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Shrinking Dubai Shows Gentler Face Amid Hard Times | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, (AP) – To someone not used to its grandiose ways, Dubai’s downsizing might not look so bad. Construction cranes still tower over the city, though a bit fewer. Hummers still crowd the highways, though some now have “for sale” signs taped to their tinted windows.

But one brief phrase shows how heavy a blow Dubai has suffered from the world economic crisis. The words “leaving Dubai, must sell” now dot classified ads as departing foreign workers try to dump furniture, cars and kitchen appliances. Look further, and once red-hot office space and apartments stand empty.

Dubai’s self-crafted dynamo image — big profits and bigger dreams — has taken a direct hit.

First, the economic freefall quieted Dubai’s white-hot growth. Then, it took another swipe at the boomtown’s swagger: setting off an exodus of workers that could cut the population by at least 5 percent by some estimates.

Dubai’s leadership has tried hard to portray the shifting fortunes as just a temporary pause in the city-state’s relentless expansion.

Others see a mixed blessing — a chance to simply catch their breath.

For many who endured years of living with Dubai’s high-rolling rules, the slowdown offers a moment of reflection after a decade of watching sand dunes give way to skyscrapers.

Foreigners, who outnumber Emirati Arabs 8-to-1, are seeing the first cool down of Dubai’s sky-high cost of living in years. Some local Arab leaders, meanwhile, are finding the downturn is an opportunity to voice a cultural claim to their country — where they feel traditional Arab values have been steamrolled by a Western-friendly lifestyle of nightlife, bars and sexual permissiveness.

In one sign of the evolving priorities, Dubai has launched a new public decency decree that sets guidelines for conduct in public, particularly frowning on risque clothing.

Mustafa Alani at Gulf Research Center describes the humbling of Dubai as “an attitude adjustment that covers everything from plans for huge projects to the small daily interactions in life.”

“During the boom years, the Dubai way was: `Take it or leave it. There will always be someone willing to pay the price,'” said Michal Mroz, a real estate broker whose office overlooks new apartment towers with massive “For Rent” signs. “Now people are leaving it.”

Residents are finding that excesses they once took as a fact of Dubai life have now changed. A year ago, landlords demanded — and often got — a year’s rent in advance. Today, renters have the leverage and a standard month-by-month payment is possible.

Real estate prices could drop by up to 60 percent by the end of the year compared with the peak in mid-2008, a report by the Dubai-based Shuaa Capital financial services group said. That keeps Dubai in the stratosphere of most-expensive cities — with $5,000-a-month rents for two-bedroom apartments still out there — but it’s no longer a property feeding frenzy.

Proleads, a market research firm, said in a February report that nearly 53 percent of the Emirates’ construction projects have been put on hold and more may be frozen this year.

At the opening of an international property show last week in Dubai, the show’s organizer, Dawood Al Shirawi, even used a word that many Dubai officials have scrupulously avoided: recession.

“This was a big challenge to organize this exhibition during recession times,” he was quoted as saying.

The same belt-tightening mood is found almost anywhere. A report last week by the Jones Lang LaSalle consultants showed the supply of empty office in Dubai has doubled to 16 percent over the past six months. Standard & Poor’s this month cut the credit ratings of six Dubai government-backed entities and a leading property developer.

The Shuaa capital report forecast a 5 percent drop in Dubai’s population from about 1.7 million last year to 1.62 million by the end of 2009 as Gulf construction and financial markets seize up, sending expatriate workers packing.

Emirate officials have offered their own statistics that show work visas holding steady.

But the author of the Shuaa report, Mahdi Mattar, told The Associated Press that it’s possible the expat flight could grow to about 10 percent of the population. Another surge of departures is expected in the coming weeks as middle-class Indian families pull up stakes after the end of their academic year.

“Dubai is the eye of the storm in the Gulf,” Mattar said.

Other nearby cities, too, are cooling off after years of sizzling growth. But Dubai’s main rivals — Abu Dhabi and Qatar’s capital Doha — have deeper pockets with vast oil reserves. Dubai, just 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Abu Dhabi, has been bankrolled by investors seeking a tax-free financial and trade foothold in the region.

“Dubai has been the poster boy for globalization and the free flow of globalized capital,” said Mattar. “It built a reputation as a city run like a company. You see what happens to companies when globalized capitalism begins to fall apart.”

Dubai Inc. even has its corporate-style bailout: at least $10 billion from the Emirates federal government in a bond deal worked out with Abu Dhabi.

Cast-off workers are bailing out in their own ways.

In the crowded center of Dubai’s original commercial district, Abdul Gafoor is helping his wife and two children pack to return to the southern Indian state of Kerala once school ends this month. He sent his eldest daughter back to India last year when his cosmetics business began to stumble.

He’s staying in hopes his company can ride out the recession. But he’s prepared to follow his family to his homeland and look for work with almost certainly lower pay.

“The future here is uncertain … the only option for me is to send them home,” said Gafoor, 43, who moved to Dubai in 1988.

On Palm Jumierah island, the man-made archipelago that resembles palm leaves fanning out from a trunk into the Gulf off Dubai, the apartment of Ramse and his wife — both South African — is now empty. It’s a telling reflection of the woes befalling the elaborate residential island that came to symbolize Dubai’s excess.

Ramse lost his job at a real estate company last month, and the couple sold all their furniture and moved into a friend’s apartment in central Dubai.

“We had a comfortable life in Dubai, but it all went upside-down quickly,” said Ramse, who spoke on condition that only his first name was used. Their next decision is whether to ride out the downturn or return to Cape Town.

Dubai’s image-shapers may not be content to wait for the economy to perk up. A delegation this month visited some of London’s top PR agencies to look at ways to counter the gloomy news.

In an interview with the Abu Dhabi-based Alrroya newspaper last week, the United Arab Emirates president, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, tried to look ahead to recovery.

“The position that the Emirates occupies on the world economic map is not fleeting or temporary,” he said.