x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Scrum of uncertainty sends a yellow tear down Homer's cheek

The Rugby Sevens World cup in Dubai was hailed a great success, but the winners and losers in attendance weren't confined to the pitch.


A man in a sumo suit with a pink wig, women dressed as smurfs complete with their bodies painted blue, and the cast of the Eighties slimefest Ghostbusters boiler-suited up carrying fake ectoplasmic spray guns just in case any ghouls should make an appearance. Just your average day out in Dubai. Well, not really. All of these wonderfully fancily dressed characters took part last week in the festival atmosphere of the Rugby Sevens World Cup, the first time it has been hosted in the emirate. From Bahrain to Brazil, they had paid a large slice of disposable cash to jet in for a one-of-a-kind event. And it was a great success, with 30,000 people attending on two of the three days alone.

The sun didn't stop shining, Tom Jones's anthemic Delilah roared from the Tannoys from all four corners of the stadium in support of the eventual shock winners Wales and an increasing number of bizarrely attired punters flooded through the gates. It was also a success for the economy, with hotels jacking up their prices by 20 to 30 per cent for new arrivals and squeezing a large dollop of extra dirhams on food and beverages.

But these are the lucky ones, or so far anyway. It could all change in a blink of a senior manager's eye depending on which mood he or she's in that day, a split-second budgetary spreadsheet adjustment or whether the competition is slimming down and becoming more effective as a result. The question then on everyone's lips wasn't how many tries Fiji could get past the US minnows, or how the influence of the first women's tournament might spark the Belgian International Olympic Commission chairman Jacques Rogge to allow the sport into the next Games in London. There were far more pressing and worrying discussions taking place at this carnival of the short form of rugby football.

"I don't know if I'm going to have a job next week," one well-paid acquaintance told me, petrified about his future here. "They're dropping like flies and I'm just living every second as if it were my last". Four people were told to leave the company where he works last week. "That might not sound like much compared to the hundreds of others at some firms, but to a smaller outfit like ours, it's a disaster," he said. "I simply can't afford to lose my job with all the money I have tied up here."

"I just don't want to go back to work on Monday," said another disheartened advertising executive. "We've cut our workforce by 25 to 30 per cent and I have no way of knowing whether my team will be next. None of us wants to leave; it's been so good to save money here and great fun going to events like this, but we're all panicking and looking at our options now. If we do get fired we've only got four weeks to find something else and that something else will never be better than here in these conditions."

It may sound extreme, but job cuts here are having a huge effect on people's mental health and taking a heavy toll on a large majority of previously high-spending individuals, even those who remain employed and can still afford to splash out Dh450 (US$123) for rugby. The World Bank revealed on Monday that this year's slowdown will be the most severe global economic shrinkage since the Second World War. Well, to all those I spoke to, it's looking far worse.

None of them thought the plague would spread this far, but underneath the Batman cape, Barney Rubble caveman costume and one man's Homer Simpson make-up running down his cheeks like yellow tears, lay a real fear this crisis is far from done with any of us. Matters financial are more up in the air than any drop goal I saw that day. People I knew and bumped into, literally on many crowded occasions, in media, advertising, property, and running their own businesses from plastic surgery to perms for poodles, are now very prepared to either simply take the risk of continuing to live the day to day and cling on as long as they can praying nothing goes wrong or take things into their own hands and make a very desperate and often very illegal bid for freedom.

And that doesn't mean dressing up for the day and trying to forget about the real world. For many this could mean freedom - albeit temporary until the authorities catch up with them - from often very large and very unpayable debts, freedom from a shaky job market or freedom from the real risk that their dreams are now evaporating faster than the cloud they were sitting on when they were first flown into a shiny Gulf airport and chauffeur- driven to a glamorous beachside apartment six months ago.

Uncertainty is the number one killer. No one knows how long many of these middle-to-high-income expatriates that have helped grow the economy for close to four decades will be able to party at events like this, and no credible research points to how many jobs could be lost in the coming year. A recovery will begin at some point in the future but, as we continued to spot some of the best costumes the Sevens has ever seen and swap anecdotes, the only time frame we were certain of was when the final whistle would blow at the end of each half.

As the sun set in the distance and night descended, a friend and I exchanged a crystal ball-like glance and hoped time wouldn't be called on many more of us soon. @Email:jbennett@thenational.ae