Hugo Rifkind

Why are we turning London into Dubai?

We're letting a living metropolis become a bank

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

If you’ve ever wondered what it will look like when we colonise Mars, the answer is ‘Dubai’. I was there the other week. Bloody hell, what a place. You sit there on your unabashedly fake beach on your un-abashedly fake island, perhaps basking in the shade of a palm tree that plainly wasn’t there a decade ago, because this used to be the sea. And across the bay, which is of course a fake bay, you can see skyscrapers. Pleasure zone, business zone, shopping zone. You half expect to find Richard O’Brien prancing around in a leopardskin top hat, urging you to collect crystals.

It’s a great place for a holiday, for all its glaring moral flaws, but I don’t think you’d want to live there. And indeed hardly anybody truly does. I think I saw a grand total of two Emiratis over my whole trip, decked out in their dishdashes and keffiyehs and terribly expensive sunglasses in a restaurant in a shopping centre. They make up about one sixth of the population, I gather. Everybody else is transient, even if they’re there for years.

The place has bustle, certainly, and anywhere that isn’t a building site already has a building on it. But you look at the people and you look at the buildings, and one thing becomes immediately apparent. Which is that there aren’t nearly enough of the former for the latter. Quite a lot of the time, you realise, the only people who can possibly be living in the buildings there already are the people who are building the buildings that there, as yet, aren’t.

And yet Dubai’s property market is booming. Things famously went horribly wrong a few years ago, and various vast prestigious projects (such as the Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world) stood unwanted for months. But that’s all in the past. Last year, prices rose by 40 per cent. At least 25,000 new properties are bought each year. A few will be lived in, and more will be visited or rented out. Many, though, will just sit there, being owned. Being a safe — or at least, safer — place for somebody from somewhere worse to park their cash. Which sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Because that’s what is happening in London, too.

Over a decade ago I distantly knew a man with a house in a prestigious bit of north London which just stood there empty for years. It was such a weird thing to do that I wrote it into a novel (Overexposure, Canongate, ‘Laugh out loud’ — the Times) and filled it with swingers. These days, it’s not so strange. Apparently there are 72,457 such properties in the capital. In Knightsbridge and Belgravia, as a result, there are 11 per cent fewer voters than in 2002. We are being hollowed out. We’re becoming a bank.

It’s not the thought of any Billionaire’s Row that bothers me. I mean, you know, weird people live there in terror behind gates, or they don’t. What do I give a damn? No, it’s everywhere else. It’s the thought of a middling Saudi billionaire who wants to keep a few million safe, so buys half of my suburban street. It’s the thought of depopulated apartment blocks in Farringdon or Clerkenwell or Hackney, with echoing corridors and unlit windows and nobody bloody there. I mean, what the hell are we doing? Who is flying this aeroplane? Is anyone?

I don’t like the mob urge that wants to tell other people what to do with their property. Not even if those properties are empty, and those people are in Doha or Belarus. But I like even less the thought of my city as a gusty necropolis, dotted with monuments to what most people here haven’t got.

Yes, they’ve done well in the UAE, forging a thriving — albeit weird — metropolis out of a bit of desert coast with nothing at all going for it. Even so, take a walk along the semi-populated fronds of those artificial palm peninsulas one day, and imagine how much of its tiny, withered soul that place would give, still, to become the sort of thrilling, pulsating heartbeat of the globe itself that London remains. And yet here we are, being London already, and seemingly hellbent on turning ourselves into Dubai. We must have lost our minds.

One-track minds

Visiting Russia at the height of the Jimmy Savile explosion, I was asked by a local student asked why so much British news was about paedophiles. Obviously Savile was a rare sort of monster, but I didn’t really know how to answer him. In fact, I still don’t.

There’s a lot to criticise about the beliefs of Harman, Dromey, Hewitt et al at the National Council for Civil Liberties in the 1970s. Transparently, though, when some of them talked about lowering the age of consent, they were thinking of children shagging children, or at a push teenagers shagging children, not 42-year-old men in raincoats shagging children. Certainly, it could have facilitated that, and they were naive not to have realised. But the bulk of the criticism today seems to be based on the premise that the lurking risk of paedophiles simply wasn’t at the forefront of their minds.

Because it ought to be, always. Wake up. WHAT ABOUT THE PAEDOPHILES? Get dressed. WHAT ABOUT THE PAEDOPHILES? Take the bus. WHAT ABOUT THE PAEDOPHILES? Russia has invaded Crimea. WHAT ABOUT THE PAEDOPHILES? Incessantly. As though it should be a sin, even for a moment, to think about anything else. How weird we’ve become.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • alexander

    “You half expect to find Richard O’Brien prancing around in a leopardskin top hat, urging you to collect crystals”

    good one

  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    Good article. Solid Speccie material – insightful and funny at the same time.

  • tjamesjones

    According to the 2011 Census there are 5183970 households in London, so if there are also 72,457 empty houses it’s not such a problem is it? Even if they are in the nicer areas (which is hardly proven here), I don’t think London really is very empty, and the population has grown by 1 million in the last 15 years.


    • Baron

      When you have a minute, tjamesjones, find out also how many homeless people reside on London streets, will you, it would be of interest to stack the number against the 72,457 of empty houses to see how enlightened Britain looks after her own as against the monied foreigners.

      • MC73

        6,347 according to Crisis. I don’t think we need to withdraw property rights in order to deal with this.

        • Baron

          Baron has been told it’s better for a house to be occupied than not, something to with falling into disrepair quicker as nobody spots areas of decay.

          Why not introduce a covenant, countrywide, giving local councils the power to compel those house owners who, for whatever reason cannot inhabit the property or rent it privately, to lease it, at a peppercorn rent, to the council till they can move in?

          It would not infringe property rights, the owners would be able to gain access to the property at any time, but it would improve the utility value of the housing stock throughout the country, push council’s housing costs down, help many on low income to live in better conditions, and keep the properties in better conditions that if they were unoccupied.

          What do you find wrong with it, MC73?

          • MC73

            I see your point and generally find myself in agreement with you on many things, but I just don’t like the idea of people being told to do with their private property.

            I also really don’t like any idea that allows local authorities in the UK further powers to compel anyone to do anything.

          • Baron

            You right on the latter point, MC73, the new council powers, that’s the weakness of the suggestion, a weakness big enough to make it unacceptable.

            What saddens Baron though is that many properties decay to the point of demolition. Baron happens to know an individual who owns one such property, it can house four families easily. ‘It’s not the bricks and mortar I care about’, says the owner, ‘it’s the land that’s valuable. You can make as many TV sets, cars and whatever, you cannot manufacture land, long term, the best investment one could make’.

  • tolpuddle1

    As we’re a nation that worships money (and nothing else, except “success”), it is inevitable that we should be turning London into Dubai and a living metropolis into a bank.

    • Terry Field

      London is a dissociated, non-national world-city.
      It has nothing in common with the rest of the country.
      It would make MUCH more sense for the rest of the British Isles to become independent of the City-State.
      Barnsley has much more in common with The Lothian than it has with Kensington and Chelsea.
      I would like to see that one shoved up Barroso’s proboscis.

  • justejudexultionis

    The hollowing out of our culture and economy, principally by foreign conglomerates and capitalist speculators, is merely one result of the dechristianisation of our society that has left us with nothing to do except obsess about money.

    • Perseus Slade

      True, but not true.
      You can’t put new wine in old bottles.
      We need new bottles,
      strong ones based on fact.

    • Terry Field

      You correctly identify the condition.
      The causes are not as you say.

  • Doggie Roussel

    The ungodly trinity… Harman, Dromey & Hewitt are going to get away with it…

    The reason being that there are so many bent and guilty perverts across the whole political spectrum… not mention the police and judiciary that it’s going to make the awful revelations about the behaviour over the Lawrence murder look like chicken feed.

    • MC73

      I don’t accept the ‘conspiracy of nonces’ theory.

      Auberon Waugh once wrote that if child sexual abuse was actually as widespread as child sexual abuse campaigners claimed then it would have to be regarded as a normal human activity and the stigma removed.

      • Terry Field

        Clever words.
        Putrid amoral sewage.
        But clever words.

    • Terry Field

      I am depressed.
      You may well be correct.
      What a horror of an age we crawl about in.

  • MC73

    Selling property to rich foreigners is an important part of the business of London. Once CGT is introduced for foreign property owners next year that business will also boost the Treasury.

    • Daniel Maris

      CGT will probably just drive up the price of housing for ordinary Londoners.

      • post_x_it

        How? There still won’t be any CGT on primary residences. Or do you regard as an ‘ordinary Londoner’ one who has more than one home?

        • Terry Field

          The CGT will be grossed up into the value of the properties to ensure the return on sales is not reduced.
          Overseas demand is unconcerned with absolute cost, rather stability of net values.
          Any idiot knows this.
          And it will drag up all prices.
          Highly taxed commodities always rise in total value.
          An any idiot knows that.
          Except the idiot government.
          But the agents know it well enough.
          And smile quietly into their Krug.

  • Cymrugel

    I was in Dubai a couple of months back – my God what a dump!
    Nothing is original. Its all just copies of something that exists somewhere else built 50% bigger and covered in fairy lights. We stood outside some vast shopping mall waiting for the water and light display in front of the Khalifa tower. This turned out to be some water jets a-la Las Vegas, to a backing track of the Magnificent Seven them tune.
    On a bus tour the guide simply told us how many rooms each of the vast hotels had and how much it cost to stay in them. When we actually passed someting interesting ; the old town with the souk and a lot of ancient wooden dhows in the bay that still plied trade around the Gulf, he had nothing to say bar “there are some old boats”.
    As for the paedo coverage – well its quite something to find out that a man who was treated for about 20 years as a national treasure was an Olympic standard kiddy fiddler who went about his business with the full knowledge of his employers and no-one ever tried to stop him.
    It’s even more of a surprise to find that senior politicians who may well be in senior government positions after the next election where daft enough not to expel an organisation of people who wanted the right to shag children from the NCCL, proposed legalising sex with children and when all is revealed refuse point blank to admit their actions or lack of them were wrong or even ill considered.

    • Doggie Roussel

      Your description of the Dubai camel drivers is entirely appropriate… their grip on the Sport of Kings… racing… is due entirely to their unlimited petrodollars… and they have hijacked the sport that was once the domain of those with a reasonable measure of education, integrity, civility and the appreciation of the finest attributes of this European tradition and heritage.

      They now seek to dominate the equestrian world with an overwhelming desire to succeed and let their English minions fall on their swords in order to preserve the aura of integrity and probity, which is totally lacking within their own culture and mindset. To win at all costs seems to be their raison d’etre, although this has been manifestly exposed.

      So, with their obvious inferiority complexes and the need to win at all costs, they employ the services of ennobled stooges to sanctify their reputations and appear, grinning on the rails of their Newmarket paddocks, basking in the certainty that the venal subscribers to that precarious bloodstock industry are unlikely to want to upset the applecart.

      They are a scourge and a curse on the sport of kings and the sooner that they return to their camel races and their true origins in the more anonymous regions of the Middle East the better will be the traditional traditions of the gallops in Newmarket and Lambourn.

  • Doggie Roussel

    I love the story of the late, great, Sir Henry Cecil, who when sacked by one of the odious Makhtoum family… and asked what he would do next without the support of this bunch of camel drivers… replied, ‘ I shall go and tend to my roses’… that says all we need to know about gulf between these arrivistes and the true greats of bloodstock and racing….

    These thugs from the Middle East should be removed from the Sport of Kings.

  • Terry Field

    When the hydrocarbons are finished, the camels will cruise the malls and fart in the face of the absurdity.