DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES | What you need to know about Dubai, a speck of a place in the Middle East where the Tom Cruise film Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol opened last week, is that most of the world’s cranes used to be at work here. Once, if you raised your eyes from lining up a putt on one of its eight golf courses or from marvelling at the skyscrapers thrusting into the azure sky that make it resemble Manhattan, you could look in any direction and see cranes. You could hear them, too, clanking, creaking, squeaking and screeching as they went about their noisy business.
For the past two years, the cranes have been still and silent, as if in a painting. Dubai’s once-booming economy has been hit by the global economic crisis. In a country that was first built on its supplies of oil, the black gold, and then on property, prices slumped. In 2009, the prize fund of The Race to Dubai was reduced by 25 percent from $20 million. At its worst, people were depositing cars with the keys in the ignition at the airport and fleeing the country.
Dubai is the most populous of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. It has been spared the actions of the Arab Spring that sent Egypt and then Libya into turmoil and is now splitting nearby Syria, where 4,000 people have been killed since March by troops acting on behalf of president, Bashar Al Assad. Dubai has been spared this unrest because its wealth enables its citizens to enjoy free education and schooling and to pay no income tax.
Also, they have jobs. In Syria, “… the people want jobs, they want opportunities. And unless Bashar changes and starts making things good for the people, they will carry on like that,” Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai as well as vice-president and prime minister of the UAE, said. “In Dubai, we must serve our people. The people must always come first. We must get the education, universities, hospitals, housing right.”
Not a little defensively, he pointed out that even in the economic crisis, some things were done in Dubai. “The metro was completed. The Meydan (a magnificent racetrack that is unquestionably the world’s most luxurious) was completed. So not all the projects stopped.”
There is turmoil in other parts of the Middle East, where the Orient meets the occident, but here, in Dubai, there is now an air of cautious optimism even though the cranes remain largely silent, the houses at the Jumeirah Golf Estates are empty and unfinished and the clubhouse is a shell because, so the story goes, Nakheel, the property company that has developed the project, does not pay its bills.
The European Tour has extended its contract to stage The Race to Dubai for another year. The threat of this huge event moving to Sun City in South Africa or even Abu Dhabi, a few miles down the road, has receded. To their credit, the players, often accused of being self-serving and greedy, have shown themselves aware and understanding of the economic difficulties. “Golf’s been very lucky that the money has not dropped significantly,” Lee Westwood said. “We’ve lost a few tournaments but I think we have been fortunate to hang on to the ones we’ve got. We are all in a fortunate position because we earn a lot of money. In fact, it is an amazing amount of money for doing what you enjoy.”
In 1989, the Dubai Desert Classic, named after the sponsor, Dubai Aluminium, was the first European Tour tournament to be held in this part of the world. It was new. It was exciting. It was unusual. Professionals from Britain had been used to going to South Africa, Kenya, Zambia, Botswana, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria for warm-weather golf. Now, they could go to Dubai. “There was nothing here then,” Greg Norman, who played in some of the early Desert Classics, said. “The Hard Rock Cafe was the tallest building in this part of the world. I stayed at the Jebel Ali hotel and what was that, a three-story hotel?”
As Dubai recovers, it is possible to see what it was and what it hopes it will become again – a sporting playground that offers exceptional facilities and unmatchable weather. It has an average daily temperature of 75 degrees in January and 103 degrees in June. Either as a destination on its own or in conjunction with some of its rich neighbours such as Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Bahrain, where the Volvo Golf Champions was cancelled this year because of the Arab Spring, it Trepresents an ideal place to be in December and January when the weather is bad almost everywhere else.
Nick Tarratt works for the European Tour in Dubai and has lived in the UAE for 20 years. He has been in the eye of the storm. “My property has doubled in price, then halved and is now on the way back up again” he said. “I can feel a sense of improvement. We will get through this. We have to.”