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Escape to Dubai

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Wives and assorted onlookers at the game; Brooke Butler at Dubai Cityscape.  

For a life of stability, comfort, and opportunity, however, this is a minor price to pay. “I looked at the cover of the Times the day after Lehman collapsed,” Layla says, “and I’m looking at those pictures of people carrying boxes of their stuff out, and I’m saying to myself, ‘I know that guy! I sat next to him in class.’ And I’m here hanging out by the pool. I mean, these people are my age—23, 24. When a bank goes down, they’re the first to go.” In Dubai, Layla says, these worries don’t exist: “It’s the Wild West.”

This is, of course, a frequently used metaphor for boomtowns and is meant to suggest that Dubai is so raw and undeveloped that you don’t have to rely on anyone or anything but your wits to prosper. Yet for Layla and most of the Americans in the pool, the cliché describes their experiences, as well as their attitudes, more or less accurately.

The group Harris calls the Thirty is oddly uniform in background. Indeed, almost all of the twentysomething men and women who compose it have at one point been employees of the same outfit—a Brussels-based sales company, incorporated in Cyprus, called Media Plus. It is difficult to get precise information about Media Plus; most of its former employees are cagey. Here, however, is how it appears Media Plus operates: It seeks out recent, enthusiastic college graduates with a penchant for suasion and a desire to travel; trains them at its Brussels headquarters in hard-charging, Mametesque sales techniques; and sends them around the world, primarily to developing countries, to sell video and print advertorials to government ministers and corporate executives. These advertorials are the sort you see late at night on basic cable or slipped into a daily newspaper in order to extol the natural beauty of, say, Kuwait.

For most of the Americans I spoke to, the Media Plus experience was a formative one. It taught them how to operate in an environment where regulations are few, access to decision-makers plentiful (especially for young, pretty American women), and their desire to stay long-term nil. Several have gone on to start their own companies in Dubai, although getting them to discuss their entrepreneurship is as difficult as getting them to discuss the training that led them to it. Sitting on the pool’s ledge, dangling her bronzed feet in the water, Layla says that she is in the process of opening her own business. She won’t say doing what. “I can’t really talk about it,” she says. “I hope that doesn’t sound too sketchy.”

“I looked at the front page of the Times the day after Lehman collapsed, those pictures of people carrying boxes of their stuff out, and I’m here hanging out by the pool.”

The W girls seem weary. They’ve traveled a long way—from the New York headquarters of the tony real-estate-marketing firm SHVO—to be here, at Cityscape, where their working environment is almost neurologically assaultive. Their home for the duration of the conference is a dimly lit two-tiered red-and-black box with hipster lounge music piped in through hidden speakers and four touch-screens perpetually commending the amenities that accompany an ownership stake in the W New York Downtown Hotel & Residences, currently going up down the street from ground zero. Jaclyn Savar, diminutive and blonde, stands by the bar clutching a paper cup of coffee as if it were a cane. “I’ve barely slept at all,” she says. She moved here four days ago, to work at SHVO’s new offices on Sheikh Zayed Road, and she’s still suffering from jet lag. Sales, at least, are brisk. Upstairs in the “closing room,” beyond a velvet rope, a young Arab man sits on a plush couch deciding which two floors of the W he would like to purchase.

Cityscape is considered by many to be a bellwether of Dubai’s economy—and tellingly, in past years it has operated more like a flea market than a real-estate conference, with buyers literally elbowing each other aside to put down money on villas and luxury condos on which the ground had not yet even been broken. Often, buyers would sell their rights in a property before leaving the conference hall, and an ownership stake would change hands as many as ten times between the unveiling of the architectural model and the spade hitting dirt. The results have been predictable. While there is much in Dubai that’s attractively inexpensive—domestic help of all kinds, taxis, gas—real estate is exorbitant. “Getting a job is the easy part,” says Esther Tang. “Finding a place to stay is harder.” Moreover, there is constant talk, particularly in recent months, of a property “bubble”—and of if, when, and how it might pop.

Paradoxically, Cityscape operates simultaneously to keep the property bubble expanding and to cause it to deflate in a steady, orderly fashion. The conference, says Christopher Davidson, is “the ultimate in bravado … a giant confidence-building exercise” intended to trumpet the message that Dubai is on the track of continual growth. This purpose has led Dubai’s leaders into vertiginous territory. On the opening day of the conference, October 6, the front page of the New York Times read “Financial Crises Spread in Europe.” On the same day, an Emirati paper, The National, announced the unveiling of plans for the Nakheel Tower, a 1.4 kilometer–high skyscraper that will surpass the still-in-progress Burj Dubai to become the tallest freestanding structure on the planet.


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