An indoor ski slope in the middle of the desert. The world’s only seven-star hotel. In the Persian Gulf, reclaimed land in the shape of a palm, with luxury villas on the fronds.
Such are the over-the-top elements of Dubai in the popular imagination, a city-state designed as a playground for the rich. The city's real estate bubble once made affordable housing unreachable for many. A three-bedroom home in a nice development sold for around $350,000 in 2003; five years later, it went for $1.8 million, according to Jim Krane's book, City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism.
But about a decade ago, Dubai real estate giant Nakheel began construction on a decidedly less glamorous 800-hectare residential and business complex east of downtown. Named International City, one of its major goals was to provide some 60,000 middle class expatriates—South Asian, European, and otherwise—with inexpensive yet decent housing.
The illustrated plans for International City showed colorful buildings, avenues lined with breezy palms, and people bustling about in the streets. The complex was to be, according to its website, a "melting pot" of diverse nationalities living a "modern and cosmopolitan" lifestyle.
In Disney-like fashion, blocks of apartment buildings are arranged in country-themed clusters, featuring the architectural styles of the countries for which they're named. "Chinese" buildings include pagodas, "French" structures may have long, narrow windows.
But these cheerful elements do little to mask the reality -- a decade later, the complex as a whole remains unfinished, with a stark and isolated feel.
Since its inception, International City has been beset with troubles. The most malodorous? Raw sewage. Tim Kennedy, a professor of architecture and design at the American University of Sharjah, says that because Dubai lacks a sewage system, trucks carrying waste "must sit in line sometimes for days at a dump site in order to unload." (Some drivers have dumped their loads illegally, into manholes, rather than wait.) International City is in close proximity to one such site. "I cannot stand the smell of Fecis [sic] in my nose and on my clothes!" one resident posted in a community forum in 2007.
Occupants have also complained of shoddy construction, constant traffic jams, flooding, and crime.
Another complaint from residents at International City illustrates one of Dubai’s most controversial practices: the widespread use of foreign labor. Foreigners make up a whopping 80 percent of Dubai’s population.
Particularly over the past two years, Asian workers—mostly men and mostly from India and Pakistan, colloquially called "bachelors"—have been moving into International City. After the real estate bubble burst in 2008, laborers moved from overcrowded labor camps on the city's outskirts to suddenly less expensive locations closer to downtown. But that also led to rampant overcrowding. Just a few months ago, the UAE newspaper The National reported that 20 workers had been found living in a one-bedroom apartment in one of International City’s clusters.
The building's socioeconomic diversity has also been creating tension. The complex’s more middle class residents have raised a fuss about the bachelors. In 2011, one occupant complained that they "drink soda, throw cans and litter everywhere, and leave garbage bags on the lobby and staircases." Later that year, an anonymous resident was more explicit, griping: "The place has turned into a virtual Sonapur [Dubai's infamous labor camp located not far from the airport], with bachelors dominating the area."
However, despite the complaints and overcrowding, International City is generally a vast improvement in housing for foreign workers. “Housing conditions for laborers varies from borderline acceptable to slum like conditions,” says Nicholas McGeehan, a consultant on the UAE and Qatar for Human Rights Watch. “We see a lot of heatstroke, as workers don’t have access to air conditioning after working a full day in 110 degree heat.” McGeehan says that whatever is behind the workers’ move to International City, "it’s a positive development."
But real estate prices look to be rebounding in Dubai as a whole and in International City in particular, pushing the bachelors out. In the third quarter of 2012, a Dubai property site reported that apartment prices were up 40 percent from last year during the same period. Such a jump in prices may mean that the workers cannot (or will not) pay the steeper rent.
With recovery occurring in the housing market, International City may have its heyday yet, with better maintained buildings, lively streets, and more cheering palm trees—but only for those who can afford it. While the complex may be a step in the right direction in that it aims to provide quality housing for Dubai’s expatriate middle class, better housing is also needed for laborers. In an ideal world, housing of good quality would be available to all. And why not in Dubai? "Housing in what is one of the richest countries in the world should reflect that wealth," says McGeehan.