Isn’t Life Strange?

Isn’t life strange? In a recent survey, little Dubai has vanquished the likes of Vienna, Vancouver and Venice to be ranked the 10th city in the world for quality of life and its13th most important city? No wonder it is the front runner to host the 2020 World Expo.

With the Eid Al Fitr holiday now behind us, Dubai is still recovering from the massive influx of visitors, an increasing number of whom have been from Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that the emirate is still benefitting from the Arab Spring that has seen tourists coming here rather than to troubled areas such as Lebanon, Egypt and Syria.

Many hotels have seen 90%+ occupancy rates with revenues that will surpass those reported last year. Although the Ramadan figures were apparently slightly down, Dubai has already witnessed a record number of tourists in 2012 that is expected to exceed over 10 million visitors by the end of the year.

Not only will Dubai will host the prestigious World Energy Forum 2012 in October, it will also be the venue for the 12th Forbes Global CEO Conference. This will be the first time that the convention has been held in the region and will be attended by over 400 global CEOs and entrepreneurs. Such high profile events – along with the regular seasonal exhibitions and conferences – will ensure that local hotels will continue with their high occupancies.

Having lost the management of both the Al Manzil and Qamardeen in Q2, the South African operator, Southern Sun, is hoping for a quick return to the Dubai market. It has announced that it expects to have formally signed a management agreement with a local developer by the end of 2012.

In comparison to the booming local hospitality sector, Dubai has not fared as well with at least two of its overseas acquisitions – Travelodge and Jumeirah Essex House. The former, a UK budget hotel chain, was bought by Dubai Investment Capital in 2006 for over US$ 1 billion and now a US$ 1 billion debt restructuring agreement has been confirmed giving the lenders, including Avenue Capital and Golden Tree Asset Management, control of the business and handing the Dubai owners a substantial loss.

Meanwhile, in New York, the Jumeirah Essex House Hotel, purchased in 2005 for US$ 420 million, plus a reported subsequent US$ 90 million refurbishment, has been sold to Strategic Hotels & Resorts for US$ 375 million. Assuming its value had already been written down, this will have no effect on their balance sheet and will be a welcome cash flow boost.

On the subject of losing money, the banking scandals continue unabated with US authorities now actively pursuing the much troubled Royal Bank of Scotland and Commerzbank over their possible violations of Iranian sanctions. RBS has already officially indicated that it may face “a material impact” on possible non-compliance. To add to their woes, the bank is being investigated – along with several more – over their participation in the Libor rate rigging debacle. Considering that Barclays has already been fined US$ 460 million (for their role in the Libor scandal) and Standard Chartered US$ 350 million (for their “Iranian activities”), it seems inevitable that this financial institution will be hit with hefty fines. Unfortunately, British taxpayers, who own 82% of this bank – if it can be called a bank – will be picking up the bill! (The German taxpayer will be better off as they only own 25% of Commerzbank).

The surprising fact to emerge is that four banks, Barclays, Lloyds, Credit Suisse and ING, have already taken their punishment and have settled with fines amounting to US$ 1.8 billion. (If the fines are anything to go by, these four banks must have been bigger sinners than Standard Chartered that had been reportedly involved in US$ 250 billion worth of prohibited trnsactions). Indeed, in 2010, RBS had already paid out US$ 500 million to settle similar claims against the Dutch Bank, ABN Ambo, which they had bought in the halcyon days of 2007.

A sign of the times is the opening in Dubai of Australia’s Cash Converters, the world’s largest specialist in the trading of used goods, mainly furniture and white goods. Launched in 1984, it boasts over 600 outlets in 21 countries.

Hopefully it will trade better than Living Social Middle East which has closed its local operations after apparent continuous losses since acquiring the local site, GoNabit, last year. There is no doubt that it was in a very competitive market with at least 20 other on-line sites in the UAE alone.

The Dubai Financial Market Index – opened for only two days because of the Eid holiday – continues to defy gravity posting yet another weekly gain closing 6 points up at 1587. So far this year it has seen an impressive 17.3% gain – a reflection of the growing confidence in the Dubai market.

It is less than ten years since foreign investment was first allowed in Dubai – and then it was for newly-built residential units in selected areas. Now Dubai Investment Park is developing 500,000 sq mt which is set to become the first industrial land – outside the free zones – available for purchase by overseas buyers.

One just has to study what is happening in other places to see that it is no surprise that foreign investors are eying Dubai as a relatively safe haven.

Australia’s BHP Billiton has delayed the opening of its Olympic Dam mine and has just announced a 35% drop in profits and a US$ 3.4 billion write down in its shale gas and nickel assets. Undoubtedly, there are concerns of a slowing global economy and even the Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, has been quoted as saying that its resources boom is over. (Earlier Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining giant had announced a 59% profit fall, not helped by a a US$ 9 billion write down in its aluminium operation value).

Preliminary figures from China see a 9 month low in manufacturing activity and a worrying fall in the PMI (Purchasing Manager’s Index) to 47.8. It seems that the government will have to introduce urgent remedial measures to try and arrest this sharp economic slowdown.

In the US, the Congress’s budget office forecasts a 0.5% shrinkage in the GDP if action is not taken by the government and that the country could easily fall back into recession in 2013. With the November election pending, it would seem that deeper economic problems are just around the corner as Congress will be reluctant to do anything until early next year. On the corporate side, HP has declared a whopping Q2 loss of US$ 8.9 billion!

Japan saw an 8.1% fall in its exports and a depressing 25.1% drop in shipments to the EU. The end result was a US$ 6.5 billion July trade deficit coming after a US$ 750 million surplus a month earlier.

In the eurozone, Q3 is forecast to see at least an 0.6% contraction – following a negative 0.2% in Q2. There were declines in both manufacturing and service sectors and the PMI stood at 46.6. Meanwhile Greece is trying to buy more time again as the country endured a 6.2% slide in its Q2 GDP – a minor improvement on Q1’s 6.5% fall. The country remains a basket case and there is little hope for their prime minister, Antonis Samaras, in  trying to convince the likes of Angela Merkel for a little more breathing room.

When Brent Crude (US$ 115), Gold (US$ 1,670) and Silver (US$30) start to show significant hikes, as they have done this week, it is a good indicator that something dramatic is on the cards.

Then when you add the political problems, emanating from the SILLY countries (Syria, Iran, Libya, Lebanon and Yemen), you have all the factors that could be heading the world into the perfect storm.

Finally if you have US$ 1,000 to spend why not visit Bloomsbury’s in Dubai Mall? There you will be able to buy the world’s most expensive cupcake which is coated in edible gold sheets. Isn’t Life Strange?

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