Dubai pays a price for its mourning

Observations on the Gulf

It has been a sad couple of weeks in politics. Tony Banks and Charles Kennedy's careers both expired, albeit in different ways, and as I write Ariel Sharon still hovers between life and death. Once, the commentaries and obituaries would have been measured and generous, but today the respectful mourning period is brief (if it happens at all) and mellow farewells are rare.

In the Middle East, however, where monarchs maintain a cult of personality and command a respect that western politicians can only dream of, people still take these things seriously.

Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and a founding father of the United Arab Emirates, passed away on 4 January and, as is customary in this part of the world, a 40-day, 40-night mourning period was announced. First to go were TV and radio, replaced with round-the-clock readings from the Koran accompanied by slow-motion clips of the late sheikh meeting the great and the good of world politics.

Then all live entertainment was stopped, government offices were closed and all public events were cancelled.

Only to be expected in a grieving nation, you might say. But consider this: it is the third mourning period to take place in the UAE in the past 15 months, marking the deaths of Sheikh Maktoum, Sheikh Zayed (president and founder of the UAE) and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

Without doubt, the interruption to normal life is costing the Dubai economy billions, and it is no surprise that the business community is fuming in quiet, knuckle-chewing indignation. In places, the latest period of muted reflection has led to what can only be described as "mourning fatigue".

So far the Dubai Shopping Festival has been junked - a month-long event that, in 2005, attracted 3.3 million visitors and brought in £1bn. Also cancelled were the Dubai Marathon and the debut of an international sandboarding championship.

The emirate's music fans have been hard hit, too: Fatboy Slim was told not to turn up; Bryan Adams will now not be gurning through "Summer of '69" in Dubai early next month, and the International Jazz Festival, featuring such luminaries as Kool and the Gang, has also been canned.

"I've lost 40,000 dirhams and already shelled out for flights, artists' fees and adverts that I'm not going to get back now," says David Newsum, a DJ and promoter who had a number of events cancelled. "There are other promoters who have lost half a million dollars on this Fatboy Slim gig."

Newsum questions the logic of marking a leader's passing in this way. "I've literally lost my livelihood. It's all very well having this mourning period but how can I eat?" he says. "You should remember the dead, but just don't forget the living."

In fact, mourning periods have been so frequent in recent times that insurance companies no longer offer promoters and entrepreneurs "death of a ruler" cover, making it a big risk bringing out big-name artists or trying to organise showpiece events.

Given that Dubai's business-savvy new ruler, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, wants to double tourist numbers to ten million by 2010, it is possible that these enforced shutdowns will soon become a thing of the past. Perhaps then Newsum, and Dubai's army of discreet but suffering entrepreneurs, will have less reason to monitor the health of the region's princes.