November Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

As boatloads of immigrants poured into Ellis Island throughout the 19th Century, the first thing they read was the famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty, which began: “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to break free.”

Nearly 200 years later, the Statue of Liberty rightly belongs in the international terminal of the Dubai airport, where impoverished immigrants have been replaced by well-to-do Pakistanis, nervous about the safety of their lives — and their capital — in the home country. But, perhaps, a change in slogan is called for. The message should now read, “Give me your energetic, your rich. Your success stories yearning to flaunt their wealth.”

On October 9, at the UAE Cityscape exhibition in Dubai, some reports suggest that just above 100 super-rich Pakistanis invested in property worth over $100 million. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Over the past year, there has been a massive outflow of capital from Pakistan to Dubai — nearly $30 billion by some accounts or almost 20% of Pakistan’s economy. This money has been taken out of Pakistan’s industries, stock market and banks, only exacerbating the country’s economic crisis. The reasons for this capital flight are plain to see. As Pakistan has lurched from one political crisis to the other, from the emergency of 3 November, 2007, to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the suicide attack on the Marriott Hotel, wealthy Pakistanis no longer believe their money is safe in Pakistan.

While this explains the capital and human flight out of Pakistan, why are they almost unanimously choosing to move to Dubai? The answer can be found in the many exciting development projects taking place in Dubai.

The artificial islands, the largest shopping malls, the skiing resorts in the middle of the desert, and, incredibly enough, an Eiffel Tower that is taller than the real thing are all designed to entice and lure the cream of the crop from Pakistan and other countries.

At a time when the rest of the world is tightening its belt and practicing austerity, Dubai is an anachronism, a throwback to the anything-goes boom years of the 1990s. On the surface, it may seem like Dubai exists in a bubble, immune to the rules of economics. Just dig a little deeper, though, and a whole slew of contradictions begin to emerge.

For once, while Dubai refuses to acknowledge even the possibility of a slowdown, continuing to furiously expand in ever more outlandish ways, there is an unspoken fear that its mega-projects may run out buyers and its real estate market may nosedive.

dubai-2-nov08Dubai has also tried to reconcile, at times clumsily and unsuccessfully, its original identity as an Islamic state with its recent makeover as a playground for the rich and famous. While cocktails flow freely at the many bars and nightclubs, alcohol is strictly banned for locals. And even Westerners are occasionally reminded that there are limits to their hedonism. The recent case of a British couple facing six months imprisonment for having sex on a beach is just one of many reminders that Dubai is a part of the Middle East and not Europe.

Perhaps the most glaring contradiction is between Dubai’s pretense that it is a land without poverty, where rich immigrants live the good life, and the reality that those who built the city are hidden in prison-like camps, with no shot at enjoying the fruits of their labour. Among them are many Pakistanis who arrived here in the ’70s, during ZAB’s tenure.

But there is no denying that Dubai still remains the dream to which most Pakistanis aspire. Many Pakistanis, especially the chattering classes, see no future for themselves in their war-torn, recession-hit country. For those looking for escape, Newsline takes a look at what Dubai has to offer, from its nightlife and entertainment facilities to its real estate market. But those who still maintain hope that Pakistan can rescue itself from its present predicament and that Dubai may not be all that its made out to be, we explain that Pakistan is not yet a failed state and that Dubai, for all its glitz and glamour, may not be a shining city on a hill and may, in fact, be facing an economic downturn of its own.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.