Book Review: ‘Dubai is a delusion of grandeur’

The story of an Australian couple offered a dream job in Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Middle East – and how their dream turned into a nightmare.

Julie and Marcus Lee with their dog. (photo credit: COURTESY MARCUS LEE)
Julie and Marcus Lee with their dog.
(photo credit: COURTESY MARCUS LEE)
All that glitters is not gold. It is safe to assume that when Shakespeare penned this aphorism in The Merchant of Venice, he didn’t have Marcus Lee in mind. Or the tens of thousands of clueless professionals who flock to the United Arab Emirates with the dream of making big bucks in a short time. But many of them learn on their own that looks can be deceiving.
Marcus and his wife, Julie, are ordinary people, they insist, but their story is long. In fact, it spans five years and takes them over 300 pages to tell it. Their book, Trapped, is a cautionary tale, an example of what can go wrong in a prosperous place that gives the impression of being modern, generous and welcoming.
“It is nothing of the sort,” says Marcus when I meet him and Julie in their hotel in Sydney. “Dubai has all the superlative buildings in the world – the tallest skyscraper, the most luxurious hotel and the swankiest airport – but those shiny buildings and man-made, palm-shaped islands are just smoke and mirrors. Dubai is a delusion of grandeur.”
“It’s a place where you can be jailed for overt expressions of affection,” says Julie, “and where tourists sharing a hotel room can be arrested for adultery. It is a country run by Sharia law and a legal system anchored in the Dark Ages.”
The Lees are your typical Aussie couple.
They talk over each other, speak in a standard Aussie drawl, laugh out loud a lot and call me “mate” as soon as I introduce myself. Their story begins in 2006, when Marcus was offered a job as a consultant at Nakheel, a property development company in Dubai.
Both he and Julie were relatively new university graduates, having studied accountancy.
They were strapped for cash and aspired to own a town house of their own in Sydney’s up-and-coming Balmain neighborhood. The opportunity to turn their financial fortunes around was too much to pass up, and what was there to lose? Back then, this was a rhetorical question.
They and their Yorkshire terrier, Dudley, headed to Dubai to start a new and exciting chapter in their lives. The plan was to go for three years.
Upon arrival, Marcus was dazzled.
“I can safely say I’d never seen anything like it,” he writes. “Along [with] the 500- plus stores, cinemas and eateries, it boasted ‘Ski Dubai’ – the Middle East’s first indoor ski resort and snow park.”
Julie recalls the bizarre practice among the rich Emiratis of owning exotic wild animals. “You’d see a white lion in someone’s garden, or a full grown cheetah in the sports car of a young Emirati.”
But soon, the pair discovered that despite the immense wealth and comfort, Dubai was in essence a Third World country: chaotic, corrupt and unaccountable.
The economy was thriving on the back of hapless construction workers, shipped in from poor countries, who were kept in appalling conditions.
“It is modern-day slavery by all accounts,” says Julie. “At one point, one of the biggest property development companies was averaging a death a day on its building sites.”
Despite this, they were both doing well.
He was working for Nakheel; she found an accounting job at Showtime Arabia.
Everything was going swimmingly.
Then came 2008. That year, Dubai suffered the world’s steepest property slump in the global recession. The real estate bubble that had propelled the emirate’s frenetic expansion on the back of speculative investment finally burst. Investors fled in droves. Home prices dropped by 50 percent, and shares in the region lost around $1 trillion.
In a matter of weeks, the mega-boom transmogrified to a mega-gloom.
On January 25, 2009, Marcus was called to attend a meeting in a Dubai police headquarters. He arrived at the station in the late afternoon. An unidentified senior police officer asked him, “Do you know why you are here?” As it turned out, he was being charged with fraud in connection with a land deal involving Nakheel and an Australian property developer, Sunland – a charge he categorically denied, resolutely rejecting having any knowledge of the deal.
Trapped follows his and Julie’s fight to clear his name in Dubai’s chaotic legal system, surrounded by a culture they did not understand, a language they did not speak and a mind-set they did not share.
Marcus spent two months in solitary confinement before his transfer to a jail in Dubai for nine months, followed by a house arrest that lasted over four years.
Trapped is written in the first person, in simple prose, narrated by the two main protagonists, each of them recounting the nightmare as it unraveled from their point of view. “Guest narrators” appear from time to time to give their own account, such as Marcus’s brother and Julie’s mother.
It is a riveting story that documents the couple’s odyssey into Dubai’s legal black hole, from the moment of Marcus’s arrest until his acquittal on all charges five years later, when he is allowed to return to Australia.
But even then, the story is not quite over: There is a dramatic, nail-biting cliffhanger moment at the airport, which they recount in spectacular fashion.
Both Lees delve with brutal honesty into the depths of their frustration as court hearings are postponed, adjourned or canceled; as one lawyer fails – yet again – to turn up for a hearing and defers it by a month; and as the presiding judge decides to return to his native Egypt, effectively requiring the case to start again.
Marcus offers chilling insights into prison life, including shocking violence and sexual depravity, while Julie describes Marcus’s failing health, which at one point almost resulted in his death.
Yet despite the colossal financial loss they incurred and the betrayal they endured from Nakheel, the couple stuck together; their relationship remained intact. Unfazed by the immensity of the task ahead, Julie campaigned for his release and recruited a brilliant lawyer, John Sneddon, who worked tirelessly and pro bono from Australia to fight for her husband’s freedom.
Trapped is a story of courage, hope and resilience, but mostly it is a warning, or a reminder, that indeed, all that glitters is not gold. The Lees just want a quiet life now, knocking back a beer or two and enjoying the simple life in Australia.