Sundar Raj, the Malayalee manager of a travel agency in Rolla Street in downtown Dubai, looks forlorn. The Eid festivities all around do nothing to perk up his spirits. “For the past few months,” he says, “I’ve been booking one-way tickets from here — mostly to India. People are leaving in droves... If this continues, this place (he waves expansively around) will shut down — and I’ll be without a job.” His wife and three kids are back home in Kerala. And when he arrived in Dubai (“I was told it was a city where even the pavements are lined with gold”) four years ago, he thought, like most others of his ilk, he had hit pay dirt.
“I was hoping to be here for at least 10 years.” Now, he says, he’ll be lucky to see himself through the next year.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, the bustling tax-free port of Dubai — where more than 80 per cent of the population comprises of expatriates, with Indians constituting the largest chunk — harboured quick fixes to middle-class aspirations. There was easy access to opportunities, and a stint in the desert city was the fastest way to climb up the ladder. “Now, it’s a jungle,” says Samiya Ankur, originally from Ahmedabad, working for a multinational bank here. “It’s survival of the fittest: every day, colleagues are being pink-slipped. I’m working 24x7 and hardly sleeping at nights — I need to prove that I’m worth every dirham I’m making — and more.”
Samir Khan was among those pink-slipped. The 27-year-old was a private equity associate in Dubai Holding — the biggest government-owned investment giant in which the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum, held a 99.67 stake. He worked, earned and spent hard, his father’s business boomed, and life held the sweet promise of success. Then one day last year, it all went terribly wrong.
Dubai Holding announced it was restructuring the company to cut costs and recover billions of dollars worth of debt it had accumulated. Several employees were laid off as part of this restructuring. One of them was Khan. Eight months later, Khan is still unemployed.
Many of those with jobs are holding on because they simply cannot afford to quit. “We grit our teeth and bear it because we hope for a better future back home,” says Manoj B, a systems operator with a publisher. He lives in downtown Dubai, like most Indians here. Families stay boxed into studio apartments in areas like Karama and Deira. “If I lose my job now, I’m sunk. Last year, I took a loan to build a house in Calicut.”
No more ‘home sweet home
Noor, a real estate broker in the area, talks about how rents have plummeted — along with his commissions. The artificially-inflated shortage of rental space — that gave rise to an unprecedented spike in 2007-08 — has gone down to the wire with so many people leaving the city. Every apartment building has a ‘To Let’ signboard. Building staff, who till the end of last year did not budge an inch on bargains, are going all out to accommodate: reduced rents, free Internet access, 12 cheques instead of three. “But the apartments are going empty,” Noor, who now plans to go back home, points out. “It makes no sense to hang around here. I’m thinking of getting into a restaurant business with my brother-in-law in Hyderabad.”
The Sri Lankan front office manager of a 3-star hotel in Al Barsha — one of Dubai's newer quarters — is offering monthly stays at throwaway prices. All he wants to do is ensure there are guests in the hotel. One of the potential ‘monthly’ guests asks him upfront: with the Dubai Shopping Festival (DSF) coming up, what if he suddenly decides to revise the tariff? “No chance, sir,” the manager states matter-of-factly. “This city is not going to recover in a hurry — DSF or no DSF.”
Stanley Jeremiah landed in Dubai 18 months ago from Manchester. “I loved the city then — the skyscrapers, the five-star hotels, the malls, the glitz.” Stanley secured a decent-paying job (“the operational word was ‘tax-free’”) in Internet City — one of the many free zones the government has been setting up in Dubai — and a Dh300,000-a-year (more than Rs 36 lakhs) 3-bedroom apartment in uptown Marina. He shared the place with three British expats, and even after paying his share of the rent every month, had enough left over to go pubbing every weekend, not to mention the frequent trips abroad.
Last month, he got laid off. The company was downsizing, his boss blandly informed him one morning at the coffee-vending machine. “There are no jobs going anymore; besides, I’ve had enough of Dubai — so I’m going back to boring old England. But you know what? I’m way poorer now than I was when I first came here.” Was the Dubai high life really worth it? “I don’t think so: here, you get the impression that everything is larger-than-life, yet can be yours — and then it hits you smack in the face,” he trails off.
A year ago, Stanley took a loan to buy a fully-loaded Honda Accord (“There was no way I could have bought this model in the UK,” he laughs, “but that’s the reality check my country would have given me”). Today, as he packs his bags to leave Dubai, he cannot find a buyer for the car. “I’m willing to sell at half the price I bought it for. But there are no takers.”
So what does he plan to do?
“Between you and me,” he takes a drag from his cigarette. “I’m considering abandoning it at the airport.”
With inputs from Tasneem Nashrulla in Mumbai