Dubai on 24 February 2008 was blanketed by fog on the morning of our arrival. It was almost 1 am when my husband and I made our way along the city’s main highway, Sheikh Zayed Road, to our hotel apartment. The quiet highway and fog belied the fact that this was the financial capital of the Middle East. A city at the heart of materialism. A city that never slept and a city that was always hungry for more.
Dubai was an architect’s heaven. My husband felt that he had landed his dream job. “Would I ever get to design this in South Africa?” he would often ask. I would shake my head reassuringly, confident that our temporary move would be worthwhile in the end.
I worked for a consulting firm in Dubai and was responsible for its Corporate Governance services. I soon found that my work experience was not as rosy as my husband’s. There was always a nagging at the back of my head – a little voice inside me that questioned Dubai’s erratic and often careless way of doing business.
Corporate Dubai comprises largely family owned businesses. Even whilst some of these may be listed companies, they would be operated like the shop around the corner, having no regard to sound Corporate Governance principles such as transparency or accountability. It was easy – money was thrown at everything – and making a profit was often, not that difficult. Executives (who may not necessarily be experienced) could milk the company for what they were worth and often get away with it because charging management with misconduct would mean admitting to a lack of oversight by the Board.
However, that didn’t matter back then. Sales were up; the real estate market was booming, oil hit new highs every day – people everywhere in Dubai were making money. Transparency and a sound regulatory framework in Dubai were pie in the sky concepts, seen by most as essentials only for the West.
Then this all came to a staggering halt. All at once, it seemed, banks stopped lending and real estate corrected by 50% in some areas. Dubai had to admit that it was not immune to the financial crisis.
Perhaps what surprises me most about Dubai is its lack of transparency. People are losing their jobs all around us and some (I don’t know if they’re considered lucky) are working without getting paid. Yet, I’ve not come across anyone who will openly lay their cards on the table. There are no words of encouragement or comfort for the people who are affected by this crisis – nothing except denial – “Yes, Dubai is affected, but we’re on track – business as usual.”
Of course, all this uncertainty fuels speculation. Confidence in the emirate is dwindling. Dubai has a great track record and brand Dubai is recognized around the world. What is needed now is to create a culture of openness and transparency so that all stakeholders are able to make informed decisions. At the end of the day, it can only be beneficial to Dubai.