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A New Boom Starting Up in Dubai

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A New Boom Starting Up in Dubai
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
The skyline of Dubai, which is recovering from the global financial crisis.
Published: November 25, 2013
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — During the boom times, this kingdom tickled the heavens with building after glassy new building, binged on elephantine jets, and persuaded the French, of all people, that a second Louvre should be built — and here. cheap watches
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In the roaring 2000s, growth here was as elsewhere: Watches thickened; sedan windows tinted; hotel lobbies swirled with women selling illegal encounters and cuff-linked men muttering of billions. And growth’s scent lured in expatriate seekers — Arabs, Americans, Europeans, South Asians. replica watches
The bust, brought on by the global financial crisis that gathered force in 2008, came hard. Its most enduring image, perhaps, was of the Range Rovers, Porsches and Mercedeses gathering dust at the airport, abandoned by foreigners seeking shinier gold and/or fleeing debts in a country where being in arrears can get one jailed. buy watches
But there is another story: that of a group of foreign seekers who stayed, or arrived as others fled, and are attempting — one venture at a time — to build another Dubai. These entrepreneurs wonder if this kingdom, which embodied state capitalism in building a sheikhonomy from on high, can also foster a capitalism from below. It is an economic analog of the region’s political struggle to create a politics from below.
The dozen or so entrepreneurs I’ve met here are creating a limousine company, a regional answer to Etsy, cinemas, an e-books publisher, crowd-funded music and more. They belong to a start-up scene that tends to avoid mingling in the five-star hotels favored by anybody who is anybody, preferring humbler, wood-filled Dubai joints, like the Pantry Cafe and Make Business Hub. They dream of carving a Silicon Valley into the crags of the Arab world.
To hear them tell it, the meltdown waylaid a growth model too reliant on public spending and real estate, and cleared a path to a more organic economy. “The crisis was a blessing in disguise,” said Fereshteh Amarsy, the owner of an Imax theater here. “It cleaned up all kinds of junk.”
Or as Magnus Olsson, the Swedish co-founder of the car service Careem, put it, “When all that burst, people had to start building stuff from the ground up.”
But these entrepreneurs collide with the ways of a kingdom where the regnant idea of business involves swashbuckling bigness, where petroleum makes job creation a low priority, and success often requires knowing sheikhs.
Though the kingdom champions entrepreneurship, its entrepreneurs fear that taking risks will be punished. Because visas depend on employment status, a failed company can force a family to flee. Moreover, debt rules can be harsh: Tales abound of bounced checks landing executives in prison. “In America, if you fail, it’s O.K.; bounce back. But here if you fail, it’s a problem,” said Rainier Nouhra, chief executive of Solico Water Sports, a manufacturer of wakeboards and such.
In fairness, the kingdom is intensely entrepreneurial, having turned a thinly settled desert into an Arabian Singapore in a fistful of years. But the government’s dynamism — its recruitment of talent, its use of capital — can crowd out private dynamism, said Feroz Sanaulla, the co-founder of Emerging Circle, a venture investment firm.
But who said gold rushes were easy? Seekers keep coming — more and more, by various accounts, wishing to start something, not crunch others’ spreadsheets.
Ms. Amarsy, the cinema owner, said it’s hard being a scrappy entrepreneur in a haughty Dubai scene that can leave her type feeling underdressed and insufficiently chauffeured.
Fake it till you make it, she says. She bought a faux Chanel watch and tried waving her wrist as she spoke: Sure enough, people’s eyes left her face and followed it, because plump watches are Dubai’s answer to cleavage. She owns no car but finds that if she takes her mother’s Mercedes and places the key on the table during meetings, people assume she’s well beyond starting up — which is, she figures, how you start up in Dubai.
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