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Escape to Dubai

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A construction scene near the Dubai International Financial Center and the World Trade Center in Dubai; J.C. Butler playing softball on a Thursday night.  

“It’s almost impossible to understand,” says Richard Harris, gesturing with his chin at a long series of honey-colored apartment towers lining the highway. “All of this is less than two years old.” Harris, a 28-year-old investment banker from suburban Minneapolis, is driving his rented Toyota down Sheikh Zayed Road to lounge in the pool with a group of Americans he calls “the Thirty.”

Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s main thoroughfare, is terrifying. “Supposedly it’s the deadliest road in the world,” says J. C. Butler, the co-founder of dubizzle.com, a popular, Craigslist-like Website. It’s not technically true, but it’s conceivable. The combination of Dubai’s radically multinational population and an almost state-sponsored culture of speed has resulted in frequent spectacular collisions on Sheikh Zayed, a great many of which have been caught on film and posted on YouTube, including a 200-car pileup in March.

At the wheel, Harris, with short, light hair and narrow unblinking eyes, seems untroubled. He exudes a steadiness and focus that set him apart from many of the Americans who live here. By and large, Americans in Dubai stick to themselves. “I think it would be awesome to meet a real local,” Brooke Butler says. “But most of the time when we go out, it centers around drinking with each other.” Harris tries to meet as many locals as he can, particularly ones with money. Before coming to Dubai, he worked at a hedge fund in Newport Beach, California. Last year, his uncle, a co-director of a boutique mergers-and-acquisitions firm with offices in New York and Florida, invited him to help identify an “emerging economy” where the firm could “put our own capital to work.” The company looked at China, India, Eastern Europe, and South America, and settled on Dubai. “It just seemed like there wasn’t a real understanding of the opportunities here,” Harris says. While many Westerners had already come, “a lot of them were overambitious and spread thin, movers and shakers—not a morally healthy way of making a living.”

Harris operates in essence as a one-man investment bank—identifying and pursuing corporate partnerships, providing advice on various transactions, raising money for a private-equity fund. He spends a great deal of time and energy courting the least visible but most deep-pocketed segment of the population. “I asked a friend of mine, a guy who is in real estate, how many iftar tents he had been to during Ramadan,” Harris says. In Islam, iftar is the traditional meal, held each night during the holy month of Ramadan, to break the daytime fast. “He said he’d been to two. He thought it was boring. I ate in iftar tents five days a week.” Harris’s diligence would appear to be paying off. During my stay in Dubai in early October, Harris canceled our first meeting because he was unexpectedly summoned, at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, to present himself before representatives of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, who wanted to see for themselves this impressive American with the strong financial pedigree.

Slipping out of his T-shirt and sandals, Harris jumps into a vast pool teeming with children behind one of the 40 high-rises that make up the Jumeirah Beach Residence—according to its promotional material, “the largest single-phase residential development in the world.” JBR, as it is known, stretches along a mile of the gulf coast, near the base of the Palm Jumeirah, one of three massive palm-shaped land-reclamation projects, dotted with luxury villas, that the sheikh has made the centerpiece of his global branding effort. In Dubai, more Americans seem to live in JBR than anywhere else.

The high-rise is home to Layla H., who is relaxing with six Americans at the edge of the pool, spitting distance from the beach. The pool has a cooling system, but the water is still lukewarm. Layla, who is petite and deeply tanned, is sitting on the pool’s ledge in a bikini, a can of beer at her side. In the summer, she explains, when the midday temperature is 105 degrees, you couldn’t even set foot in a pool that wasn’t cooled: “It would be like a Jacuzzi. It would be disgusting.”

Layla is 24, a graduate of Columbia; she has a biting air about her. When a pale, overweight French boy does a cannonball only a yard from where she is sitting, she flashes him a scowl and complains that Dubai can make people prejudiced. “You’re surrounded by people from different countries, with different ways of doing things,” she says. “It can be hard to handle.” Hardest of all to handle, she says, is the service. This is one of the ironies of Dubai. While the city has strenuously marketed itself as the luxury capital of the Middle East, it has not yet figured out how to train the support staff. The waiters in Dubai are often not very good at waiting tables, the bartenders not very good at serving drinks, the cabdrivers not very good at driving.


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