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Goodbye Dubai

© Lauren Greenfield

The story of Dubai, a small desert emirate in the Persian Gulf, reads more like an improbable fairy tale than an engineered plan. After six-years of impossible luxury and growth, its unparalleled expansion revealed an infrastructure of unsustainability. The international crisis arrived onshore and leveled the economy, wiping out jobs and forcing its enormous expatriate population to flee. The exodus has swallowed 30% of the expat population. Dubai’s growth was a strategy wrapped in a miracle; as a modest trading settlement with very little oil, the royal family relied on tax-free zones, foreign investment, and trumped-up optimism to sculpt its superlative hotels and golf courses.

It lured international talent to design the tallest towers, the largest man-made island, the indoor ski resort. It imported cheap labor to dredge the sand, drive the taxis, and serve the booming population. Now, as investments retreat and Dubai’s population repatriates elsewhere, the cranes (a quarter of all the world's) are quiet, the notorious traffic is thin, and the villas are vacant. Many foreigners would like to stay, but the emirate’s labor laws are tricky.

As both white-collar expats and foreign laborers are discovering, Dubai’s earlier invitation was qualified with certain immutable terms and conditions. Unfortunately for both groups, clarification is coming in the form of withheld paychecks, confiscated visas, frozen assets, and plane tickets home. “Dubai is always going to look at us as foreign workers that have come here to help build their nation,” says Cynthia, a mother of two from California. “At the end of the day, it’s not our country. If we’re made redundant, we have to go home.”

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