Saif Ahmed began living the Dubai dream five years ago. The University of Toronto business school grad moved to the Gulf city-state and quickly co-founded property developer Universal Canlink Inc. By 2006, the firm was turning over $15 million a year as its brochures lured foreign investors with tales of "meteoric" growth in the Dubai real estate market. Now, as the global credit crisis spirals from Wall Street to the Middle East, Ahmed is coming back down to earth. There's still interest, he explains, but the buying frenzy in Dubai is gone. "Before, people were buying blindly without asking much about the details," says Ahmed, a Canadian. "Now such risk takers have disappeared from the market."
Among the harbingers of the changing mood: Nakheel, the developer of Dubai's proposed kilometer-high skyscraper near Jebel Ali airport, recently announced that it is reassessing its overall staffing needs in line with "predictions of a downturn in the global economy." Boardrooms and coffee shops alike are buzzing with talk about the coming fall. The Cairo-based investment bank EFG-Hermes recently predicted that Dubai property values could tumble as much as 20% in the next three years. Share prices of Emaar, a public Dubai company that has become one of the biggest real estate developers in the world, have fallen by two-thirds since January.
To be sure, nobody's calling it a bust not yet anyway. Midsized builders like Ahmed are still open for business. And a record 70,000 visitors attended Dubai's annual Cityscape property show this month, where mega-projects worth a total of some $180 billion were unveiled.
Yet Dubai and its real estate market are vulnerable to an international economic downturn, especially compared with many of its Gulf neighbors. As the region's premier business, transportation and tourism hub, it is by definition more entwined with the global economy. And in tight times, Dubai lacks the windfall oil profits that have enabled sister emirate Abu Dhabi, for example, to amass a financial cushion in sovereign wealth funds totaling hundreds of billions of dollars.
But Dubai's biggest risk is its daring reliance on debt to drive its breathtaking building boom. Last week, Moody's estimated that in 2006, the most recent year for figures, Dubai's government and public-sector company debt was at least $47 billion, a staggering 103% of GDP. The investment-rating agency said it expected Dubai's debt to continue outpacing GDP for another five years, exposing Dubai to pronounced financing and geopolitical risks.
Dubai officials insist that they can meet their debt obligations for the next two years. Analysts point out, however, that the credit squeeze compounds a growing challenge to Dubai's revenue streams. The most obvious is the halving of the price of oil from $147 per bbl. to $70 per bbl. since July, sending Middle East stocks tumbling and rendering regional investors increasingly cautious. Likewise, a global recession is likely to tighten the belts of the international investors and holiday makers that Dubai relies on for its real estate and tourism developments. Even before the global crunch, banks in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were being hit this year by an outrunning stampede of billions of UAE dirhams so-called hot money that one report valued at $55 billion led by speculators giving up on hopes that the country would de-peg its currency from the U.S. dollar.
All is not doom and gloom, however. The UAE government has funneled $33 billion into the country's banking system to calm the nerves of depositors and investors, promising coverage to foreign as well as local institutions. If the credit crunch shakes out speculators, known as "flippers," from Dubai's real estate market, that could help stabilize wildly inflationary conditions. "I am not necessarily thinking we are in a crash scenario," EFG-Hermes managing director Hashem Montasser tells TIME. "There is still genuine demand. Economies here are still growing. Overall, the economic situation is still very sound. We will see a deceleration of prices, and it's probably a good thing, as long as it's done in an orderly way and doesn't turn into a panic. The market has gone to where it is too quickly."
An underlying reason for the relative lack of panic so far is that Dubai real estate remains a financial haven for wealthy individuals from riskier nearby countries like Iran and Pakistan. What's more, Dubai's real estate sector is dominated by a handful of major companies collectively dubbed "Dubai Inc." that are directly or indirectly owned and controlled by the government. This means, analysts say, that Dubai authorities could effectively stave off a bubble burst by keeping finished projects off-line until market conditions improved. In the event of a systemic threat, Dubai can probably rely on super-rich Abu Dhabi for a bailout. "We consider it highly likely that the authorities will step in at some level to support entities that are strategically important for the economy," Moody's analyst Tristan Cooper tells TIME.
That kind of reassurance is what keeps Dubai property builders like Saif Ahmed plugging away. Believing that foreign interest in Dubai is alive, he's planning a major sales exhibition in Los Angeles in December. He acknowledges, however, that the days of the easy sell may be over. "People are more educated and calculated about their investments," Ahmed explains. "Now they are asking for a more detailed sales pitch. They want to know about the developer's track record." As it faces the most serious financial challenge in its history, Dubai Inc.'s reputation is now on the line too.
With reporting by Shadiah Abdullah