It wasn’t so long ago—just a few short years, it’s so easy to forget—that the “Dubai boom” was in full swing. Arabs in other parts of the Middle East were still bearing the weight of corrupt, autocratic regimes, but in Dubai, construction sites pounded away late into the night; housing prices, which once seemed to have crested, were leaping ever skyward; and foundations for new office towers and residential compounds were being poured before real estate developers (private, government owned, whoever—to eager buyers it made little difference) had worked out the bugs in projects still unfinished. Urban planning had become an oxymoron. Road detours changed every few days and almost twenty-four-hour gridlocks clogged the roads, as visitors from around the world arrived to indulge in what was being touted as a modern marvel: a Middle Eastern El Dorado that promoted a simple, seductive mantra—party till you drop, wine and dine till you drop, and, yes, shop till you drop.

But then it all stopped. In a few months the global financial crisis had rumbled through the world like a 9.0 earthquake, and it was soon revealed that the Dubai House of Finance had been built on one of the flimsiest of foundations of all. Within weeks Dubai International Airport had become the largest used-car lot in the world, as debt-laden expatriates left the keys in their BMWs and Range Rovers before boarding one-way flights back to their home countries. On a short tour of my own parking lot one day, I counted eighteen cars so dust-encrusted that their original colors were barely distinguishable. Many had become palettes for graffiti artists. “Goodbye, Dubai!” read one. “Coward!” read another. And so the Dubai boom was over. Or was it?

[Continued in Confrontation 112]