Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Back in the UAE

It had been four years since I was last in Dubai, and given my current work assignments I hadn’t really been expecting to come back here anytime soon. So imagine my surprise when last week, while I was vacationing in Colorado, I got an email asking me if I could make a quick trip out here to help put together a proposal. (Here, folks, is another reason why you should not check your work e-mail while you are on vacation…)

So my son and I returned from Colorado last Thursday, and Friday afternoon I began the journey out here. Due to the last-minute nature of this trip, my preferred method of getting from Houston to Dubai – non-stop via Emirates – was not available. I had to fly United to Frankfurt and Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Dubai.

Of all the ways to get from Houston to Dubai, I’ve decided that connecting through Europe is the least desirable option. It just makes the trip seem that much longer and more difficult. This is especially true in the case of Lufthansa’s Frankfurt hub; the airport is massive, confusing and not at all user-friendly (at least when compared to other European hubs such as Amsterdam Schiphol, which is also large but is much easier to navigate). The in-flight service on Lufthansa itself was good, however.

I want to see in detail how the city has changed since my last visit here three years and nine months ago, but since I’m only here for the work week I don’t know how much sightseeing (or restaurant-visiting) I’ll be able to do this time around. However, even from the little I’ve seen so far, it’s clear to me that the financial crisis of a few years ago has had a major impact on this city.

For one thing, there seems to be a lot less active construction. Yes, cranes still dot the skyline and there is still some roadbuilding activity, but the pace has slowed considerably and a lot of projects that were underway when I was last here still have not been completed. For example, the two towers in Healthcare City near my office that are still unfinished; one of my co-workers here says that work only recently restarted after being on hiatus for awhile.

I’ve also noticed that traffic does not seem to be as bad as it was four years ago. Maybe that’s because a lot of projects that were underway at that time have now been completed and therefore the transportation network has more capacity – the Dubai Metro, for example, is operational and I will definitely ride it while I am here – but maybe that’s also because there simply aren’t as many cars on the road as there used to be. There simply aren’t as many drivers.

There seem to be a lot of vacant storefronts. My office here has downsized greatly – we used to occupy four floors of our building, but now we only occupy two, and of all the people I worked with when I was here in 2008 only a handful still remain.

Finally, there’s the “pace” of Dubai, which from a completely subjective point of view seems to have slowed. There are still people here and they are still busy, but they don’t seem to be as frenetic. The city seems quieter (less traffic and construction noise, perhaps?). Workers and pedestrians that used to scurry now stroll. There used to be a palpable, if difficult-to-describe, “buzz” to Dubai. It just doesn’t seem to be there anymore.

Again, I’ve only been here for a couple of days and I’ve only seen a small portion of the city. Maybe my perceptions will change as I see more of Dubai. It also should be noted that it’s August and Ramadan only ended a week ago, so a lot of people are probably still on vacation. But on the other hand, after being hit so hard by the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, and after being made a poster child of that crisis by the world’s media, it’s to be expected that things in this city are going to be different than what I was used to.

And maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing. I few years ago I wrote that Dubai could use the slowdown to "catch its collective breath and find relief from the 'construction fatigue' caused by manic development." From my perspective, that seems to have happened.

And yes, it’s good to be back. Even if it's just for a week.

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