One of the first indications of just how bad it would get was the slew of abandoned Ferraris and Porsches ditched in the Dubai Airport parking lot by foreigners fleeing the country — and the debts they’d incurred there — as the 2008 global economic crisis descended with full force. Within months, housing prices in this small Persian Gulf nation crashed. Overnight, developers halted the construction of half-finished luxury high-rises. The government even drafted a law to criminalize any reporting that would “damage the country’s reputation or economy.” The self-proclaimed “emerald city” quickly took on a new identity as a ghost town.
Before the crash, Dubai had been a unique place: a capitalist’s paradise rising out of the desert, complete with dust-kicking fast cars, privately owned islands, and a population sharply divided between wealthy expatriates and trafficked workers held in near slavery. It was a country shaped by staggering dreams (including a $14 billion plan to build a replica of the world on 300 man-made islands) that often failed just as staggeringly. And in the years after the crisis, Dubai grew only stranger as the fleeting nature of such wealth became obvious and, according to rumors, turning on the tap in certain luxury hotel rooms might yield only a flood of cockroaches.
Yet, despite Dubai’s uniqueness, if this corner of the world has any precedent on Earth, it is certainly Las Vegas.
As TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit explains in a haunting new piece, in the late 1990s, the bright-lit casinos of Las Vegas’s strip yielded pride of place to a new, far more breathtaking national gambling scheme. The bet would be on luxury housing developments, even though, as Solnit explains, the one thing those in Las Vegas should have known was “that the house always wins.”
When that particular house of cards collapsed, Las Vegas became ground zero for a spreading economic crisis, while its built-up desert suburbs turned into a graveyard of subdivisions, filled with half-built and abandoned luxury homes vividly on display in the exceptional aerial photos in Michael Light’s new book, Lake Las Vegas/Black Mountain (which includes Solnit’s essay and one by art critic Lucy Lippard). In many cases, no one ever lived in those sprawling houses dotting the outskirts of that city. But if their walls could talk, they would tell a tale of an American Dream far more unsettling than those that play out under the neon lights of the Strip, one built on stolen territories and slippery promises, where the only permanence is, as Solnit writes, in the land itself.