Marketplace Scratch Pad

The difference a year makes

Scott Jagow Mar 6, 2009

One year ago this week, Marketplace was reporting on The Middle East at Work. I was in Cairo with one crew. Some of my colleagues were in Dubai. At that time, Dubai was a kind of Disneyland for white collar immigrants and a jobs machine for foreign construction workers. Not anymore.

Marketplace’s Stephen Beard was in Dubai last year, and this week, he’s been reporting on how things have changed since the global economy’s collapse. Let’s start with the young expats who came from all over the world to make it rich and live the good life in Dubai. We talked to some of the American expats last year, and here’s a sample of what they said:

“No matter how many people come to Dubai, there’s always more work than there are people to actually do the work.”

“Shopping is a national pastime here, and it’s easier to spend money here than it is in Las Vegas, believe it or not.”

“There’s not much to complain about here.”

There is now. In his first story, Stephen talks to a 27-year-old from Lebanon who borrowed $25,000 to buy a sports car (sound familiar?). Then, he got laid off and can’t find another job. Now, he has a more serious problem.

If I default on my car loan, I go to jail. I think it’s utterly stupid, and we really should change these practices. It is such draconian, old laws that we really need to reform.

That may be true, but it’s the same old theme that keeps cropping up — he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing, to quote Ben Franklin. Hopefully, this man has options elsewhere. Stephen says many of the expats are leaving, even abandoning their partly paid-off cars at the airport. The government denies this, but Stephen maintains there’s “little doubt that expats here are no longer Living the Dream.”

And if that’s true for the well-to-do and mobile, what about all those South Asian laborers who built Dubai with their sweat equity? That’s what Stephen addresses in his second story.

Last March, our reporter Sean Cole looked at how for those people, “the dream of Dubai is just making a little money to send back home — and it is very little.” From the story:

Robertson: And you see bus-fulls of them, their empty eyes? It sounds strange. You just look at their eyes. they’re just empty. Sad, really sad, but that’s how Dubai’s being built, yeah? That’s what they rely on.

And it’ll probably be that way until Dubai has to adjust its boomtown mentality into something more sustainable; something more realistic and less like a dream.

Fast forward to now. From Stephen’s piece:

Trow: They don’t have any work. They don’t have any means. There’s nothing like welfare here. And people don’t know what to do.

Beard: We’re talking about hundreds or are we talking about thousands?

Trow: Thousands, thousands, thousands.

Stephen visits one house where 150 of these workers are living. 150 people in seven rooms. Some of the bigger construction companies have paid to fly their workers home. Other companies have just left their people there, living in squalor.

The people that built Disneyland just want to go home.

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