If you have any outstanding debts that aren't covered by your savings, then all your accounts are frozen, and you are forbidden to leave the country."Suddenly our cards stopped working. We were thrown out of our apartment." Karen can't speak about what happened next for a long time; she is shaking. Daniel was sentenced to six months' imprisonment at a trial he couldn't understand. "Now I'm here illegally, too," Karen says I've got no money, nothing. They lure you in telling you it's one thing – a modern kind of place – but beneath the surface it's a medieval dictatorship."II.Daniel was arrested and taken away on the day of their eviction. "He told me he was put in a cell with another debtor, a Sri Lankan guy who was only 27, who said he couldn't face the shame to his family. I have to last nine months until he's out, somehow." Looking away, almost paralysed with embarrassment, she asks if I could buy her a meal. All over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars."The thing you have to understand about Dubai is – nothing is what it seems," Karen says at last. Tumbleweed Thirty years ago, almost all of contemporary Dubai was desert, inhabited only by cactuses and tumbleweed and scorpions.I assumed if all these big companies come here, it must be pretty like Canada's or any other liberal democracy's," she says. If you get into debt and you can't pay, you go to prison."When we realised that, I sat Daniel down and told him: listen, we need to get out of here.
This man has sold Dubai to the world as the city of One Thousand and One Arabian Lights, a Shangri-La in the Middle East insulated from the dust-storms blasting across the region.
He dominates the Manhattan-manqué skyline, beaming out from row after row of glass pyramids and hotels smelted into the shape of piles of golden coins.
They were largely illiterate nomads who spent their lives driving camels through the desert – yet now they had a vast pot of gold. Dubai only had a dribble of oil compared to neighbouring Abu Dhabi – so Sheikh Maktoum decided to use the revenues to build something that would last.
Israel used to boast it made the desert bloom; Sheikh Maktoum resolved to make the desert boom. Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away.
Suddenly it looks less like Manhattan in the sun than Iceland in the desert.
Once the manic burst of building has stopped and the whirlwind has slowed, the secrets of Dubai are slowly seeping out.
This is not where she thought her Dubai dream would end. At times, her old voice – witty and warm – breaks through.
Karen came here from Canada when her husband was offered a job in the senior division of a famous multinational.
Daniel woke up and the boy had swallowed razor-blades. But downtown there are traces of the town that once was, buried amidst the metal and glass.
He banged for help, but nobody came, and the boy died in front of him."Karen managed to beg from her friends for a few weeks, "but it was so humiliating. In the dusty fort of the Dubai Museum, a sanitised version of this story is told.
In the mid-18th century, a small village was built here, in the lower Persian Gulf, where people would dive for pearls off the coast.