There are few sights more melancholy than that of uncompleted buildings on which all work has stopped. Such buildings conjure up the spectre of a civilization that has collapsed even before it flourished.
Since everything in Dubai is on the most expansive scale – the largest, the swankiest, the most gilded – its de facto moratorium on further construction is likewise on the very grandest scale. Motionless cranes hover over vast buildings at all stages of construction, from mere hole in the ground to iron-and-concrete skeleton and near completion. Even thousand-foot towers that require only a few more sheets of finishing cladding are left incomplete.
To adapt (very slightly) the lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley: My name is Rashid Al Maktoum, bling of blings: Look on my works, ye Vulgar, and despair! I looked out of my window and, of 12 buildings I saw under construction, work was continuing on just two – and those the smallest of them.
When work on skyscrapers stops, the entrails of these vast edifices are exposed to the gaze, and somehow seem frighteningly fragile to support the immense weight of what they are supposed to eventually contain. One never takes the lift in such a building with quite the same insouciance as one did before. The marble, the steel, the glass of many colours with which the buildings will be covered seem but a veneer to conceal a deep inner shoddiness of rough concrete, cement and breezeblock. The veneer of civilization that covers man's eternal savagery seems several layers thick by comparison.
Will the sand reclaim Dubai as the jungle once reclaimed Angkor Wat? Despite a fall in property prices of more than 50 per cent within a week or two, the official line is that the “fundamentals” of Dubai's economy are strong and recovery will be swift. But what are the fundamentals of an economy built on confidence, celebrity, spectacle, dream, fantasy, illusion and debt, to say nothing of an infinite supply of cheap labour from India, Pakistan and the Philippines? The latter, at least, seems secure for the foreseeable future.
Driving around Dubai, one wonders how anyone could have failed to see the crash coming. Scores of completed buildings, offices and apartment blocks alike, stood empty. It is not that their occupants had gone, driven out by the crisis: They were never occupied in the first place. No man with eyes in his head and one or two very simple economic principles in his mind could have supposed that the only way for property prices in Dubai to go was up. Debt and investment are by no means always symbiotic.
Even as a shopping destination – Fly, Buy, Dubai was long the city-state's national slogan, its equivalent of Liberté, égalité, fraternité – Dubai has fewer and fewer attractions. One of the problems with free trade is an increasing equalization of prices, of goods if not of labour, throughout the world; the shoddy and trivial glamour of designer labels can be had for the same price everywhere.
Why, then, go to Dubai? To an astonishing extent, the city is dependent on the excellence of its airline, Emirates. No one who had the choice would fly anything else; all North American and European airlines, by comparison, are wretched. And the airline is very profitable, if official figures are to be believed. (Some claim the profits are subsidized by preferential landing fees at Dubai, though this is also denied.) At the very least, the airline poses an interesting challenge to those who say that, under any circumstances, a state-owned company cannot be efficiently run or provide good service.
Hugh - you stated that you would have no difficulty whatsoever in NOT flying Emirates airlines. Agreed. These days, now I have learned about Islam, I have no difficulty whatsoever with passing up the Iranian dates, or the Turkish apricots, or the Egyptian jam (true - they export *jam*) in the supermarket. I do not buy items made in Indonesia or Malaysia, where my fellow Christians (and other non-Muslims, too) are harassed, treated with contempt, and - in Indonesia - have been murdered en masse.
A couple more thoughts. First of all, about skyscrapers and the fundamental fragility of concrete and steel. Years ago, I learnt about 'concrete cancer'. Concrete - modern reinforced concrete - is horribly temporary, at least from the point of view of one who knows that it took one thousand years to build - from stone - Cologne Cathedral.
Just this year, after a mere one hundred years of steady effort, the Anglican Christians in Brisbane dedicated the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist: constructed to the design of an English architect inspired by the exquisite Gothic cathedrals of France, such that it is a perfect little French cathedral transposed to the antipodes...and built, of course, block by block, from two or three different kinds of local stone, and suffused with brilliant subtropical light. When its first stage was done, it commanded the city: nothing else stood as high. Today the concrete-and-glass skyscrapers hem it in and loom over it; but it occurs to me that *they* are flimsy and less likely to endure the centuries than *it* is, so long as its people persist to inhabit and take care of it.
Secondly - Dalrymple's updating of Shelley reminded me of another poem [if it can be called that], by one Arthur Guitarman, entitled, 'Elegy'. I do not know when it was written; but somehow I suspect it was written before 1948, unless its author was of a peculiar obtuseness and did not realize what he was saying; for of all the things he lists, there is, as the old Sesame Street song goes, 'one of these things' that is 'not like the other', one of these things that 'does not belong'. Can you spot it?
"The jackals prowl, the serpents hiss/ in what was once Persepolis/ Proud Babylon is but a trace/ upon the desert's dusty face/ The topless towers of Ilium/ are ashes. Judah's harp is dumb./ The fleets of Nineveh and Tyre/ are down with Davy Jones, esquire/ And all the oligarchies, kings/ and potentates that ruled these things/ are gone! But cheer up, don't be sad/ think what a lovely time they had!"
An excerpt from 'WSJ' report above:
DUBAI—Dubai's debt crisis will continue to hang over the earnings and credit quality of banks in 2010, Standard & Poor's said in a report on the global outlook for global credit markets.
"Indeed, the fallout from Dubai World's Nov. 25 announcement that it has requested a six-month moratorium on its $26 billion debt payments—subsequently diminished by news of a bailout by Abu Dhabi—illustrated amply the fears of further bank balance-sheet impairment," the ratings agency said in the report.
More than 90 creditors are in talks with Dubai World, once a crown jewel in the business empire of Dubai's ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, to reach an agreement on a formal debt standstill for the conglomerate, which has almost $60 billion of total liabilities. Negotiations are expected to be slow.
"This serves as a continued reminder that the impact from deflating property prices globally has yet to fully run its course," S&P added.
"Dubai World Exposure to Weigh on Banks in 2010"
"No one who had the choice would fly anything else; all North American and European airlines, by comparison, are wretched."
I have the choice. I would fly anything else (that was safe), anything other than a plane belonging to a Muslim-owned airline. I have no doubt that Germany made the best cameras in the world in the late 1930s. I would have had no difficulty passing on them, and buying the humblest of Kodaks instead. And I am hardly alone. Collectively we do not constitute "no one."