Dubai: The party in the desert ended months ago

There was no escaping the news that the emirate was in trouble. But in the eye of the storm, writes resident Conor Purcell, nobody noticed
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It was all supposed to be so different. Next week, on UAE National Day, the Burj Dubai was set to open. The 818-metre tower was to be a testament to everything the emirate has achieved.

That opening was postponed a few weeks ago and the Burj will open in January instead. That now looks like a good move. As the world's media speculate on what effect Dubai's latest crisis will have on the global economy, the last thing anyone needed was a party celebrating the world's tallest white elephant.

But there is no sense of panic on the streets of Dubai. Many people are unaware of what is going on, others either don't understand – or don't care. Many people have used the holiday weekend to take a break in Beirut or Oman, to go to beach parties or relax in the sun. Global financial turmoil is just not on their radar.

This is partly due to the local media who have played down the crisis – focusing on the government's restructuring or ignoring the issue altogether. The front page of the biggest-selling newspaper in the country, Gulf News, today mentioned nothing of the issue, focusing on the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca and the Eid holiday. Ignorance, it seems, is bliss.

This carefully contrived atmosphere of nonchalance was reflected in the statement issued by the chairman of Dubai's Supreme Fiscal Committee, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, as he attempted to reassure markets that all was well and fundamentals were sound.

The appeal to delay repayments to creditors, which left global financial markets reeling on Thursday, was no accident, he said, and its consequences had been anticipated.

"Our intervention in Dubai World was carefully planned," Sheikh Ahmed said. "The government is spearheading the restructuring of this commercial operation in the full knowledge of how the markets would react. We understand the concerns of the market and creditors in particular." He described Dubai World's request for a freeze as "a sensible business decision".

I first came to Dubai in 2005. The expatriates I met (mostly British) were similar to expatriates the world over. They moaned about the weather (too hot), the traffic (too heavy) and the rents (too expensive). Most openly admitted to being in Dubai solely for the tax-free pay. They would complain about the city's lack of "culture" while downing £6 pints of Stella. Yet they would never dream of setting foot inside an art gallery in London or Manchester.

The bigger Dubai got, the louder the moans became, yet almost those expats stayed on. Then, earlier this year, a funny thing happened. The foreign media started attacking Dubai, and the same residents that had once derided the city started defending it. Many of them were glad the bubble had burst. Rents returned to normal, traffic got lighter, the schemers and chancers here to make a quick buck left. Unless you had been affected by the downturn, things were better than ever. Not that you would know it from reading the foreign media.

Emiratis and expats alike were shocked at the vitriol in the coverage. Was it not better for Dubai to aspire to something more than the rest of the region? Was it not better for the Middle East to be talked about outside of the frame of violence? Dubai, for all its problems, is peaceful, safe and has provided a template for other Gulf States to follow.

It may be a cliché but Dubai is also multicultural. I have met a Swiss-Egyptian airhostess, a Filipino-Swedish entrepreneur and countless other people who have dual nationalities but choose to make Dubai their home. There is a vibrant art scene in the industrial Al Quoz area of the city, entrepreneurs are being encouraged with government schemes – and if you have the drive and ambition, making money in Dubai is not difficult. Wander around the The Walk, a strip of coffee shops and restaurants that face the Gulf, and you won't see much evidence of a downturn. Maseratis and Ferraris cruise past and the restaurants are packed almost every night.

Yet scratch the First World surface and a little of the Third World pokes through. The Walk's restaurants may look wonderful, but try getting the bill or even the right order on a busy night. Taxi drivers routinely get lost. It is hard to blame the drivers, they are overworked and underpaid, but the companies that hire them don't train them properly.

As Dubai's star has fallen, Abu Dhabi's has risen. Once seen as a place to go only when absolutely necessary – in my first three years in the UAE I went only once, to get a Russian visa – the UAE capital is slowly becoming as talked-about as Dubai. Witness the recent Grand Prix and the £16bn Saadiyat Island development that will house Louvre and Guggenheim museums.

More importantly, Abu Dhabi has capital and, increasingly, jobs. Increasing numbers of Dubai residents are making the 90-minute commute to Abu Dhabi because they lost their jobs in Dubai. Some have gone to Doha, another city slowly becoming a regional player. One friend is leaving after nearly five years in Dubai; not for financial reasons, but because he is sick of the heat, the bureaucracy and the woeful service industry. He has no interest in going to Abu Dhabi or Doha; he just wants to go home.

Most people, though, are staying; the economies in the rest of the world are hardly any better and no one I have met believes the sky will fall in on Dubai. It is not in anyone's interest for that to happen: not Britain's, not America's and certainly not Abu Dhabi's.