All during our new century's orgy of debt-driven real estate expansion, currency floated nowhere else on Earth the way it did-with pure, gleaming, world-conquering ardor-in Dubai. The island city-state in the Persian Gulf seemed less like an actual spot on the map than a Christo-style performance-art installation, an open-ended meditation on the many sleek surfaces of the monied life. Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the royal patriarch of the place, had a vision-conveniently spelled out in his 2006 autobiography, My Vision-to make Dubai "the world's number one city for commerce, tourism, and services." The trick would be to leverage all the petrodollars and beguiling debt instruments then sluicing around the once-sleepy outpost in the United Arab Emirates and suddenly you would have a kind of Vegas-on-steroids. And like that great American destination for capital immolation, Sheik Mohammed's playground would conjure reveries of recumbent money right out of the desert sand.
There would be the world's tallest skyscraper-the Burj Dubai building, whose retro space-age tower (due for completion later this year) looks like something Fritz Lang would have roughed out during an especially hairy acid trip. There would be vertical farms, run on desalinated ocean water, and readily leased out for exterior shots in the direct-to-DVD fourth installment of the Matrix franchise. There would be (in the neighboring Saayidat Island) UAE extensions of the Louvre and the Guggenheim-the latter to be designed, of course, by that echt-postmodern brutalist, Frank Gehry.
And the topper: The World, a chain of manmade archipelagos rising out of the Dubai shoreline, all in the shape of the countries on the actual map of the world. Now this was deluxe real estate, and the lords of Dubai let it be known that the celebrity class was thronging to exert its outsize clout on the virtual world as well as the real one: Virgin mogul Richard Branson, it was rumored, wanted England, or at least the parts of it he doesn't already own; Rod Stewart was on the shortlist for Scotland (Craig Ferguson evidently having taken a huge bath in the '08 meltdown); Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were pondering Ethiopia, no doubt in some misguided effort to launch a whole new synthetic race of adoptable orphans.
And now Dubai is reportedly some $80 billion in debt, and the city's annual Cityscape expo-a property fair that's normally a feeding-frenzy for architects, developers, and any investment counselor with a bored, suggestible client roster-launches this week in a distinctly subdued climate. Reports AP correspondent Barbara Surk, "dozens of gleaming new towers that mark the city's skyline now stand empty… and billions of dollars worth of projects have been scrapped or put on hold."
"Even camps for migrant workers have posted 'to let' signs," Surk notes-raising the grim specter that the city's casual laborers might have to decamp for the projects in Saayidat (Arabic for "happiness") that came under fire for rampant worker abuse in a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year.
And oh dear-The World has gone the way of Florida, or East St. Louis. In a report from last month's Irish Independent, James Mclean and Brian McDonald wrote that the 300-plus islands off the Dubai harbor now are "the world's most expensive shipping hazard… a disjointed and desolate collection of sandy blots." The manmade lagoons that separated the miniature fiefdoms have succumbed to neglect-meaning, for example, that Australia and New Zealand have merged. And John O'Dolan, the Irish developer who wound up bingeing on both Ireland and England, went bust and killed himself in February.
"The World has been canceled," one local property agent told Mclean and McDonald. "Basically there is one island that is maintained that is said to be owned by the Sheik, and the rest looks like a pile of muck."
Indeed, to all appearances, Sheik Mohammed continues to exist in a cognitive island all his own. "I don't think we made any mistakes," Surk says he announced at a recent-and rare-press conference. Even though the city has to go $10 billion into the red with loans from neighboring Abu Dhabi, the Sheik placidly contended that "our strategy will be mainly the same."
And why not? After all, America's stateside sheiks of the real estate and investment world aren't shifting their strategy, and they've accrued $700 billion in public cash for their no-less arrogant failures. Many of them, like the sheikh in Surk's telling, can be espied tooling around at high speeds in "a customized Mercedes four-wheel drive"-or its stateside equivalent.
And like the common-touch monarch, the ideal-type millennial boodler in our midst is also the kind of guy who "regularly updates his Facebook profile and exchanges Tweets with… youth." Indeed, it's a shame that US lawmakers didn't have the foresight during last fall's frenetic TARP vote to insert a rider mandating the repatriation of all credit-default plungers to the coast of Dubai, turning the overhyped simulacrum of the international order into a dazzling, postmodern Alcatraz. The global for-profit incarceration complex would have leapt at the opportunity, and the gang bosses over in Saadiyat probably could have instituted a nice long-term work-release program. Ah, but that truly would be a monied reverie for a Perfect World.