From Frank McDonald - Irish Times Saturday September 12th

Man's last great folly

ENVIRONMENT: Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City By Jim Krane Atlantic, 344pp. £17.99

DUBAI, WROTE French architect Patrick Bouchain, is “probably the very last great folly humanity will be able to afford”.

Intrigued by his verdict, I went to see it for myself in May 2007 and wrote a piece describing Dubai – then in the grip of a building boom even more incandescent than our own – as the world capital of unsustainable development.

Bouchain’s outraged view, delivered in a tract at the 2006 Venice Biennale, was prescient. What was happening simply couldn’t go on. Sooner or later – quite soon, as things turned out – the frenzied construction of dazzling skyscrapers and artificial islands made from vibro-compacted sand was bound to come to a bitter end. And so it did.

Dubai shot into the fast lane from nowhere. Into the 1990s, as Jim Krane recounts, some of its inhabitants kept camels in their backyards to supply milk and ate freshly-cooked locusts that “tasted like french fries”. There was no electricity until the 1960s, and even the royal palace where Sheikh Mohammed spent his early years didn’t have flush toilets.

But his father, Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum, was determined to put Dubai on the map. He dredged Dubai Creek to open it up to shipping and then, when ships became too big for it, created the world’s largest man-made harbour – Jebel Ali – to cater for them. He also wanted to outshine his fellow sheikhs in what became the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Bedouin families that constitute the UAE’s tribal autocracy – the al-Maktoums in Dubai, the al-Nahyans in Abu Dhabi, etc – had been protected and underpinned by Britain since the 1820s, even though slavery was only abolished in 1963. It was their great good fortune (and Britain’s too) that oil was discovered in these tiny desert sheikhdoms.

The UAE is one of the world’s least democratic places. A visitor about to meet one of its sheikhs was told: “You can talk about anything else but don’t mention democracy. Sheikh Zayed doesn’t like it”. Instead, they have survived by patronage – doling out money and gifts, including mansions, to the small number of Emiratis, as “rivers to their people”.

Before oil and tourism, the economy of the Gulf’s “Trucial States” (as they were previously known) was based on pearls and smuggling.

Dubai’s oil boom petered out early, and Sandhurst-educated Sheikh Mohammed decided tourism was going to be the Next Big Thing for what Krane describes as this “Rhode Island-sized patch of desert”. The Sheikh needed a totem for Dubai’s drive to become a global tourism destination and struck oil (as it were) with the Burj al Arab hotel. Its London-born architect, Tom Wright, came up with a sail-like profile, arguing that a true icon – such as the Sydney Opera House – was “something you can draw in five seconds and everyone recognises it”.

Described as the most significant Arab monument since the Alhambra in Granada (its name translates as Tower of the Arabs), the world’s first self-styled seven-star hotel lured in droves of high-spending tourists, dazzled by its scale and ostentatiousness – done to the Sheikh Mohammed’s taste, Krane likens it to a “pirate galleon full of treasure”.

By 2008, Dubai had the highest concentration of hotels in the world (350) with 40,000 bedrooms, and a burgeoning airline – Emirates – to fly in tourists to fill them.

But what really inflated the property bubble was the Sheikh’s decision in 2002 allowing foreigners to buy apartments and villas in Dubai; that’s what started the new gold rush.

Developers such as Emaar and Nakheel – controlled by the Dubai royal family – were soon selling tens of thousands of new homes by “brandishing drawings of dream neighbourhoods with trees, elevated trains and European families strolling with ice cream cones”, as Krane writes. Incredibly, property prices quadrupled in just five years.

Dubai’s great coup was to manufacture real estate, dredging thousands of tonnes of sand from the Gulf to create the Palm Jumeirah, shaped like a giant palm frond, that doubled the emirate’s limited shoreline, and The World, where 300 artificial islands were loosely arranged to mimic the continents. An Irish consortium bought “Ireland” for €28 million.

All of the construction work was done by an army of immigrant workers, who were paid buttons and lived in appalling conditions, working round the clock on hotels and leisure resorts that they could never afford to use. Many of them died under the hot sun – 800 in 2007 alone, mainly as a result of falling from inadequately inspected scaffolding.

The environment barely rated, with the result that Dubai now has the highest per capita carbon footprint on Earth. “Deliberate policy at the highest level favoured development at all costs, with no consideration for sustainability. when developers saw that Sheikh Mohammed’s own personal projects took no notice of the environment, theirs didn’t either.”

Throughout all this frenzy, Dubai benchmarked itself against places it saw as competitors, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Ireland. In 2002, coincidentally, a survey of 100 “world winning cities” by Jones Lang LaSalle marked three as ones to watch – Dubai, Las Vegas and Dublin for their attractive, lightly regulated and low-tax business environments.

By 2008, Dubai was “like a runaway train full of champagne drinkers barrelling down a mountain track”, Krane says. And just like in Las Vegas and Dublin, the party was to come to a sticky end. The collapse came just before the Burj Dubai Tower – twice as tall as the Empire State building – was topped out in January 2009 at 2,684 feet (813m).

Though Krane doesn’t use the word hubris, that’s surely what drove it all. Sheikh Mohammed’s inspiration might have been Cordoba in the 10th century, but what he built is more like Las Vegas, without the casinos. And like Las Vegas, Dubai has plenty of prostitutes to serve its overwhelmingly male (75 per cent), largely expatriate “community”.

This book chronicles what happened. Episodic and written in Americanese (the author is an Associated Press journalist from Cleveland, Ohio), it also details Dubai’s relationships with both the US and Iran – though it doesn’t explain why Sheikh Mohammed disinherited his eldest son and had his palace demolished without trace. Krane is, after all, still a fan.

Frank McDonald is Environment Editor of The Irish Times and joint author (with Kathy Sheridan) of The Builders: How a Small Group of Property Developers Fuelled the Building Boom and Transformed Ireland (Penguin Ireland)