DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, SEPT. 1 -- War talk sends the financial markets into daily turmoil. Foreign troops pour into the region by the planeload. American fighter jets rumble above the scorching desert.
But at the Al-Nasr Leisureland ice rink in this oil-rich emirate on the Persian Gulf, young Arabs in flowing dishdashas or tight bluejeans still skate in circles nightly, rocked by a disco sound system and cooled by 500 tons of imported refrigeration equipment.
Across town, Mercedes automobiles clog the parking lot of the Galleria shopping mall, a glistening extravaganza built by Persian Gulf business legend Abdul Wahab Galdari, who went broke a few years back after squandering several hundred million dollars in the New York gold markets.
Trade at the mall has been dampened because of the war threat, but Galleria general manager Uli Hoppe claims that the downturn won't last long. "It's a very good business climate here in Dubai," he said. "And it's a fantastic lifestyle. It's a very, very safe place, a secure place. I'm sure everything will be back to normal as soon as this problem's solved."
Hoppe's somewhat strained optimism reflects widespread public rhetoric in the world of the Arab "haves" -- the tiny, high-flying sheikdoms erected with oil money on the edge of the Arabian peninsula. Four weeks after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, many government officials, wealthy Arabs and expatriate business leaders in the gulf region appear to be clinging to the hope that the storm set off by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will somehow pass without damaging or changing their fragile, autocratic, family-run countries.
Some U.S. officials in the region complain that despite belated announcements from the sheiks and princes who rule the smaller gulf nations that they will host foreign troops to help defend Saudi Arabia against the possibility of Iraqi aggression, these countries still are not offering much public support for the massive military buildup now underway. "There's an attitude in public of 'nobody here but us chickens,' " said one official.
Gulf sheikdom officials say their reticence about the troop buildup is a diplomatic necessity in the fractious Arab world. Privately, some officials say the happy talk put out by ministers and chamber-of-commerce types is a calculated attempt to stem potentially devastating public panic.
Rulers of the smaller gulf sheikdoms -- the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman -- have reason to worry about the public's attitude. For one thing, millions of people who live in the gulf are not native Arabs, but rather Asian workers recruited with oil profits to do menial labor, or Western expatriates called in to manage oil rigs, shipping firms and construction projects. Many such foreigners appear to have little loyalty to the gulf states or their leaders.
Earlier fear in the sheikdoms that Iraqi tanks would sweep down the gulf coast -- an apprehension reflected in huge cash withdrawals from gulf banks and panic buying in grocery stores -- has been quelled somewhat by the arrival of U.S., European and Arab armed forces. But some gulf residents believe that devastating damage has been done to the smaller sheikdoms even if the feared Iraqi invasion does not come to pass.
After oil, these gulf residents argue, the most important resource in many of the sheikdoms may be economic confidence. But the currencies of these smaller gulf nations are now shunned at the biggest international banks. Cash withdrawals are continuing at a hurried pace from local financial institutions. And in at least one gulf sheikdom, local bankers have refused to let customers withdraw money from certificates of deposit, even if the customers were willing to pay penalties to get their money out before the CDs mature.
At the same time, fears are rising in the gulf that, no matter how the present crisis plays out, the Middle East will remain highly unstable for years, and the international economic confidence that supported the gulf's once booming financial system may be badly eroded.
On the tiny island of Bahrain, which became a major offshore banking center during the 1980s, banking sources report that the money market trade is off by as much as 80 percent since the invasion of Kuwait.
Some bankers say Bahrain will have trouble bouncing back even if the gulf crisis suddenly is resolved because there are plenty of other places to trade money -- in the United States, Europe and Asia -- where war does not seem likely to be fought on home soil. If they are right, that shift could spell big trouble for one of the gulf's most prosperous states, since Bahrain has virtually run out of oil.