India never had a recession. Sure, we all called it that and all of corporate India used it as an opportunity to cut costs, but we were actually very, very lucky. It’s only now, in Dubai, that I’ve understood what recession really means.
Over that first weekend I heard stories of companies going bankrupt by the hundreds, promising entrepreneurs left stranded. Of jobs lost overnight and lives abandoned wholesale as people scrambled to get out ahead of the foreclosures. Stories we’ve heard from a distance, but now made real by the fact that these were people I knew. But there were also other stories of those who made it through, which of course never make it to the media. My friends didn’t say much about their own struggles, merely summing it up as “survival mode”.
Several chance meetings in the following weeks produced startlingly effusive greetings from people who used to be mere acquaintances. I got the uncomfortable feeling that they were seeing my return as a vindication of their decision – or compulsion – to stay.
I left two years ago at the crescendo of Dubai’s boom. The city I’ve returned to is only just starting a tentative new tune after the old one faded to silence. My very first thought was that it felt more like Muscat than Dubai, the brash confidence that was the stock-in-trade quite conspicuous by its absence. The cafes are quieter, people are kinder, the traffic is more manageable. In the place of the old giddiness, there’s a certain grimness of purpose, a cautious optimism that one wouldn’t have thought was in Dubai’s DNA. The most interesting impression I’ve got in the first three weeks of my second innings here is that Dubai is not diminished by adversity but the better for it – I think the recession will turn out to be the best thing that happened to this city.
But I have to say that walking down the Beach Road one day, noting the empty tables on a Saturday evening, I smiled with relief at a car parked outside a nondescript gate. It was a Lamborghini with vanity plates, key in the ignition, engine running extravagantly, left unchaperoned in the arrogant certainty that nobody would dare touch it. Now that’s more like it!
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