Tuesday, December 26, 2006


I used to be a Christian but gave that up in good time. Now, I suppose Humanist would be a better way to characterize myself and my belief system. That would be better than saying Atheist, which, rather than affirming what one believes, affirms a negation of belief, a somewhat self-contradicting expression.

More than a disbelief, Humanism asserts a belief in the sacredness, if you will, of humanity. It elevates the notion of brotherly love to the highest ideal. So where does the festival of Christmas fit in for an ex-Christian and believer in the primacy of humanity, while living in a somewhat Islamic state?

It comes into play, on the one hand, with often being faced with the assumption that one is Christian, simply because he hails from a Western country. People in the Islamic world, it would seem, view the rest of the world as a mirrored, albeit errant, version of their own. "I'm Muslim so you must be Christian," so the rationale goes. "We have our Eid (an important Islamic celebration) so you must have your Christmas."

It is so much easier to respond, "Right, I'm Christian," rather than create puzzlement, sympathy or, even worse, an opportunity to proselytize by saying, "I have no religion." A non-believer, and even more so, an ex-Christian, is a ripe pick in the world of the Prophet. Invariably some obscure ex-Christian convert to Islam will be held up as proof of the errancy of believing in a faith, thusly discredited.

Such simple minds--one of the main reasons I left Christianity! There may be something to that sense of a mirrored reality after all.

Getting back to Christmas in the UAE, it is gaining in importance here as not only a commercial opportunity but also an expression of the multiculturalism that is growing in this land. To the chagrin of some the UAE is a land of Hindus, Christians and even those invisible and silent humanists and other unorthodox non-believers, in addition to the native Islamics.

Christmas, whether one believes in its religious significance or not, is full of symbolism that goes far beyond the religious fundamentals. It is a festival of the family, togetherness, brotherly love, sharing, fantasy, as well as that of crass consumerism and more, both good and bad. It is an inescapable part of contemporary Western culture, if not Western religion. As Dubai and the rest of the UAE adopt capitalism, globalization and modernization, the legacy of Christmas is bound to take hold.

To its credit, the occasion presents as good a time as any to spend a special moment with a loved one or loved ones. In that, its relevance transcends the confines of any one religion or any religion at all. It is both fitting and beneficial that it continues to grow in significance in even an Islamic society, and more so in one that is as multicultural as the UAE.

496 words
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Monday, December 25, 2006


I left my hometown a long time ago. It was one day back in August 1979, when I got on a bus (with my mother) to head to college a thousand miles away. Could I have ever imagined I would have one day ended up in the UAE? Of course not. I'd never even heard of the UAE.

I believe the UAE first hit my radar screen in around 1997. I don't remember if it was online, in a newspaper or magazine article or something on TV. It was a report or advertisement for the Dubai Shopping Festival. For some reason it struck me that that would make an exotic travel destination. I flirted with the thought of getting on an airplane and making a shopping trip to a faraway place called Dubai.

By then I was already far away from my hometown. I had made it from small town Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun country, to a more wonderfully exotic land of sushi, hi-tech and a roaring economy. Japan was the home away from home that for a while seemed like a place I would never leave.

But I did, and it wasn't easy. I had already uprooted myself from a 5-year stint in Hawaii. Now, Hawaii was truly a home away from home. It had everything a perfect place should have. A perfect climate, the most magnificent scenery and one could enjoy an easy and comfortable lifestyle in modern, trendy Honolulu.

There was also the culture. There were locals there, too, but it was a much less exclusive club than the one fashioned by locals here. Anyone could become a local--as long as he looked or acted the part. There was the lingo and the dress, but most of it all it was having an attitude that communicated "hanging loose."

Six years in the UAE and I once again have a sense of hometown. It isn't the number of years, however, that has done it. What it is is the change that has been sweeping over Dubai in recent years. It is the magic in that bit of real estate jargon expressed elusively in the term freehold.

This notion of freehold has gradually infected my conscience with a sense that the UAE can mean home. Why wouldn't it? You make a momentous decision to commit yourself to buying a home. It's not a rental contract, not a lease, not even a job contract, but a residence to which you commit years of your life to pay for, and hopefully inhabit for a good slice of life.

It doesn't matter that people often comment derisively or self-depreciatively about being here for the money. That isn't the case when someone decides to invest in a home. Grant it, people get into buying property in the UAE in order to flip it--to make a profit in the short or medium term. But whether it is to beat the rising rent spiral or just have a bit more stability in terms of one's residency, lots of people are buying, or at least want to buy, to make a home of the place they happen to be in.

When I left my hometown in 1979 it was in fact to go to a place that was far away. I wanted to experience a sense of independence that I had never felt growing up in a small town in Cajun country. Although I knew nothing of Dubai or the UAE then, had I known that Dubai would be the place that it has become some 30 years later, it probably would have been on my radar screen.

626 words
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Friday, November 17, 2006


Does Dubai have too few or is it doing well in this regard? I have heard people complain that there aren't enough, that there is little else to do but go to the malls for daytime recreation. I would quite disagree with that sentiment. There are several parks, some old, some very new, some large, some small and most requiring but a small fee for entrance. Are there really enough, though? Why not?

Starting with one of the oldest and largest, Safa Park, the grounds cover several acres and include a large pond or two, with the itinerant paddle and row boats. There are open grassy fields, a variety of trees, children's play areas and all the normal accruements for a city park. It has recently been eclipsed in size by the new Za'abeel Park, split into two by a major thoroughfare and then again by a smaller one, each section connected to the adjacent by a wide foot-bridge designed for pedestrian and cycle traffic. There are also playing fields and an amphitheater. The park is landscaped with hills, streams and ponds--the largest one with the small pleasure craft. At night, indirect light sources and warmly lit water fountains, cast a multi-colored incandescent glow over the park.

There are two other large parks, set against the shore, with one running lengthwise along Dubai Creek for a good kilometer or two, and the other, about a kilometer in length in Jumeirah, at the Arabian Gulf. Both include wide-open grassy areas and collections of trees and shrubs, including flowering varieties. Creek Park has a high gondola ride running its length, while the beach at the Jumeirah park is broad with golden sand and calm, clear blue-green waters gently lapping the shore.

There are other smaller parks, and most venues include food stalls, barbecue areas, plentiful car parking, etc. Some have bike and running paths, with Za'abeel's extending several kilometers. Those who say there aren't enough parks just don't frequent the many and very nice ones that there are. The only valid complaint one could make is that these parks are not very accessible without a car. That, however, just reflects the nature of Dubai, having a very spread out metropolitan reach, with dense areas interspersed with many sparsely developed and even barren patches of land.


Some have noticed that the areas of new Dubai, which are being densely built up, lack any large parks. What these areas do have, however, are expansive man-made ponds, lakes and other water features that provide some sense of open space. True, the wide, grassy lawns with trees and play or picnic grounds are not there. However, these newer areas are developed in such a way as to include attractive landscaping among the villas and apartment towers, as well as along the roads. This is in contrast to older Dubai where the denser areas contain a profusion of buildings--small and large—interspersed with streets, lanes and parking lots.

That being said, some areas of new Dubai will, no doubt, have their larger parks in time. Unfortunately, the very densely built Dubai Marina will never get a large park, as there simply isn't any leftover space where towers are not being built. Despite this, at the heart of the Marina is its long man-made canal, designed with a meandering shoreline and stretching a length of 3.5 kilometers. It has a wide promenade along its entire perimeter, said to cover about 11 kilometer as it follows the bends in the shoreline.

So, while Dubai Marina won't have a grassy park, there will be plenty of opportunities to experience a sense of the wide open as one walks, jogs or Segways along the promenade—not sure whether or not cycling will be permitted. There may not ever be any fields to run about or kick a ball in, but every tower will have its fully-equipped gym for residents. Trees, for shade? The towers will be casting shadows a plenty.

For those who would still insist that there isn't enough greenery, word is that a massive new park will be constructed inland of new Dubai, which will be larger than the entire city of Paris. Whatever that city's size, this planned new park should completely satisfy anyone's need for green and open spaces. By that time, the complaint will surely be that there aren't enough unspoiled desert plots anymore.


So what is there to do in any of the many parks? For those who just can't sit still, there is cycling, jogging, power-walking, strolling… For water-lovers--swimming, boating, sunbathing… For families and groups—picnics and barbecues… For sports-lovers--football, volleyball, cricket, Frisbee… and more.

What can't be done? One will find neither alcohol, nor muggings! The parks are especially popular in the evenings and at night with families and kids kicking about at all hours. In the future, some parks will have wi-fi and there will be a number of amusement, educational and other themed-activities (for a fee) at the largest parks. The only thing, as far as parks go, that Dubai will probably be forever lacking are those tall, stately 100+ year-old trees that shed their leaves with the changing seasons.

901 words
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Sunday, November 12, 2006


A recent post at the UAE Community Blog provided a link to a detailed account of a visiting scholar to Dubai who describes having been surveilled and confronted by five guys in dishdash. His place of residence was thoroughly searched, some belongings confiscated, he then detained, questioned and finally forcibly expelled from country.

The offence? Asking too many questions, it seems, on what was apparently a subject of great sensitivity. The subject? The experiences of those in the UAE who are sometimes called native-expats, e.g. those born of expatriate parents and raised in-country.

Having read the account, I was inspired to examine the issue of deportation in the UAE--not the sort often published in the news of convicted criminal being required to serve sentence then expelled, but of the sort that one occasionally hears talked about in hushed tones. "Did you hear that so and so got picked up..."--the friend of a friend or co-worker who just didn't show up one day, only later to be found to have been deported.

Deportation--it ought to be called the "D" word. There are some, for certain, who would categorically say that "D" is not at all a remote possibility for an expat living here. These are the people who seem to have an innate pessimism about everything. On the other hand, even those of more balanced temperament tend on occasion to point out that one must be on guard about what he says and does.

Until reading that account, my sense was that while it had never happened very much in the UAE in the first place, it was largely becoming a thing of the past. It was also something more likely to happen in Abu Dhabi than in Dubai. I can't say whether or not my view has changed in light of the account, but I am one who tends to possess a naive optimism about such things. Assuming the account is not fictional, however, some of my past assumptions may need to be reconsidered.

The trouble with the whole notion of deportation is that should one be fingered, he or she will have little recourse. The writer of the account seems to have been among the lucky, having had a bit of wasta to fall back on in the form of help from the US embassy. Being more a visitor than a working expat or migrant he also had very little at stake, although a wife and infant might have come into harms way. He rather boasted of being unafraid throughout the ordeal. The typical expat would have a lot more to lose and much less in the way of diplomatic support. One, like myself, who has invested years and both material and emotional commitment to living in the UAE would have a much harder time bearing the threat of deportation.

A reader who posted a comment to the blog which hosted the account offered that such things happen everywhere. So true. No expat in any country is immune to the risk. Pre-9/11 USA, for example, may have been an unlikely venue for a visitor or resident expat to be summarily picked up, cast into a state of limbo and then deported, but that is obviously no longer the case. One might argue as well that it is clearly within any nation's prerogative and part of its duty, in fact, to deport any individual it perceives as a threat to its national interest. But such a prerogative or duty is so susceptible to abuse.

Is deportation in the UAE the "D" word? Is it a demon that lurks in the shadows of every expat's conscience? Is it the elephant in the room that no one dares to acknowledge? That startling account is perhaps only anecdotal. On the other hand, it could be indicative of an unpleasant reality that continues to be a threat to many an expat or visitor, even as Dubai presents itself to the world as an oasis of liberalism in the Middle East.

679 words
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(As a brief afterward, I must vent a bit of frustration that fellow bloggers or writers of any ilk will have experienced at one time or another. After having composed a wonderfully succinct, 500-word piece on the topic at hand, the electricity suddenly went out, and all was lost. My disillusionment was compounded by the fact that it was one of those rare occasions when, without much deliberation on my part, the words just flowed and the piece came to be composed, edited, proofread and readied for publishing all in the span of less than an hour. I subsequently set out to reconstitute my thoughts, but without even the slightest hope of crafting a discourse as worthy as the first.)

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Religion 2

Because the UAE is in principle a theocratic state, the question of religion is a contentious one for anyone who doesn't happen to follow the one religion which receives state sanction--that, of course, being Islam. While one is free to practice his religion whatever it may be--in at least some form or other--he is not to proselytize any non-Islamic creed nor criticize Islam. There are accordingly churches, temples and shrines of various faiths and denominations, but they remain in large part hidden or disguised. In the six years that I have lived in the UAE I have never just happened upon a church or a temple, while every other day it seems I'll spot a mosque tucked away that I hadn't noticed before.

Fair enough. Islam is a very significant part of the UAE's heritage, just as say Christianity is for the US. Furthermore, Islam presupposes itself to be the ultimate authority in questions of morality and the law, without provision for a distinct secular code. (There is no give unto Caesar what is Ceasar's and give unto God what is his precept.) This is the reality that most are willing to accept here, whatever their religious conviction, and it is all the easier to do so as there is no pressure to adopt the officially sanctioned state religion or abandon one's own.

Is the UAE, perhaps, a secular Islamic state like Turkey, or a secular multi-relgious state like India?

No, it is neither. The state builds the mosques, pays salaries to the imams or prayer leaders, implements Islamic or Sharia law within its legal code and pays homage to any variety of Islamic traditions. It is clearly a non-secular, Islamic state. At the same time it differs dramatically from neighbors like Saudi Arabia or Iran in that it does not impose religion upon anyone--even as it welcomes a largely non-Islamic population of expatriate workers and tourists.

There is the reality of Islam that the non-Muslim must accept here. Likewise there are certain realities that the state itself must also conform to, which greatly influence the policies it implements with regard to issues of morality and religion.

It is like a juggling act--trying to honor one's Islamic traditions while keeping a large non-Islamic expat population and the hoards of tourists feeling largely free and unencumbered. What might seem contradictory or scandalous--like alcohol and other forms of liberalism--is this tension being played out.

I would argue that the government does a good job of walking the tight rope. It is no easy task to keep a devout Islamic population, expats of numerous faiths and tourists all relatively content with regard to the question of religion. Whether one talks about the state or an individual there is always a pronounced dualism when it comes to religion. That is the case in the UAE, as everywhere regardless of the predominant religious tradition. That seems to be the nature of the religious beast. At least in the UAE this form of dualism is a relatively benign one.
523 words
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If interested see further commentary at Religion, an earlier Word A Day post, and Religion, a more personal perspective.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006


I found myself today in a debate of sorts. You might even have called it a clash of cultures. I have Eid to thank for it, the festive day following the supposed solemn days of Ramadan.

I had decided to pay a visit to an old friend who I had not seen in sometime. He is a devout Muslim. Although it was Eid that was not so much the impetus for my visit as opposed to it just seeming convenient, and I was in the mood.

My friend greeted me in his apartment with a collection of flatmates and their comrades. It was thus that the debate ensued. My hosts were all friendly gentlemen from Kerela and they engaged me in conversation that took on very much the character of an intense cultural exchange. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my views on Bush, Iraq, Iran and, the most intense topic to surface, religion and Islam.

I suppose in accordance with their duty as Muslims, these men sought to enlighten me on the character and basis of the Islamic faith--as much as can be done in such an impromptu setting. Although I was, in a manner of speaking, not having any of it--that is, I have my own views to the contrary which make perfect sense in my own mind--I admired the valor of these gentlemen. Even more so I admired their courtesy to realize when enough was enough and the discussion moved on to a new topic.

If only cultures would always clash in such a congenial fashion. Clearly we were of different backgrounds, with different beliefs, values and lifestyles. But we shared a mutual respect and interest in one another's cultures. I, myself, had visited Kerala and the home of my old friend some years past. There was nothing more interesting to me than experiencing the diversity of the culture there--not only diverse in how it differed from my own, but also in how it manifested itself in the diverging Muslim, Hindu and Christian traditions which coexist there.

Back to the living room of my hosts, we continued to discuss a range of topics--some personal, some general and many with regard to life in the UAE. I explained at one point that one reason Islamic culture seemed distant and alien to me, even though I live within an Islamic and Arabic society, is that many of its key elements seem closed off to me. For example, as a non-Muslim I am not permitted to enter a mosque. Therefore in time I have learned to not only ignore the many mosques that dot the terrain but also other aspects of Islamic culture. It is there I know, but I also know that I am not really welcome within it, unless of course I convert--of which I intend to have no part!

In the end the gentlemen informed me that Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai does have an open door policy of sorts. That I suppose, was a fitting nugget of information to pick up on a day of Eid.
517 words
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Monday, October 23, 2006


My word today in the UAE may seem a bit misplaced. What has a storm that occurred in the southern USA over a year ago got to do with life in the UAE today?

The connection is a metaphorical one which popped into my head today. In yesterday's Gulf News it was reported that a labor camp in Jebel Ali has been found to have 60 workers crammed into a single room. A shocking discovery, though one might not be too surprised on hearing it. The story brings to mind the words of one New Orleans resident, spoken in the midst of the Katrina debacle. It was from a middle-aged African-American woman camped out on the street outside the city's defamed Convention Center.

She said in a voice full of emotion which amplified her words all the more, "We don't live like this." Those words echoed in my mind then and they echo in my mind now. That simple statement seemed to speak so much.

It was an expression of anger toward a government and society that would allow her and the countless others on the streets of New Orleans to persist in such a state as though it were their natural habitat.

"We don't live like this" meant we are decent, respectable human beings. We are American citizens and resident in one of the most prosperous and egalitarian societies that history has known. We don't live out on the streets without even water to drink or food to eat. We aren't allowed to succumb to the ravages of nature when our society is equipped with the most advanced technologies.

That was Katrina and New Orleans, and the plight of an African-American in the USA. What concerns me now is Dubai, the UAE at large, and the plight of so many laborers, who are allowed--in deed forced--to live in such inhumane conditions.

A worker in that Jebel Ali camp commented to the press reporter, "We tried to take it in that room but we can't any longer. We feel cramped."

We feel cramped, an understatement which seems to echo with a resonance similar to the words of the New Orleans resident. Does anyone think that this is how these people live? Grown, young and middle-aged adult men, who work hard under hard conditions for 8, 10 or 12 hours a day. These men often sacrifice their personal ambitions to provide for families far away. There is incredible honor in this. These men deserve appreciation and respect. They are human beings, not domesticated cattle. They deserve a bit of space, a bit of privacy, and clean facilities for bathing and defecating.

Like those New Orleans residents abandoned on the streets after Katrina, these workers, essential to the city and country's very prosperity, deserve so much better. They don't and should not be allowed--or forced--to live like that.

500 words
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Sunday, October 22, 2006


Ramadan in the Muslim world is a holy month, an important religious observance, a time for family, for charity, etc.

Like other important religious traditions, however, it also carries its share of negative baggage. In the UAE that includes over-indulgence in eating and feasting--that is after the sun sets. It also seems to usher in a time for people to excuse themselves from working hard and taking care of life's other responsibilities. Students need not study, workers need not show up on time or do much of anything once in, or even stick around till closing time. Ironic, isn't it, that a time meant for personal sacrifice to strengthen the character becomes a time for being slothful and pampering oneself.

The same thing happens in Christian societies with Christmas. It is a time that should be characterized by giving and charity, but instead becomes a time when businesses expect to cash in big time and the minds of both children and adults become obsessed with what they are going to get. More money is lavished and wasted during Christmas time than any other time of year, all in honor of course of the humble birth of a shepherd child who presumably had hardly a roof over his head.

If I knew more about Hindu or other religious traditions I suspect I could point out the same contradictions. The more such traditions are promoted and hyped the more things tend to go wrong with them. Ramadan in the UAE is held up as a holy grail that all must take notice of, but such sanctity, I believe, opens up the observance to more abuse. The public, both the religious and non-religious, would probably be better served if there weren't Ramadan timings, Ramadan events and Ramadan sales, promotions, etc.

As one who is under no obligation to participate in the observance of Ramadan, I am not one to say how it should or should not be honored. Nonetheless, I see the negativity associated with it and feel that this is partly due to the over emphasis placed on its observance. Were it to be less hyped and less promoted, it might end up being a more meaningful and beneficial opportunity for individuals and society at large.

380 words
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This post comes after a long lapse. The Word A Day posts were perhaps becoming too crafted and thought-out to sustain. I hope readers will from this point on be able to bear with observations and comments that are perhaps a little more brash, if only for the sake of immediacy.

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Saturday, September 02, 2006


The coastline of the emirate of Abu Dhabi is incredibly malformed--that is, rather than a defined shoreline, it consists of a long line of irregularly shaped islands, islets and sandbars, closely aligned and interspersed with water channels. At ground level the extent of this mess is not recognizable. There are beaches, lagoons and waterways separating the land formations. There is even a large mangrove swamp opposite one side of the island that forms Abu Dhabi city.

Thanks to Google Earth anyone can get a spaceman's view of this deformed coastline. (See Abu Dhabi coastline from 47 miles above.) In the image one can see that except for Abu Dhabi city the islands are mostly barren.

Saadiyat island is one of these barren formations. It is roughly adjacent to the island that hosts Abu Dhabi city and about one third its size. It has housed in recent years small military installations, including the UAE's Naval College, a private resort and a few piers. In line with the recent popularity in the region of creating massive island and shoreline developments, Abu Dhabi has decided that the Isle of Happiness--as Saadiyat is translated into English--will be one of its feature development projects.

High Hopes

To compare favorably with other large developments, particularly Dubai's, the project's developer has planned world class facilities, including a Guggenheim museum, only the sixth of this prestigious institution's worldwide editions. The extent of the development is described in the following press release excerpt:
Saadiyat will have six distinct districts delivering a multitude of experiences with complementary environments and all connected by a palm-lined arterial freeway. The island will have 19 kilometers of white, sandy beach, two golf courses, 29 hotels with over 7,000 rooms, including an iconic 7-star property, three marinas with berthing for 1,000 vessels, over 8,000 private villas, resorts set on spectacular beaches, over 38,000 apartments and eight iconic string of pearl architectural landmarks housing museums, a concert hall, art gallery and major cultural offerings.
Despite announcements as such, it is warranted to be skeptical as to whether Saadiyat island will indeed turn out as planned.

First Impressions

My own perspective is rather jaded having spent four years on the island working at the Naval College. For my colleagues and myself the island represented a no man's land--a kind of Albatross. Our daily commute to and from the island involved a combination of car, walking, boat ride and bus. Rough seas, reckless boatmanship and driving, broken down boat or bus and sitting or standing in the desert heat waiting to go was typical fare. To us, Saadiyat was a daily joke.

Four years ago, word was that Saadiyat would be developed into an international banking and finance center, to take its place along side New York, London, Tokyo and Singapore. The idea was fanciful and seemed highly unlikely. Although there were some published articles detailing the plans, the story quietly disappeared.

Now in 2006, the new plans for Saadiyat, while still fanciful, have some precedent. Dubai, after all, is in the process of not only developing islands, but building them from scratch. Abu Dhabi city and the island it rests on were themselves, a few decades ago, little more than barren desert, no different from Saadiyat today. So one could make an argument that the current plan for Saadiyat is doable.

Reason for Doubt

I remain skeptical, however. Abu Dhabi, over the past three decades has grown out of necessity. The oil industry was being established and along with it came the infrastructure and personnel needed to support it. Today, new development on the scale being proposed will require an influx of residents and tourists far beyond the requirement and experience of the region to date. The if you build it they will come dictum may play out in Dubai, but Abu Dhabi is not Dubai.

This distinction is important. Some see what is happening in Dubai and assume that with all its oil wealth there is no reason why Abu Dhabi cannot do the same. There are, however, fundamental differences between the two emirates particularly with regard to how things work. Dubai is being built upon a philosophy of economy first. Whatever is good for the economy is good for Dubai. Abu Dhabi, by contrast, works above all else on a philosophy of wasta. That is, ultimately whatever happens is closely tied up with someone's ego.

Abuse of Power & Endless Delays

By way of illustration, you will have in Abu Dhabi a developer working on a project. If at some point one of the influential powers that be has an issue with even a small detail, the whole project could be scuttled, regardless of what economic impact doing so would have. It is ego, not practicality (even economic practicality) that rules the day. This poses an inherent risk, more substantial than in Dubai, to not only private developers and investors, but also to government entities under the direction of a competing sheikh or clan.

This method of doing business is apparent in ways small and large throughout Abu Dhabi, and something which longtime residents constantly experience frustration over.

At a town called Shahama on the main road into Abu Dhabi from Dubai, there was a small stretch of highway under construction in some form or other for over six years. This meant dangerous and annoying speed bumps, lane merging and detours on what is arguably the most important artery in the country. Only this year was an overpass finally completed.

It is much the same for other roadworks across the city. Unneeded renovations are regularly performed and needed ones take years to complete. Bureaucracy on all levels follows this pattern. When one is involved in an auto accident for example, whether routine or serious, it can take weeks or months just to have a police report issued. A simple procedure or request often involves one having to plead to someone with wasta--read inflated ego--to have the task performed.

Equaling a Challenge

There is not only Saadiyat, but several other major development projects in the pipeline in Abu Dhabi. Some of these will get built but not without added layers of frustration and politics not seen in Dubai. Ultimately, however, many will not succeed and like the earlier Saadiyat plan they will quietly and mysteriously disappear.

To give some credit where it is due, there are spectacular successes in Abu Dhabi. Arguably Abu Dhabi's most impressive landmark, the massive Emirates Palace Hotel, was constructed in a span of only two years. Yet, an equally prominent landmark, the grand Sheikh Zayed mosque at the entrance to the city is progressing slowly after more than six years of fits and starts. Similarly, even before one enters the city lies the soon to open Al Raha Beach Mall. Al Raha Beach development, still in its early phases, is Abu Dhabi's answer to Dubai Marina. Its signature mall has been standing unopened in an apparent state of readiness--construction work complete--for almost a year.

Will Saadiyat island follow the example of the grand palace hotel or the grand mosque? Most likely it will fare somewhere in the middle, taking much longer to come around than planned and falling short of designs. The project will, however, gain impetus from a need to avoid falling too far behind Dubai's lead. The overwhelming success of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, for example, gave added determination to the builders of the Emirates Palace Hotel to come up with a prestigious hotel property, at least equal in stature. The same sense of competitiveness may save the current Saadiyat island plans from fading into oblivion.

1294 words
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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Top Picks 8/06

Picks of the Month: August 2006
Although it is common in the Arab Gulf states to have large expatriate populations, the UAE epitomizes this dynamic to the extreme. There is a constant ebb and flow between the two (or among the multiple) populations. From year to year laws governing immigration, employment, social services, etc. change to reflect this movement and uncertainty. Equilibrium is maintained, but it is becoming an increasingly difficult balancing act.
BD, 6-August
the Approach
As we continue our descent, leaving Jebel Ali behind, the magnificent Ibn Battuta Mall appears along the right side of the highway. This is no ordinary mall. It bears the great walls of an ancient Egyptian fortress, the dome of a splendid Persian mosque, a royal palace of Mogul India and the foreboding gate of China's Forbidden City. What follows this glorious glimpse into the past are (sigh) power lines. Yes, POWER LINES--hundreds it would seem...
BD, 3-August

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


So Much Snow

For malls in the UAE, these are heady days. The newest of several to open up over the past few years is the Mall of the Emirates, with its highly publicized indoor ski slope. Like the 7-star Burj Al-Arab hotel or the 50+ story Emirates Towers, the mall together with its famous ski slope has become a new symbol for Dubai.

The operations manager of the complex, Maher Al-Aghbar, says that there is little need to advertise or pay for publicity as the ski slope garners headlines all over the world. The attraction was conceived of as a way to increase visitor numbers for the mall, but it has in fact become the main attraction. That being said, the mall itself generates up to 40,000 visitors per day on week days and over 100,000 per day on weekends.

Although all of the hoopla over the ski slope might be regarded as just so much hyperbole, the enthusiasm is warranted. From inside the structure one can easily imagine being on an actual mountain slope. The ground is packed with not artificial but real snow produced nightly. Water droplets are sprayed from the ceiling of the structure with just the right atmospheric conditions and the required distance for decent to transform the droplets into snow.

Environmentalists have complained about the energy and water expenditure required to create the artificial environment but the operations manager is quick to point out that the massive amount of chilled water generated by the melted snow is used efficiently to cool the rest of the mall complex.

Traveller's Delight

The Mall of the Emirates was preceded by the perhaps mischievously named Ibn Batuta Mall. It is an extravagant architectural wonder of a different sort. The structure is built in a style to reflect the architecture of six historic civilizations said to have been visited by the Arab explorer Ibn Battuta in the 14th century. These include China, India, Persia, Egypt, Tunisia and Andalusia (a region of Spain). Both the interior and exterior of the mall are stunning, including reliefs and monumental objects of relevance to the culture portrayed. A majestic elephant ridden by a maharaja adorns the India courtyard, for example, while a giant traditional fishing trawler dominates the China court.

Each thematic area is linked to the one beside it resulting in a mall stretched out across a wide track of land. As beautiful and inspiring as each of the themed sections are, the shopper is often forced to make a tedious trek from one destination to another to find a particular item. The artists, architects and interior designers certainly did their jobs well, but the lead developer should have included an internal transport system of some sort.

Mercato Mall is another extravagantly designed theme mall with a European flavor, including porticos and enclosed patios to give one an outdoor ambience while preserving the comfort of indoor cooling. It is a much smaller complex than either Ibn Battuta Mall or the Mall of the Emirates, but it adds a distinct level of style and comfort to the shopping experience.

Not to Be Outdone

Dubai is not alone in its megamall offerings, with two large complexes recently built in Abu Dhabi and more to come. Abu Dhabi Mall is a 3-level complex at city center, which became when it opened in 2002 the largest mall in the UAE. It was followed a year later by Marina Mall, which due to recent expansions has now become Abu Dhabi's largest.

Similar to the Mall of the Emirates, Abu Dhabi Mall is a thoroughly modern structure with glossy floors, high ceilings and a concentration of high fashion outlets. Marina Mall incorporates suitably a water theme and is presently constructing its own indoor ski slope and a rather out of character observation tower. Abu Dhabi does not put up well with being second to Dubai, but Dubai's sights are on world not national titles.

Until the Fat Lady Sings

Back in Dubai, the largest malls yet are on the way. Already under construction at the foot of the 70-story and rising Burj Dubai--to be the world's tallest building--is the Dubai Mall. It aims to be the largest mall in the world. Its claim to uniqueness will be a concentration of the world's most trendy and distinctive brands. It aims to be the premiere outlet for Gucci, Rolex, Chanel and the like. The plan is not for boutique shops but large retail outlets that will carry the full range of a brand's products.

Located at the heart of Downtown, a new Emaar creation for Dubai, the mall will have express ramps leading right into its parking structure and a dedicated passenger train or monorail. The mall, along with the Burj Dubai, are due for completion in 2008 or 2009.

On its heels will be Dubailand's anchor retail destination, the Mall of Arabia. Dubai Land, still several years away from becoming reality, will be a massive new city built around various entertainment and recreational themes, including sports complexes with Olympic class facilities, theme parks including a Jurassic Park style destination with animated (i.e. robotic) dinosaurs, and a hotel strip that will surpasss Las Vegas's, including a 6000-room complex called Asia, Asia with replicas of Asia's most famous towering skyscrapers. It is among all this extravagence that the Mall of Arabia will be built.

Will it end there? Will the shoppers flock their way? Or, will the malls suffer the effects of over-capacity? The respected founding father of the megamall phenomenon in the UAE is Deira City Centre, opened in the late 1990's. Despite the recent opening of Mercato Mall, Ibn Battuta and Mall of the Emirates along with smaller shopping complexes and those in Abu Dhabi, the ever expanding Deira City Centre is still overflowing with shoppers. It will probably be some time before the fat lady ushers in the final curtain on Dubai's mall developments.

Alright, ready to go shopping?
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Thursday, August 17, 2006


Although I am not a car buff, it is easy to see that cars are a big deal in the UAE. It is predictably men and particularly the younger and richer ones that are into the latest hot wheels. The UAE is a good country to be in for the car enthusiast. Any popular model can be bought in showrooms and others can be ordered. Prices, without the taxes added on as in other countries, are generally lower. The locals especially know where to go to get good deals, especially on used and imported models.

Road conditions are excellent. Multi-lane highways stretch between the cities, along with wide boulevards (in Abu Dhabi) and freeways (in Dubai). Traffic is often congested, but for the speed demon this offers the additional thrill of dodging traffic while swerving across lanes. Off road driving is also popular, across desert terrain with or without dunes. It is not only US drivers that love SUVs. They are among the most common vehicles on the roads here too.

The down side to the great popularity of the automobile and all the on road and off-road opportunities is a high accident rate, often due to speeding. Young Emiratis are disproportionately represented in casualty numbers. The less sporting driver, like the daily commuter, has to always beware of the high-flying SUV or luxury car bearing down on his tail with high-beams flashing wildly.

Troubling Statistics

The number of drivers and cars on the roads in the UAE is rapidly increasing, especially in Dubai. A combination of more people having the means to buy cars and poor public transport options force people to go independent. The government of Dubai is at once constructing more roads and more efficient road systems, while improving existing and introducing new public transport facilities. Whatever is done in the way of public transport, however, the public in the UAE will remain hooked on the automobile, with increasing traffic and pollution levels.

In the City

Driving in Abu Dhabi tends to be a stop and go affair. Traffic lights are spaced at regular and frequent intervals. Whether the lights are in sync or not, one tends to move in spurts. Dubai, on the other hand, has gone the way of expressways. Were it not for the sheer density of traffic the expressways in Dubai would be a racer's paradise. They traverse up and down through tunnels and over bridges, turning this way and that, lanes merging in and breaking off. When the current phase of construction is complete along Sheikh Zayed Road, the main expressway, drivers will be able to course their way through what will appear to be a maze of flyovers.

Joining the Club

Buying, owning and taking care of one's car is generally a straightforward affair. Loans are readily available through banks and except for the annual registration there is little in the way of taxes or duties. The actual procedure for registration, however, can be a nuisance. The same for insurance, where fortunately or unfortunately all drivers are treated equally. Rates vary little, whatever the driving record of the insured and whatever the agent used.

Of course, another necessary expense is fuel. Sold by the Imperial gallon, prices had been cheap, at around US $1 per up to about a year ago, when they were dramatically increased by about 60%. Even an oil exporting nation has to pay the rising tariff on oil--so we are told.

Individuals are not allowed to wash their cars themselves. The idea it seems is to keep running water and soap off of roads and parking lots. Car owners, either pay watchmen at the flats they live in to discreetly (and illegally) wash their cars using as little as a small bucket of water, or they drive them through the many automatic car washes.

The biggest issue with regard to driving for many is getting a license. Except for those from a number of Western, Gulf and a few other selected countries, attendance at driving schools and testing is required for licensing. The process can easily run up to US $1000. For many laborers, getting a license is seen as a ticket to a better job and a higher standard of living--that is higher for the famlies they provide for back home. Although the government tries to restrict them from availing this option, most find ways to get around the impediments.

On a Personal Note

Though not a car buff, like many I was driven to take the plunge and buy and car. My personal choice has been the Peugeot, which offers a variety of inexpensive models, some with excellent gas mileage. The 206 price tag and style suit me just right. The place to buy in the UAE is Swaidan Motors in Dubai. Fixed prices mean no haggling or worrying that you might be missing a better deal. They do, however, offer promotions like free servicing, free insurance, etc.

The agent to speak to is Norbert. He's on the ball. On my latest purchase he spotted oil on the floor where my just delivered vehicle had been parked. I was immediately alerted, offered another vehicle and given a convertible to use while I waited for the new one to be readied. It would have been much easier (for the dealer) to let me drive off with the oil leak and force me to rely on the warranty for any corrections. Anecdotal, but still a sign of a good dealer.

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See also A Word A Day (in the UAE) post, Transportation.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006


In reference to the previous post, Issues, one may get the impression that there are innumerable problems and challenges that a fast-developing society like Dubai's faces. This is, of course, correct, but it represents only half of the picture. There are also attributes and resources, both material and conceptual, upon which Dubai is able to build its new society. These might be listed, as follows, with particular regard to the role of the leadership, the assets of the emirate and the contributions of its population.

The Leadership
  1. Vision

    In Dubai, it is definitely a vision thing. The leadership may not know in the early stages how it is that they will get to where they want to go, but they do have a clear image of what they expect the future to look like. This has been a driving force in Dubai since the establishment of its first major port in the early 1970s.

  2. Authority

    One need have no illusions that change in Dubai happens in but one direction, from the top down. The leaders, once inspired by a vision, authorize its implementation. They are less concerned with the how, than with the simple determination that the plan move forward. As a result, things happen fast.

  3. Imagination

    Whereas vision entails the ability to see into the future, imagination involves shaping and constructing that future in original and creative ways. Thus, the vision of Dubai is characterized by imaginative projects like the Burj Dubai (world's tallest tower), the Palm and World islands, a variety of specialized zones like Dubai Media City, Healthcare City, Dubaiworld, and so on.

  4. Experience

    Some of what is taking place in Dubai today, though groundbreaking in many ways, is in other ways old hat. That is, Dubai has been at this game of taking a seed and growing it into a successful venture for some time. The pattern is of one success leading to another.

    Jebel Ali Freezone, for example, was pioneered in the mid-1980s. Its successful development has become a model for other freezones, which once successful have led to the establishment of still more freezones.

    As such, a plan for development is devised and implemented; if it works, it is then replicated.
The Emirate
  1. Financial Resources

    Oil--this single word would almost say it all, except that it has not been that simple. With limited oil supplies Dubai has developed its economy more through trade and tourism. Oil money today--not Dubai's but its neighbors--is pouring into to its grand development projects. To its credit, Dubai has been able to siphon these funds away from potential investments further a field.

  2. Political Stability

    A small well-looked after national populace and a large expatriate population, whose residency depends on the good graces of the government, has meant that Dubai and the UAE have been able to avoid any significant incidents of dissent. The absolute, yet benevolent rule of the government has allowed the economy to flourish unhindered.

    Militarily, and within the geo-political sphere, the government has successfully nurtured a discreet partnership with Western powers. There is no evidence of the religious or political upheaval found in other countries in the region.

  3. Open Space

    Though small in area, about 4000 km2 and less than half the size of Los Angeles county, Dubai consists primarily of a square-shaped, flat, sandy desert plain with one side bordering the Arabian Gulf. The city had traditionally occupied but a small strip of coastal land until recent developments began, which will more than triple the city's size beyond what it was in the year 2000. Even so, much of the desert plain will remain unsettled.

  4. Water Assets

    No typo here, Dubai has engendered ways to exploit its water resources to the fullest. These consist primarily of a 60 km coastline on the Arabian Gulf and a 14 km natural sea-inlet known as the Creek. Offshore and coastal developments such as the Palm islands will create over 1000 km of new coastal land. Inland, the Creek will be extended and other waterways will be newly built from the coast to allow for the development of riverside properties. Lake communities, springs, bays and other water developments are being constructed throughout the new city.

The Population
  1. Unlimited Labor Pool

    More than anything else Dubai, the UAE and most of the Arabian Gulf countries have been magnets for expatriate labor. Today new Dubai is being built on the backs of hundreds of thousands of laborers from the Indian sub-continent. The labor pool covers the gamut from unskilled to the highest trained professionals. In a country (the UAE) with a native population today of only 800,000, there is no shortage of workers, who outnumber the native population by 3-4 times.

    Though a small segment of the labor pool may be recruited through high salaries and other incentives, wages in the country are low to such an extent that industries with high manpower requirements, like construction, enjoy a competitive advantage.

  2. Cultural Diversity

    A largely untapped resource within the emirate is its multi-cultural composition. Over 100 nationalities are represented with over a dozen languages commonly spoken. This richness has yet to be fully exploited but offers great potential in terms of tourism, media and publication opportunities, education, the arts, entertainment, etc. The Dubai Shopping Festival initiated one of the first attempts to commercialize this multi-cultural dimension in its Global Village.

  3. Malleability

    The population of Dubai is so adaptable to change that change represents normality. While some lament the passing of quieter times, it is an openess to the outside world that has allowed Dubai and the UAE to prosper. It is the adaptability of both the national and expatriate segments of the population that allow the country and especially Dubai to explore new frontiers in terms of development. Although some fear that traditional heritage may not survive, all of society is being transformed and most are finding ways to prosper with it.

  4. Pragmatism

    This is one characteristic shared by most in the UAE, whether ruler, native citizen or expatriate. People will do what they have to do to acheive their goals or manage through hard times. Expatriate bachelors with fortitude crowd into apartments turned into hovels. The Bedouin (traditional nomads) settle into homes and communities. The rulers open their country to a flood of outside influence.

    Does it mean a compromise of one's identity and principles? Perhaps, but it is also a means to acheive one's goals. This, I believe, is an important part of the success of Dubai in transforming itself into the dynamic international hub that it has become.
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Related Links

A Word A Day's Issues, the UAE, Geo-politics and the Superlative.
Wikipedia Dubai entry.
UAE map with Dubai.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006


It would be interesting to consider what the issues of tomorrow will be compared to the issues of today. In addition to a lot of speculation, one would first have to ponder exactly what the important issues of today are. With Dubai in mind, I propose the following, prioritized on the basis of seriousness or visibility due to public or media attention.

  1. Traffic and Transportation
    (A transitional issue as major road works and new transportation facilities are being rapidly constructed; it is at present, however, the biggest nuisance to the population.)
  2. Housing, i.e. shortage of affordable housing, high rental rates, over-crowding.
    (The biggest hardship faced by a large segment of the population--if not the majority.)
  3. Labor Concerns: exploitation of low and unskilled workers; under-representation of UAE nationals in the private sector; lack of job security among expatriates.
    (Very serious issues for the thousands of workers affected--especially the issue of exploitation which can lead to acts of desperation.)
  4. Overall Inflation
    (A growing problem, likely to become more prominent over the next few years.)
  5. Excessive Consumerism: too much debt; over-consumption of natural resources (oil & water).
    (A serious and growing problem as banks push debt products which government does nothing to curtail or monitor, and the excessive display of wealth is lauded.)
  6. Cross-Cultural Relations
    (Seldom talked about as an issue or problem, but clearly the reality wherein there is little social interaction among the various nationalities, ethnicities and other groups within the country.)
  7. Abuse of Power, by police and others in authority.
    (Seldom discussed publicly but often privately as a concern among the expatriate population--who often feel their continued presence in country may at anytime be in jeopardy.)
  8. Wayward Youth, primarily national.
    (A problem characterized by an excessive number of highway deaths due speeding and other reckless acts, poor academic performance and an absence of career motivation or strong work ethic among national youth.)
  9. Prostitution and Lasciviousness
    (Largely an issue of morality, important in a society with a conservative religious heritage, also important in terms of the abuse of those involved and important as a bell-weather of society's direction.)
  10. Poor Air Quality
    (Deterioration in air quality is accelerating and clearly apparent, but largely ignored.)
NOT on the List

Interestingly, crime is not a serious issues at present, although no one would doubt that incidences of crime are increasing. The sort of random assault, theft and burglary that plague many of the world's urban centers are not yet serious issues here.

Few, for example, have any concern about car theft--doors are often left unlocked or locked cars are left with unattended valuables; use of parks during the night even by children and families is common (Jumeirah Open Beach, especially popular); and a ride offered to or sought by a stranger on the highway is common.

This reflects in large part certain characteristics which are unique or fundamental to the make-up of society in the UAE. Specifically, the large expatriate population which has migrated or immigrated to the country have come to work. These are goal-oriented individuals. They are not likely to engage in activity that would put at risk the chance to achieve their goals. Those who are generally disassociated from, on the fringes of or deviants within society will not have sought to or have been able to emigrate from their homelands.

The crime that does exist is often the result of those expatriates who come to feel most exploited acting out in desperation. It also reflects a variety of social problems not so prominent within society but present nonetheless. There is, however, an increasing amount of organized criminal activity as Dubai gains more attention worldwide as a relatively wealthy and open society.

As for the future, I would venture to speculate on the top five issues.

  1. Growing Discontent, among society's less privileged.
    (Unlike today, Dubai of the future will have a less transitory population. Those who are at present disaffected--like the laborers--will eventually emerge as a large underclass within society. Their discontent in the face of an increasing amount of wealth will become a more serious issue for the society-at-large.)
  2. Air Pollution
    (Unlike today, this issue will be recognized as more serious as it begins to impede further development of the city as a destination for tourism, residence, business and industry.)
  3. Crisis of Identity
    (A crisis will emerge as the national population shrinks, proportionately, to negligible numbers and expatriates clamor for the right to permanent residency and even citizenship.)
  4. International Tensions
    (The so-called clash between Western and Islamic civilizations, which has already begun to play out to detrimental effect in a number of countries, will eventually force Dubai and the UAE to pit themselves on one side or the other.)
  5. Organized Crime
    (Money invites corruption and greed; international, organized criminal gangs and cartels will attempt to take advantage of this. It will represent the city's biggest law enforcement challenge.)
Victim of Its Own Success

One implication, belied by what I see as potentially the most important issues in the future, is the notion that Dubai will continue to prosper economically and present itself as a model of success. This very success will, ironically, lead to new problems, just as serious, even as substantial inroads are made on present-day issues, like traffic and housing.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Peace 2

The conflict in Lebanon rages on, even as people rally around the world in support of an immediate ceasefire. On the other hand, the principal participants remain reticent to back down from their positions. Israel, with the firm support of the USA and the UK are reluctant to leave southern Lebanon without the threat of Hizbollah having been eliminated. Hizbollah, with the tacit support of an angry Lebanese public and public support from a limited number of Arab and Muslim allies, refuses to end its shelling of Israeli communities in northern Israel unless Israel ends its bombing campaign. Caught in the middle is the Lebanese population.

Establishing a Dialog

There are two competing notions of peace which one might say engenders the stalemate. One calls for an immediate cease of hostilities--namely military acts, such as bombing and other militia attacks. Another calls for the rectification of what are considered the conditions that have led to the conflict in the first place. It is easy to see that achieving the latter is the more difficult and may take a considerable amount of time, if it can be achieved at all.

Presumably in the face of such a stalemate a middle ground will have to be found. In any solution hostilities would have to cease. That is a given. The point in question is how much the two warring parties can accept of the other's conditions, in order to agree to a disengagement. A first step, naturally, would be for the two parties to establish clearly what is they want--and for each to at least understand what the other is requesting. How, then, might this be done?

One way not to do it is to exclude from discussions any of the principal players. Therefore, talks should be held at a minimum between Israel, Hizbollah and Lebanon, together with a neutral moderator or moderators. It is almost elementary that this is a required first step.

Power Plays

The reality, however, is that the powers of the day intend only to establish debate on their terms. The United States would prefer to see itself in the role of moderator with Israel on one side and some coalition of Arab states on the other, excluding Hizbollah and its main backers. Such a proposal, ludicrous in its utter imbalance, is unfortunately the one that the world is being forced to work with.

To date, the Rome Conference was held involving a multitude of participants, excluding, however, Hizbollah and any of its backers. The United Nations Security Council at present is trying to engender a ceasefire, this time with all three key players left out. Israel, however, has its key backers to speak on its behalf.

Eventually the powers of the day will manage to push something through. It may result in achieving the cease fire that everyone wants, but at what additional cost in lives and destruction to Lebanon? If those with the power get their way, it can be expected that Israel alone will be given the upper hand. Even in the case of such a disproportionate solution, the Lebanese population will at least gain a reprieve from the shelling. So too will Israeli civilians in the affected areas.

Perhaps in the weeks and months that follow, an effort can be mounted internationally to pressure the United States and the United Kingdom to reverse their position of bias in favor of Israel. From that point on a fairer settlement might be worked out. Despite the monumental nature of such a task, it is a worthy goal and one more achievable through actions carried out in peace than in war.

You and I

The point of blogging, often, is to speak out--to have one's say, even when that single voice appears indiscernible. A blogger has an audience, however small it might be. Each individual in that audience in turn has his or her own small voice. Though a hundred or even a thousand such voices may still amount to little, the reality of the physical universe is that everything does in fact have an effect on other things. It is conceivable that at some point a large enough ground swell may rise to achieve the desired effect.

The "small" voices in the UAE have already developed into a collective roar. From the grassroots level to the echelons of power, individuals have participated in a public drive to provide charitable aid to the Lebanese. A colorful description of one of these efforts is provided in the post Sweat, smiles, and humanity... at The View From Dubai.

On the political front in the UAE, people voice their views on the Internet, in letters to the editor of local newspapers, on radio and through local television broadcasts (limited to the Arabic channels). Regrettably, political constraints, as it were, will not allow for truly free dialog to flourish. Similarly, however, the UAE government is not free itself to take a public stand that might endanger its relationship with the aforementioned powers of the day.

One More Voice

These political constraints aside, people in the UAE do have some avenues in which to honestly voice their views and contribute to efforts to resolve the crisis. My own choice is to speak out through blogging, principally on behalf of the humanitarian need. Toward this end, I invite others to consider signing a petition or two that if nothing else, adds one more voice to the call for a ceasefire--in whatever form that cessation of hostilities can be achieved.

The Ceasefire Campaign intones simply,
We call on US President Bush, UK Prime Minister Blair and the UN Security Council to support UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call for an immediate ceasefire and an international force to stabilize the situation.
It explains,
Sign the petition below and your message will be delivered to the UN Security Council and publicized in newspapers in the US, Europe and the Middle East.
The Save the Lebanese Civilians Petition isn't clear on how it will proceed with its campaign, but it presents the following plea:
Up until now more than 1200 Lebanese civilians have been killed and thousands missing under the rubble, thousands wounded, bridges and infrastructure destroyed, refugees are leaving Beirut in droves and worst of all the enforced siege might lead to a human catastrophe in the next few days. There must be an end to this cycle of violence and continuous violation of international laws and basic ethical behavior.
These represent, perhaps, little more than emotional appeals, but even leaders are stirred by emotions--their own and those they serve.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Taxi 1

They are yellow and white in Abu Dhabi--cheap, plentiful, almost always available and the driver usually knows exactly where to go. Who would complain?

They often smell bad (the drivers, the cars--take your pick) and are frequently driven kamikaze-style. The drivers are sometimes rude, speak little English (or even Arabic it seems) and don't usually make for very pleasant conversation anyway. Even worse, for women there is the likelihood of getting ogled.

There is an alternative. They are white with a little green--but they are expensive, only camp out at hotels and other haunts for the moneyed, may not know how to get to your destination, and lest I forget to mention, they are expensive--like 3 to 5 times that of the yellow and white. So, give me the yellow and white. I'll fasten my seat belt tightly and cover my nose and ears a bit.

Public Transport?

The yellow and white have been in operation in Abu Dhabi since I arrived in 2000 and it would appear for many years prior. (Drivers will often tell you that they have been at it for 10 to 20 years.) They are so ubiquitous, one would think that Abu Dhabi had a very well-coordinated fleet of municipal taxis.

Although they do not belong to the city, they are relied upon by its residents as a de facto form of public transport. The fee for a ride is often equivalent to what one pays to ride a bus in other cities of the world. Seventy cents (US) to a dollar fifty to go just about anywhere within the city--door to door. It's hard to beat that.

Abu Dhabi does have a bus system but it is the epitome of uselessness. On the one hand there are what appear to be bus stops all along the city's main streets. These streets are wide, straight and all in a clear grid-like pattern--so, easy to accommodate an efficient public transport system, right? Right. But does it happen? In one's dreams. What there is, for all intents and purposes, are unmarked buses stealthily plying unannounced routes.

Although there is some indication that they are municipality buses due to recognizable color patterns and painted-on symbols, these vehicles have no visible signage or route numbers except for the tiniest of handwritten posts in their front windows--in Arabic only--indicating some sort of destination.

Actual routes are unexplained, also with no signs or markings at what appear to be bus stops. No indication is given of when or even whether buses will actually stop at these otherwise, perfectly situated stops. In similar fashion there is a huge, somewhat ghastly eyesore of a bus terminal on the edge of city center open 24-hours, again with no route numbers or markings posted and no information obtainable except for the grumpy response of a grumpy clerk when one asks specific questions.

The public transport system in Abu Dhabi is in a word, pointless.

Who Wants to Play the Fool?

Even the laborers, who are usually more efficient than others at finding out how things work at ground level, have no use for this system. With fares at only 30 cents within the city and at around 90 cents to more outlying districts, it is the most economical option. But few fools will stand around and wait for or try to decipher a system that dares anyone to actually understand, much less use it.

There is, for example, one such route between the city and the airport. To my knowledge (not very easily obtained) it ploughs this 35-kilometer, 30-40 minute route in either direction once every hour, 24 hours a day, at a cost of just Dhs 3 (90 cents). It is a large bus, always more than half-empty.

So, why don't people utilize this cheap, efficient form of transportation to and from the airport. Try no markings on the buses to indicate that such a service exists, no signage at either the airport or the bus terminal indicating same, and the grumpy response one gets whenever asking for details from anyone who looks like they might know.

I don't mind playing the role of the fool on occasion and have waited around for the municipality bus on several, including on trips to and from the airport. It was always a thrill to see a bus actually pull up, let you get in and then take you to where you wanted to go. That moment of achievement is almost worth the trouble of bothering with such a pathetic system.

Why the coyness?

The city has the aforementioned public bus service. A recent improvement has been the provision of and clear marking of buses that ply the Abu Dhabi/Dubai route, at a cost of about Dhs 15 (4 dollars). There are also buses that run between Abu Dhabi and other towns in the emirate--like Al Ain, Tarif, etc. that are used even to capacity. All of these buses ply intercity routes with no intermediate stops (except for sometimes letting people off, when they request, at odd spots along the highway). As for inner-city transport, one must rely on the yellow and white.

The reason for this, it appears, is that these ubiquitous yellow and white taxis are owned by nationals and provide for them a ready source of income and profit. Not so for the drivers, unfortunately, who bear all the costs of fuel and vehicle maintenance while being restricted to charging minimal fares. The owner collects a set fee of say Dhs 2500 (680 dollars) per month from the driver--with no expenses apart from the purchase price of the vehicle.

The drivers, meanwhile, don't earn enough to afford, for example, clean or comfortable housing, thus the unpleasant odors. The city strictly enforces a cap on prices, most likely to negate its responsibility to provide an efficient transport service.

As for the no excuse of a bus system that does exist, not only do authorities not want to disturb the profitable businesses that national owners are operating, but, like many master-planned systems, the master-planners of Abu Dhabi seldom manage to get things right despite having all the cash resources one could ever hope for.

It is either a fault of design-by-committee where too many heads in the mix results in the poorest of compromises, or it is more likely a case of no one daring to challenge the decrees of the man--therefore even the most unworkable and impractical of solutions gets passed along.


There were announcements in late 2005 that all of the yellow and white would be replaced by a fleet of municipal taxis. There were ads in the newspaper calling for drivers. The hard working, much derided but sorely needed drivers of the yellow and white were to be unceremoniously shipped back to where they had come from--mostly Pakistan's Pashtoon region and Afghanistan. An era in Abu Dhabi was about to come to an end.

This was all supposed to happen by an announced date in early 2006. The date came and went and nothing happened. People had already begun to debate the merits and demerits of the plan. "Finally, clean and polite drivers," some said. "Oh no, more of the Gazelle (white and green company) and Dubai-like high fares," others complained.

Apparently the powers that be, that rule by decree, had had a change of heart. The yellow and white would continue to ply the roads--the drivers once again secure in their jobs, miserable as they were, and the riders once again assured the lowest of fares, unbearable as the rides could sometimes be.
1277 words
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Taxi 2 (in Dubai), coming soon.


For those who haven't already discovered it the hard way, the so-called Taxi Stand (beside the large Bus Stand) does not actually offer taxis. That is, the taxis there function only as inter-city, not inner city transport. So, arrive at the Taxi Stand from, say Dubai, on a mini-bus or taxi and get ready to switch to a local taxi to get around town. Think again, i.e. abandon all logic. Haul your heavy luggage out to the street in the 40°C heat and try to flag a taxi down. Hey, it's Abu Dhabi!

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006


I am not a ranter, but it is obviously something people enjoy doing. It is, of course, a good way to blow off steam. There are a few topics that top the list of rants in the UAE. Perhaps I am not qualified to rank them, but a good bet to place near the top of the list is Etisalat--followed by traffic, reckless/arrogant driving, slow driving, rent increases, harassment (of women by guys), rude behavior in general, wasta, discrimination, banks, lack of pedestrian overpasses and underpasses, poor service from businesses, government workers who can't be bothered, queues, and so on.

Interestingly, people don’t rant much about the heat. That reflects either a certain amount of pragmatism as in, We’re in the desert! Of course it's hot, or the less commendable fact that we are all spoilt with air-conditioning.

A comparison of what people rant about in different countries might provide a telling glimpse of the social issues and concerns important in that country. Politicians and leaders should make an attempt to gauge the rant pulse--sounds a bit repulsive, though--to gain a better understanding of the people they govern.

It is interesting to consider what else people in the UAE don’t rant about, like politics (well, it isn’t allowed, but even so people don’t have much to say on the topic even in private), religion (limited for similar reasons), corruption in government or society-at-large (it isn't a big issue--Ok there's wasta, but that's a separate issue), airlines (the leading carriers are all pretty good), pollution, taxes, etc.

A Holler A Day

So, I am not a ranter, really. But if I were, what would I rant about, besides Etisalat? This is a hard one, because I prefer to be the optimist. I did present a near-rant in my very first A Word A Day post, should anyone would care to revisit that. I could rant about lawyers, but that is a general pet peeve of mine, not specific to the UAE. I could rant about ranters, but I sort of like that they say what they say, so I don't have to.

My rant of choice would have to be on a loathing I am sure I share with many. That is, for those arrogant drivers who flash their headlamps from behind as though they own the road. It irks me and if I let it, it could really get to me; but it always helps to gently remind myself that I am above that level of immaturity. Let them have their lane, and whatever peril their speeding puts them in.

But I can't always stop myself from fantasizing that my car is equipped with a high-tech weapon of some sort--like a laser gun or anti-tank missile launcher--that I could let loose on them as soon as they start flashing their lights. Or, James Bond like, I could spray the road with a slick layer of oil that would send them spinning out of control. But again, I have to remind myself, that I am better than that. Let them have their moment of victory on the highway while I go on to lead a more relaxed and mannered life.

Parting Shot

Ranting also provides a sort of comic relief. When the issue at hand is very serious, however, I suppose there is less ranting and more discourse. Iran is reportedly a hotbed of blogging. My guess is that there is less ranting there, and more debate on the issues.

Rants often come about as spontaneous outbursts. Perhaps the screamer has no better way to communicate the thought, rather like a child who is, shall I say, lost for words.

What better way to conclude this post than with a rant leveled against A Word A Day (in the UAE) itself. In my best imitation of an Australian accent, I must intone, "Thanks, mate, for the inspiration for today's word."
We are not your f_cking students. Every f_cking day, word of the day this, word of the day that. We get the message. How about you limit it to once a week telling us about your special f_cking words? I thought that I would hear fresh discussion from this community, but it is like a stale classroom.
Posted anonymously on the UAE community blog.

717 words

Top Rant: Etisalad--Secret Dubai's "graphic" expression.

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Monday, August 07, 2006


One of the challenges in reporting on one's observations is providing proper balance. In one of today's UAE Community posts, GULF NEWS: the "happy meal" of UAE journalism?, the writer was peeved at what he perceived to be the lack of balance in a Gulf News report on a survey it had taken. Had the editors or reporters deliberately set out to mislead or was their perspective simply skewed?

Another post I came upon today provided a link to a news article which attempts to portray the hardships faced by laborers in Dubai, Dark Side of Dubai (alt. link). It does so by way of contrasting the lifestyles of the rich and privileged who live or vacation in Dubai with those of the many laborers who struggle in destitution. The graphic representation of the laborers' plight makes for insightful reading, however, I could not help but feel that the article failed to provide the proper perspective.

Suffering of the Poor

To take the story of the laborer as a case in point, the writer of Dark Side... asserts,
Mohammed Gurang, 34, wakes at 3am to join the 60-deep queue for the filthy bathrooms.The stench of the sewers makes you gag, the water in the showers is a dirty trickle, and there is no electricity.He shares his fetid 12ft-by-12ft breeze block cell with 11 other Indians. Eight have beds, the others sleep on dirty blankets on the concrete floor. A broken fan hangs limply from the corrugated iron ceiling.
The image is shocking, and having been written as a narrative it is probably real; but it appears to offer an extreme rather than a typical case, no less than the haughty description of the rich, spoilt princess,
It is 36C in the shade and, as the woman gazes dreamily across the shimmering bay at rows of gleaming skyscrapers, three beads of sweat have formed on her immaculately smooth brow. Quick as a flash, a poolside butler is at her side, liveried arm brandishing a cold towel, with Evian facial spray and a cloth to buff her Gucci sunglasses. Crisis averted, she flips over on her padded sunlounger, adjusts her purple thong for maximum exposure and starts planning the rest of her stay at Dubai's Burj Al Arab.
Not to be guilty of presenting excerpts out of context, I will admit that the writer is providing a contrast for the sake of illustrating a point. But the article never acknowledges that these are perhaps the extreme. It leaves the reader to accept the presumption that life for the laborer is nothing short of hell on earth. The writer offers no alternative scenarios nor does he/she ever bring into question what responsibility the laborer has for having placed himself into such a predicament.

Excesses of the Rich

Not to focus singularly on the issue of the laborer, the other main implication in the article is that the wealthy are frivolous and uncaring. Dubai's new towers and rampant development are referred to with some amount of derision. Beginning with a quote from Khalid, 28, a carpenter from Kerala it laments,
'This isn't a real life - it's a nightmare. They treat us like animals. I was told it was the city of dreams.' And so it is, for the Rolex-wearing building contractors, who can't build it quickly enough. Forty-storey tower blocks go from conception to opening ceremony in just two years. Half the world's supply of cranes are here working flat out.
Once again, perspective is lost. The city of dreams which Dubai has become is not only about the rich becoming richer through grandiose schemes--though there is some of that--it is also about the dreams of the hardworking, middle-class expatriates who are now fighting to stay afloat as rental rates spiral out of control. It includes overseas, soon to retire pensioners in the UK who are ready to surrender their hard-earned savings and investments for the promise of a dream home in a distant land, with prospects uncertain.

Responsiblity in Reporting

Perspective in this report, or any, should attempt to offer a broader view which includes some "big picture" analysis. It should also take into account some of the contributing factors behind the circumstances being highlighted.

We see the question of perspective arising in reporting and discussions on the current Lebanon crisis--as referenced in the opening. Those wanting to highlight one issue over another will neglect (whether purposefully or unwittingly) the all important contributing factors. They often fail to position their comments within the wider context of the Palestinian/Israeli/Middle East conflict.

My suggestion is not that one rehash, for example, the history of the Middle East conflict going back to 1947, just to make a cursory comment. It is when one is attempting to characterize an issue, such as that of laborer conditions in Dubai (as in Dark Side of Dubai) or that of public opinion in the UAE (as in the Gulf News article, It is the right of Hezbollah to defend their interests), that one must be careful to include a generous amount of perspective.

As an aside, Dark Side... is a fascinating and informative read, in that much of it is presented as a narrative, with apparent quotes from laborers. Thus, one is able to hear these workers describe conditions and their feelings about them in their own words. Just remember, however, to overlay that with a bit of perspective.

905 words
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