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Pack of cards

Now popularly dubbed a “collapsing pack of cards built on sand,” Dubai’s meteoric rise has come to an abrupt halt. What went wrong, and is recovery possible? By Emma Holmqvist

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Just like the emperor and his new clothes, Dubai has been busted and stripped entirely of its fineries. Naked and shamed, the emirate became subject to much critical scrutiny by the very institutions that fell over themselves to get a slice of the pie before the crisis hit.

Getting stick for going on an extravagant spending spree using stacks of borrowed cash from wealthy investors from the Middle East, Russia and the West, Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum transformed Dubai into the most outlandish boomtown of our times, where ostentatious features such as palm shaped islands, seven star hotels and a skyline graced with cloud skimming tower blocks came to signify unparalleled prosperity. Lacking completely in inhibition, both financially and creatively, the speed at which Dubai rose from the sand dunes into a Gulf business hub set to rival the financial centres of London, New York and Hong Kong was staggering. Desperate to get in on the act, western banks and global mega brands elbowed their way in and helped put Dubai on the map.

Since Dubai’s natural resources are somewhat scarce – in stark contrast to the oil rich havens that are Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi – it was predicted for some time that the fantasyland with the awe-inspiring skyline would eventually fall flat on its face. When the recession hit, it came to light that Dubai had drummed up known debt of $80bn at the very least. Although world leaders ranging from Obama to Brown have commented on the crisis, the authorities of the United Arab Emirates remained tight-lipped, accusing foreign media of blowing the crisis out of proportion. This created further tensions between the west and the United Arab Emirates, with Dubai’s lack of transparency causing its own headlines.

The drama is far from over. The harshest blow came in November last year, when Dubai World urged creditors to bring its (approximate) $22bn debts to a standstill. Of this amount, Dubai World owes British banks an estimated $5bn, according to The Times. The news sent shockwaves through the global markets. Not slow to react, the much better-off emirate, Abu Dhabi, came to Dubai’s rescue in December, offering its troubled neighbour a lifesaving $10bn aid package. Following the cash injection, Dubai World retracted its repayment standstill at a crisis meeting held just before Christmas, where 90 creditors gathered to receive the positive news. There’s now a possibility that lenders will be repaid in full, but the damage that’s been done will be difficult to reverse. As Reuters put it, “Dubai’s reputation as a business hub could be tarnished.” Diluting the pulling power of Dubai further, Qatar and Oman are increasingly gathering momentum as viable business spots and may well overshadow Dubai in the near future.

So how did Dubai land itself in such a predicament, and how can it clean up its act? Englishman Anthony Ryman is a local expert and the Managing Director of Grow, a Qatar based advertising and design agency. Having witnessed the development of Dubai and the more refined cultivation of Qatar at close range, Mr Ryman presents his observations: “Part of the malaise is that Dubai wanted results too quickly. As with any boom and bust story, shortcuts were taken and too much money was borrowed, with too many real estate projects being built too quickly. I believe that the problems are temporary – Abu Dhabi won’t let Dubai fall. When it re-emerges, Dubai will continue growing, albeit at a steadier pace. Learning from the lessons of the recent past it is bound to make more astute decisions, exert more financial discipline and perhaps redefine what it really is and where it wants to go.” Offering a balanced viewpoint, Mr Ryman is critical of the way Dubai’s been slaughtered by the west: “It’s easy for the West to point fingers at Dubai now when it’s in trouble, but it can’t be denied that the city has done an extraordinary job transforming itself from a small trading port into a global destination in a matter of a few decades.”

Still a worthy business destination
Leaving Dubai’s financial turmoil and beaten up reputation to one side, the city is still a creditable business destination.

Architecturally there’s much to marvel about, be it in awe, bemusement or even mild disgust; Dubai is not called The Las Vegas of the Middle East for nothing. In its glory days it was said that as much as 15 to 25 percent of the world cranes were being used in Dubai. This piece of trivia shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone who’s set foot in the city – in its developing heyday, the cranes formed as intrinsic a part of Dubai’s makeup as its sandy beaches and flashy hotel bars.

As for the city silhouette itself, the gleaming skyline peppered with an ever-mushrooming number of cloud skimming architectural curiosities give off more than a detectable whiff of testosterone and internally spurred one-upmanship. Beating the rest to it is the monstrously mighty Burj Khalifa, known until recently as the Burj Dubai and one of the most talked about skyscrapers in the world. Designed by Adrian Smith at Skidmore Owings and Merrill and developed by Emaar Properties, the tower is the world’s tallest free standing structure.

Officially opened in January in an astonishing display of pyrotechnics, it looks as though it’s been fuelled by some otherworldly growth hormone, standing 828m high. Speaking of bean pole-like buildings, another real estate project famed for its statuesque qualities is the Burj Al Arab Hotel. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to a gigantic sail, the building is the tallest hotel ever built on earth (it measures 321m). Significantly, it’s also the world’s only seven star hotel. The Jumeirah Mosque, meanwhile, is the largest of the city’s many mosques. With its twin minarets and majestic dome, Jumeirah is one of Dubai’s most photographed sights.

Another much buzzed-about landmark – although recently it has been attracting attention for all the wrong reasons – is Palm Jumeirah, one of Dubai’s three palm islands. Introduced to the world as a manmade haven set to house residential spaces, tourist attractions, hotel concepts and beaches, there are now concerns that Palm Jumeriah may be sinking into the Persian Gulf. According to a study carried out by the ground survey company, Fugro, Palm Jumeriah is making a slow but steady progress south, sinking roughly five millimetres each year.

Some of Dubai’s real estate projects may have flopped, but there are other architectural concepts in the pipeline with more substance than mere height or novelty value alone. Providing that Dubai will make a steady recovery, an even more convention breaking approach seems to be the ticket. Created by renowned architect Zaha Hadid, the much anticipated Signature Towers (formerly known as the Dancing Towers) will form part of the planned Business Bay Development. Designed to house offices, residential flats and a hotel, the three towers resemble octopus arms as they rise in fluid shapes above The Creek.

The Cloud is another project in the making, designed by Nadim Karam of Beirut based agency Atelier Hapsitus. Conceived to counteract the uniform skyline that is dominated by angular tower blocks and futuristic skyscrapers, The Cloud takes a rather poetic approach, something that is very much a signature of Atelier Hapsitus and that won’t go amiss in Dubai. “We like to think of The Cloud as the new Eiffel tower of the Middle East,” says Mr Karam. “It’s designed in a structurally and environmentally advanced way, and it will serve as a public platform hanging 300m above ground level and can be visited by all citizens and tourists of Dubai. It represents the idea of movement and nomads and includes a public park, a lake, restaurants, pavilions and other functions that can be shared by the public,” explains Mr Karam. On the crisis and Dubai’s particular approach to city planning, he observes: “Dubai hasn’t held back on the extravaganza, and it has certainly pushed the limits in terms of architecture. Although the developments have come to a standstill for the time being, I’m certain that the city will recover and learn from its mistakes, making a slower progress in the future.”

Off to the beach
Dubai’s beach culture is an integral part of the city and a definite tourist magnet; The Creek, the city’s natural harbour, is its crowning glory. Many of the beaches form part of different hotel resorts that line The Creek – most of which can be accessed for a small fee – although there are also a number of public beaches to explore. With its clean water, white sand and extensive range of facilities, Jumeriah Beach Park is among the most popular options. Another good choice is the Al Mamzar Beach Park, which stretches across a 100-hectare peninsula and encompasses a sheltered public beach, swimming pools, picnic areas and lush green spaces.

Whichever beach you end up opting for, bear in mind that Dubai is, despite its western facelift, a conservative Muslim emirate. Having stepped up their policing to closer match that of other emirates, Dubai’s authorities have re-evaluated what should be considered offensive behaviour and as a result more arrests than ever were carried out in 2009 (6,000, to be precise). Unfairly, most reported offenders are workers from developing countries. Despite this, westerners aren’t immune and should avoid frolicking on the beach, drinking alcohol or engaging in any homosexual displays of affection – all examples being criminal offences that can, in the worst-case scenario, result in a prison sentence.

Mall head’s paradise
Apart from being a Tax Free haven, Dubai prides itself on being the world’s ultimate shopping paradise. A dream for shopping centre aficionados, Dubai serves up air-conditioned shopping malls of every denomination and consumer taste. And, in keeping with everything else in the city, most malls are huge. To list a small part of the mall offer, Dubai Mall opened in November 2008 and nestles at the foot of the mighty Burj Dubai. One of the largest indoor shopping centres in the world, the mall houses about 1,200 shopping units that span high-street brands, department stores and designer labels. Marks and Spencer and Debenhams both have a space in the Dubai Mall, and Sonia Rykiel, Patricia Pepe, Missoni, Emilio Pucci and Blumarine are a only handful of the many designer names housed within. Apart from its impressive array of shops, it also houses an aquarium large enough to use as a swimming pool. If you fancy taking a break from the shop hopping, an option is to hit the famous ski slopes, Ski Dubai, at the Mall of the Emirates.

To continue the never-ending count of malls, Wafi City was one of the first high-end luxury malls to open in Dubai. With its Egyptian-themed pyramids and obelisks, it’s hard to miss. Other themed malls include the Venetian style Mercato Mall in Jumeriah, and its Arabian fortress counterpart, Souk Madinat Jumeriah. To finish off the themed mall rundown, the IBN Battuata Mal is divided into six main geographical areas, namely China, India, Persia, Egypt, Tunisia and Andalusia.

Desert’s calling
It’s sometimes easy to forget that Dubai is not an entirely urban landscape; this makes the prospect of hitting the desert even more appealing.

There are a number of different desert tours to choose from, one the most popular options being the evening desert safari organised by Desert Safaris Dubai. Setting off in the afternoon in a 4×4, the tour includes sand dune diving, camel riding, henna painting, belly dancing performances and buffet dinner and barbeque.

Out on the town
Dubai might not offer the eclectic prospect of a European party excursion, but ‘hotel hopping’ can be quite an experience in its own right, and something that will bring the Dubai experience full circle. Offering plenty of hotel based night-time fun, one of the most high-end nocturnal destinations is the Skyview bar at the ultra luxurious Burj Al Arab hotel. Adding to the glitz, fashion designer Roberto ‘King of Bling’ Cavalli recently opened the Cavalli Club at the Fairmont Hotel. Expect opulence galore – Swarovski crystal embedded walls, black quartz floors and plenty of gold signify the interior profile.

Aside from impossibly swanky hotel bars, there’s also an array of clubs that attract respectable, world-renowned DJs such as Groove Armada and Paul van Dyke. Trilogy is one of Dubai’s most fancy clubs with three levels and capacity for 2,000 clubbers, as well as rooftop space for an additional 400 people.

Most clubs are open until 3am, but note that during Ramadan many clubs are closed entirely since music and dancing aren’t allowed during this period.

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