From decadent to ominous in Dubai

Laid-off foreigners are fleeing Dubai as the emirate’s economy collapses, according to Thursday’s New York Times. Thousands of their abandoned cars reportedly now sit at the Dubai airport, while dark rumors spread about luxury developments sinking (literally) and lavish hotels turning decrepit.

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Long ago I was astonished by the development-cum-decadence of Dubai — the excess seemed nuts even in unprecedented oil-boom times. (The desert as home to the world’s largest indoor snow park? A 154-story skyscraper sired by a “cybersheik”? A giant artificial island whose palm-tree-shaped land cost north of $12 billion in reclamation alone?) It couldn’t end well.

Now it may well be ending. What’s most haunting about the Times report isn’t the opening tale of a young French expat who leveraged herself with a $300,000 apartment and may have to flee the country or face debtors’ prison. It’s the circumstances of Hamza Thiab, a 27-year-old Iraqi who relocated from Baghdad to Dubai in 2005, and who lost his job with an engineering firm six weeks ago:

Mr. Thiab was sitting in a Costa Coffee Shop in the Ibn Battuta mall, where most of the customers seemed to be single men sitting alone, dolefully drinking coffee at midday. If he fails to find a job, he will have to go to Jordan, where he has family members — Iraq is still too dangerous, he says — though the situation is no better there.

What happens with all of those frustrated young men when the shaky economies of the Middle East really implode? (It seems unlikely the price of oil will scale Burj Dubai-esque heights again any time soon.) In the early days of the Obama presidency we’ve been terribly preoccupied with our own reeling economy, and understandably so. But the peril clearly is global (never mind that silly theory of “decoupling” in vogue not long ago) and certain areas of the world are looking increasingly explosive just beneath the surface. It’s all stimulus bills and Obama’s economic team in the headlines of late, while only a few voices have drawn an explicit connection between economic and national security. But soon enough we may be hearing a whole lot more from Obama’s Director of National Intelligence and Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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