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The rise and fall of Dubai

Last updated on: July 13, 2010 10:28 IST

The rise and fall of Dubai

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Rahul Sharma

There was a time not long ago when you could end up feeling rather poor at a dinner in Dubai.

Guests would discuss the millions of dollars they had spent buying their dream home no. 2, 5 or 21, depending on who you spoke to.

I know people who ended up buying a place because they felt utterly left out at dinners where rich expatriates sipped expensive wine and tucked into mouth-watering kebabs.

That was two years ago - before the bubble burst, before the rich lost their zillions, before cheques began bouncing, before people began leaving their expensive cars on roadsides on their way to the glitzy airport.

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The rise and fall of Dubai

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Times have changed. There is more sanity at dinner parties.  People talk of getting stuck because they can't leave before repaying their loans in hushed tones; they worry about the return of greed that sank a place that for many was the great golden goose, which would always lay that proverbial golden egg.

Those who bought and got stuck now look at those who didn't invest in real estate with envy. "You are very lucky," one long-time resident told me. Two years ago he probably considered me a fool. 

The good part is that Dubai did lay those golden eggs, making many very rich in a very short time during a period when nothing could go wrong there.

It was a time when red-hot real estate deals brought eager investors from all parts of the world - including India - to this once-dusty town along a creek that aspired to become the Las Vegas of the east.

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Image: Burj Dubai.
Photographs: Uttam Ghosh
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The rise and fall of Dubai

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The emirate built the world's biggest and tallest, attracting the best from Hollywood and Bollywood to grace showcase events.

Imagine walking through the world's biggest chocolate shop, facing the world's biggest aquarium, in the world's biggest mall, right next to the world's tallest building! It's some experience.

Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones were guests of honour at the unveiling of what would have been a mile-high tower along Dubai's coastline - taller than the Burj Khalifa, currently the world's tallest building.

On the famous Palm Jumeirah - visible from space - was to stand the fancy Trump Towers, a building that was never to be. Its foundation now lies buried under tonnes of sand. A faded banner announcing the wonderful project flutters in the breeze.

Greed has many stories to tell in a place that has always been special for Indians, and for people from more than 100 other countries that call it home.

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Image: Fireworks at Burj Dubai.
Photographs: Mosab Omar/Reuters
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The rise and fall of Dubai

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But let's move forward, ahead of what happened, what didn't and what was expected to happen as the financial cycle turned and boom became bust.

In more ways than one there are lessons to be learnt from the debacle that kept Dubai on the front pages for a long time, with the kind of publicity the emirate was unused to.

Negativity worried officials, who blamed it on jealousy. Tut, tut, said others who wondered why the emirate would not accept reality, grow up and mend its expensive ways.

The situation today is different. Even though a huge number of buildings lie empty, rents are down and few people are interested in buying real estate, the old homely feel is back in Dubai.

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Image: Fog rolls by early in the morning, near the Dubai Marina construction and residential zone.
Photographs: Steve Crisp/Reuters.
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The rise and fall of Dubai

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People have time for each other, there is more to discuss than mere money and how to make more of it; the traffic has eased and the middle class that ran to nearby Sharjah as Dubai became expensive is slowly returning to the fringes of the city they once lived in.

It takes less time to travel from new Dubai to the older parts on Sheikh Zayed Road - the famous artery lined with shining towers - than it did two years ago. The number of newly registered vehicles has dropped sharply and car dealers are offering some of the wildest deals as they struggle to move their stock.

Folks are relaxed as they digest the news that it's going to take a long time to go back to the hairy or hoary (depending on who you talk to) days of two years ago.

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Image: The Burj al Arab hotel of Dubai.
Photographs: Fouad Juez/Reuters.
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The rise and fall of Dubai

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Business is down, but people are more used to the downturn than a year ago, when they felt they had been hit by a tsunami.

And Dubai seems to be back to its old business - somewhat - after opening its new airport, touted to become the world's biggest when it is completed on a yet-undisclosed date. This is where care is required and the reality accepted.

There are businessmen in Dubai today who are talking of moving out, or at least investing in new businesses elsewhere, as trust and confidence in the place ebbs.

There are bankers closely looking at the debt repayment plans of government-linked companies. And there are people still seeking reasons to stay on.

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Image: Dubai shows some signs of recovery.

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There is far too much happening on the sidelines that is still not clear, but needs to be clarified for the sake of those who belong to Dubai and those who have made it their home for many years.

The core strength of Dubai - that there is no place like it in the Middle East - still remains. That is what Dubai needs to build on.

It needs to showcase its secular and centuries-old trading strengths to attract people, not greed. It's not always about the biggest and the tallest, it is about sustainability.

The author is former editor of Khaleej Times and president, public affairs, Genesis Burson-Marsteller. The views are personal.

Image: Bungalows in Dubai.

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