Daniel was arrested and taken away on the day of their eviction. "He told me he was put in a cell with another debtor, a Sri Lankan guy who was only 27, who said he couldn't face the shame to his family. I have to last nine months until he's out, somehow." Looking away, almost paralysed with embarrassment, she asks if I could buy her a meal. All over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars."The thing you have to understand about Dubai is – nothing is what it seems," Karen says at last. Tumbleweed Thirty years ago, almost all of contemporary Dubai was desert, inhabited only by cactuses and tumbleweed and scorpions.
Daniel woke up and the boy had swallowed razor-blades. But downtown there are traces of the town that once was, buried amidst the metal and glass.
"It was an adult Disneyland, where Sheikh Mohammed is the mouse," she says. You had these amazing big apartments, you had a whole army of your own staff, you pay no taxes at all. We were partying the whole time."Her husband, Daniel, bought two properties. But for the first time in his life, he was beginning to mismanage their finances.
"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.
But as hard times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an uglier story is emerging.
I assumed if all these big companies come here, it must be pretty like Canada's or any other liberal democracy's," she says. If you get into debt and you can't pay, you go to prison."When we realised that, I sat Daniel down and told him: listen, we need to get out of here.
Karen came here from Canada when her husband was offered a job in the senior division of a famous multinational.
"When he said Dubai, I said – if you want me to wear black and quit booze, baby, you've got the wrong girl. And I loved him."All her worries melted when she touched down in Dubai in 2005.
But something has flickered in Sheikh Mohammed's smile.
The ubiquitous cranes have paused on the skyline, as if stuck in time.