Dubai’s strange history and stranger investors

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

Rabi' al-Thani 16, 1431 2010-04-01

Special Reports

by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 2, Rabi' al-Thani, 1431)

Among the many anomalies in the Muslim world is the tiny sheikhdom of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that is home to millions of expatriate workers that enjoy few if any legal rights. Expatriates outnumber locals by 4 to 1 and if they ever decided to take over the tiny sheikhdom, they would probably have little difficulty. That, however, is far from their minds given the manner in which the vast majority are kept in subservience and busy in back-breaking work in scorching heat. These are dirt poor people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Indonesia. They toil to make ends meet to send remittances to families back home and to pay off the debt they acquired coming to the desert utopia.

The UAE is made up of seven states of which Abu Dhabi is the largest followed by Dubai. Dubai’s recorded history dates back to 1799, with the Maktoum family taking over in 1833 after they moved out from Abu Dhabi. Historically, Dubai was known for pearls and its people became expert divers developing a thriving industry but it was destroyed during the WWI. Dubai, however, continued to attract businessmen because of its location at the southeastern end of the Arabian Peninsula and close proximity to Iran.

The UAE sheikhdom was cobbled together by the British before they left the region in 1971. Their departure, like that from many other lands, however, was merely an illusion. The British, and now increasingly the Americans, are in control of most affairs in the seven sheikhdoms. In typical imperial fashion, the Americans with their naval armadas and spies keep a close watch on Islamic Iran on the other side of the Persian Gulf while the British continue to occupy strategic positions within the administrative structure as well as the construction industry. The Israeli Zionists are also there and continue to indulge in their criminal activities, the most recent of which was the assassination on January 20th of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, Hamas’s military commander, in a Dubai hotel.

While Abu Dhabi has enormous oil wealth, Dubai ran out of it quickly (oil and gas were discovered in Dubai in 1966 leading to the influx of expatriate workers from the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent but today it gets barely 6% of its revenues from oil) yet it has created a niche for itself in the global market by transforming itself from a desert patch of camel-herding tent-dwellers to jet-setting executives that rub shoulders with some of the richest people in the world. However, Dubai’s desire to become the Singapore of the Persian Gulf has run into difficulties, thanks to the meltdown of the global property market. Dubai also joined the property market speculation hoping to attract foreign investors by providing them business opportunities. Dubai is little more than a huge shopping mall. Even its sprawling new airport looks more like a shopping mall than an airport. Dubai also holds an annual fest where people from all over the world come to buy goods. Dubai has been aptly named, “Do Buy”.

It is, however, in the property market that Dubai made a name for itself; it has also fallen on hard times as a consequence. Names like Dubai Marina and Burj al-Khalifa (named after the present ruler of Abu Dhabi who bailed out the world’s tallest building from financial collapse) are considered signature markers of Dubai’s future thrust. Dubai’s airline, Emirates Airlines, though the largest in the region, has also run into financial turbulence. It was rescued, like Burj al-Khalifa, by Abu Dhabi that now owns 60% share in the airline. Abu Dhabi also started its own airline, Etihad Airways that has already captured a significant portion of market share despite being new to the aviation industry.

It is however, Dubai’s property market that some people have taken literally to heart. According to the Dubai Land Department, Heydar Aliyev, the 12-year-old son of President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan is the proud owner of nine waterfront mansions. Their price is a cool $44 million, according to the Washington Post (March 5). How did Heydar acquire such fortune at a tender age when his father, Ilham Aliyev draws an annual salary of about $228,000 as president of Azerbaijan that would not be enough to buy even the smallest Palm property in Dubai? Schoolboy Heydar, however, is not alone in this shopping spree. “Dubai’s Land Department also has files in the names of Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva. President Aliyev has two daughters with the same names and roughly the same ages,” according to the Post.

Far from finding such revelations shocking, the people of Azerbaijan consider them to be normal since corruption is so pervasive. What is surprising is the reaction of the so-called “opposition” parties; they have attempted to protect Ilham Aliyev’s reputation by spinning the story. Yeni Musavat, newspaper of the main “opposition” party, claimed that the Washington Post was “ordered” to publish these accusations against the president because he had not been so cooperative with the US. This claim is obviously useful to Ilham Aliyev, but it cannot pass muster.

Ever since Aliyev usurped power in 2003 and falsified the election results, the US has accepted him as the legitimate ruler of Azerbaijan. Even when Aliyev falsified the referendum results in March 2009 and opened the way for himself to rule Azerbaijan for life, the US immediately accepted the results of the “referendum.” Aliyev continues to act as a US stooge; he supports the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has sent Azeri troops to Iraq to legitimize the so-called “coalition of the willing” claim and to provide a veneer of “Islamic” and “international” backing to the US colonization of Iraq.

While Aliyev has not found revelations about his children’s investments in Dubai embarrassing, the story is being touted by Dubai as proof that it has turned the corner on financial troubles. If the president of Azerbaijan and his children would invest $44 million in the Dubai property market, the situation must be improving. This sends a message that Dubai’s investment climate is sound and even presidents, or their children, are willing to put their money where their mouth is.

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