Dubai's recipe for economic success is getting stale
July 20 2018 10:51 PM


In Dubai's posh Jumeirah Beach Residence district, luxury apartment rents are down about 15% from a year ago — a sign, some fear, that the emirate's recipe for economic success is getting stale.
For over two decades, Dubai prospered as one of the world's most international cities, attracting people and capital from across the globe.
Nine years ago, it needed a $20bn bailout from Abu Dhabi to escape a debt crisis caused by collapsing property prices.
Dubai's economy has grown by a third since then, buoyed by foreign trade, tourism and its status as the main regional hub for business services.
Now, however, Dubai is hitting another rough patch.
Residential property prices have dropped by more than 15% since late 2014 and are still falling.
The stock market is down 13% this year, the worst performance in the region.
Dubai issued 4,722 new business licences in the second quarter of 2018, down 26% from the same period in 2016, the year when new licences peaked.
The falls may be temporary, the result of an economic slowdown in the Gulf caused by low oil prices.
But other figures suggest some of Dubai's traditional growth engines are losing steam, which could mean a long-term slump.
Growth in passenger traffic through Dubai's international airport has fallen to near zero this year, after 15 years of strong increases.
Increasingly long-range aircraft may loosen Dubai's dominance as a travel hub connecting Asia and Europe.
Official data shows Dubai's population continuing to expand, by 3.5% to 3.08mn in the first half of 2018.
But most growth in recent years has been in lower-paid construction and services jobs, not in higher-paid white-collar posts.
"Perhaps the era when one could move to Dubai to make one's wealth is passing," said Hasnain Malik, Dubai-based global head of equity research and strategy at Exotix Capital.
He said the city was increasingly attractive as a base for rich people from around the world who wished to enjoy their wealth.
But it is not clear that Dubai's transport industries and business zones can continue growing fast enough to attract, and retain, the number of foreign white-collar workers needed to support demand in its real estate market, Malik said.
Structural challenges
Jim Krane, energy fellow at Rice University in Texas and author of City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism, said the emirate faced structural challenges including an increasingly tough geopolitical environment.
In the past, Dubai thrived by keeping cordial relations with every country in the region, accepting trade and investment from all of them.
That has become impossible.
Last year, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other countries cut diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar, ending Dubai's business with the country.
Goods that were once shipped to Qatar via Dubai now move via other countries, such as Oman or India; multinational firms use their European or US offices, not their Dubai operations, to handle business with Qatar.
The chief executive of a foreign financial firm in Dubai said the emirate faced unprecedented competition from neighbouring countries for capital, as low oil prices forced those countries to develop their own non-oil industries.
Portfolio funds are already flowing from Dubai's stock market to Saudi Arabia's bourse.
In coming years, direct investment may follow; US oilfield services firm McDermott International has said it expects to move business slowly from Dubai's Jebel Ali Port to a new Saudi facility by the mid-2020s.
Dubai is trying to shore up its competitive position.
In the last few months the government has said it will reduce municipal fees, scrap some aviation charges, freeze school costs and take other steps to aid foreign firms and residents.
The UAE cabinet promised to permit 100% foreign ownership of some UAE-based businesses, up from the current 49% limit, and grant long-term residency visas of up to 10 years to foreign investors and some professionals.

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