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Escape From the Gilded Cage: Why Royals and Expats Are Fleeing Dubai
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=51574"><span class="small">Richard Spencer, The Australian</span></a>   
Tuesday, 10 September 2019 08:11

Excerpt: "Behind the glamour, Dubai is ruled with an iron fist - as royal wives and expats know only too well."

Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, wife of the ruler of Dubai, arrives at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai on March 31, 2018. (photo: Karim Sahib/AFP)
Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, wife of the ruler of Dubai, arrives at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai on March 31, 2018. (photo: Karim Sahib/AFP)

Escape From the Gilded Cage: Why Royals and Expats Are Fleeing Dubai

By Richard Spencer, The Australian

10 September 19


t’s hard to escape notice in Dubai, city of 1000 selfies and 10,000 closed-circuit TV cameras. That is how a lot of people want it: it is a city that attracts people who are visible, or who want to become visible, or who have something to sell, including often themselves. At the exclusive end, it is a world centre of the diamond market, and what is more for show than diamonds? At the other, public relations companies set up “paparazzi” shots of sports stars who want to be pictured gambolling with their wives and children in five-star hotel swimming pools to counter some tabloid story of infidelity or marital split. (Actual paparazzi have a tougher time of it in these parts.)

But then there are those who actually want to escape. That’s where the closed-circuit cameras come in. “They are on every corner of Dubai. I can assure you, we have the whole city covered,” a Dubai police chief, Lt Colonel Nasser Ibrahim Kazim, boasted to a slightly startled journalist a few years ago. He was talking about a jewellery thief who had been tracked on video from start to finish as he made his way across the city with $12 million worth of gems before being arrested.

But it was something of a wake-up call to the rest of the population, too, especially its nearly three million expats, many of whom — at least the wealthier westerners — often live their day-to-day lives rather blithely. “We have expanded our ­systems and we have set up surveillance cameras in any new area that has been developed,” Kazim went on. The cameras are wired up to facial ­recognition technology. From the airport to the mall, as one handy phrase has it, you are never out of sight from the moment you arrive till the moment you leave, and someone always knows where you are. There are 3000 cameras in Dubai airport alone, apparently.

Spare a thought, then, for Dubai’s reluctant royal princesses, the ones who have all the gems they could possibly want but still seem as eager as thieves to make their getaway. Every couple of years a big story comes up about Dubai that makes everyone gawp at the city, sometimes for good, often for glitz — Biggest mall! Tallest building! ­Maddest offshore residential complex! — and sometimes for bad. The princesses fall into the latter category, and though this year’s story came out of the blue, it had been brewing for some time.

It was Princess Haya bint al-Hussein who ­managed to escape, and more secrets may spill out from there. The wife of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, she is a princess twice over — by marriage and by birth, as daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan. The reason her sudden arrival in London, armed with Britain’s most sought-after divorce lawyer, Fiona Shackleton, came out of the blue was because it had seemed that hers was a fairytale marriage.

While her husband, Sheikh Mohammed, with his love of horses, the desert and Arabic poetry, represented the often forgotten traditional side of Dubai life, the glamorous, privately educated, fashion-conscious princess represented what it had become: modern, ambitious, confident. In appearance, she often resembled more an expat housewife of the posher variety, the ones found lunching in vegan juice bars in the beachside ­suburb of Jumeirah, than a regular Gulf consort. Though to be fair, we don’t really know what a regular Gulf consort looks like, since most royal wives are never seen in public.

Then one day, probably in March, it was over. We still do not know why this was, or how Princess Haya made her run for it, through the guarded palace corridors, along Dubai’s main thoroughfare, Sheikh Zayed Road, an eight-lane river of Toyota Land Cruisers and Maseratis with sharp-topped steel skyscrapers lining the banks, to the intensively policed airport. It is widely assumed that if, as reported, she travelled to London via Germany, it was to establish her claim to asylum, in some sense of the term, making her flight ­officially known to non-British authorities. Britain has historic ties and familial relations with the Maktoum family, and it is widely thought it allowed Princess Haya’s stepdaughter, Sheikha Shamsa, 18 years old at the time, to be kidnapped back to Dubai in 2000. However, we do not know this for sure; we do not know exactly how and when Princess Haya left, if Sheikh Mohammed knew about it, or whether he would have stopped her leaving even if he had the opportunity. It is one thing for him to have asserted his rights over his daughters such as Sheikha Shamsa, rights that Gulf tradition at least gives him; another to hold his wife captive, a wife moreover with a considerably longer royal heritage than his own. Princess Haya, a member of Jordan’s Hashemite dynasty, is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.

Nevertheless, escape is how it is being seen, and if Sheikh Mo, as he is irreverently known in Dubai, is being traduced in the telling, he has only himself to blame. For escaping Dubai has become a meme over the 13 years that he has run the emirate. There was Sheikha Shamsa, who ran away from the family estate in Surrey, England, rather than return to Dubai, but was found at a Cambridge pub a few days later by the sheikh’s security entourage, reportedly bundled into a car and stuck on a private jet back home. Then last year Sheikha Shamsa’s full sister, Sheikha Latifa, by one of Sheikh Mohammed’s “minor” wives, made an even more dramatic escape, driving across the desert to Oman, taking a ride out to the yacht of a French former secret service agent who had offered to help, and then sailing across the Indian Ocean. As with Shamsa, it was not to be. This time it was India that came to Sheikh Mohammed’s aid, its navy joining forces with the Emiratis to board the yacht and take all on board captive. Seemingly, no one has seen either of the sisters in public since they were reportedly returned to Dubai.

Why do so many people want to escape from Dubai? For it is not just royals. When the ­financial crisis struck the city in 2009, expats lost their jobs and, overloaded with the cheap debt that paid for their luxury lifestyle, headed straight for the airport — aware that, in Dubai, debtors’ prison was still very much a real prospect. Their BMWs and sports cars were famously left to gather dust in the car park until the hire-­purchase companies towed them away.

Anyone who has lived in Dubai, as I did for three years, understands why they did so. “You always feel things could go very badly wrong in Dubai, at any time, and you wonder how you would get out,” says one woman who lived there for six years in her 20s. “I had the time of my life there,” she says — but everyone knows there’s some truth to the grim stories.

In my time there as a foreign correspondent, I met some of the people who didn’t make it. One Briton was living on the streets (secretly — vagrancy is not allowed), victim of a classic Dubai trap. He’d swapped jobs and gone home for a few weeks before starting with his new employer, unaware of a Dubai practice whereby your bank account, which is tied to your employment, is instantly ­frozen if your pay stops going in. Once frozen, his automatic credit card payments stopped, and he was in default. This caused problems with his car loan, and by the time he returned to Dubai a request had been lodged at the airport to seize his passport. Without his passport, he could not take up his new job and resume his repayments. It took nearly a year before a charity stepped in to give him a loan, by which time he was sleeping on park benches. Others — particularly, it has to be said, non-Europeans — simply go to jail, many languishing for years, unable to pay their way out.

Dubai is, though, a more complex story than that. Life is often lived on the edge in countries where the rule of law has not kept up with social and economic development (China springs to mind) and those who do not live defensively often live high before a fall. But a lot of people leave ­simply because so many want to live there in the first place. Dubai’s population 50 years ago was 59,000. Today’s three million are 85 per cent foreigners who come for the jobs, the opportunity to strike it rich or, in the case of residents from other Arab states, because it is one of the few well-functioning places in which they can live and raise a family. I was living in Dubai when Egypt and Libya rose up against their crusty dictators and collapsing economies. When I asked Libyans what kind of society they wanted, a few said democracy, a few said Islam, but a lot just said, “Dubai”.

Other countries in the Gulf are rich, of course, and employ foreigners, but the jobs are menial. In Dubai, you can work for proper companies, learning real skills: skilled construction jobs, banking, trade, retail, public relations. You can even set up your own business. Sure, there’s no democracy, and Arabs are as aware as middle-class expats that there is a tackiness to the place, but that is not the steepest price to pay for a salary. The UAE’s ­average income was $US44,000 last year. In ­Libya’s best year before the revolution, it was $12,000 — and it has more oil than Dubai.

“In Dubai, I just had the opportunities I couldn’t see my friends getting,” my young interviewee says. In Dubai, she bought a Porsche, partied and dined out, and had a job that opened doors to the future. “I knew there was a darker side,” she says — the labour camps in the desert, where workers from the subcontinent lived in sometimes atrocious conditions, the lack of free speech, the debtors’ prisons. But she figured nowhere was perfect.

That remains the case today. “As expats, you live in a little bubble,” says another woman who, like the first, asks to remain anonymous in case she ever goes back. “It’s not until you leave that you look back and think, ‘Every time I went in and out, my picture was being taken. They have my fingerprints. You can’t do anything without handing over your ID.’ That’s part of the way Dubai operated — it was very regimented, which was why everything worked, but I realised that the government were in control of everything.” Still, she adds, there are worse things in expat life than proper roads, uninterrupted electricity supplies and clean and safe surroundings. “Life was easier there than anywhere else we lived.”

The target market for Dubai’s growth is the aspiring middle classes, be they Arab or from anywhere else, for whom life in a villa on a compound with its own private primary school, golf course and gym is a step up in life. This does, though, lead to a sense of alienation. Transience is its essence; relationships are functional. Everyone wants to make enough money for a house deposit back home. No foreigner can gain permanent residency, as permission to stay is entirely tied to your job, so there is no point in becoming too attached, even if some families are there for generations.

None of my friends wanted for the trappings of expat life and no doubt for Princess Haya, the material side of life was beyond my humble imaginings. But while Sheikh Mohammed is one of the world’s richest men, being married to him put her at the epicentre of Dubai’s oddness, where its traditions and its modernity — its outward drive and its closed-off introspection — meet so uncomfortably.

Like most foreigners, I never made friends with an Emirati in my time there. My wife and I tried hard with some Emirati neighbours, but were met with polite bafflement. A Briton who lived there in the early days told me it wasn’t always like this, but that the influx from outside had turned the locals in on themselves, into high-walled villas. This will have been as true for Princess Haya as anyone. In Britain, she and the sheikh lived the life of an ­ordinary albeit aristocratic western couple with their children in Dalham Hall, a stately home near their Godolphin stables in Newmarket. But in Dubai, she lived separately with her children, as do all of Sheikh Mohammed’s wives.

Meanwhile, the Dubai show goes on. My Saudi friend, a multi-millionaire businessman, is thinking of leaving. The real estate mania and the lack of responsiveness of an autocratic government are starting to get him down. The mistakes that led to the 2009 crash have simply been repeated, he says.

This is what journalists at the time predicted. In his first and last majlis (meeting) for international journalists, in late 2009, Sheikh Mohammed scowled as we quizzed him about economic mismanagement, environmental sustainability and democratic accountability. It was very unlike the traditional niceties of the conventional majlis of notables that is the core of governance, what passes for consultation, in the Gulf states. I think he simply could not understand us: how could we carp, when he had built so much, made so many fortunes, when Dubai was the name on everybody’s lips?

Two months later, he was forced to go to oil-rich Abu Dhabi for a $20 billion debt bailout. It was an abject humiliation, and it can still be seen on his face, many believe. He seems noticeably angrier, less confident, more suspicious. Four days into the following new year, an enormous celebration was held for the opening of his pride and joy, the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai, a ­needle full of empty offices and luxury apartments thrusting 828m into the sky. As the fireworks popped, the television screens told us it had been renamed the Burj Khalifa, after the ruler of Abu Dhabi. The bailout, it appeared, came in return for a public restoration of the true hierarchy of the United Arab Emirates. The cameras found Sheikh Mohammed’s face, locked in a silent fury.

My family and friends watched the fun from the roof of our villa. One friend, Kim, did not watch with us. That was the day she had chosen to dump the bling and head for the airport and home. “I had a T-shirt, jeans and my passport,” she says. “I left my fancy life behind because I was empty. And for me, Burj Khalifa was the Tower of Babel.” your social media marketing partner