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Escape to Dubai

For junior capitalists fleeing the financial meltdown, is the highly leveraged, hotly speculative Middle Eastern insta-metropolis the last, best place on Earth—or a mirage?

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Saif Abdul Rahim al Zarouni, right, a 26-year-old Emirati-American who runs his own construction-equipment company, and Mark Chandler, his sales manager and roommate, at home on the Palm Jumeirah.  

Business is booming right now! I mean, the place has what, double-digit GDP growth? Like, that’s crazy!”

Brooke Butler tucks her silken hair behind her ears, flashes a wide smile, and digs into her dumplings. It’s Pan-Asian night at Entre Nous, the restaurant on the ground floor of Novotel Dubai, and Butler, a 24-year-old Texan with an exuberant demeanor and a slim volleyball player’s build, is taking a pause from a long day schmoozing real-estate executives. She has just spent several hours working the lavish stalls and displays of Cityscape, a four-day conference billed by its promoters as “The World’s Largest Business-to-Business Real-Estate Event,” taking place in a cavernous conference hall next door. After dinner, Butler is due at Çin Çin, a swanky cigar-and-wine bar, to meet the CEO of a real-estate company.

“I want to have a million dollars saved and then come home,” Butler says. In Dubai, it is a plausible target, even for a saleswoman only three years out of Dallas Baptist University; she is certain she’ll meet it. But how long will it take? When she arrived, fresh from being laid off by the San Antonio office of Liberty Mutual, for whom she sold home, auto, and life insurance, she thought that she would be in and out in two years. “I know a girl who made $2 million U.S. in commissions last year,” she said then. “And that’s tax-free! Within a year, I’ll be a millionaire. It’s not that difficult over here.”

Indeed, nothing seemed that difficult over here. At home, when word of “corporate restructuring” came from headquarters, she tried to look for another position. There weren’t any; not in the summer of 2008. “I said to myself, Should I get another lame job in the States, or should I live in Dubai?” A friend from college, Laura, had moved to Dubai a couple of months earlier, and when they spoke, she seemed relaxed and happy. That was that. “I woke up one day, got online, sent out my résumé, and less than one month later, I was here.”

Here, and employed. Butler found a job selling high-tech home and business automation systems. The work was made easier by the astronomical demand for top-notch properties and still easier by the fact of her origin: “A blonde American girl? Are you kidding me?” The contractors and project managers she pitched made corny, adoring jokes about her Texan drawl and lavished her with attention.

Even when she started having problems with her boss, Butler didn’t worry. She felt certain that in Dubai, she would never be at a loss for prospects. “I’m American,” she says. “They love Americans here.” Among her group of friends—30 or so expats from the U.S. and Europe—everyone had something going on. One woman had just formed a company to produce sleek investment guides with names such as Who’s Who Egypt. The employees there were like Brooke: young, pretty girls, typically American, typically blonde. Butler joined up. “Doing sales in Dubai isn’t like doing sales in the U.S.,” she says. “Here, it’s easy to get in to see important players. It’s crazy to think of the people I’m meeting by the breeze.”

Butler’s new plan calls for her to stay somewhat longer than she had first thought. “I’m thinking it’ll take about five years to make a million now,” she says. “Six or seven at the most.” The new timetable hardly troubles her. At home, her friends are fretting over their futures. In Dubai, everything feels … normal. “It doesn’t feel like you’re in the Middle East,” she says. “You really have to remind yourself sometimes, like, ‘I’m in the Middle East!’ It’s like you can be in this part of the world that’s booming but it doesn’t feel like you are. It feels like you’re in … New York City! You’re somewhere else.”

Over the past several months, as the U.S. economy has deteriorated and the credit crunch has spread around the world, American interest in Dubai has peaked. Anyone in a position of even moderate professional authority has been hearing from friends, relatives, colleagues, and classmates wondering if there is work available. “Once or twice a week since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten calls from New York from people looking for jobs,” says James Ruiz, a 42-year-old banker who has been in Dubai since April. “But in the last few months? From August on? It’s just snowballed.” Esther Tang, a 26-year-old employee of one of Dubai’s sprawling government-run conglomerates, currently receives as many as fifteen résumés a week. Tang is an active member of the Cornell alumni association’s Dubai chapter. At the end of 2007, the association had 6 members; as of last month, it had 70.


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