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Dubai's Lesson to America: How the Middle East's Shangrai La Became a Hell on Earth

Dubai is a living metaphor for the neo-liberal globalized world that may be crashing -- at last -- into history. And the fall has been ugly.
 
 
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The wide, smiling face of Sheikh Mohammed -- the absolute ruler of Dubai -- beams down on his creation. His image is displayed on every other building, sandwiched between the more familiar corporate rictuses of Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders. This man has sold Dubai to the world as the city of One Thousand and One Arabian Lights, a Shangri-La in the Middle East insulated from the dust-storms blasting across the region. He dominates the Manhattan-manqué skyline, beaming out from row after row of glass pyramids and hotels smelted into the shape of piles of golden coins. And there he stands on the tallest building in the world -- a skinny spike, jabbing farther into the sky than any other human construction in history.

But something has flickered in Sheikh Mohammed's smile. The ubiquitous cranes have paused on the skyline, as if stuck in time. There are countless buildings half-finished, seemingly abandoned. In the swankiest new constructions -- like the vast Atlantis hotel, a giant pink castle built in 1,000 days for $1.5bn on its own artificial island -- where rainwater is leaking from the ceilings and the tiles are falling off the roof. This Neverland was built on the Never-Never -- and now the cracks are beginning to show. Suddenly it looks less like Manhattan in the sun than Iceland in the desert.

Once the manic burst of building has stopped and the whirlwind has slowed, the secrets of Dubai are slowly seeping out. This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery. Dubai is a living metal metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing -- at last -- into history.

I. An Adult Disneyland

Karen Andrews can't speak. Every time she starts to tell her story, she puts her head down and crumples. She is slim and angular and has the faded radiance of the once-rich, even though her clothes are as creased as her forehead. I find her in the car park of one of Dubai's finest international hotels, where she is living, in her Range Rover. She has been sleeping here for months, thanks to the kindness of the Bangladeshi car park attendants who don't have the heart to move her on. This is not where she thought her Dubai dream would end.

Her story comes out in stutters, over four hours. At times, her old voice -- witty and warm -- breaks through. Karen came here from Canada when her husband was offered a job in the senior division of a famous multinational. "When he said Dubai, I said -- if you want me to wear black and quit booze, baby, you've got the wrong girl. But he asked me to give it a chance. And I loved him."

All her worries melted when she touched down in Dubai in 2005. "It was an adult Disneyland, where Sheikh Mohammed is the mouse," she says. "Life was fantastic. You had these amazing big apartments, you had a whole army of your own staff, you pay no taxes at all. It seemed like everyone was a CEO. We were partying the whole time."

Her husband, Daniel, bought two properties. "We were drunk on Dubai," she says. But for the first time in his life, he was beginning to mismanage their finances. "We're not talking huge sums, but he was getting confused. It was so unlike Daniel, I was surprised. We got into a little bit of debt." After a year, she found out why: Daniel was diagnosed with a brain tumour.