the hundreds of thousands of construction workers from the Indian subcontinent, who have worked on perilous building sites earning as little as $140 a month and unlike their British counterparts cannot afford to leave.

We found the Sofitel Jumeireh Beach Hotel on Wotif at a very reasonable price but the first morning we realise why. There is no pool! Well there is a fully formed empty pool but it has dozens of locals swarming all over it trying to find the leak. Discouraged we go back to our room to have a shower and there is no hot water and while we wait to see if it will heat up it floods our room. We decide on a meeting with the Hotel manageress, a very charming young woman from Paris and she promptly gives us day passes to the Sheraton Hotel next door.

Shit it’s hot out here as we find ourselves a couple of recliners around the Sheraton pool. Five minutes out in this stuff and they won’t call me The Great White any more it’ll be The Big Pink.
Ahhh – here comes Yousef our Pakistani waiter and he’s not worried about any old sun and reminds me of a Nestle dark chocolate scorched almond. On interrogation by her Rozness he tells us

"This is the most lovely cool day madam - only 38 degrees. Much better than summer madam because then it is 52 degrees".

"I reckon you could fry eggs on the edge of this pool" I chip in helpfully but no – he’s left to get our drinks - "extra chilli in my Mother’s Milk cocktail please Yousef" I yell at his departing back.

After our next drink I decide to rename Roz from Porky to Fatima at least for this part of the trip.

We have been here 2 days and not seen a single Arab person so I convince Roz over breakfast that we should take a trip into the old part of Dubai. Besides we have a friend back home who will kill us if she learns that we have not at least tried to experience a bit of the local culture. While I wait for Fatima to finish with the breakfast buffet I open the Dubai Times and read the lead story which is:

Husband says he was drunk when he shot his wife

"The 53 year old Emirati soldier claimed that he had not meant to shoot his wife in the back however he had been drinking. On further questioning he did admit that he used an unlicensed gun".

We take a taxi (which are all metered and inexpensive) to the Gold Souk (gold market). Big mistake! Unbelievably hot, dusty, dirty, fetid slums and after only 400 metres we run back to our taxi and beg to be taken back to our hotel. On the way I convince Roz to stop at the world’s largest shopping paradise – the Mall of The Emirates to see their amazing indoor snow skiing facilities in action.

We are now on our 3rd Emirates flight in 4 days and the standard has steadily dropped to the extent where we are now on a six and a half hour flight to hell – Dubai to Nice in a tiny dilapidated Airbus 777-200. The f...... German couple in front of us ram their seats right back as soon as the flight departs Dubai pinning us into our razor thin and excruciatingly uncomfortable economy class seats. The two meals are completely inedible and the entertainment system is so old and hopeless it looks like the earliest packman video game with a tiny 20 x 10 pixel screen. I was lead to believe that Emirates was a class act. Wrong - they need to take a trip on Singapore Airlines and see how it should be done and while they are at it - take some Air NZ and Qantas management along.

Dubai's economy will probably recover at least in some form due mainly to the patriarch of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, which has reluctantly swooped in with a $20 billion bailout. But the hyper-confident Dubai is already dead, as is the idea that growth can continue endlessly by simply feeding on itself. The idea of establishing a centralised Western trading hub in the UAE is also probably valid. But I still can’t understand why people would want to buy a multi-million dollar apartment on the 50th story of a glass tower in the desert. And as soon as Boeing and Airbus wake up to the fact that nobody in their right mind wants to spend their lives in pathetically slow, antiquated and unhygienic stainless steel cylinders in the sky the need for stopovers in Singapore and Dubai will simply vanish.


NB - I wrote a song called Long Distance Love Affair (5MB) a few years ago on this love/hate relationship with long haul travel. It features the gorgeous vocals of Susan de Jong and the sexy sax of Carmel Courtney - enjoy.

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