Construction worker Bilal is in a happy mood as he takes his lunch break sitting next to an artificial lake near Dubai’s showpiece Mall of the Emirates.
He admits anxiety about the end of his contract in one year’s time, when the 24-year-old may have to return to Bangladesh.
The news of Dubai’s debt crisis is not expected to spark an immediate surge in redundancies in the once-booming desert metropolis, but a gradual exodus is likely as workers’ contracts expire and the lack of new projects means they are unable to find new jobs.
Before last year’s credit crunch, Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates were estimated at the end of 2007 to have a population of 6.4 million of whom 5.5 million were foreigners. More than 3 million were registered with the ministry of labour as workers.
But now the picture is different. Even before state-owned Dubai World said last week that it wanted to halt payments on its huge debts for at least six months, property prices were down by half and office rents by as much as two-thirds.
Asians, who form the majority of the construction workforce, may find their livelihoods at stake following the mothballing of hundreds of projects worth tens of billions of dollars.
For Indian site engineer Thomas, unemployment is a already a reality. He walked out of Thiruvananthapuram airport in Kerala on Thursday, after 10 years in the UAE city, with just two items of hand luggage and a bundle of clothes.
His contract was terminated by his construction company.
“I was working as a site engineer in Dubai. I’ve no other choice but to return to Kerala,” the 50-year-old said. “My flight was full of people returning.”