A land at the end of 'The World'

 

In recent years, Dubai became a beacon of the new Middle East, but now it teeters on the edge of ruin, its excesses typified by ‘The World’ development – featuring an empty blob of sand called Ireland, writes CONOR PURCELLin Dubai

A SMALL AND indistinguishable sandy blob, identical to the 300 or so other sandy blobs that make up The World development off the coast of Dubai, is the island of Ireland. At this stage, construction of an “Irish-themed resort” should be well under way.

Bought by Larionovo, an Irish business consortium for €28 million in 2007, the island was meant to feature a marina, a hotel, apartments and villas, and – predictably – an Irish-themed pub. Rather bizzarely, it would also feature a recreation of the Giant’s Causeway.

Now, it all seems ridiculous – both the price paid and the development itself. Will it ever get built? Not in its original conception. Before the end of 2008, Larionovo had gone into liquidation. The World itself is on hold: there has been no construction on any of the islands, save for a solitary showhouse. A spokesman for the development company Nakheel claims that it is “looking forward to the commencement of construction by owners on several islands next year”.

For now, the only way to see this mini-me version of Ireland is by flying over it, or looking at it on Google Maps. Security patrols the islands and even the seen-it-all-before Dhow workers on Dubai Creek won’t chug the four kilometres out to its base. For many people, The World encompasses all that is wrong with Dubai, an empty, wind-blown paean to excess. Just who did this tiny city-state think it was? Building projects that could be seen from space, skyscrapers taller than anything constructed before – it couldn’t last, wouldn’t last.

A few years ago it was very different. Dubai was the poster boy for the New Middle East, a melting pot where all religions and races were welcome, a city without politics, a city where there was one common currency: money. Wasn’t it great, the global media chimed, a cross between Singapore and the Wild West? In many ways Dubai’s rise mirrored that of Ireland, and the Irish could see a part of themselves in Dubai, a small country punching above its weight. There was an Emirati link to Ireland, focused on Sheikh Maktoum’s love of horses. The turn of the millennium saw both become economic powerhouses, albeit in very different ways.

Then the global economy faltered, and questions were asked. Had Dubai not gone too far? Whose money was this?

Foreign journalists made flying visits, decrying the city for its lack of culture, its gaudiness, its hypocrisy. The furore has been amplified in recent days. When Dubai World asked for a freeze on debt repayments as part of a restructuring of its €66 billion debts, the world turned on Dubai.

FOR THE CITY’S residents, the past 10 days have been very strange. There has been anger at the coverage internationally, and exasperation at the coverage locally. Read the foreign press and you would think that the end was nigh, that Dubai was simply going to collapse in on itself – it was all a con and a charade, and in a few years Dubai would be a ghost town or, at best, a sleepy fishing village. The articles dripped in Schadenfreude and cliché, gleefully dismissing the Emirate as a talentless upstart which is “sinking into the sand” or nothing more than a “mirage”.

Read the local press (with the notable exception of the National) and you would wonder what all the fuss is about. Crisis? What crisis?

The truth as always, was somewhere in the middle. Dubai has debts, yes. Could it have handled the timing of its announcements better? Definitely. Certain projects would be stopped or cancelled, others would go on. People are still coming to Dubai and, more importantly, money is still coming to Dubai. Where else are rich Pakistanis or Iranians going to invest? Dubai has always been an adept middleman. The city was built on trading, its savvy leaders exploiting its geographical good fortune, close to India, East Africa and Iran. It became a place where money and goods could be transferred, held and moved on.

It is one of the most important trading hubs in the region and has the biggest deep-water port in the Gulf. It is strategically located between the regional powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and globally, between London and the Far East financial markets. None of this will change in the coming months or years. There is quite simply no regional city that has the infrastructure to replace Dubai in the short term. The ships will continue to dock, money will continue to be exchanged and buildings will still get built.

For the estimated 5,000 Irish in Dubai, nothing much has changed either. Last month Ireland opened an embassy in Abu Dhabi, its second in the Gulf after Riyadh. Some of Dubai’s biggest firms are run by Irishmen. Take one of the most successful companies in the UAE: Dubai Duty Free. It was set up in 1983 by Colm McLoughlin, the then manager of Shannon Duty Free who was part of the Aer Rianta team contracted by the Dubai government to set up its own duty free operations.

Its first year’s turnover was €13 million; last year’s topped €700 million. McLoughlin has no worries about the future of Dubai. “Much of the reporting was sensationalised and overdone. Things are under control now. Dubai is still a great place to do business.” With Dubai Duty Free the most successful enterprise of its kind in the world, it’s hard to argue.

WEDNESDAY WAS National Day, the 38th anniversary of the creation of the United Arab Emirates. Porsche Cayennes and Toyota Pathfinders cruised the streets festooned with Emirati flags and images of Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s rulers. There was a hint of defiance in these convoys with their horns blaring, the occupants whooping and hollering. It was also a reminder of how young this country is: 38 years old and experiencing growing pains.

The night before, the Irish Village was packed. Run by Dubai Duty Free, a faux-Irish village main street marks the entrance of the pub with an exact replica of the post office in Ballinasloe (McLoughlin’s home town). Behind the pub is a tennis stadium.

Outside, picnic benches face a lake and people from all over the world drink pints of Guinness and eat boiled bacon and cabbage. The staff is Irish; the clientele come from everywhere.

No one there seemed too bothered about stock market drops and investor uncertainty. That uncertainty may have calmed for now at least. There will undoubtedly be more blips along the way, but, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of Dubai’s demise may yet have been greatly exaggerated.

DUBAI BY NUMBERS

176Number of years the Al Maktoums have ruled Dubai

38Number of years since the birth of the UAE

20,000Dubai’s population in 1954

1.7 millionDubai’s population in 2009

87The percentage of the population that are not Emirati

20Years left until Dubai’s oil and gas reserves run out

86The UAE’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. Ireland ties for first place with Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, Eritrea comes last in 175th place.

44The number of buildings higher than 200 metres; only Hong Kong and New York have higher skylines

1,200The number of stores open in The Dubai Mall

5,000The number of Irish people in the UAE