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If you have any outstanding debts that aren't covered by your savings, then all your accounts are frozen, and you are forbidden to leave the country."Suddenly our cards stopped working. We were thrown out of our apartment." Karen can't speak about what happened next for a long time; she is shaking. Daniel was sentenced to six months' imprisonment at a trial he couldn't understand. "Now I'm here illegally, too," Karen says I've got no money, nothing. They lure you in telling you it's one thing – a modern kind of place – but beneath the surface it's a medieval dictatorship."II.Daniel was arrested and taken away on the day of their eviction. "He told me he was put in a cell with another debtor, a Sri Lankan guy who was only 27, who said he couldn't face the shame to his family. I have to last nine months until he's out, somehow." Looking away, almost paralysed with embarrassment, she asks if I could buy her a meal. All over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars."The thing you have to understand about Dubai is – nothing is what it seems," Karen says at last. Tumbleweed Thirty years ago, almost all of contemporary Dubai was desert, inhabited only by cactuses and tumbleweed and scorpions.He would build a city to be a centre of tourism and financial services, sucking up cash and talent from across the globe. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings.

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Suddenly it looks less like Manhattan in the sun than Iceland in the desert.

Once the manic burst of building has stopped and the whirlwind has slowed, the secrets of Dubai are slowly seeping out.

They were largely illiterate nomads who spent their lives driving camels through the desert – yet now they had a vast pot of gold. Dubai only had a dribble of oil compared to neighbouring Abu Dhabi – so Sheikh Maktoum decided to use the revenues to build something that would last.

Israel used to boast it made the desert bloom; Sheikh Maktoum resolved to make the desert boom. Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away.

Dubai was meant to be a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La, a glittering monument to Arab enterprise and western capitalism.

But as hard times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an uglier story is emerging.

The ubiquitous cranes have paused on the skyline, as if stuck in time.

There are countless buildings half-finished, seemingly abandoned.

And there he stands on the tallest building in the world – a skinny spike, jabbing farther into the sky than any other human construction in history.

But something has flickered in Sheikh Mohammed's smile.

This man has sold Dubai to the world as the city of One Thousand and One Arabian Lights, a Shangri-La in the Middle East insulated from the dust-storms blasting across the region.

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