Building a new life in Dubai: Robert Lee

A soft-spoken, polite product of a Canadian upbringing, Robert Lee is also the director of development for Dubai's state-owned Nakheel Properties.

From space, the Palm Jumeirah looks beautiful. A man-made island in the form of a palm tree, the dazzling white of its sand is set off against the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf. Seen up close from Robert Lee's office in the Palm sales-office complex, it's a vision of chaos: Massive, unfinished shells of high-rise towers march endlessly out into the water; rows of smaller buildings spread out along the outlying fronds; throughout, thousands of workers toil away.

But when Lee and I look out his window, we're not seeing the same thing. Lee doesn't even notice the dust and the trucks. He sees the inspired moment of madness that leads to great things being accomplished. “At a certain stage,” says Lee, “there has to be a notion of a crazy idea. When they say 'nothing ventured, nothing gained,' it basically is very consistent with how Dubai thinks. It's a risk-taking place.”

Lee, a South Korean-born Vancouverite of 44, has been in Dubai since 2000. A soft-spoken, polite product of a Canadian upbringing, he is also the director of development for Dubai's state-owned Nakheel Properties, which makes him a player in the hottest real-estate development market in the world.

Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, is reinventing itself as the Middle East's centre for tourism, trade and transportation. Its new ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum, decided that with oil projected to run out by 2020 at the latest, a new vocation was in order. Dubai has thrown itself headfirst into the big leagues: It is expanding its airport capacity to handle 120 million passengers and 12 million tonnes of freight a year.

A tax- and duty-free haven, Dubai has brought in the high-octane glitz of Versace, Burberry and Armani to draw big spenders from the estimated 1.5 billion people who can be there within two hours by air. That includes the Russians who arrived in 45-degree Celsius heat to buy fur coats, according to The Times of London. “What you're seeing here is Toronto in the heyday of its boom and Vancouver when it became a focal point of Hong Kong Chinese immigrants,” says Lee. “If you take all those things and compress them into a five-year period, that's what's happening — and much, much more.”

The tragedy of it, says Lee, is that Canadians are missing the boat. There are opportunities in transportation, telecommunications and architecture. Some Canadian firms are present: architectural firm HOK Canada, for example, has designed the Dubai Marina, the world's largest planned waterfront community, capable of accommodating 100,000 people. And the few Canadian companies that have invested in Dubai have done well, says Lee. As has he, although not so well that he can afford a villa on the Palm. He was already too late in 2002. The complex, announced that year, sold faster than water in the Sahara. According to British reports, half the England football team, along with former player David Beckham, have bought in, spending a minimum $1 million for a villa. F1 driver Michael Schumacher has a place, as does Bollywood heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan. (The resale market has seen a tripling of prices.)

Maximizing land is at the heart of the Palm development. “If you look at Dubai from one end to the other,” says Lee, “it's got about 67 kilometres of shoreline. That's it.” The solution to the problem of paucity is to reclaim more land, by dredging the sea floor. But, adds Lee, creating an ordinary island is not an efficient use of the expensively reclaimed sand. Lee closes his hand into the shape of a round island, then spreads out his fingers, saying, “If you just open up your fingers, you'd have a lot more beach frontage. Then, why don't you do that in the shape of a palm, which reflects the Arabian life, culture, heritage?” The idea of the Palm was Sheikh Mohammed's, says Lee. “He is absolutely a visionary.”

One of the biggest differences between doing business in Canada and Dubai, says Lee, is the sense of urgency that borders on breakneck. “There's a saying here that people will talk about something on the weekend, and by Sunday have a plan. By the next day, you get approvals and by the third or fourth day, it is implemented.”

His job with Nakheel is to make sure all the projects coming through “actually make financial sense.” Nakheel has US$30 billion worth of projects in development. With their completion, 1,500 kilometres of waterfront will be added to Dubai. The Palm Jumeirah is only the first of three island projects.

Lee loves his expatriate life. “I feel safer with my children here than in Vancouver,” he says. “That says nothing bad about Vancouver, but it is a reflection on how safe this place is.” Seen from Dubai, Canada looks to Lee like a big land where “everything is taken care of. When you are comfortable, there's less need to go and do things.” He's not sure he will ever return to Canada permanently. “You know, once you get involved in this, [it's a bit like] a drug,” he explains. “You are part of history in the making.” Dubai, with its creativity, hyper-fast pace and booming economy, now feels like home to Lee.