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Dubai’s troubles have just begun

By Ian Bremmer

The most obvious long-term effect of the financial crisis is a shift in economic decision-making power from capitals of finance to capitals of politics. We see this trend in the United States, where decisions on how best to value assets and allocate capital are now made in Washington on a scale unthinkable until about this time last year. Outside the United States, nowhere is this development more obvious than in the United Arab Emirates, where power and wealth have shifted at startling speed from Dubai (until recently a financial powerhouse) to Abu Dhabi (the seat of political power). But the American trend is temporary; the UAE's might not be.

Remember when newspapers, magazines, and TV business reports produced feature after feature on lavish investment in Dubai's newest architectural marvel and the corporatist management style of its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum? As foreign investment stopped flowing into Dubai, large-scale infrastructure projects ground to a halt. Thousands of foreigners lost work permits in the construction sector. Thousands more saddled with loans they could no longer repay simply abandoned their property and left the country. By January 2009, local police complained that about 3000 cars had been abandoned at the airport. Dubai found itself buried beneath a mountain of IOUs, and for a few days in February 2009, the financial world lost faith. The emirate's credit rating tanked, and foreign investors began to plan for the once unimaginable risk that Dubai would default on its sovereign debt.

Faced with that, Dubai announced a $20 billion bond program to raise the needed cash. In February 2009, Abu Dhabi moved in with $10 billion bailout, underwritten by the UAE's central bank. So far, Dubai has yet to find the other $10 billion, and Abu Dhabi may have to step in again. But the bursting of Dubai's real estate bubble and the sudden collapse of its economy have already allowed Abu Dhabi's ruling al Nahayan family to buy a big share of the al Maktoum's assets.

On a recent visit, I saw the evidence for myself. Abu Dhabi is bustling as the city state prepares for its first Formula One championship this Sunday.  In Dubai, the traffic jams are gone, the hotels are struggling, and everyone's waiting for something to change. What a difference a year makes.

There's plenty of reason to fear that things won't get better soon. Real estate prices are now at about half their peak, but overbuilding on many projects continues because the state controls many of the emirate's largest construction companies. Many of Dubai's biggest construction projects are still underway, because the government wants to minimize further job losses. That's likely to continue through 2010, leaving the emirate with large amounts of unused commercial space.

In many cases, local firms haven't paid their employees in weeks, and there have been some moderately violent protests. The government appears aware of the seriousness of the problem and is working to improve healthcare and living facilities for the laborers. Dangerous levels of unrest are unlikely given that most guest workers can't afford to risk deportation.  

But there's another cloud on the horizon. If the United States moves to intensify sanctions on Iran next year (a good bet given the low likelihood that the current diplomatic optimism will last), Dubai will be vulnerable. Much of Iran's financial flows move through Dubai, and sanctions would hit the emirate especially hard.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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