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Dubai builds, but they don’t come

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DUBAI/There is something surreal about the financial crisis that has engulfed Dubai.

A small desert emirate, without significant hydrocarbon reserves, Dubai finds itself geared to the eyebrows in the midst of a global downturn. Deutsche Bank estimates its external debts at about $74.3 billion. That, for the record, is 107 percent of the emirate’s expected 2009 GDP, or more than 14 times its government revenues for 2006 (the latest year for which data is available).

But it isn’t just the extreme leverage that is surreal. Dubai has long borrowed heavily to invest. The real twist comes from the wacky way that Dubai has chosen to invest its borrowed cash.

True, not all of Dubai’s money-making schemes were foolish. The development of DP World, a ports services business, made eminent sense, given the emirate’s status as a trade hub. And this has proved reasonably successful.

But some of its “get rich quick” ideas were about as sound as something out of Gulliver’s Travels — the attempts of the state of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, for instance. Into this category one might put the attempt to conjure a financial centre out of the desert, or to build luxury housing on sandbanks in the Arabian Gulf. Or, indeed, the attempt to create a sovereign wealth fund, Istithmar, without having any surpluses to inject into it in the first place.

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