THE SPINE AUGUST 23, 2007
I saw Jason DeParle's byline over a New York Times dispatch from Dubai. Jason, who started his career at The New Republic is a correspondent not given to cheery subjects. So when I saw his name matched with the dateline I knew something serious was afoot. Now, the Times has made a specialty of cheery articles about the Emirates, fantasies about fantasies, principalities being built for leisure and "culture" and investments in third or fourth houses and living side by side, not with the natives and not with the foreigners who do all the work of these desert enclaves on the sea, with the celebrities who may happen by to those wonderland hotels or their fifth or sixth homes.
"Emirates seek peace with desperate labor," reads the headline. This is a real DeParle story. "After uprising, officials tackle abuses," reads the sub-head. DeParle is a scrupulous and full-of-specifics reporter. You learn a lot from any of his reports, this one no exception.
The Emirates are a league of seven statelets, of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi are principal. "Guest workers make up about 85 percent of the population and 99 percent of the private workforce," writes DeParle. "About two-thirds of the foreigners are South Asian, including most of 1.2 million construction workers." Their life is miserable, and basically they have no assured civil rights. I've written on these emirates myself but surely not as reliably.
I know several people who have gone to the Emirates, some in the investment business, some just for curiosity. I myself can't see what there is to be curious enough. One friend wondered why no one was swimming in the sea. A scientist, she decided to try the water. It was near-boiling hot. Query answered.
Still, there is a PR-induced excitement that's been generated around these countries--if that's what they are.
But the excitement just goes that far. Remember the outrage at a lush Dubai deal to own and run six American ports. Big Dubai money! Take it away. Now, New Zealand is about to reject Dubai's bid for control of the Auckland airport.
Now, it's not just the question of Emirate control of significant strategic facilities. It's the matter of "sovereign funds." Dubai is a big boy in the markets. It now also has, as The Wall Street Journal wrote, stumbled on U.S. mortgage worries. Like the fear of other sovereign investors.
Ironically, the Swedes--always solicitous of Arab interests, especially of the Palestinians--are now faced with an offer by Borse Dubai to buy its stock exchange. A lucrative offer, much higher valued than the offer of the NASDAQ for OMX, actually the consortium of seven stock exchanges, including Denmark, Finland and Sweden.
I don't know how the American-Dubai competition will end. But the Swedes surely don't want the Emirates. They realize that Dubai and its neighbors are really fantasies.