Dubai's long, lucrative property boom is hitting rough times, with property-flipping speculators and hopeful foreign buyers increasingly worried as easy oil money and quick profits dry up.
It's far from clear, though, if a bubble has truly burst or if the once red-hot market is simply cooling.
"I saw fear take over," said Timur Usmanov, a real estate agent for Dubai-based Monshaat Properties, about investors who recently tried to flee the market just two or three years after diving in. "There are too many sellers and not enough buyers. ... (But) who wants to buy now?"
Real estate agents and analysts said Monday that demand remains strong for completed property in this glitzy Gulf shiekdom, where skyscrapers sprout from the sand and the "construction crane" is jokingly called the national bird.
But interest in unbuilt or incomplete property _ once such a hot commodity that it could be resold in a matter of minutes _ appears to be drying up.
Some investors who bought in hopes of collecting double-digit or better annual returns are now looking simply to cut their losses on unfinished, or "off-plan" properties, agents said.
"People are saying it's like a tsunami that will attack the country in a few months," said one broker, who sells property for a major Dubai developer and spoke only on condition her name not be used because she did not want to hurt her business.
The broker said one client recently asked her to list an investment property at a markup. But just days later, "Now they are saying they don't want a premium, they just want to sell," the broker said. "They are scared."
At the same time, banks here like elsewhere face harder times getting access to cash. That is forcing them to tighten the rules on who can get a loan, and for how much.
No longer do many buyers qualify for mortgages at 10 percent down, as they did as recently as a few weeks ago with some lenders.
Islamic finance company Tamweel, one of Dubai's largest mortgage providers, is among those offering customers less.
"All the (mortgage) providers have done some element of tightening," Chief Executive Wasim Saifi said in an interview. "That way you're able to do a larger number of loans. The idea is to spread your resources as much as possible."
HSBC, among the emirate's biggest international mortgage lenders, said it is also cutting back on amounts given to borrowers.
Unlike in New York or Hong Kong, many windows in Dubai's newest skyscrapers long sat dark _ some because they were empty vacation homes for rich visitors, others because their owners failed to find a renter or buyer willing to pay enough to make a profit.
But warning signs of a more serious slowdown gathered on the horizon some time ago.
Colliers International said earlier this month that its index of Dubai home price growth had slowed considerably from the first to the second quarter this year. The real estate consultancy also warned that developers are relying too heavily on "high end" projects at the expense of more affordable housing.
Morgan Stanley angered some developers in August with a prediction that Dubai property prices would likely fall by 10 percent after years of unrelenting growth, starting in 2009.
Standard Chartered Bank and Egyptian investment bank EFG-Hermes have likewise said the market is due for a slowdown.
"You did see a lot of speculative money come into the property sector," EFG-Hermes analyst Sana Kapadia said. "I think what you're seeing is an effort to let a lot of the froth exit the market."
Still, many in the industry remain hopeful.
Millions of dollars were poured into just the scale models of new record-breaking towers unveiled at the city's recent Cityscape real estate expo. Vendors there said foot traffic remained as brisk as always, and brokers repeated an oft-heard assurance that the Dubai market is "different" because its development is being closely guided and partially bankrolled by the emirate's ruler.
Tamweel's Saifi said he thinks Dubai's fundamentals remain sound. "The issue to be watched is sentiment because of negativity and issues globally," he said.
Yet some have doubts.
Richard Rodriguez, the former CEO of the Dubai division of Emaar Properties, the builder of the world's tallest building and one of Dubai's biggest developers, said too many builders in the emirate have focused on return-seeking investors _ rather than people looking for homes to live in.
"Some of those heightened, frenzied launches _ with all the developers _ took on the characteristics of pyramid schemes. If you got in early, you were guaranteed to make money," he said.
"The developers that will survive are the ones who can market and sell to the end user," he said. "And that hasn't existed in Dubai so far."
Associated Press writer Barbara Surk in Dubai contributed to this report.