OxBlog

Friday, October 24, 2003

# Posted 9:51 AM by Patrick Belton  

A LETTER FROM DUBAI: OxBlog's network of far-flung foreign correspondents is, well, growing and flunging daily. This just in from the Dubai office:
If you land in Dubai, chances are nine out of twelve times the first thing that will strike you after you leave the airport is how hot the weather it is.  Immediately after, you'll begin to notice the sand, the cars (mostly Japanese and American), wide well-maintained American-style highways, and the diversity of people.  Next you will probably start to get a feeling that driving here is really, really crazy. 
 
UAE are a young, still developing country of about 3.5 million people.  Of that, only about twenty percent are the so-called "nationals" (holders of UAE passports, mostly indigenous pre-oil settlers), the rest being "expats" either from Europe and N. America, or "TNC's" (Third Country Nationals, cheap manual labor form the Third World).  Sheikh Zayed al-Maktoum, the President (for life) of UAE, is the head of the ruling family -- those would be the Maktoums -- and is both respected and hard to forget if the gigantic portraits you'll see everywhere, such as those along the Sheikh Zayed Rd., incidentally, are any indication.  There are seven emirates (i.e. states) in the country, and they are fairly autonomous -- and, interestingly, not necessarily geographically contiguous (there are also a couple of bits of a neighboring coutry, Oman contained within UAE territory), and regarding this last point don't know why that is or whether it has anything to do with the predominantly nomadic former nature of these societies.  There is quite a lot of topographical or land cover diversity (as geographers like to call it as of late).  The north and the east of the country is rocky and hilly (the Hajar mountains are named in Arabic for "rock"), and there are valleys, oases, now dry river beds (that look weird), the hot springs and cold pools, palm tree plantations/forests, sparsely vegetated arid bushland and dry savannah, and some parts, like Dubai are all sand, and flat as a pancake, or I should say, are meant to be all sand -- it's amazing what desalination and drip-irrigation system can do.  All this in a country that can be traversed North-South and East-West in a day.  
 
The disparities extend beyond the scenery; effects of the federal system are quite obvious should you travel throughout this country -- the less wealthy emirates are significantly less developed, and in a whole lot of places the date seems to be 1960 or earlier, like Bitnah on the east coast of the country, the site of an old fort, where there are about one hundred ground-level houses with often elaborately designed metal doors, unpaved roads, and goats roaming about. 
 
And then you have Dubai.  This is the city and emirate which has succeeded in becoming a major finance/banking, shipping, trading, and high-endish hospitality industries hub, so much that very approximately 90% of it's revenue comes from non-petrol sector, which is bloody amazing.  Dubai is a great cosmopolitan city where you can buy just anything, might meet anyone, and could have the time of your life (I have seen some great night life there, and it's cheap. Tuesday nights, the equivalent to Thursdays to those of you unfamiliar with the fact that Thu and Fri are the weekend there, are when ladies get to drink alcohol for free, but ironically, if you're not drinking, and you've just lost your wallet, good luck getting a free soda from the staff!)  Much is legal or tolerated here, but for that which is not (e.g. drugs) the punishment is no slap on the wrist (please don't quote me, but I have read that you could get capital punishment for breaking an environmental law), and just for the record, my wallet and car keys were retrived intact at three after midnight in a packed nightclub, after missing in action for four hours, having been left by this genius in the restroom.
 
As for being able to buy anything, one rather peculiar feature of most supermarkets (that, by the way, seem to be full of young British tank-top-and-shorts-or-floral-mini-dresses-wearing "Stoppit!" mothers with conspicuously pale children) is a special "Not for Muslims" section, where it is possible to buy pork of any kind (in order to sell pork, markets and restaurants must have a separate storage and handling facilities or kitchen).  In general, life seems to be quite cushy for the Western Expats, who tend to have larger living quarters and better schools for children than they would back home, and you could throw in a TNC maid as well if you like.  TNC's can make tenfolds of the salary they could hope to make back home, and the one Sri-Lankan working in Dubai I talked to had nothing but praise for the way TNC's were treated here, and I think he used other Gulf countries and homeland as bases for that comparison.  Many plan to stay as long as they can (getting UAE citizenship is not an option).  A young South African woman, a manager of an East Asia inspired nouvelle cuisine restaurant, told me she plans to buy an appartment in Dubai (to quote her, "no point in investing in South Africa"); a line in a funny poem about a quintessential Expat in Dubai goes "...and I'm never going back to that Manchester mob!"
 
All in all, for most it is a nicer, newer, even more cosmopolitan L.A. that has young and emerging forests of gleaming skyscrapers (one of which is called "Manhattan" by the local residents), great big (and ridiculous) shopping malls, and world-class golf courses, good beaches and great SCUBA-diving, all the chintziest hotels, SUV's and highways that seem to be built for them, Starbucks and MNG, every type of restaurant, oh and regarding that, really good Middle Eastern food.  I hope you catch the sarcasm at the end.  The fact is, Dubai is so modern, so international, you can easily forget where it is and what it was, and sadly, many do.  But that's just how I feel.  Besides, in this country you (I don't know about the "Nationals", though) are free to look for what you want, whether it's more than money that brings you here or not.  One of my former professors, and middle-America American lives in Sharjah, a neighboring emirate, where there is a so-called decency code in force.  This code allows police officers to "warn" you that you are indecently dressed should you be showing your knees or navel, and such, and to arrest you if you are in a car with an unrelated member of the opposite sex (although enforcement is probably selective -- I can't imagine them giving grief to Western-looking expats).  Another American professor, a young Eastcoaster also in Sharjah, had been fed up with the politics at home, particularly the foreign policy, and seems very happy to live in this different, a little less hectic place.  And a third American professor, one who, to quote him "made it out of the inner city", is thrilled to travel relatively cheaply to Africa and South East Asia.  He teaches in Abu Dhabi, the official capital of the UAE, as well as the Abu Dhabi Emirate, the wealthiest emirate in the country, thanks to the good old oil.  It's a semi-conservative big city on the south west coast, largely built during the boom years of 70's and 80's, so it has a much more finished look than Dubai, which is a newer, hypermodern city of tomorrow (yes, this cannot be "over-exaggerated").  So one could say that Abu Dhabi looks a little like a hypermodern city of yesterday, and the well-kept, slightly "retro" look gives it, I found, rather original charm. 
 
To wrap it up, this country at worst seems, at times and places, like an over-commercialized, over-consumptive, not-too-pretty child of globalization, and endless work in progress making an impressive but only facade for an underlying case of underdevelopment.  At best, for most it is a land of choices, opportunities, optimism and future blueprints for coexistance and intercultural tolerance, the child does not seem to be spoiled, and, well, it is exciting work in progress.
 
Imagine yourself then taking a plane from the "super-Dubai", and landing somewhere like Nairobi...  I'll tell you about that next time. 
 
Until then, with love,
 
Saliha
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