Story transcripts

Dubai, city of dreams

Sunday, March 4, 2007
It's all happening in Dubai, the fastest growing city on earth.
Reporter: Peter Overton
Producers: Nick Greenaway, Julia Timms

Just look where Aussie families are striking it rich. A job where the boss pays your rent, buys you a car, sends your kids to a private school and gives you an overseas holiday every year; all that with a special added bonus - there's no income tax. Not a cent. It's all happening in Dubai, the fastest-growing place on earth.

Thousands of Australians are flocking there to join this 21st-century goldrush as the sheikhs spend squillions carving a modern metropolis out of the desert.

You've never seen anything like it. Even the Aussies helping to build the new Dubai are gobsmacked. They just can't believe their luck.


PETER OVERTON: The legendary desert sands of Arabia have been shifting endlessly through time. But in recent years this serene force of nature has been buried under a manmade tsunami of construction in the city of Dubai. Dubai rising from the desert?

SHEIKH AHMED BIN SAEED AL MAKTOUM: That's right, it's rising from the sand, yes.

PETER OVERTON: Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, is home to an estimated 20 per cent of the world's cranes, and is undergoing a building boom never experienced anywhere on the globe. Here in the troubled Middle East they are flat out building a citadel of capitalism, a playground of extravagance and unadulterated wealth. Green diamond eyes?

WOMAN: It's emerald.

PETER OVERTON: Emerald, of course!


PETER OVERTON: Good morning, Your Highness. Peter Overton. How do you do?


PETER OVERTON: Thank you very much. Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum is a Crown Prince of Dubai, a member of the ruling royal family who are engineering the incredible transformation of this once-sleepy port town on the Persian Gulf. Just keep building, keep expanding?

SHEIKH AHMED BIN SAEED AL MAKTOUM: You know, I think this is what the area needs. Nobody else is doing much about it. So we have to take that advantage by making Dubai the hub for recreation, trade, business.

PETER OVERTON: How big is big enough?


PETER OVERTON: It's relentless. Everything here has to be the tallest, the grandest, the best. And to make it happen, they've opened their doors to the world, all the major corporations charging in for their slice of the action. Eighty per cent of the population are foreigners, including 12,000 Australians lured by the big bucks and big opportunities. It's unbelievable! I've never seen so much construction in my life.

ANDREW WATSON: I don't think you will anywhere else in the world. It's something else, that's for sure. You have to see it to believe it. And this is just a small part. Dubai is over 40km long and it's like this the whole way.

PETER OVERTON: How long ago was this just desert?

ANDREW WATSON: About three years ago.

PETER OVERTON: Australian project manager Andrew Watson works for construction company Alec, part of a massive multinational workforce that's creating Dubai's skyline. So if you are into building skyscrapers, this is your utopia?

ANDREW WATSON: This is the place, it's the place to be.

ANGELA WATSON: And out of a fight, I think, one night I said to Andrew: "We just need to move away from here.” And I actually meant Canberra or somewhere closer to home, I didn't actually mean over here. But he came in going: "Have you heard of Dubai?" I had to do a Google search, I had no idea where it was. So that's how it all started.

PETER OVERTON: This time last year, the Watsons lived just around the corner from Andrew's parents in suburban Sydney. Then they were a young family of four, struggling to survive.

ANDREW WATSON: That's where we were. We were three months away from divorce.

ANGELA: It was so stressful. Or the bank manager coming and taking the house, so....

PETER OVERTON: So they sold up everything and headed to the Middle East, and are now laughing all the way to the bank.

ANDREW WATSON: Company pays for my rent, they buy me a car, they give us international travel every year, they pay for my children to go to private school. So all those costs we normally have back home we simply don't have here. On top of that we don't pay any income tax. It actually means I'm now saving, we hope, the equivalent of what I was earning in Sydney.

PETER OVERTON: You can't wipe the smile off your face, hearing that.

ANGELA WATSON: I have not stopped laughing since the day I landed on the plane. I love it.

PETER OVERTON: It wasn't so long ago Dubai was just a small tax-free trading port under the protection of the British. Pearls, fishing and gold smuggling sustained a town of just 10,000 people. It was a backwater until they discovered oil in 1966. Were camels part of your life then?

SHEIKH AHMED BIN SAEED AL MAKTOUM: No, I think that's maybe before me.

PETER OVERTON: But your parents?

SHEIKH AHMED BIN SAEED AL MAKTOUM: Yes, my parents and my father. But we had cars, I mean, from the early, let's say, '50s.

PETER OVERTON: What do you drive today?


PETER OVERTON: Where camels roamed only a few years ago, luxury cars now jam 14-lane freeways. Where once there was only sea, giant islands in the shape of palm trees, even a map of the world have been dredged up and spat out. The theory being, when the oil runs out in 15 years, Dubai will be the international trade and tourism mecca. The old Dubai had a coastline of about 60km. But it wasn't enough. Legend has it the ruler decreed: "Build more beaches," and so they did. In fact, they created a whole new world. This is England, yours for about $40 million. Now, I know it's not very patriotic, they are still building Australia, but if you think constructing the world is a big project, just have a look at what they are doing down there. Just imagine this - three years ago, in this very spot, I'd be floating in the ocean. The shoreline was 10km away. Not any more. This is the Palm Jebel Ali Development, the world's biggest man-made island, and it will soon be home to 250,000 people. Here in Dubai, money is clearly no object. You're only limited by your imagination. Angela, have they ever seen snow before?


ANGELA WATSON: Never. This is our first time ever seeing snow, and here in sunny Dubai! It's very, very surreal.

PETER OVERTON: It is, isn't it? It's bizarre.

ANGELA WATSON: It's more than bizarre. What a way to tell them: "The first time you saw snow is in the middle of the desert."

PETER OVERTON: I don't think they get it. I think they're wondering: "Why is it so cold?" It's not hard to see why they call Dubai "Disneyland in the desert". It has a real sense of the make-believe. If it's not here today, chances are it will be by tomorrow. You must have seen some almost jaw-dropping sites in terms of the opulence and the wealth in this place.

ANDREW WATSON: Yeah. I've never seen as many Porsche Cayennes on the road. I'd pass 20 every day. And when you're not passing those you're passing Mercedes Benzes and BMWs.

ANGELA WATSON: And the women are glamorous. They are absolutely glamorous, dripping with diamonds and bling.

PETER OVERTON: Which brings us to Dubai's First Lady of Bling. Samia Galadari, daughter of a property magnate, and a very modern Muslim woman. You think you are the global example of all the best cultures around the world?

SAMIA GALADARI: Yes, I have taken everything!

PETER OVERTON: In this Muslim country many women opt for the traditional dress, the abaya. Not Samia. She sees herself as the personification of the new cosmopolitan Dubai.

SAMIA GALADARI: All the top designers are here. Like Cartier is here. Our religion doesn't really say we have to cover ourselves. Why on earth should women look horrible and ugly and covered up? I just didn't believe in this, you know.

PETER OVERTON: So it's not the abaya, it's Dolce & Gabbana for you, and you are very comfortable.

SAMIA GALADARI: And I'm comfortable, yes.

PETER OVERTON: Well, you look fantastic. How much is your jewellery worth, may I ask? I've never seen anything like it.

SAMIA GALADARI: Well, I can't remember the price.

PETER OVERTON: Dubai is a place of outrageous fortune, but it does have a dark side. Critics claim it's a 21st-century city being built by a 19th-century labour force. There's an army of 500,000 barely trained, lowly paid workers mainly from India and Pakistan. The heat is intense, and some of their living conditions insufferable. Is it Dubai never sleeps for these guys?

ANDREW WATSON: For sure. Here we are, it's quarter past seven at night. Our second shift has just started. So 1,500 men just left and another 1,500 arrived.

PETER OVERTON: Is that 24/7, 365 days of the year?

ANDREW WATSON: Not quite, there are a few public holidays here, Muslim calendar holidays. But typically it's 360 days a year, yes.

PETER OVERTON: Do you feel sorry for these guys - it's hard work.

ANDREW WATSON: It is hard work, but we have to compare where they come from. We treat them well here on site, we give them good conditions, we make it as safe as possible.

PETER OVERTON: In 2004, human rights groups estimated 800 workers died on work sites in Dubai. It's an open wound the government, ever conscious of its international image, recently moved to heal.

SHEIKH AHMED BIN SAEED AL MAKTOUM: There are certain people, a group, who are really mistreated by the companies, it's not really that the government some time unaware of, and this is why we have been developing our laws, our policies, and all those people who come and work here.

PETER OVERTON: Because Dubai's construction industry would fall over without this foreign army of workers.

SHEIKH AHMED BIN SAEED AL MAKTOUM: Yeah, I think it happens everywhere.

PETER OVERTON: One thing is sure though - the workers will keep coming. This is the honeypot of the Middle East. And it's not just the white- and blue-collar workers - Dubai wants 15 million tourists a year by 2012. There's nothing subtle about this city's ambition. It's big and it's bold and some might say it's brassy, but is it sustainable?

SAMIA GALADARI: You mean everything is going to crash or something, is that what you are going to say, you think? I don't think that - no, it's not. Every day more and more people are coming; more people want to buy and want to invest money.

PETER OVERTON: Dubai is the most lucrative sandpit on the planet, a city literally rising out of the desert and the sea. In just 30 years it's gone from an obscure sheikhdom to an economic powerhouse. Dubai's number one?

SHEIKH AHMED BIN SAEED AL MAKTOUM: Yes, we are trying to focus that we will always want to be number one in whatever we do.

PETER OVERTON: In the world?


PETER OVERTON: It's still one giant construction site, but this glittering metropolis is fast taking shape. It's no mirage, it's a place where an average Australian family can realise their dreams.

ANGELA WATSON: "Only in Dubai" is our new saying. This could not be any more removed from my normal life than what it is, and that's why I keep laughing. It's a dream, it's just a dream.

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