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American firms seek piece of Dubai pie

An estimated 20,000 Americans live  and work in Dubai and this is by no means the largest number of ex-patriots in the country. They are, but a growing segment, of a very diversified population in the Middle East.
/ Source: CNBC

Softball is the quintessential American night activity. On a sultry, summer evening there are 22 teams that enjoy and laugh their way through 7 or 8 innings. On the diamond next door, the Little League All Star team gets ready to travel to its tournament, hoping for a shot at the World Series. All we need now is apple pie and a Chevrolet.

“This is a very easy place to live. Very little crime, good weather obviously, easy tax structure and it allows you to live a simple day to day life. A comfortable life, which is what we're all looking for, more or less in the United States,” said John Larson, an American expat.

Except it's not the United States — it's Dubai.

This little Persian Gulf country has an economy like no other. It registered a 10 percent annual growth over the last decade, with some years reaching a nearly 20 percent GNP increase. Fueled by the reality of declining oil reserves and a need to find another reason to exist, Dubai has turned itself, through government investment both in and out of the country, into a real estate booming tourism destination second to to nowhere.

“Today we're turning away a huge amount of business," said Bill Walsh, President of Jumeirah Resorts. "We now have more than 2,500 rooms in this destination and will do greater than 90 percent occupancy in 2006, assuming the business trends continue what we're seeing today.”

“To achieve this 90 percent target, you've got to be saying no to people far too frequently," Walsh explained. "People want to come here and we hate to say no to people. So we're building new rooms and so are other companies. It's great news for Dubai."

Add to this tourism a tax-free business environment marketed as a safe and stable platform, which services the rest of the Middle East with representation from 80 percent of the Fortune 500, and you have a winning formula.

Growing population
There are an estimated 20,000 Americans living and working in Dubai. It is by no means the largest number of ex-patriots in the country, but nonetheless a growing segment of a very diversified population.

“Originally the American people who were here were oil patch people, brought here by the companies for oil production that comes out of the region,” said Larson. "But today that has diversified further. Not only are there more Americans in different areas, but people from everywhere,"

Mark Chapleski is representative of the latest group of Americans coming to work in Dubai. He is area managing director of Troon Golf, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based golf management and development company that is running the Dubai Montgomerie course. He is also in charge of the upcoming Dubai Sports City golfing operation.

“You've got hotels, you've got restaurants, you've got Disney type developments and you've got property developments. It's changing the face of the Middle East,” said Chapleski. He moved to Dubai with his wife Audrey and oldest son a couple of years ago. His second child was born here.

“What's changing in Dubai are the number of housing developments which they didn't have before. It's not really part of the Arab culture, but as Westerners and the number of expats far outstrips the locals, these communities have really grown,” said Chapleski.

Late to the party
Americans are late to the Dubai party. By all accounts they're still in the early stages of their build-up, but opportunities are growing nearly as fast as the structures are going up.

Larson came here as the President of the regional Ziff-Davis operation. When it was sold, he decided to stay and form his own new media company. There are hurdles, legal and cultural differences, but Larson has a point.

“When you look at simple global logistics and you think globalization in terms of any business, you look at the places to plant the flag around the globe to complete the communication chain, create that supply chain in any whatever capacity you require and this is one of those places that sits at the juxtaposition of Europe and Asia,” Larson explained.

“I think you continually see Dubai getting better and better and you see more and more people wanting to visit Dubai. It's incredible how many Americans I speak with on the phone, who three or four years ago never mentioned Dubai, but now can't wait to visit this place," said Allen Liebman, President of Kerzner International, a company that develops and operates luxury resorts.

Softball in Dubai...if you want to play you'd better hurry. Twice already they've almost lost the field to someone who wants to develop the land.