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This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery. Every time she starts to tell her story, she puts her head down and crumples.

Dubai is a living metal metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing – at last – into history. She is slim and angular and has the faded radiance of the once-rich, even though her clothes are as creased as her forehead.

Suddenly it looks less like Manhattan in the sun than Iceland in the desert.

As they scuttled away, Dubai decided to ally with the six surrounding states and make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The British quit, exhausted, just as oil was being discovered, and the sheikhs who suddenly found themselves in charge faced a remarkable dilemma.

They named it after a local locust, the daba, who consumed everything before it.

The town was soon seized by the gunships of the British Empire, who held it by the throat as late as 1971.

This is not where she thought her Dubai dream would end. At times, her old voice – witty and warm – breaks through.

Karen came here from Canada when her husband was offered a job in the senior division of a famous multinational.He would build a city to be a centre of tourism and financial services, sucking up cash and talent from across the globe. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings.He invited the world to come tax-free – and they came in their millions, swamping the local population, who now make up just 5 per cent of Dubai. Hidden in plain view There are three different Dubais, all swirling around each other. Some 300,000 men live piled up here, in a place whose name in Hindi means "City of Gold".Dubai was meant to be a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La, a glittering monument to Arab enterprise and western capitalism.But as hard times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an uglier story is emerging."We're not talking huge sums, but he was getting confused. We got into a little bit of debt." After a year, she found out why: Daniel was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

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