The market drives

My friend Liz wrote a post this week about why she left Dubai, a nicely done zap: “It was an ever-present, nagging feeling of being used. There’s just so many people out to make a quick buck in the city that it’s hard to know who to trust. And after a while that feeling pervades all your interactions, thus making life a little less pleasant each day.”

I think her experience of Dubai is typical. Dubai’s population is 85 percent foreigners, and they come here to work in this booming economy. But many leave disenchanted.

Tom and I experienced Dubai differently than most, because we didn’t actually work in Dubai. We have our office at home, and we work long-distance or commute to nearby countries. We based ourselves here because we wanted to live closer to the places where we were likely to have assignments, and Dubai is a hub for the Middle East as well as Africa, Asia and Europe. Other than a couple of freelance reporting jobs and a month-long gig on the news desk of IRIN, I didn’t have to commute.

We never even bought a car. Usually I could choose the time that I went out and about, so I seldom dealt with the horrific traffic. We have a lovely apartment in the heart of the city, with a gym and pool on the roof, and a grocery store on the ground floor – there were quite a lot of days when I did not leave the building at all.

As for being used, well, I feel like I was the one using Dubai rather than vice versa. In typical ex-pat fashion, we benefited from the large pool of cheap labor, the flow of goods and no sales tax: We had a wardrobe of clothes custom-tailored for less than what it costs to buy them off the rack in the US. We bought a half-dozen beautiful wall hangings from Pakistan and had a carpenter custom-make the racks for them, all for a few hundred dollars. I had my entire collection of film negatives scanned and put on CDs – some 11,000 frames – for $1,000, and in the US it would have cost five times that much.

Living overseas makes us exempt from US federal income tax, and the only tax we pay in Dubai is a housing tax of about $110 a month. Electric and water rates are not cheap, but I think reasonable considering that our supply comes from the high-fuel-consumption desalination process.

For sure, the rents are high. And our landlord, like many others, converted the building to commercial to escape the rent cap of 15 percent for residential. Commercial properties rent for $20,000 a year more, so how could we blame him? And he did allow us to renew our lease and stay past the deadline for the conversion. [We are the last people living in this building, which is getting to be a bit creepy.]

Of course, I do blame the landlord for taking seven weeks to fix the internal cables for our satellite TV (had something to do with a separate squabble over money with the repair company, apparently). And it did take more than two months to have repairs done for the water damage after a pipe burst, but I think that was the construction company’s fault – warranty work being a lower priority than putting up new buildings.

Most of what’s unpleasant about Dubai is about market forces, in the end. Landlords and construction companies and merchants make as much money as they can because they have a supply of something that’s really in demand. As consumers, most people want to get the best they can at the lowest price, and as workers they want to do the best work at the highest price. Dubai has cheap labor because there is, sadly, an unlimited supply of people who are willing to come here because they earn more than they can at home. [Some parallels here with how New York City was built, but that’s another post.] The sheikhs are rich and the economy is booming because the world is drinking oil – to propel our cars and fuel our factories. When economies grow this fast, there’s bound to be some mess.

Unless, of course, the government steps in with regulation. Dubai has made some progress in a few areas (because of labor protests and consumer complaints, as well as external pressure), but it is still in the sand dunes in many respects.

Holding elections won’t create an accountable government here any time soon, since most of the people who have a gripe are not citizens. More workers have to vote with their feet and consumers have to vote with their wallets before anyone will pay attention to us.

This is a souq city. Turn your back and walk away, and the merchant will come running after you with their “best price.”

Or not. After all, there’s a new fool arriving every minute.

2 thoughts on “The market drives

  1. Lisa, See the current issue of National Geographic. Story about Dubai. I learned a lot. The palms developments, Dubai in the 1990s vs. today. Good overview, I think.
    hugs, Beeky

  2. I still haven’t read that, since a copy of NG costs $10 here … but from the excerpt online, it looks like quite a gusher:

    There once was a sheikh who dreamed big. His realm, on the shores of the Persian Gulf, was a sleepy, sun-scorched village occupied by pearl divers, fishermen, and traders who docked their ramshackle dhows and fishing boats along a narrow creek that snaked through town. But where others saw only a brackish creek, this sheikh, Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, saw a highway to the world.

    One day in 1959, he borrowed many millions of dollars from his oil-rich neighbor, Kuwait, to dredge the creek until it was wide and deep enough for ships. He built wharves and warehouses and planned for roads and schools and homes. Some thought he was mad, others just mistaken, but Sheikh Rashid believed in the power of new beginnings. Sometimes at dawn, with his young son, Mohammed, by his side, he’d walk the empty waterfront and paint his dream in the air with words and gestures. And it was, in the end, as he said. He built it, and they came.

    His son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, now rules Dubai, and around that creek has built towering dreams of his own, transforming the sunrise vision of his father into a floodlit, air-conditioned, skyscrapered fantasy world of a million people. With its Manhattan-style skyline, world-class port, and colossal, duty-free shopping malls, little Dubai now attracts more tourists than the whole of India, more shipping vessels than Singapore, and more foreign capital than many European countries. The people of 150 nations have moved here to live and work. Dubai has even built man-made islands—some in the shape of palm trees—to accommodate the wealthiest of them. Its economic growth rate, 16 percent, is nearly double that of China. Construction cranes punctuate the skyline like exclamation points.

    Dubai is also a rare success story in the Middle East, a region with a history of failure and stagnation. Whether Dubai represents a glitzy anomaly or a model to be copied by other Arab nations is a question worth asking these days, as the Islamic world struggles to cope with modernization. Abdulrahman al Rashid, a Saudi journalist and director of the Al Arabiya news channel, put it this way: “Dubai is putting pressure on the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. People are beginning to ask their governments: If Dubai can do it, why can’t we?”

    Dubai, it must be said, is like no other place on Earth. This is the world capital of living large; the air practically crackles with a volatile mix of excess and opportunity. It’s the kind of place where tennis stars Andre Agassi and Roger Federer play an exhibition match on the rooftop helipad of the opulent Burj al Arab megahotel; where diamond-encrusted cell phones do a brisk business at $10,000 apiece; where millions of people a year fly in just to go shopping.

Comments are closed.