Making Dubai: A Process in Crisis

[This is a preprint of an article accepted for publication in AD copyright 2010. Photos: Katrin Greiling]

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Business Bay, Dubai, 2009

On 20 October 2009, a luncheon entitled “Restoring Trust – The Challenge of Exiting the Downturn “ was held at Dubai’s Capital Club and focused on a complicated but familiar triangle: Dubai, the crisis and the public relations response. The speakers were two of the city’s celebrated public relations strategists, Dave Robinson and Eileen Wallis, and around 50 people also concerned with Dubai and its future filled the dining room of the local business club to hear the story from their corner. While the guests were still finishing their desserts in anticipation of hearing from the speakers, one woman who worked for a well-known consultancy firm as a reputation management consultant, a ‘growing niche market’, according to her, not to be confused with crisis management consulting, was asked how she was surviving the crisis. Her reply was that it was difficult giving reputation advice because, well, it wasn’t being taken. And things were getting worse.

She was right that things were getting worse. By October, there was already a pile-up of disquieting circumstances: sinking real-estate prices, stalled development projects, departing expatriates, and increasing hyperboles in the press. Worse was still to come. In November, Dubai World, one of Dubai’s three important holding companies, would admit its inability to handle near to $60 billion in debt burden.

More than a month before Dubai World’s unravelling, Robinson, Wallis and their audience were all pushing a wholesale solution to Dubai’s woes over their lunch crumbs: Dubai needed a press relations strategy, one that was prepared to tell the truth. Honesty, it was said many times, was the only way. With all the head shaking and communal chastising towards Dubai, I began to wonder why there wasn’t also any self-congratulating. Dubai was PR strategy; it was a constant crafting of words and images to project a Dubai that did not yet exist. It was so good, so strong, that it meant few had to take into consideration what was actually happening on the ground.

This was a whole new generation of PR experts sitting at this lunch. They had likely arrived too late to aid in ‘master’ developer Nakheel’s meteoric rise as a global name without a portfolio to sustain it, in the establishment of a Dubai bourse before there was a banking community to support one, in the reinvention of DP World after the American fiasco, in the Burj al Arab becoming one of the world’s most recognisable buildings. But still, those seated at lunch represented the legacy of delivering truths before they were fully woven. They were also part of a city that didn’t yet exist. But it seemed now was the time of reckoning: Dubai’s government and its companies needed to listen to the PR experts, but for new reasons.

For the months leading up to October, there had been a clampdown on Dubai companies’ relationships with the press. Few were talking. Like children who had been kept too long from the playing fields, the assembly was cracking from the pressure. There needed to be more transparency: Dubai needed to talk to the world, PR people needed to be able to do their jobs. Calls for ‘transparency’ gave way to calls for ‘embrace’. Towards the end of the group cheer, the topic had turned to ‘all the bad press’ – the images of a sinking Dubai, the Darth Vader and Mickey Mouse references and so on by Western journalists coming in for a day or two and leaving with damning but entertaining articles about the city. How must Dubai approach these arriving journalists? Wallis felt compelled to answer: ‘You need to embrace them. E m b r a c e them. E m b r a c e them. E m b r a c e them.’ After each time she said ‘Embrace them’, she halfway lifted herself out of her seat and body-gestured a terrific air-bearhug and then fell back in her seat again.

As the rest of the group watched Wallis regain her composure, the head of a local bank, maybe the only Emirati in the room, took the microphone. He retorted: ‘We have tried that before. It doesn’t work,’ and put the microphone on the table with a sonic thud.

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Dubai metro, October, 2009.

The last year and a half of crisis in Dubai has unleashed a cascade of Schadenfreude. Crisis was for many critics vindication, a fateful sign that they had been right all along about the city: that Dubai was a failed attempt at making one.

Those critics have missed the point. Dubai’s crisis is not about urbanism or architecture. No model of development, or as some would say the lack thereof, has been proven a failure. If there ever was a model, it is still being pursued, in Dubai and in other Gulf cities whose deep coffers of petrodollars have given them elasticity during the crisis (look at Doha, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi). The most successful designers of Dubai – be they architects, planners, engineers, artists, management consultants, bankers or entrepreneurs – are still designing, either in Dubai or, more potently, somewhere else nearby.

The critics’ poetic deployment of ‘ghost town’ imagery only gives the city’s champions an easier means of responding. By focusing their comebacks on the city’s physical components, Dubai’s leaders can avoid providing answers on the topics where the city is most bankrupt. In the process, Dubai has appropriated the critic’s trump card: time. Empty buildings will eventually be filled; the metro is working to connect once isolated islands of development; the city is becoming a place of the normal. Faster than it came, Dubai’s whirlwind pace has lost its gusto. When in earlier days time had to be beaten, it now just has to be endured.

Rather than in the city itself, Dubai’s crisis is rooted in a financial rumpus and the PR strategy that fuelled it: the prosperous pursuit of inordinate amounts of capital from the world’s most respectable banks with nothing more than an orchestra of words and images. To secure the over-leveraged funds, the present was merely an ersatz for tomorrow. PR had created this truth and the banks had bought it, but now PR’s acolytes were asking the mechanism to come clean, to pull aside the very arras PR had helped construct.

The fake catharsis over lunch will not ever result in a true exposure of Dubai’s losses; it is doubtful anyone would want that. Dubai has admitted some fault and therefore has exposed some vulnerability. Admission of fault has also revealed how a wounded giant can attract sympathy. The Financial Times, for instance, ran a story on 8 April 2009 about how Dubai ‘feels’ friendlier, abandoning its usual focus on numbers to describe a ‘more liveable place’.1

The Financial Times’ soft spot for Dubai would be short-lived. For the first time in a year when numbers were constantly sinking deeper in the red, Dubai World’s November announcement signalled the first true expressions of fear for Dubai’s future from international bankers, but without an ounce of self-criticism. It took Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia, the single person who lost the most in Wall Street’s fumbles, to expose the contrived surprise and puppy-dog whining of Western bankers at Dubai World’s proposed standstill: they should have known all along that these companies and Dubai’s strategies were never less than opaque. Dubai’s greatest loss is that it should never expect such willful naivety again. Good riddance, according to all parties.

This is not Dubai’s first crisis. It certainly will not be its last. It is a city surrounded by crisis (see Yemen, Pakistan), defined by crisis (its constant need to make something from nothing), and even profiting from crisis (see Iran). Dubai, its champions are quick to say, is the big hope of the Arab world. It offers peace and stability, a chance at wealth, smooth highways, and a clean, blackout-free existence. It is now a cliché to mention that children in Algeria proudly don Dubai T-shirts depicting skylines and camels.

The blows Dubai took in 2009 have lifted places like Doha and Abu Dhabi as more assured investment opportunities, but Dubai still reigns in the imaginations of millions of people between North Africa and Southeast Asia. One Pakistani might take a chauffeur job in Doha, but he would much rather take the same job in Dubai. Similarly, a Syrian, after being laid off in Dubai, will hold out as long as possible before he takes a job in Doha. No matter how many derisive labels one side of the world conjures up for Dubai, the city still stands for freedom, daresay hope, in a part of the world whose population (and growth rate) easily outstrips that of North America and the European Union. Dubai’s greatest export and perhaps its last chance at survival lie in this image. And it is one that no PR agent could ever take credit for.

As Dubai still holds sway in a vast region as much misunderstood as it can be, the city also searches for a new posture. The recent openings of two mega projects, the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Metro, both represent a more human Dubai. That was not their original intention – when was a world’s tallest tower a humanist project? But Dubai is now a city that knows the story of Babel and the value of a metro ride that from an elevated rail displays a functioning city gradually emerging, one healing its growth wounds and tempering its bravado so that it might one day have another chance at being great.

1 Khalaf, Roula, “Don’t Rule Out Dubai Comeback,” Financial Times. April 8, 2009.

Text © 2010 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Images: © Katrin Greiling

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