burj-dubai-2009

Burj Dubai

The Burj Dubai is the tallest building in the world and holds records for many “biggest” and “most” categories including tallest structure, tallest freestanding structure, building with the most floors, and highest vertical concrete pumping for any structure. The picture above was taken (by me) from the roof of Al Ghaya Residence on Sheik Zayed road, a pitiful 30+ story building. In the foreground you can see several other buildings in various stages of construction.

dubai-skyscraper

This is the building next door to Al Ghaya Residence, some 80+ stories tall. It has been under construction for more than a year, and it looks complete from the outside. It is empty, however, and the entrances are sealed. This building became emblematic, for me, of our unique historical moment.

The Baharain Tribune noted on October 2nd 2008 that Dubai’s growth is “founded to some extent on a burgeoning property market heavily dependent on borrowed money”, and Norton Rose, a corporate law firm specializing in investing, said on its “credit crisis blog” that “there are rumors that some large projects will be placed on hold.” The analyst at Norton Rose is optimistic, if not in the near term, at least in the medium term:

The “real” market, that is where construction has commenced (and therefore finance is in place to complete the project) or the property has been completed, is suffering a short term state of confusion although the medium term view is that the market will bounce back particularly in quality sectors in quality locations.

But this may be a species of optimism ridiculed by Paul Farrell (my new favorite Wall St. contrarian) in his Marketwatch.com editorial today. Norton Rose thinks the fundamentals of Dubai’s growth are strong, and that the financial problems of the last year will clear up soon, but one could also make the case that demand in Dubai has always been artificial, and that its incredible ten (really five) year growth spurt is an effect of the global bubble that has driven over-production in all sectors to astonishing, never-before-seen levels. As the New York Times reported recently, globalization led to global growth, and now it is leading to a global contraction. Is it implausible to postulate that globalization, growth, and blowing bubbles were interconnected, self-reinforcing phenomena?

But beyond a global contraction, Dubai has other worries. Norton Rose again spins the situation in positive terms:

Dubai has built itself as a trading hub, financial centre, tourist resort and is an attractive and exciting place to live. The number of expatriates moving to Dubai from throughout the world is staggering; all of these people will need a home. Office space still remains in very short supply with heavy demand. Rents in all sectors have continued to increase and demand remains strong, however owner occupiers are struggling to find lenders to accommodate them.

On one hand, many of the immigrants to Dubai are from India and Pakistan, and those people are definitely not the people Dubai wants filling up its empty towers. Certainly, Dubai’s planners have gone to great lengths to lure Western investment. Investment banks are able to run by Western laws — within the walls of their own buildings.

The lush courtyard of the Dubai Financial Center

The lush courtyard of the Dubai Financial Center

But outside the walls Dubai is still a theocratic state run under Sharia law. The world chuckles at Vince Acors and Michelle Palmer who were caught having sex on the beach and sentenced to three months in prison. The situation is made human and poignant, however, by the case of Marnie Pearce who was accused of adultery by her estranged husband and consequently convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. As a result she may lose custody of her two children entirely. In the print version of the article from January 5th, Ms. Pearce tells the reporter for the Telegraph with obvious passion that Westerners need to remember that Dubai is not a liberal state. A woman — any woman — can be punished for being alone in the company of a man who is not her husband or kinsman. And that is a kink in Norton Rose’s projection of continued demand for Dubai properties.

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