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Sheikhs, Lies and Real Estate: The Untold Story of Dubai
By J.R. Roth
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
You wouldn't expect one of the best books of the year to be one of those self-published "Kindle Store Specials" with the generic clip-art cover and bad pun for a title that get made fun of at smartass Tumblr accounts; but that's exactly the case with J.R. Roth's Sheikhs, Lies and Real Estate, which arrived in CCLaP's mailbox almost a year ago and ended up being so riveting that I missed bus stops several times while reading it. And to be clear, it's not for Roth's actual writing style that one reads this, serviceable in a workmanlike way but no great shakes; it's instead for his mesmerizing story of a young British man of Arab descent getting nowhere in the bottom rungs of London's financial industry, and moving to Dubai just exactly when things got their craziest there, not coincidentally right in the middle of the Bush years as well.
See, just to give as fast a primer as I can for those who need it, a certain amount of what we in the West call the "Middle East" -- the Arabian peninsula, to be precise -- is still under the control of just a handful of thousand-year-old royal families, all of whom found themselves insanely wealthy starting in the 1960s when oil was found under all their lands. But some of these rulers have acknowledged that this oil money is one day destined to dry up, and that things need to be done with that money now to establish a new source of long-term revenue; and the king (emir) of one of these places, Dubai, decided that what they should do is become the new premiere tourist destination for the entire world, a sort of combination Disney World, Caribbean island and Switzerland that caters particularly to the super-rich. And this was in the 1990s when this was being dreamed up, back when the real-estate bubble seemed like it was never going to burst; and so this was a key part of the plan, to literally create a real-estate boom in Dubai out of thin air, and I mean "literally out of thin air" as in the emir had hundreds of manmade islands built off the coast from scratch, to be sold to billionaires so they could build mansions on them. And meanwhile on the coast, where terraforming was happening faster than anyone could keep up, was where the majority of the real-estate money was exchanging hands -- through an endless series of 100-story condo towers in "development" along this terraformed coastline (i.e. existing on paper only), which during the height of the frenzy you could buy for a million dollars one morning and flip for two million by that afternoon.
This is the game that our main character moves to Dubai to become a player of, and his story is fascinating -- a combination of well-done factual research, tutorials on how the speculative real-estate market works, and salacious anecdotes about partying with princes, condo agents who moonlight as out-and-out prostitutes, becoming a regular at the world's only seven-star hotel, and doing business with the kinds of clients who think nothing of blowing $50,000 just on a night of drinks and barhopping with friends. And that's what made this book so surprising, is that it's not just a concentration on one of these things or another -- the salacious anecdotes alone would simply be another Sex In The City, while just the facts would be simply another Esquire article -- but the combination of them, along with the narrator's evermore ethically complicated descent into this world, that makes this manuscript so readable and riveting. A personal yet impersonal look at one of the most interesting crash-and-burn stories of the entire 9/11 period, which follows events all the way up to the Great Recession flood of hasty exits so many people made from the city (Dubai has no bankruptcy laws, so even missing a rent payment can get you thirty years in jail, which in post-Recession times has led to infamous stories about their international airport's parking garage being choked with abandoned Lamborghinis), this is both one of the most informative and most entertaining books I've ended up reading in 2013, and will undoubtedly be making CCLaP's best-of lists at the end of the year.
Out of 10: 9.6