Is Dubai’s Party Over?
The glitzy façade shows some cracks.
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. Read more.......