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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Sunday, August 06, 2006

the UAE


Location: In the Middle East, on the Arabian Peninsular, along the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf, beside Saudi Arabia.

Area: 83,600 km² (32,278 sq mi), similar in size to Ireland (the entire island) and West Bengal state of India, double the size of Switzerland and half the size of the US state of Florida (reference, Wikipedia).

Topography: Varied desert terrain, including...
  • wide plains of white-colored sand and brush
  • hills and dunes of golden and red-colored sand
  • rocky-mountainous regions with dry spring beds and sparse vegetation (trees and shrubs).
Climate: The populated coastal areas are hot (30-45°C/86-113°F) and humid April to October, cool (17-29°/62-84°F) and less humid November to March; with occasional sand or dust storms and morning fog; and moderate rains 3-4 times yearly.

Population: 4,104,695 (2005), reflecting a 74.8% increase over 1995 census levels; including 20.1% UAE nationals (source, Gulf News). Expatriate population of about 80%, including 45% South Asian, 23% other Arab, 13% East Asian and Western (source, Wikipedia).

Major Cities (w/population): Abu Dhabi-1,292,119 (capital, main oil producer), Dubai-1,200,309 (hub of trade, tourism and property development), Sharjah-724,859 (cultural and industrial center, bedroom community of Dubai) (population statistics, Gulf News).

History: The country was sparsely populated with nomadic communities and small fishing villages, until production of oil took off in the mid-1960's in Abu Dhabi. Sharjah and Dubai had been the principal areas of commerce, relying on pearling and sea-trade.

The country was ruled as a British protectorate until 1971. In that year the UAE was established as a federation of seven districts (or emirates), Abu Dhabi being larger than all the others combined.

The newly united country was led by Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, until his death in 2004. During his reign the country was transformed into a modern, urban, multi-cultural society. That trend is being accelerated today, spearheaded by the present ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.

Culture: It is historically an Islamic country of mostly Sunni Muslims, with strong Nomadic traditions. The large influx of expatriate workers, however, (over the last 3 decades) has created a multicultural mix of identities and practices.

Interaction (apart from business activity) among the various cultures is limited; therefore, each retains much of its traditional ways. The unifying forces within the society are the competing ideologies of Islam and modernization, with the latter winning out. The UAE, as a result, is rapidly becoming a less traditional, more urban and cosmopolitan society.

One lasting visual display of cultural identity can be seen in the traditional dress worn by UAE nationals and men and women from other Arab countries and parts of Africa. In addition the large Pashtoon community and others from Pakistan and Afganistan commonly wear their native attire.

Politics: The country is governed by ruling families and clans. Each of its seven emirates establishes its own laws under the framework of a federation, led by the emirate and ruling family of Abu Dhabi. The emirate of Dubai has established its own identity within the federation as a force for change and progressive values.

There are no democratic institutions; however, benevolence and tolerance characterize the general manner of governance. The leadership of the country has been effective in generating unparalleled economic development, while maintaining law and order and a general state of tranquility among both the national and the large expatriate populations.

Economy: The economy is at once entirely dependent upon the production and sale of petrochemicals. However, the wealth this has generated has been used, particularly by Dubai, to diversify the economy to such an extent that the petrochemical industry is no longer the leading provider of jobs nor the primary driving force for development. Led by Dubai, the country has become a regional powerhouse in trade, real estate and tourism, with rapid growth in additional sectors.

Issues: Below the surface of economic prosperity and harmonious multiculturalism, the UAE faces a number of potentially destabilizing issues:
  • labor--on the one end with exploitation of a large migrant labor force, and on the other end with poor integration of nationals into the workforce
  • general decline in the quality of life for many due to income imbalances and inflation brought on by the country's rapid development
  • a rise in pollution levels, traffic congestion and incidences of crime connected with urbanization and the country's rapid development
  • alienation of the local population from its traditional heritage due to the ever growing influx of foreign nationals

That is the UAE in a bit of a nutshell.

The most interesting of the statistics and summaries presented are those concerned with the multi-cultural character of the country. 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.

The second most significant characteristic of the country is its rapid development into a regional, and in some contexts global, magnet for economic activity of almost any kind. This certainly creates immense opportunity and an unprecedented level of economic development. At the same time, however, it is hurling the country and its population--both native and expatriate--into uncharted territory.

In addition to the tensions referenced above, one can expect new problems and challenges to arise. The country's leadership has, thus far, been highly innovative in tackling the issues associated with rapid development. It is, however, difficult to predict whether they will be able to cope with the new challenges being brought on by the course the country is charting.

964 words
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Quick Quiz

  1. When was the UAE established as a federation?
    1960   1971   1984
  2. Which ethnic or national grouping has the largest population in the UAE
    UAE nationals
    other Arab nationals
    nationals of the South Asia region
  3. Identify those issues which threaten stability in UAE society.
    (select as many as apply):
    over-population   unemployment   labor exploitation   imbalance in income distribution   alienation of the local population   religious tension   drug and alcohol abuse

Answers to Quesions in a pop-up box.
Feel free to challenge or disagree with any answers posted and offer suggestions.


Population Trends

The data suggest a doubling of the population within the next 12.5 years, although I would expect the country to reach even the 10 million milestone sooner than that. The rate of population growth appears to be expanding, with the many construction projects alone attracting over 200,000 new workers per year in the multitude of related sectors. On the completion of new residences, over 200,000 by 2008, more people will also come to settle in country.

Population increases up till now have been largely accounted for by an influx of workers, but as more people take up residence within country, it can be expected that more family members will join them and births among the expatriate population may finally become a contributing factor to population growth.

With regard to city rankings according to population, Abu Dhabi is ranked highest in the latest poll data (the 2005 census). Dubai, however, probably has at present the highest population with a larger number of workers not counted (those with visit or expired visas) than Abu Dhabi. The city's population growth will clearly have far outpaced Abu Dhabi's by the next official census.


One more interesting statistic from the Gulf News article on the latest census results: The UAE has a 68:32 ratio of male to female population. This reflects the orientation toward labor immigration that has been characteristic of the UAE since the 1970s. Until the latest construction boom there was a gradual trend toward this ratio balancing out.

1,155 total word count

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Freehold 2

Freehold is a bit of a buzzword in the UAE today, but what exactly is it? It is obviously a legal term with regard to property rights. A Legal Encyclopedia hosted by provides the following definition:
A life estate, an interest in land the duration of which is restricted to the life or lives of a particular person or persons holding it, or an estate in fee, an interest in property that is unconditional and represents the broadest ownership interest recognized by law.

In order to be categorized as a freehold, an estate must possess the characteristics of (1) immobility—in the sense that the property must be either land, or some interest derived from or affixed to land—and (2) indeterminate duration.

Determinable freeholds are life estates created by language that provides that the estate is to terminate automatically upon the occurrence of a specified event.
A lot that is referred to in this definition appears to correlate with how the term is used in the UAE. Specifically, freehold as a legal concept in the UAE would seem to include the following notions:
  1. an estate in fee or fee simple (terms interchangeable with freehold); see Wikipedia definition.
  2. an interest in property that is unconditional
  3. ...that represents the broadest ownership interest recognized by law
  4. an estate that is immovable, i.e. land
  5. ...or some interest derived from or affixed to land
  6. an indeterminate duration of applicability
This might be considered a broad definition of freehold as used in the UAE, with need however to qualify points 2 and 4.

Point 2: In the UAE there appear to be conditions associated with freehold possession in terms of limitation of use. Commonly, for example, the owner may not alter the appearance or other external features of the property accept in accordance with procedures set forth by a master developer. This is, in effect, a rather substantial condition, however, it is not dissimilar to limitations commonly imposed by municipality or community based zoning restrictions.

The notion of unconditionality is particularly relevant in terms of the owner's right to sell, transfer or pass on the property as inheritance. Apart from procedural requirements, these rights may be considered largely unrestricted, except in the case of inheritance, which must be in accordance with federal and state (or emirate) statutes and practices--a grey area at present.

As stated in Point 3, this notion of freehold with the apparent restrictions referred to in Point 2, does in fact represent the broadest extent of ownership interest as recognized by UAE statutes.

Point 4: The question of land ownership and the associated rights thereupon appear to also be in question, whereupon, there are suggestions that even apart from meeting the master developer's zoning restrictions, the owner is not free to build a new structure on the land even in cases of the original structure being demolished or destroyed. (The implication is that the right to build any structure on the land or plot is subject to the consent of the master developer.) The question of ownership, therefore, seems to be primarily concerned with the right to sell, transfer and pass on the land or plot as inheritance.

In Other Words...

To put it in terms the layperson might better appreciate:
Freehold ownership in the UAE involves the unrestricted right to sell, transfer or pass on as inheritance an interest in land or a permanent structure, normally a house (villa) or apartment unit. It also includes permanent ownership of the property not limited to any number of years or the lifespan of the owner.
Freehold is, therefore, distinguishable from leasehold in terms of the indeterminate period of ownership. Otherwise the two concepts as used in the UAE may be considered nearly identical--as even within leasehold the property may be sold, transferred and passed on as inheritance up to the duration of the original lease term.

Another term of relevance is commonhold which refers to the common ownership of public or communal areas of a residence or office property--such as corridors, lobby, community room, gym, elevators, attendant grounds, etc., including the plot of land on which the structure rests. Ownership in such case is governed by the provisions of an owners association. Freehold ownership of an apartment or other unit within any such compartmentalized structure may or may not include commonhold ownership of the public or shared areas and facilities. It is possible that the plot of land and all common facilities will be owned by a third party, the developer for example, with the unit owner having ownership rights over only a single unit or units.
776 words
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Quick Quiz:

  1. The right to freehold became protected by legal statute in Dubai in
    2002   2004   2006
  2. Freehold ownership of property in Dubai is limited to:
    UAE and GCC nationals only
    UAE and GCC nationals and non-national residents
    UAE and GCC nationals, and non-nationals (resident or not)
         in certain designated areas
  3. Freehold properties are available in which emirates* of the UAE?
    (select as many as apply):
    Abu Dhabi   Dubai   Sharjah   Ajman   UAQ*   RAK   Fujairah*

Answers to Quesions in a pop-up box.
Feel free to challenge or disagree with any answers posted and offer suggestions.


Freehold! is an earlier post which discusses the history of and outlook for freehold in the UAE.
Commonhold: A Primer looks at this concept in detail.
Freehold Areas Announced... Some Surprises! reports on recent news about freehold in the UAE property market.
Noteworthy: Dubai's Property Law (English translation)
Interactive Map of Dubai Properties

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Friday, August 04, 2006

Laborers 2

As reported in Laborers 1, the situation in the UAE for laborers at present is a fluid one. That is, a lot of changes are taking place—with regard to working conditions, issues of pay, living conditions, worker action, government response and public reaction. If the measure of progress were only a question of how much change there has been, then one could say that there has been substantial progress on the issue of laborer conditions over the past 3 to 4 years. But all change, of course, has not necessarily been for the better.

Continuing Problems

On the one hand, the ever-increasing numbers in the laborer population have led to more strain on the limited resources provided these workers. Shortages of accommodation, food, water, uniforms and work gear arise. Also, workers tend to experience more delays in getting to and from their worksites. Sometimes, apparent solutions or improvements lead to new problems. Workers, for example, being spared the hardship of working during the hottest hours of the day (typically 12 noon to 3:30 p.m.), often end up spending longer days at the worksite. This is often due to the inability of companies to efficiently transport them to and from their accommodations, to rest at during this break. Alternatively some are required to start their work shifts in the darkened pre-dawn hours.

One result of this increasing level of hardship is the greater likelihood that workers will attempt illegal strikes or work stoppages. There are reports of laborers attributing such actions of protest to not only issues of poor facilities or non-payment of salaries, but also to issues of abuse (verbal and otherwise) by superiors and employers. Tempers are flaring on both sides and in general these men are not treated with the respect they deserve.

A case in point is a recent restriction on entry by such workers to Ibn Batutta Mall, one of the largest and most popular new shopping venues in Dubai. It is argued that such workers, who tend to visit shopping centers in groups, especially on Fridays their usual day off, are in violation of the shopping center’s dress code—that is, their civilian wear is not up to the standards of such an establishment. (On one local blog this new policy inspired a rather heated debate.) While their services were more than welcome in construction of the property and its ongoing maintenance, these men are not welcome during their off-hours.

Welcome Changes

The more significant point to make, however, regarding change in the circumstances for laborers, is that much of that change has in fact been for the better. A clear illustration of this is provided by the innumerable improvements made in the Al Quoz district of Dubai, which houses one of the largest concentration of laborers in the UAE. The district is a mixed-use industrial area with a concentration of warehouse and storage facilities in one sector and labor and staff accommodations in another.

Typically, laborer or staff accommodation is set up in a 2-4 storey dormitory type structure running lengthwise, with rooms on either side of a long corridor. Three or four years ago these structures were often poorly constructed, poorly lit, over-crowded, unsanitary and dilapidated. Furthermore, the streets and plots upon which they were built were un-paved or poorly surfaced and unlit with very few facilities—i.e. shops or restaurants—to serve the large population. In the evenings hundreds of workers would walk along and jay-walk across the dark dusty roads, always in danger of being hit by oncoming traffic.

Al Quoz today is almost unrecognizable, compared to what it was just 3 or 4 years ago. Although the laborer population in the area has doubled or tripled, many of the housing structures are new or renovated. Still over-crowded and unsanitary, due mostly to over-crowdedness, these structures are generally sturdily built and well lit. It appears that in response to new Dubai regulations, common areas are often tiled. Where sand and dust were everywhere before, one can enter some camps (as they are commonly referred) and even find ceramic or granite tiles in open areas.

Furthermore, the roads are paved and lit with streetlights, some restaurants and shops can be found, and even a large new shopping center has been opened. Where the Al Quoz housing area used to resemble a slum or shantytown, it is now a thriving community. In the evenings the workers used to appear dejected and desperate as they darted across dark and dusty paths, whereas today they seem busy and pre-occupied with taking care of life’s needs.

The changes in Al Quoz, while still inadequate, represent a substantial improvement for these workers. Over-crowding is still a serious issue and in many cases getting worse, due to the sheer increase in the numbers of workers required to complete the multitude of new projects. In laborer accommodations 10-20 men still share a single room. (The numbers much smaller in staff accommodations.) There are still generally no recreational facilities, and transport from the camps to central city areas is another chronic problem. It is clear that these issues will also have to be dealt with, before anyone can say that these workers have received their due.

But, clearly, the picture is getting better—at least in terms of residential facilities and at least in Al Quoz.

889 words
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Popular UAE blogger, Secret Dubai, offers tribute to the "boys in blue" in a poem, Ode to the Outcasts.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

the Approach

Imagine you are in an airplane, about to touch down. You look out of the window and take in the dramatic view of a cityscape rising above the horizon.

Hold on to that image and follow me as I take you in on an approach to Dubai, not by air but by highway, on the wonderful stretch of motorway known affectionately as Sheikh Zayed Road.

Brace Yourself

It's something we residents of Abu Dhabi can especially appreciate. We are probably the most frequent visitors to Dubai and we, more than anyone else on the planet, get to experience that wonderful, transfixing approach into the first city of the 22nd century.

It begins rather nonchalantly as one completes the journey across a wide stretch of Abu Dhabi desert, dotted with a few concrete-block towns, a couple of shimmering mosques and those wonderful ADNOC filling stations cum town centers. One crosses the border into Dubai with the only appreciable change noticed being the end of the long stretch of wall/fence that straddles much of the Abu Dhabi portion of the highway.

Soon Jebel Ali emerges with its various trade and warehouse complexes left of view. To the right there used to be nothing but open desert, but new construction is beginning to make its mark.

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, fanning out from a huge power station on the left, crossing the highway, and swiping the exterior walls of a sprawling complex of mid-rise apartment blocks under construction. From there they trail off into the hills and the desert beyond.

Enter the Future

I suppose one needs a great amount of power to travel into the 22nd century. The sights which are next to unfold provide a prelude. On both sides of the highway the T-O-W-E-R-S emerge--those magnificent, erect monuments to modern engineering.

To the left is Dubai Marina, with over 100 towers completed or at various states of construction. To the right, Jumeirah Lake Towers district, with two dozen or so towers, mostly under construction. Eventually the two developments will house 200-300 towers, several reaching heights of 80, 90 and 100+ floors.

At present it is a panoply of towering forms of concrete, glass and light. It is hard to drive this stretch of highway without looking left, then right, then left again at the towers as they glide by. This is Sheikh Zayed Road where the number of lanes begins to increase to 10 or 12--half on either side of the median--and flyovers start to appear in multitude at various intervals. The wide highway cuts a blazing trail through the heart of what is called New Dubai.

Passing the twin tower-districts, still more, but now sparsely spaced towers and medium-rise structures line either side of the highway. One of new Dubai's crowning features soon emerges on the right--the Mall of the Emirates, with its towering ski slope and Kempinski hotel, poised in elegance like a Russian summer palace.

From Ibn Batutta Mall to the Mall of the Emirates, one is able to witness the birth of a daring new model of modern urban development.

The Future, Part 2

Just past the Mall of the Emirates and that series of flyovers, the skyline is transformed into open skies and a spread of low-rise properties on either side of the highway--largely villas on the left and auto showrooms and other commercial establishments on the right. One might presume they had left behind the heart of Dubai, only to be mesmerized again, when after a few kilometers they begin to approach the latest addition to the skyline.

What comes into view to the right are Business Bay and the Burj Dubai Downtown districts. Like Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Lake Towers, Business Bay will be a water-themed high-rise tower development. At present a dozen or so towers have begun to rise, to eventually reach 100 or more. The tallest among them, the Rose tower, is presently the tallest structure in the UAE, and rising. The Burj Dubai Downtown features as its centerpiece the presently 60-floor Burj Dubai tower, eventually to reach around 160 floors to become the world's tallest building.

As the Burj Dubai rises, a multitude of other towers rise along with it, some already completed and others at various stages of construction. History rising are the words on billboards which greet frustrated commuters as traffic begins to thicken. The agony of being stuck in traffic begins to recede as one gazes out upon the rising forms and starts to fantacize about living or working in one of those towers. Suddenly, traffic starts to move again and the commuter is abruptly awakend from his dream.

Touch Down

We are just about to land at the base of what was once the outer reaches of the city of Dubai. That was seemingly long ago when the pace of life was slower and one of the commoner modes of transport was by water taxi across and along the bustling Creek of the now quaint Deira and Bur Dubai districts. New Dubai, used to mean this stretch along the Sheikh Zayed Road that brings us to the end of our approach.

Before we unfasten our seat belts, however, we need to navigate one more stretch of highrise fantasy. It is the strip of other-worldly towers, dominated by the still spectacular Emirates Towers completed in 1999. Alongside this final stretch of runway are two rows of gleaming towers that were the first hallmarks of a hyper-modern Dubai.

Each tower makes an ambitious statement of what Dubai represents or aspires to: The Shangra-la Hotel tower combines elements of the classic (circa 1920's era) skyscraper and contemporary design. The Fairmont Hotel tower design takes on the color and glitz of a Las Vegas casino palace. The Chelsea tower makes its mark with a partially embedded spire, in the style of a sun dial. The Tower blends Renaissance cathedral style architecture into modern form.

It is at the foot of the Dubai World Trade Center tower that we reach the end of a journey into Dubai ala the future, once heralded by this lone, now diminutive tower, when it was erected back in 1979.

Unfasten Your Seatbelts

Touchdown... we have landed. The dazzled Abu Dhabi traveller has once again made his or her way into this beguiling city. Time will be spent doing whatever it is that Abu Dhabians like to do in Dubai--shop, enjoy the night life, take care of business, enjoy the beach a water park or ski slope, or like I do half the time, just admire its modern wonders.

1176 words
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Tower photos courtesy

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

le Rêve

It is French for the Dream, le pronounced as la in lacrosse and Rêve as rev in Rev your engines! In Dubai it is the name of a snazzy new tower. The tower is meant to offer a dream lifestyle, full of luxury and amenities. Dubai itself might be called a city of dreams--one of many accolades it no doubt would like to acquire.

But the dreams of Dubai consist not only of the snazzy kind that involve tall towers and palm-shaped islands. It also includes the humble wishes of ordinary working men and women. Before the towers and all the offerings for the rich and spoilt, Dubai and the UAE were the stuff of dreams, for migrant workers. Their dream was to touch down on the hot desert terrain, work hard for a few years, then return to their homeland bearing gifts for kinsmen and neighbors with enough surplus to build a home. This is still the dream of many such migrants even in the face of decreasing odds.

The Founders' Dreams

The dream of the country's ruling families was to build a state in which their own clansmen would prosper. But such was their fortune that the dream need not have stopped there. It became possible to share the dream with all their countrymen.

Their ideals, however, were misinterpreted and became distorted. The youth of the country began to dream more about fast cars and other luxuries, unlike their parents who were happy to inherit a modest but comfortable home, a farm perhaps and some livestock. Some of the youth today fritter away not only their parents' and country's wealth, but also their own lives. Reckless driving is a leading cause of death for national youth.

Is this not too high a price to pay for the realization of a dream? Their great misfortune is that, unlike the migrant worker and other expatriates, they expect their dreams to be fulfilled without the price of hard work and determination.

Evolution of the Dream

One must recognize that the UAE presents a rapidly changing landscape, both literally and metaphorically. The notion of le rêve is as valid today as it was in the early days. Whether expatriate or national, there is the emergence of a common dream to enjoy a more prosperous and fulfilling lifestyle within the country. Some, of course, will always be ready to sacrifice and take what they earn back to their land of origin. But more and more are preparing to not only pursue their dreams in the UAE but live them here as well.

The towers are clear symbols of the nation's dreams and aspirations. Some will complain that such aspirations are too materialistic and superficial. That may be so. But such images inspire and stimulate the imagination. Even for those who wish to enjoy the fruits of their labor elsewhere, the UAE offers if not the chance, then at least the inspiration to continue to dream.

494 words
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