It transpired that my brief Eid visit to Istanbul coincided perfectly with the eruption of the Dubai World debt furore. I was therefore able to while away the time at Dubai Airport last Friday by reading the anguished reporting of The Times on the issue. I continued to follow the story on the main news sites over the next few days; such was the frenzy of speculation and doom-mongering that I wondered if I was going to return home to find the dystopian vision of Simon Jenkins writ large, or that the entire populace had simply decided to give up and commit mass harakiri.
As our flight back took us over Dubai, I was therefore relieved to see that the buildings remained standing and that the city had neither been consumed by fire nor swallowed by the earth. My concerns were further alleviated when I discovered that the airport had not yet been occupied by a horde of desperate refugees with tear-stained faces and that the residents of our apartment building had yet to resort to cannibalism.
Sarcasm aside, it has certainly been an ‘interesting’ week or so for Dubai and there’s a PR advisor out there somewhere who needs a good kicking. The attempt to downplay the story by releasing the statement just before the Eid and Thanksgiving Holidays backfired spectacularly: the gaps in the story and general unavailability of clear facts meant that media was able to merrily pile in with rampant speculation to fill the vacuum, merrily stoking panic as they did so. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that so many decisions in this region take place behind closed doors and are veiled in secrecy, which meant that even the most august media organisations were largely reduced to playing guessing games and assuming the worst. It was always going to be difficult, but the timing and handling of the announcement turned it into a media maelstrom.
I have been heartened to see at least some damage control being exercised in the last few days, as well as some back-tracking in the international press with some much more professional and balanced articles appearing in the Guardian (here and here) and in the FT. (I would link to the FT article, but annoyingly they limit online access to articles. I think it was in Wednesday’s edition though if you are subscriber.) The first Guardian article is probably one of the most sensible I’ve read about Dubai in the international press (it’s not difficult), simply as a result of possessing some nuance, intelligence and perspective. The second article also has some merit in that the author seems to have at least tried to consider various points of view, but he can’t help lapsing into Guardianista silliness every now and again.
Some of the other more sensible commentary can be found here, here and here. If you are looking for foolish moralising and speculation, I invite you to read the latest offerings from Johann and Simon. There is also this odd offering in The Times which is worth a read, even though I largely disagree with the author’s claims and conclusions. If time allows I will revisit these, but just in case I invite you to look at a superb response to and parody of Johann’s earlier previous piece on Dubai. If you want to remind yourself of how amusing it is for the British press to be damning other nations for living beyond their means and piling up unsustainable debt, this might serve the purpose and have British citizens googling “how to emigrate to Australia and Canada”.
This story still has a long way to run and dealing with the debt is going to be a long and difficult process. I hope that all the skeletons are out of the closet and if not, that they are in the very near future. I also think that there are going to be very serious questions asked of those financial institutions that lent the money in the first place as more details start to emerge. Arabian Business have a good comment piece on this issue.
I remember going to the UK in the 1980s and 1990s and the word ‘Dubai’ being met with a baffled look, sometimes followed by the question: “Isn’t that near Saudi?”. If nothing else, this has been a reminder that Dubai is now on the map, for good or ill. Its prominence means that it cannot avoid international media scrutiny, but has to try and make this exposure work for it rather than against it. Hopefully Dubai has now learnt just how fickle the press can be and will adapt accordingly. Perhaps it can now get back to generating some more positive headlines, starting with the opening of the Burj Dubai early next year.