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Survival of the tallest

Economy | Dubai can build bigger barns, but can it survive the financial storm?

Issue: "Not over till it's over," Nov. 1, 2008

Global markets may be in retreat, but one Gulf sheikdom is showing no signs of it. The tallest skyscraper, the largest man-made marina, and a resort built on artificial islands in the shape of a palm tree are only a few of Dubai's latest undertakings. Thanks to its planners, they've even brought snow to the desert: Ski Dubai claims to be the largest indoor ski facility, boasting five runs and enough snow to cover five football fields. "I think it's somewhat poignant that the same week you have the second Wall Street crash in the United States, you have Dubai announcing a kilometer-high tower and opening a $1.5 billion Atlantis Hotel resort," Gulf expert Christopher Davidson said.

But can Dubai survive the global financial crisis-or could the crisis bring down the country that finance markets and global leaders are counting on in part to underwrite the global bailout? Some economists question the emirate's stability, pointing to its housing bubble, inflation, and its young and untested economy. "Dubai is probably not going to survive it, but Abu Dhabi will with flying colors," said Davidson, a political science professor at Durham University in Britain whose latest book on the UAE, The Vulnerability of Success, has just been released in the United States. Just 75 miles down the road, Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a nation composed of seven semi-independent states. While Dubai is the most famous and populous of the seven emirates, Abu Dhabi is the wealthiest, with one-tenth of the planet's oil and almost $1 trillion invested abroad.

Dubai's oil reserves, on the other hand, are drying up, and it has built an economy that depends on foreign investment and tourism that caters to those who crave excess: Guests at the famous Burj Al Arab hotel have a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce and can stay in the island hotel's nicest room for $25,000 a night. Tourism in Dubai will suffer, according to Davidson, if Western Europe and the United States slide into a recession: "What one might see happening is a scenario where Dubai needs to be bailed out by its big brother, Abu Dhabi-its much wealthier brother. And this in some ways might lead to a strengthening of the federation. It might end the autonomy of Dubai's economic development."

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The UAE is taking measures to encourage continued confidence in its economy. On Oct. 13, the country announced a guarantee on foreign deposits in national banks regardless of the amount. And Abu Dhabi appears to be learning from Dubai's mistakes. Although it has also created flashy tourist attractions, it has diversified its economy by investing in high technology and renewable energy industries that can likely withstand the global financial crunch.

Dubai's future appears less certain as its lofty endeavors have led to massive debt. And its obsession with gigantism has come with another price: The emirate relies on hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers-who get paid little and often live in squalid camps-and human-rights organizations are sounding the alarm. "These are the people responsible for the wealth, going up there on skyscrapers, risking their lives, and getting paid pittance wages," Davidson said. Guest workers-primarily from India and Pakistan-comprise 80 percent of the population in the UAE, and some human-rights organizations say there have been a host of unreported worker deaths and confiscated passports.

Environmentalists are complaining too: The massive artificial island projects are jeopardizing the region's ecosystem, they claim.

Despite the controversies, there's no doubt that Dubai has put the UAE on the map. The unfinished glass-covered Burj Dubai has already given the claim of "world's tallest man-made structure" back to the Middle East-a title it hasn't held since before England's Lincoln Cathedral shot above the Pyramids of Giza in 1311. And just in case someone tries to outdo that achievement, the emirate has plans for an even taller skyscraper that will top 3,000 feet at a hefty $38 billion. But Dubai's unbridled confidence could be its downfall if debt and human-rights abuses go unchecked.

"Most of the other emirates remain quite isolated from the phenomenal growth in the two wealthier emirates. It's leading to resentment and internal labor migration," said Davidson. "If there's a greater mood of transparency and an awareness of the problems it faces, then it can strive to become the true bridge between Europe and Asia."

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