Wednesday, November 19, 2008

From Abu Dhabi to Dubai - and back

This country is one great construction site, I was thinking as we sped through the desert at 150 kph. On both sides of the arrow-straight six-lane highway tall cranes obscured the horizon as buildings were coming up at a frenzied pace. Despite our considerable speed, luxury cars were overtaking us from the left at a steady pace: the usual BMWs and MBs, as well as Lexuses (Lexi?), Infinitis, a couple of Corvettes, an occasional Porsche. The road between the two largest of the seven emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, was heavily trafficked. My driver, a middle-aged Filippina lady, was telling me how life in the Emirates was getting harder, while she was skilfully navigating the rapid flow of cars. She marked the turning point three years ago when a new sheikh had taken the reigns and the cost of living had just skyrocketed. Having lived in the country for 16 years, she had an historical perspective. Now, it was getting harder and harder to save any money. Housing was as expensive as in New York City—others had confirmed this to me earlier—and she had to share an apartment in Abu Dhabi with a number of her co-sisters from their archipelago nation thousands of kilometres away. The company she was driving for even deducted the speed tickets from her salary, although there was no way anyone could stick to the official limit of 140 kph.

She was one of the many foreigners who constitute some 80% of the population of 4.5 million people in the United Arab Emirates. The largest groups are South Asians from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who work in construction and other manual labour, as well as the Filippinos mostly in service industries. My Jordanian colleague Ghaith who has lived in Dubai for 3 months had to his astonishment found that some 250,000 of his 6 million compatriots are living in this small dry land by the Persian Gulf. I had witnessed the variety of nationalities right upon arrival in Abu Dhabi. The tax free shops at the airport were all run by the Chinese. When I exited the terminal building I was offered a ride by a Pakistani taxi operator—I didn’t hesitate to enter his air conditioned car as quickly as he opened the door, such was the heat that hit me like a wall immediately when I stepped out. My hotel reception was wo-manned by two friendly ladies from the Philippines, while my bag was taken by an equally friendly—and obviously gay—Bangladeshi fellow.

It turned out that there was a stretch of land in between the two city states on the Gulf that was not under construction. Here a grey desert landscape dotted with dusty brush vegetation was prevalent. The road was lined with stubby palm trees baking in the sun. Here and there we’d pass exit signs to camel racing stadiums, a popular pastime in this part of the world. But soon enough as we approached Dubai the construction started again. On October 11th of 2008, The Economist reported that the Dubai property market was hitting a snag. Morgan Stanley had issued a prediction that Dubai property prices would fall by 10% by 2010. There simply wouldn’t be enough demand for all the property that is constantly being constructed. This might not sound like a huge drop—especially given the state of the world economy today—but here in Dubai this had come as a shock. People were used to quick returns and—literally—only considered the sky the limit!

Approaching the centre of the city the traffic was getting heavier, often slowed down by construction. Finally we pulled in front of the impressive entrance to my hotel, the Al Murooj Rotana. The huge hotel complex turned out to be luxurious as expected. In addition to the usual Filippinas, the reception and concierge were crowded with uniformed European ladies serving the customers. As I was shown into my room on the second floor, I reflected that this matched my expectations much better than the modest quarters I had been allocated in Abu Dhabi. There had been some convention or other in the town and all accommodations were full despite the outrageous surcharges the hotels had imposed on us hapless travellers. As a consequence, I had paid through the nose for what could best be described as a guesthouse, quite far from the shore, albeit in the centre of the city.

As I had arrived in Abu Dhabi at noon on a Friday, I had some time to explore the place before work started (here, Friday and Saturday are the free weekend days). Despite the heat—with only 40 degrees Celsius I heard several people express gratitude that the summer was over and the temperatures were finally coming down!—I spent much of Saturday walking about town. The city wasn’t quite as exuberant as I had imagined. There were numerous five-star hotels but otherwise the street scene was rather sedate. I talked my way past an African guard and entered the private pool complex of the Sheraton (he later changed his mind and tried to find me, but I had by then merged with the crowds) and had lunch in the shade of a palm tree. Afterwards I peeked into the fancier shops until I discovered a large variety store frequented by the lower echelons of the immigrant populace. Here the prices were very reasonable and I decided to stock up on necessities such as toothpaste that I knew was running low. I also followed the advice of my hotel’s nice Bangladeshi doorman and found an internet café. The hotel did, of course, have an internet connection in the rooms, but at an exorbitant rate! This dinghy place was completely full with foreigners so I had to wait—and the air was so thick with grey cigarette smoke that one could cut it with a knife—but the connection was good and reasonably priced.

The evenings were pleasant, as there was a slight wind from the Gulf that moderated the heat after sunset. On the first night, I wondered into a spacious pub called Mood Indigo, located within the Novotel Centre Hotel. I was lured in by the sound of live jazz streaming out through the door. It turned out to be an excellent choice. The band consisted of four skilled musicians on trumpet, piano, bass and drums playing jazz standards with flair. I sat back with a pint of cider and enjoyed the music as long as it lasted. The piano player was particularly versatile with a fluid technique and obviously deep knowledge of musical history. When the concert was over after midnight I wandered over and joined the band at its table. It was another crew demonstrating the variety of the Emirates’ population. The piano virtuoso, Vladimir, was from Belarus (and, as it turned out, was only sitting in for the missing pianist; his main instrument being the saxophone). The smooth bass player, Denis Mercado, came from the Philippines, while the horn player was American and the drummer Australian. They played gigs in the hotels and restaurants both in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

On the following night, I decided to splurge on a good meal. After having studied local tourist magazines, I jumped into a cab that took me a good fifteen minute ride on the coastal road to the Hilton Abu Dhabi at the other end of the city. Somewhat separate from the hotel on the beachside of the road was Vasco’s, a recommended restaurant named after Vasco Da Gama with eclectic international cuisine. My initial preference would have been to stay inside because of the heat but the place was crowded, so I was directed to a table on the spacious terrace. This turned out to be lucky. The evening was dark and there was an Arabian moon above the sea. The meal I had was absolutely gorgeous. I started with a fresh salad and a cool glass of dry Sauvignon Blanc. This was followed by a heavenly portion of Capelli d’Angeli pasta with jumbo shrimp and porcini mushrooms in an arrabbiata sauce. Pure bliss! After the meal I waddled over to Hemingway’s Pub on the hotel premises for a nightcap.

As evident, alcohol is quite freely available in the restaurants in UAE. Nevertheless, this Muslim country's relationship with liquor is somewhat complicated. The importation and transportation of alcohol between the emirates are prohibited by law and, while anyone can buy booze from the airport tax free shops upon arrival, possession and drinking of alcohol without a personal license is an offense. Obviously, the laws are not strictly enforced, at least for foreigners, except that blatant public drunkenness can apparently lead to stiff fines and even jail time.

Back in Dubai I was getting ready to visit the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation or MBRF. This was a new outfit set up by the Sheikh of Dubai under his own name. Sheikh Mohammed is a powerful man in this country. He is the Ruler of Dubai, as well as the Prime Minister and Vice-President of the entire UAE (the President is the ruler of Abu Dhabi). Conscious of the problems besetting the Arab region—and in particular the lack of education and a culture that appreciates knowledge—the good sheikh in May 2007 announced that he would donate US$10 billion (!) to set up an educational foundation for the Middle East. He had been particularly inspired by the 2003 Arab Human Development Report produced under the auspices of UNDP with the theme ‘Building a Knowledge Society.’ Thus MBRF was born with the lofty goal of “introducing a future generation capable of facing challenges to attain sustainable development.” The foundation was located in Dubai Healthcare City (several parts of Dubai are named with such themes, like the Dubai Media City) some twenty minutes away from my hotel in the World Trade Centre area (this was going there in good traffic; as I would find out returning to my hotel, the trip could take well over an hour during evening rush). I had meetings with the MBRF Knowledge and Education sector staff who were developing a forward-looking program with the ample funds available. In fact, the largest initiative thus far was creating an Arab Knowledge Report series to engage institutions and citizens in the Arab region in global issues and concerns related to building knowledge societies. This ambitious goal would help to enhance the understanding of the regional and national development problems and priorities thus leading to better policies and strategies to address them. The work is being done jointly by MBRF with UNDP and the first Arab Knowledge Report will be launched with appropriate ceremonies in the spring of 2009. I wish the endeavour all the success!

On the next day before heading to the airport to catch a late night plane I had some free time to look around this city of wonders. My hotel was located close to Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest skyscraper. This amazing building rises 707 metres from the ground and has 160 floors (as compared with 102 in the Empire State Building or 110 in Chicago’s Sears Tower). It has been under construction since 2004 and is now nearing completion. However, its distinction will not be long-lived: the construction of the even taller Dubai Tower has already commenced!

I again jumped into a taxi and asked it to take me to the Mall of the Emirates. One has to travel by taxi most of the time. There are not many places where one can walk and public transportation systems are only now being built. My friend Erkki who recently visited Dubai observed that people make the mistake of judging the city by European standards. The Arabian-Indian city concept consists of notable places—in the past palaces, mosques and markets; now replaced with hotels and malls—with ‘nothing’ in between. Therefore the challenge is to move between these places. The Mall of the Emirates is—you guessed it!—the world’s largest. Except that the Dubai Mall now under construction will overtake it in size. For me the Emirates Mall was perfectly sufficient, though. It consists of various promenades and wings each with a different theme. There are huge areas specialising in electronics and another wing that sells exclusive and ostentatious jewellery. One segment is like a traditional Arabic souk, complete with oriental carpets and fashion shops selling black coverall robes for women. Not that you see that many covered women around the mall. Of course, some walk around with their white-clad husbands covered in black from head to toe. But many others are dressed in jeans and designer t-shirts. What was conspicuously absent in this vast paradise of consumption was anything cultural. The only exception was the Virgin Megastore with an interesting book section and excellent music department.

Most amazingly, the mall contains a full-sized indoor ski resort, Ski Dubai, where ski lifts are taking revellers up the snowy slopes. I decided to have a snack in the St. Moritz Café where I could sit by a fake fireplace and observe the goings on in the winter wonderland. I ordered a fresh mango juice with my croque madame. The wait staff in the resort-like restaurant wore red shirts with 'Après Ski Instructor' emblazoned on the back. I wondered whether these people from their tropical homelands were aware of the connotations that the term had for us coming from the colder climes. But surely this was the only place in the world where you could lie on the beach and ski down the slopes within half a day.

In the evening it was time to leave the Emirates. My Etihad flight would be at 2 a.m. from Abu Dhabi airport (unfortunately, I had failed to secure a seat from the closer Dubai airport and had to travel another 160 km back to where I had come from). The driver picked me up at 10 p.m. and I sunk in the comfortable leather backseat of the black Lexus. This time the driver was a Pakistani national who had come to Dubai as a child with his parents. Unlike the lady who brought me the opposite direction, this gentleman had no complaints about the country. On the contrary, he spent considerable time explaining the virtues of UAE and how this was a good place to live. It was prosperous and harmonious and the Sheikh took good care of the people. He concluded that this was indeed a model for the Arab world: safe and orderly, with little conflict. We could certainly agree that such peace and harmony was in short supply in the region as a whole. Towards the end of the drive we had found a common accord against narrow-mindedness and fanaticism. As we separated at the airport, my enlightened chauffeur and I shook hands warmly and agreed to work for tolerance and understanding.

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