This story required 8-10 days of reporting, and a month to write. This was extreme, even for me - a slow writer - but I kept starting, tearing up everything, and then did nothing for days. I always thought writing about Dubai would be easy; I knew it, and so I had an edge. What I didn't count on was how strange writing about people there would be. So much of what I saw went against what I knew of the place. So I wrote it down as I saw it, and put in some observations from memory to highlight how the city had changed.
On a cold night by the sea, a peculiar pretense played out in Dubai. A crowd of construction workers stood outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel as beautiful women streamed past, ignoring them. The women were ushered into Premier, a popular nightclub inside, bypassing the queue of men. Ten years ago the club opened its doors to ‘young adults’. Now the entire neighborhood was no place for a young adult to be seen.
Under purple and orange lights, women danced to Akon in groups; Lebanese, Ethiopian, Central Asian. Men stood at the bar, watching them, and making up their minds. A gray-haired Iranian man walked up to one nervously. She was the prettiest girl in the room, and she knew it. It helped that her denim shirt was unbuttoned to her navel. She paid him no attention. He extended a hand. She smiled, he smiled, he high-fived her. Aw yeah. Then he did it again. And again. And again. And again. Finally she stopped. “Is there something you’d like to tell me?” she asked. He looked at her once more before taking the plunge. “How much for me and my friend?” he stuttered.
The Iranian left with her soon after. Elsewhere in the club, perfect strangers held each other like lovers, smiling, murmuring; inches apart, doing everything but kissing, never kissing, and you could read why: someone might be watching us. Here’s the thing. On the streets of Dubai you can buy love, but you can’t kiss.
Past midnight, the line at the club inside the hotel had grown longer, oblivious to the danger outside. A policeman stopped his car across the street, turned on the beacon and marched toward the Hyatt. At the hotel’s entrance, two Russians hookers in tank tops and short skirts froze. The customer picking them up froze. The cop walked past the driver to two parked cars, tore them fines for improper parking, and returned to his vehicle. Here was confirmation for many who had heard it before: On the streets of Dubai you can buy love in sight of the police, but you can’t linger in the no-waiting zone.
Dubai is a trading place. Every manner of trade goes on here. It is a port, a go-between, a facilitator. Everything is temporary. It offers almost all residents no citizenship for services and loyalty, but promises good money and safety. That is how it has been since the country gained independence from Britain in 1971. At the beginning, these lures, combined with the country’s proximity to license-heavy India, induced many Indians to take up jobs in Dubai and its surrounding Emirates. They arrived and lived years quietly, mostly without incident. The rules were simple: be productive in exchange for moderate riches, no taxes, and a comfortable life. Along the way they grew too used to their way of life, forgetting that Dubai is a trading place, that if it were a person it would be a social climber, always trading in one version of itself for the next. When the USSR dissolved and the first planeload of prostitutes arrived, Dubai shipped them back out. But with time it let them linger for longer and longer, realizing that sex was a parallel economy.
This set off quite a reaction. More people came. More money came. Dubai was seen as habitable. Companies came. Crazy projects came. Fame came. Everything came quickly, some would say too quickly. Rents rose. Inflation was ridiculous. The dynamics changed. The old world residents didn’t know what hit them. They adapted reluctantly. Some adapted instantly, discovering their inner hustler.
“Wait till you see the women at Radisson,” B, a creative professional told me over a beer at a mall. B was a typical Dubai success story. A living embodiment of the local belief that in Dubai your life could change instantly. He was fat and bald from job stress, and on the verge of deportation in 2003. But he knew the right people, and licenses were arranged, his visa was renewed, and by the next year, B’s new design firm had billings of over a million Dirhams (approx Rs 1.3 crore). He traded in his old jeep for a Merc. Now, as he examined women at the Madinat, that life was far behind. “You know, if you’re here for a while, I can take you to the Radisson. My treat, brother.” B said his wife “thinks I earn about Dh75-80000 a month (approx Rs 10 lakh). She doesn’t know that I make Dh125,000 (Rs 16 lakh). I have to have my fun, man.”
Tracy, all of 20, was new to the sex trade. She was assigned to a busy road outside the York Hotel, where business was roaring. It was one of the few busy hotels in a town where occupancy had fallen by 60%, according to taxi drivers who worked the night shift. This was her first month in the city. “Someone asked if I wanted to travel and make money, and next thing I knew, here I was. Now I have to pay off $15,000 before I can move on.” She lived in tiny studio apartment near the Hyatt with two others, and they all worked and slept there. “I don’t really like doing this, but I asked for it.” I just feel sorry for men who think I’ll show them a good time. I’m doing my best to not let that happen.” For the first time during our conversation, she laughed. “After this I’m going to get away and study.”
Many visitors see Dubai as the region’s sex HQ, a descriptor the city prefers to not have. It would like to be the Monaco and Las Vegas of the Middle East, or even a ski destination (a range of ski slopes is planned). Up next is an amusement park as big as Dubai, an inland archipelago, and a tower taller than the 180-story Burj Dubai. It already has a marina, a Sports City, the World – an offshore, man-made collection of inhabitable islands shaped like the earth, all for sale – three giant palm-shaped islands. An Equestrian City is on the way. A perfectly plausible route from home to work would see a driver passing Old Dubai, Heritage Village, The Marina, Internet City, and Media City on his way to Education City. This is a place carved up into microcities where everything is a representation of something else. A New York architect whose firm, Gruzen Samton, developed a waterfront for Dubai, said the city was viewed by architects as something of a novelty.
And yet, Dubai is not a place for people of letters and art. Always, the residents remember, commerce has played the largest role. “To live here, you need to earn at least Dh40,000 a month, (approx Rs 5 lakh)” Vipul Meisheri, a senior executive at a legal firm said. Residents know their numbers. They can tell you, offhand, the price of land in the Business Bay area, the price of a Nissan Maxima, the average cost of a driving test, and how many cars crashed in the last great highway pileup. Numbers excite them. Numbers bring life and scale to a place that has lost all sense of either. People feel and judge through numbers. These help them stay rooted even as the city spins further out of reality’s orbit.
I asked one resident to take me somewhere exciting. The choice offered was between malls. In Dubai, you can go out and eat or drink. You can go for a drive. You can go for a concert. Or you can go to the mall. Every mall has the same stores, the USP is the side attractions. The Festival City mall, whose size qualifies as a suburb, has a canal running through it. Mall of the Emirates houses an indoor ski slope with manufactured snow. We ended up going to City Centre, the largest mall for a time, and now piddly in comparison to the others. As we window-shopped on the top floor, a frantic security guard shouted into a walkie-talkie. He cordoned off a spot and worriedly radioed for an emergency crew. Someone had spilt M&M’s. Of course, soon peace would return. Dubai was nothing if not resilient.
Truer resilience was more evident at the driving grounds of Ghusais, where expats do what they can to get a license, and examiners do whatever they want to deny them one. More than skill, it requires luck. And so, obtaining a license has, over the years, become a reason to celebrate. The fewer tests it takes, the greater the celebration; the process costs anywhere from Dh2000-10,000 (Rs 25,000-128,000) A learner waited for his turn on the testing ground, watching cars, buses, and trailer trucks navigate the circuit. He looked around and muttered, “The motto is, ‘squeeze hard and for as long as possible’.” Then he braced himself and got into a nearby car to try his luck.
The driving school was an arm of government, but it still resembled a school. Emiratis played teacher, and everyone else was on detention. South Asians stood in lines quietly, smiling at Arabs passing by. One didn’t know which line to stand in. He was from Trivandrum, and was on test for a truck license. “I failed three tests. God knows what I did wrong. They didn’t tell me,” he said, shrugging, half-smiling. He said truckers didn’t pass until they did four tests. “That is if you’re lucky. I’ve already spent Dh7000 (Rs 90,000).”
Gulf News, a local newspaper, until recently had a property section three times the size of the rest of the newspaper. But by December the extra sections were slimmer. Property’s rise as an explosive revenue stream had attracted money and talent, but with the game finally up, and the threat of jail terms for unpaid loans on the horizon, immigrants scampered. Now, in the city’s downtown, tower after tower was bathed in attractive external lighting, but the homes inside remained dark. I met Bikram Vohra, a former editor of Khaleej Times, at his large villa near the city’s new designated downtown. Vohra once wrote a popular weekly column about his family; now, several jumps later, he was considering a health magazine. “This place needs it, don’t you think?” he said with an impish smile. I asked if he considered Dubai’s recent excesses a bubble. He disagreed vehemently with the idea of Dubai as unreal. “I don’t get people who say Dubai’s just a bubble. What do they mean? How do they know this is a bubble? These people come here to earn a living, and when that’s done they trash it. This is a real place.” The emphasis on real was intended as finality; for the Dubai resident, to question the idea of Dubai was to doubt one’s own purpose in life. The editor knew, as others did, that Dubai’s breathtaking growth had led it down some pretty strange paths; the world’s tallest tower (with a spire that can be made taller, just in case), an amusement park the size of a large city, and a coastline that increasingly resembles a frozen fireworks display. This is Dr Moreau’s island of man-made wonders. That’s why real is an ambiguous word here. Nothing feels truly natural in Dubai.
If Dubai is an extension of India, Bur Dubai is the state capital. This portion of the city is predominantly Indian, and it comes closest to the bustle of a subcontinental market. Red-mouthed Sindhi and Gujaratis traders at Meena Bazaar sold textiles here. Sweet and cheap electronics shops dotted the neighborhood. Some sold fireworks on the sly before Diwali. With its unpaved alleys, leaky window units and cheap food, Bur Dubai previously had a wet, organic feel. Now Dubai’s love of fresh paint and numbers showed everywhere. Every path, however remote, was paved with red brick. The noisy lanes and old buildings of that market were gone. Neon signs and standardized store fronts ruled. Dubai had upgraded everything.
“It’s not the same, you know,” a Pakistani cobbler who had occupied one spot in a Bur Dubai alley since 1979 told me. His informal stall was now a licensed, numbered steel and plastic shack big enough only to sit in. Rubber soles were stacked along one wall. He thought the structure unnecessary, in part because he was asked to pay for it. “The authorities asked me to build a shack because they wanted the place to look clean. That’s okay, but the fun isn’t there anymore. Theek hai, it’s better than Pakistan, but earlier there was no tension. Now there’s too much. They want money for everything.”
Here is a problem unique to Dubai. A job here pays its residents more than they would earn back home, but costs have risen quickly enough to make any salary increase redundant. Change overwhelmed them. But not everyone sees it that way.
“The world’s economic principles do not apply to Dubai,” an Indian real estate adviser told me. He sat behind an enormous oak desk in his office near Dubai airport. “When people say there’s a downturn, I’m like ‘what downturn?’ I just sold a building for Dh 45 million (Rs 57.6 crore) late December. The local rental authority just registered transactions of Dh 2.3 billion (approx Rs 3000 crore). Go figure. Where is the slowdown?” He clucked like a man in on a secret, and described the dry market as a temporary setback. “Unfortunately people have more opinions than facts, and so we’re witnessing this selling.” He recommended buying. “Ah, there was low-cost housing here. You’ve heard of International City? Well, that was low-cost alright. The first buildings sold for Dh225 a square foot (Rs 2900) in 2006. Now the asking rate is Dh1350 (Rs17,000).”
What drove prices up? There’s one reason most people agree on: speculation. The Dubai boom was advertised as the triumph of man over his conditions. Tourism projections were insane. Every official chart showed Dubai’s population increasing exponentially. It was actually the triumph of optimism. Buildings were sold in clusters of flats over a day or two, and the price rose with every round of sales. Many believed that there were genuine buyers who would come to make the city their home. Others knew better. Buyers found they could earn a third of their investment within a few months. So began the process of flipping. Entire buildings were sold on the first day. “People would stand in line for two days to buy property,” the adviser said.
By December, real estate companies messaged their employees telling them not to come in. Residents stopped making payments, maxed out their credit cards, left their on-loan cars at the airport, and left for home. Some stayed behind, and the scale of folly was evident in one letter to the editor, dated December 26, 2008: “Banks have truly tightened the reins on lending. I am looking for a loan to pay off my Dh 8 million villa (Rs 10.2 crore) and have been unable to acquire one at a reasonable rate.”
For now, though, the general consensus is that economic principles do apply to Dubai. The city’s many grand projects have come to a halt. The kilometer-high tower (building cost: Dh38 billion, or Rs 4860 crore), the Falcon City of Wonders and a rotating tower are among the Dh76 billion (Rs 9720 crore) projects stopped.
The demolitions of old quarters to make way for nicer-looking towers have also stopped. Satwa, a locality known for relatively cheap housing was being bulldozed when finance suddenly dried up. A Pakistani truck driver who lived one street away from the demolition line said it was like “when American planes drop bombs in Pakistan. You never know if your time is up”. He knew why the demolitions were taking place. Pointing to the skyscrapers a couple hundred meters away, he said, “That’s why. We don’t look pretty from up there.” Then he looked at three sleepy young men who emerged from a room in their taxi driver uniforms. “Still, they come from my village. I tell them life is hard here but they don’t believe me. Because they see advertisements about Dubai on television, they see the girls on the beach, and they think that I am having fun here.”