The new, new Dubai

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By RICHARD R. GROSS  www.americanchronicle.com 

Hummers are out. The Metro is in. Luxury residence towers that once sold out condos hours after going on market sit empty as deserted beehives.

Dubai metro
Dubai metro

Apartment rents have been slashed by half or more. The estimated 20 percent of the world’s construction cranes once crafting the iconic 21st century city into a real-life sandcastle are hushed and the huge construction labor force has been pared back, in some places to a lone watchman.

Dubai is not the post-recession apocalyptic vision famously writ in Newsweek’s cover story “Goodbye, Dubai,” but things have definitely changed. Traffic jams are confined to rush hours, big box French hypermarkets Carrefour, Geant and Lulu compete for the sale of environmentally friendly jute shopping bags while buying back plastic, and the expats remaining in the aftermath of recession talk about establishing art galleries, book reading clubs and a sense of community.

Wait. This is bad?

South African entrepreneur Sol Kerzner opened Dubai’s Atlantis The Palm one year ago with a $23 million display of 100,000 Gucci-designed fireworks that could be seen from outer space. It would become the elaborate period on a decades-long run-on sentence of growth and unfettered capitalism.

The recession that began innocently with defaulted housing loans in the United States snaked its way around the globe to the most booming — hence most at risk — place on earth, the United Arab Emirates and its signature city-state, Dubai. The party stopped and since has been on extended hiatus.

But some good has resulted. Stories appeared earlier this week in the state-sponsored press about crackdowns on human trafficking. The slowdown in the construction trade means labor camps have dissolved. There are discussions about extending health benefits to laborers and the new media law, while far from America’s First Amendment freedom of speech guarantee, decriminalizes press offenses. Women are being appointed in increasing numbers to the Federal National Council, the Emirates’ equivalent of parliament, though there are no elections.

Signature projects continue, albeit on a delayed timetable. The world’s tallest structure, the Burj Dubai, has a scheduled Jan. 4 grand opening. Meydan, the world’s largest horseracing venue and particular point of pride for Dubai ruler and horse lover Sheik Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum is scheduled to open for the International Racing Carnival Jan. 28 and will host the world’s richest race day, the Dubai World Cup, March 27.

The Dubai Metro opened to rave reviews in late September with 10 stations, the remaining 19 on the initial lines to open in February.

Much remains to be done if Dubai is to realize the vision of its founders. But it is wise to remember that Dubai is one of seven states that are but 38 years-old, celebrating National Day Dec. 2. Imagine America in 1804.

On Nov. 24, 2008, just after the Atlantis opening as the credit crunch began to press on Dubai, Mohammed Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties, builders of Burj Dubai, told a forum at the Dubai International Financial Center: “Here in Dubai we are realists, and we are also optimists.”

Dubai is not the Middle East’s Las Vegas or Los Angeles, its frequent comparators. Instead, it may be just a pleasant, sustainable city with a few current financial challenges.