James Wilkinson muses about how much the recession has improved Dubai
The credit crunch turned my world inside out, and not in the way you might expect. I arrived here at the start of 2008, and for that first year every return trip to my native UK was filled with the same old questions: ‘Is Dubai glamorous?’ ‘Is it like a giant playground?’ and ‘Do people drive Ferraris?’ And the answers were always the same: ‘A bit,’ ‘Not really, but there are plenty of sandpits,’ and ‘Does it count as driving if you spend most of your time parked in traffic?’
The gulf between the glitzy image and the reality was immense. Oh, it’s hard to begrudge a place that has beaches, a desert, a ski slope and a waterpark within an hour of each other. But the city had grown too fast; it was too full of people looking to make a quick fortune from an inflated property market, or wanting to be seen just for being in the world’s most talked-about place. Getting from the Garhoud office to my home in Bur Dubai could take as much as an hour – at least 40 minutes more than it ought to. And trying to get to the other end of the city? You may as well walk to the moon.
Then the recession came and nobody was spared. For a couple of months, my inbox was filled with emails from friends, PRs, agents and promoters asking if I’d heard about vacancies here, there – anywhere. I became, almost as a hobby, a one-man recruitment agency. If only I’d thought to charge… But by the summer, things had started to settle. I’d heard and told the same old stories about acquaintances skipping the country so many times. Yet once I looked around, I noticed how much the city had improved. Property prices, for example, had fallen: a direct result of the demand – both expected and actual – dropping so much. Traffic had thinned out so getting around the city no longer took military-level planning and synchronisation. And the taxis! Oh, the taxis. I used to walk around for two hours before I could find an empty one. They soon became so plentiful that I could book two and ride them down the street like rollerskates.
While my opinions of the city have done an about-turn – I live in Dubai now, rather than merely existing – so too have the opinions of my friends. ‘How are you doing out there?’ they ask, the unspoken question being: ‘Do you have to eat sand to survive?’ ‘Better than ever,’ I reply. And I mean it.