Dubai faces gradual exodus of migrant workers

DUBAI, December 6, 2009 (AFP) – Construction worker Bilal is in a happy mood as he takes his lunch break sitting next to an artificial lake near Dubai’s showpiece Mall of the Emirates. But he admits anxiety about the end of his contract in one year’s time, when the 24-year-old may have to return to Bangladesh.

The shock news of Dubai’s debt crisis is not expected to spark an immediate surge in redundancies in the once-booming desert metropolis, but a gradual exodus is likely as workers’ contracts expire and the lack of new projects means they are unable to find new jobs.

Before last year’s credit crunch, Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates were estimated at the end of 2007 to have a population of 6.4 million people — of whom 5.5 million were foreigners.

More than three million were registered with the ministry of labour as workers, when Dubai was still racing to build enormous shopping centres and business districts.

But now the picture is very different. Even before state-owned Dubai World said last week that it wants to halt payments on its huge debts for at least six months, property prices were down by half and office rents by as much as two-thi