Sunday, September 09, 2007


Dubai is not known as a public transport friendly city. For the great majority transport is by private vehicle or taxi and traffic congestion horror stories abound. The transport landscape in Dubai has been one of constant transformation, none in the past, however, as dramatic as what is happening today.

When I first happened upon Dubai in the year 2000 comments about the challenge of driving in the city were not infrequently heard. It was often an issue of fast drivers and confusing roads. To me with an American background, it was just a typical city with a freeway. These things made getting around faster and more efficient although they were often confusing. Dubai's freeway in 2000 was Sheikh Zayed Road. What I liked about it then was that it seemed all roads led to it. It was the way to Abu Dhabi and if one wanted to get to it he needed only head in its direction and whatever road he was on would seem to make its way to it.

I was impressed with the road network then and was conscious of the fact that it was always expanding. Literature on the city sometimes announced with pride how many roads had been constructed in a relatively short span of time.

Fast forward to Dubai 2007. SZR is double its diameter, feeder roads have quadrupled and this once lone great highway has been joined by 2 more major freeways. Even with that, complaints about traffic congestion and other woes are almost incessant and the amount of ongoing road construction is of such an unprecedented level that the road network and its level of sophistication will soon, it would seem, be 10 times what it was in 2000.

That said, Dubai is ever more a city where one is forced to rely on private transport. There is no practical way to get from Point A in old Dubai, for example, to Point B in new Dubai, except to hop in a car. The only public transport options are bus lines and a very limited number of boat crossings along the city's main waterway in old Dubai. Even with multiple expansions it has been impossible for bus services to keep up with a city that has expanded geographically 3 or 4 times in less than 10 years. Taking a bus means enduring long waits and even longer transport times. A 15 minute car ride can mean a 60 minute bus ride, not counting the wait time, and for longer distances the cost in time grows exponentially. For those reliant on public transport, the most viable option is to just not go where you otherwise might want to go. Just stay put at the labor camp or wherever you happen to reside.

This sorry state of public transportation is all on the verge of changing. By 2010, I dare say, Dubai could well be one of the most convenient cities in the world for public transport. The extent of development underway at present is so comprehensive as to include everything but air options for getting around the city more conveniently. The most dramatic of these is of course the metro system, which will provide elevated and underground rail lines. This will be supplemented by monorail and tram lines.

Perhaps even more startling than the rail transport is the planned water transport. This involves not only the addition of transport vessels along the city's coasts and waterways, but also the digging out of new waterways across desert landscapes and even through established city neighborhoods. Just like the hundreds of kilometers of new road networks constantly under development, many kilometers of canal networks are to be constructed, including one that could eventually run up to 100 kilometers when joined with existing channels.

Remarkably all this development is happening at breakneck speed and all at the same time--hundreds of kilometers of new roadways, dozens of massive road interchanges, several major bridges, many kilometers of rail networks, viaducts and tunnels, new canals and above all, hundreds if not a thousand or more new skyscrapers. It's all going on at the same time!

Dubai is a city of but one effective transport option today, the car. In just a few years one will have everything but flying craft to get around the city on.

An After-Thought

Will I sell my car! I probably won't get a new one when the current one expires. What fun is a car when one can board a water taxi, switch to a metro, transfer to a tram, hop on monorail, and finally kick back on a luxury bus--all in a day on Dubai's future public transport network. But then again, without a car to use now and then one wouldn't have the chance to scale the double-decker highway, spin around the multiple landscaped flyovers, zip through the new road tunnels are cruise above the new waterways on the one of a dozen or so new bridges.

835 words
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Wednesday, July 18, 2007


The power of words... this phrase evokes thoughts of a powerful or cunning motivational speaker, who has his sometimes desperate audience hanging on his every word. His (or her) words enthrall and would seem to have the power to sway even the adamant skeptic. This is the power of words.

Then, there are those self-help gurus who endlessly nag their avid followers to think positive. If only one's thoughts and words were positive, then, surely, equally positive things would happen in one's life. This too, it seems, would be an indication of the power of words.

I have a friend, a dear friend, who gets angry if I bring up the topic of death, particularly when I speak hypothetically of my own. He hates the fact that I would dare speak of it, as though to merely utter the word death could evince the thing. How irrational my friend is, I think. The simple utterance of a word or words cannot cause a thing to happen. Grant it, thinking positively has its merits as would thinking negatively have its demerits. But a word or words in and of themselves have no such power as a curse, charm or magical spell, that through their mere utterance cause the thing they speak of to occur.

If such were the case, I have argued with my friend, then having just repeated the words "a million dirham, a million dirham" I would have long since become a Mashreq Millionaire.

But it seems that the power my friend fears in the word death is a power that comes particularly when the association is negative. It is a classic superstition--the old bad luck, evil eye syndrome. I, being the total rationalist, dismiss the whole notion of superstition, whether in the guise of good luck or bad. Words have no such power, do they? Absolutely not.

But what if one says, in a sense of crass humor or detached rationality, "May X die!" ~x being say, a dear loved one--a mother, a father, a spouse or a sibling. I, the unemotional rationalist, could say such a thing to prove the point, that simply saying a thing in no way results in the empowerment of the words. The funny thing, though, is that if I were, in fact, to say and repeat such a thing, it would certainly feel funny--or rather eerie, as if to validate my friend's reactions and discredit my argument.

I am not a superstitious person, however. It is pure nonsense to believe that X causes Y when X and Y have no tangible connection in the least. But I am still emotional, even though I would presume to be a rationalist. It is that emotional sense that tugs at the rational mind and suggests that words, especially those which are dark or foreboding, have the power to jinx. Although I can see no harm in saying "May X die!" whether in jest or argument, to do so produces an emotional sense of discomfort.

So, my friend is probably not so superstitious after all--at least not in this regard. He does not really believe that words have such power. That is not to say, however, that words are impotent. Clearly they have the power to inspire, but fortunately not to cast a hex!

555 words

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Saturday, April 14, 2007


There is a clear and present rivalry between the UAE's two great city states. I have noticed this since first coming to the UAE 7 years ago. Some natives or other old-timers may be able to shed light on how far back it goes.

It is actually quite understandable that such a rivalry exists, although I am less certain of how healthy it is. You have on the one hand the capital, with all its wealth derived in a sense effortlessly from its vast supply of petrochemicals. You have on the other hand the other city, with such a go-get-it attitude that it is easily able to match the wealth and success of the other.

Of course I speak of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, respectively. It is interesting to see this rivalry played out, and for me it has always been so much easier to side with Dubai over Abu Dhabi. My preference, of course, has its basis in my own particular likes and dislikes, but it is fair to say that Dubai, in its need to develop beyond its natural limitations, is a much more open and inclusive sort of place.

In Abu Dhabi there is, one might say, little to do but rest on one's laurels. At the same time, Abu Dhabi has succeeded at making the most of its resources, not squandering them as have other resource rich provinces and countries in the world. It has also shared its bounty with the neighboring emirates, including Dubai, and even with other countries. In this regard, if it were only a tale about Abu Dhabi, then it would read as a great success story.

Dubai however has, out of necessity, pursued its own course, with such revelry that Abu Dhabi has had to take notice of it--not the other way around. The recent freehold property phenomenon is one of the best examples of this. Dubai made its first tentative steps to introduce freehold in 2002. In no time it proceeded to grow this strategy to such an extent that it has become the new model of redevelopment for the whole GCC region.

Abu Dhabi waited and watched from the sidelines for perhaps how and when to answer what amounted to a new challenge from Dubai. Inevitably it did what it probably had to do. Abu Dhabi jumped onto the property bandwagon. Of course, it could not be seconded by Dubai, so it announced its own equally grandiose schemes.

It is not only the freehold model that Abu Dhabi has taken up in response to Dubai's earlier moves. The emirate has recently announced the planned establishment of its first freezone--something with which Dubai has had great success since the mid-1980s. Retail, tourism, infrastructure development... the list goes on of changes coming to Abu Dhabi which would seem to have got their start in Dubai.

So What?

What does it matter anyway that such a rivalry exists? For one, it highlights the differences between the two cities. It also reveals each city's strengths and weaknesses. Abu Dhabi by its attempts to one-up Dubai has made its own missteps all the more apparent. Its answer to the Burj Al Arab, for example, is the Emirates Palace Hotel. While both are over the top grandiose, the Burj Al Arab seems to genuinely serve the requirements of the international luxury travel market while the Emirates Palace seems more a superfluous symbol of government extravagance.

I see a parallel in the two freehold property markets as well. Dubai's if we build it they will come strategy appears to have some basis in reality. They are, in fact coming--Brits for that vacation home in the sun, Iranians for a safe haven, Russians for a combination of the two--and more will come due to Dubai's already established reputation for openness and progressiveness. Abu Dhabi's plans to do the same in property development seem more like the proverbial pie in the sky. In fact, a more apt axiom for Abu Dhabi would be, we can build so we will, whether they come or not.

693 words
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Monday, April 09, 2007

the Gardens

It was about a week ago that I discovered the new expansive Dubai residential development called Discovery Gardens. Today, I came to discover a little more about the adjacent community called simply, the Gardens. I was already somewhat familiar with the neighborhood. Its quiet winding streets and numerous parking lots seemed the ideal place to teach a friend how to drive. I have also found it to be a good venue for a bit of leisure cycling.

My discovery today was a long meandering park-like area with foot and cycle paths, lots of grass, trees and open spaces. It is nestled amidst the complex of 3-story apartment blocks that keep it largely hidden from nearby roadways. With the final onset of summer seemingly delayed, lots of people--walkers, joggers, kids, etc.--were out enjoying the fresh air and open grounds. It is the perfect compliment to what is already an idyllic community.

True to its name there are trees and gardens all around, not only in this park-like vista. The streets and buildings are aptly named after flowers, like Jasmine, Orchid and Lilac. As one walks along the numerous shrub and tree-lined walkways the distinct odor of flowers pervades. It is easy for one to forget that he or she is in a big city in the midst of a big desert.

I highly doubt that the lucky residents of this community complain very much as Dubaians have come, increasingly, to do. The typical gripes for city dwellers are traffic, high cost of housing, over-crowded living spaces and the rising cost of everything in general. These residents, at least within the confines of their secret little garden, have none of these worries, except for having to pay the same high prices when they visit the big Ibn Battuta Mall, which borders one side of the development.

While there are schools in the neighborhood, most who are employed will likely have to leave the sanctity of the Gardens and battle with everyone else to get to and from their jobs. Although it is conveniently integrated into the city's public bus routes, it could take hours to commute back and forth between the Gardens and city center. All the more reason to treasure returning home each day to their lovely, tranquil gardens.

Free is not always better.

Different from much of new Dubai, the Gardens is a rental, as opposed to freehold community. When I first discovered it in 2003, I was told the waiting list was more than 2 years. The list has since been closed, while rental prices remain almost as low as they were then.

One to three-bedroom apartments will set the renter back around Dhs 2500-4000 per month (US $700-1100). Rental prices in the rest of Dubai only start around Dhs 4000 for a 1-bedroom apartment, and exceed Dhs 10,000 per month for many 2-bedroom flats. This makes the Gardens quite likely the most undervalued housing community in the city.

For a comparable lifestyle, freehold buyers in other communities have to spend Dhs 1,000,000 or more and suffer mortgage payments that run as high Dhs 10-15,000 monthly for up to 15 years. Their monthly management or service fees, on top of any mortgage payments, can easily add up to Dhs 1000 for apartments or Dhs 2000 for townhouses and small villas.

One can presume that those who have found a home in the Gardens are likely never to leave. For those of us not so lucky, we can at least visit the area for a nice stroll or bicycle ride.

610 words
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Tuesday, April 03, 2007


In the UAE the cleaner is a ubiquitous, low-paid worker. Unfortunately they and what they do are taken for granted by many. The squad of young men we see doing such jobs in the UAE stand in contrast to the elderly men--sometimes women--going about their work in solitude in the US, from where I come. Even so, buildings are just as clean, likely due to people doing their own share of cleaning up and a more judicious use of machines.

We encounter these squads of cleaners in the UAE in our work places, in retail and commercial establishments, on the streets and even for some in our places of residence. Even cleaners will have a designated person, to clean their shared accommodations.

The only parallel to this that I can see in the US is in hotels, and even there housekeepers and janitors are comparatively few in number. Of course, to a large extent this difference is due to economics. In countries where there are minimum wage laws, janitors and cleaners of any kind cost a lot of money. It is usually more economical to buy expensive machines--vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, etc.--than to hire sweepers, gardeners and the like to do the menial tasks.

In Japan, where I once lived, the cleaner was indeed a rare breed. People actually swept the streets in front of their own homes and shops. The students were assigned to clean the school themselves--though they rarely did a good job of it. Of course, technology and gadget-driven Japan had its fair share of machines to do the task, as well. Where human labor was involved it was usually an elderly woman. She might be found, for example, busily cleaning a bathroom basin while a male patron relieved himself at an adjacent urinal.

Personally, I like to acknowledge and voice appreciation to the cleaners I meet everyday. While I often feel they are doing the things that I and others should be doing ourselves, I recognize that for many it is an opportunity to earn a wage they otherwise might not.

I wouldn't rate myself a more sensitive or generous person than average, but it is just ingrained in me that a person should dispose of his or her own garbage and clean their own mess. While it might be OK to live it up while vacationing in a posh hotel, even then it would be fair to at least express a measure of gratitude to those cleaning up after you.

I once worked as a cleaner myself, in my college days. It was a short 6-month stint, but it was a job that left me with fond memories. Whether vocalized or not--and it often was--I always had a sense that people appreciated what I was doing. It was a grimy 12-hour shift, on a job I did 7 days-a-week, for up to 4 weeks without a break. It was worth the overtime pay. But, beyond that it really wasn't hard. I felt productive and and the job was rewarding.

Moral of the Story?

Just say hello and thank you to the cleaner. And deposit your rubbish in the trash bins yourself! I know some think, "They're getting paid to do their job... I get paid to do mine." But the little things we might do can make a big difference to them, in making them feel more appreciated. There will always be enough big jobs on hand to keep these workers busy. They don't need to be tied up with all of our basic chores.

608 words
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BTW: This post was inspired by the tireless service of Mohammed and Marif, two cleaners in my office, one always ready to flash a broad smile and the other who has to be coaxed to get all but the slightest of smirks.

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Monday, April 02, 2007


It rained across the Emirates today. That used to be news here, but it seems the past several months have brought about more rainy days than we've had in years.

When I see tomorrow's headlines I will expect to find not so much mention of the rain, as of the number of traffic accidents that will have occurred in Dubai. Several hundred, even up to a thousand seem to get recorded on days with heavy downpours. Most are minor, but one of the most tragic accidents ever occurred on a rainy day a couple of months ago, when a speeding bus lost control, flipped over the highway median and landed in the path of an oncoming van. Ten construction workers died; many more were injured.

Today's rain included marble-sized chunks of hail in the Dubai Marina area. The strong winds that accompanied it led to a fatality at the Princess tower construction site. A board from the scaffolding of a neighboring tower under construction landed on the head of a worker, killing him instantly. It would be a wonder if that were the only fatal or near fatal construction site accident. Nearly the whole of Dubai Marina is a highrise tower construction zone, as is Jumeirah Lake Towers, Business Bay, Burj Dubai Downtown and other areas.

The rain, of course, is welcomed by most, despite the nuisances. (How many will have just got their cars thoroughly cleaned after the last spate of showers, just four or five days ago?) I have heard it said that all this rain is a sign of the times--climate change, you know. Why is it that the notion of climate change is automatically associated with peril? Change isn't by definition a negative event. Imagine if indeed rain became a norm of sorts in desert climates like the UAE's. That would be cause for celebration.

Dubai and other emirates in the UAE have already managed to turn barren desert real estate into highly sought after property. If the desert were to naturally begin to turn green the value of land in this country would rocket up even faster. Landscaping would become much less costly and fewer desalination plants would need to be built. Just yesterday, in fact, the Dubai government announced plans to construct a new US $1.5 billion plant. If the rains were here to stay, then perhaps that money could instead go toward a few more highway projects!

I got caught in the rain today in Abu Dhabi's western region--home to all of the underground oil and gas reserves. The children in the night class I was teaching at got sent home early. One came rushing into class like Paul Revere, trumpeting the onset of a hurricane. "You mean strong wind," I corrected him. Sure enough, however, his description was more apt than mine. When I stepped out onto the open walkway the cascading wind and rain was nearly of hurricane proportions, albeit shortlived.

501 words
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Sunday, April 01, 2007


Although I don't live in Dubai, I visit it frequently. I drive around with my bicycle squeezed into my little Peugeot 206, which allows me to hop out and cycle around some of the nice new developments. The Gardens is one of my favorite. The roads wind and bend, there is little traffic and the adjacent Garden View Villas district, mostly uninhabited, offers hills and beautiful views of gardens and the surrounding cityscape.

On my latest trip I continued on from the Gardens to the neighboring Discovery Gardens project, still under construction. Visible from Sheikh Zayed Road and flanked by high tension electric cables, the mid-rise apartment blocks do little to inspire from that vantage point. They are attractive in design, but one wonders who would want to live amongst such a tangle of high voltage wires.

My bicycle trip, however, gave me a different and altogether awe inspiring view of this development. It was a trek of discovery best suited to a mountain bike, which is able to easily navigate the rough unpaved roads and ride unimpeded past bemused security personnel.

The development is impressive on a number of levels. First of all is its size. The collection of 7-10 story apartment blocks stretches on into the receding desert for at least a few kilometers. It would seem the number of blocks runs into the low hundreds. One can only imagine how many thousands of new apartments and tens of thousands of residents the development can accommodate.

Next, one is struck by the attractive designs, colors and layout of this development. It isn't just a collection of residential blocks, public housing style. It has a European Renaissance look, albeit a somewhat Dinseyesque version, suggesting Venice or other west Mediterranean cities. The assortment of buildings evokes an artist's palette with splashes of pastel pink, orange, olive green, white and brown. There are subtle architectural variations from block to block and section to section, and buildings are oriented individually in such a way as to avoid monotony.

Discovery Gardens was quite the discovery for me, although there is no sign yet of any gardens. Roadways and other infrastructure are not yet in place. Some buildings appear near completion, at least from the exterior, but the complex as a whole is months if not a year or two away from completion. It is clear, nonetheless that once complete, this community will be something of jewel.

A Matter of Perspective

With so many new developments all over Dubai today, it is easy to drive dismissively past Discovery Gardens. It is easy to think that there are so many of these--the Gardens, the Greens, the Springs, the Lakes, etc. It is even easy to overlook a development as massive as this one. Seeing it, however, from the perspective that I did, one can appreciate that it is, in fact, an essential piece in the beautiful jigsaw puzzle that is new Dubai.

The question arises, however, of when and from where the hundreds of thousands of new, sufficiently affluent residents will come to fill these new residences? The irony is that Dubai at present is a city where thousands live in overcrowded conditions, paying up to and over US $1000 per month for a single room in villa or apartment, or for $200 getting a share of a room with 4, 5, even 8 others.

It is also anybody's guess as to how many residences--ranging from studio apartments to multi-floor villas and penthouses--are under construction at present. The number goes well into the hundreds of thousands. Yet, how many among the destitute thousands who live in substandard accommodation today will be able to take up residence in these new, mostly high-priced luxury units?

That is a topic for another day. What is nonetheless amazing is the sheer scale of development. Whether it is Discovery Gardens, a high-rise tower community like Dubai Marina, manmade offshore islands and the like, there is an incredible number of unique and awe inspiring developments waiting to be discovered in Dubai.

683 words
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Saturday, March 31, 2007


Traffic is vying for 1st place as the most talked about issue in Dubai and it is gradually becoming the hot topic in other parts of the Emirates. So much so, that when there was a recent fire in a high-rise tower, the lead headline read, Roof fire throws rush hour traffic out of gear in Dubai. (The other hot button issue is rent increases.)

I remember, on first coming to the UAE in 2000, people were talking about traffic even then. People often compared driving conditions in Dubai with the country's other main city, Abu Dhabi, and usually concluded that it was harder going in Dubai. My own observation was that things moved faster in Dubai. Driving was more challenging on Sheikh Zayed Road, the country's first real expressway, with numerous overpasses and tunnels feeding into it. It certainly made for a thrill.

Now, however, the challenge of Dubai's roads have little to do with thrill and everything to do with gridlock. There are at least two more major expressways and many more flyovers and tunnels, but the volume of traffic has increased several times over. The prognosis is for continued exponential growth in traffic volume.

Pretty pessimistic stuff, but there is a silver lining. A large percent of the current gridlock is no less due to the preponderance of ongoing construction work meant to provide solutions to the gridlock. In this regard one has to take the discomfort with a measure of appreciation.

I would say that the RTA--the Roads and Transport Authority--is the most important governmental department in Dubai in terms of the breadth of its impact on the lives of individuals here. The challenges it faces are gargantuan, yet far from being overwhelmed this department has embarked on a wide variety of schemes to not only eliminate gridlock, but also make Dubai one of the most advanced cities in the world with regard to roads and public transport.

Case in point, a news article of 9 months back heralded, Dubai to spend Dh74b on transport system. That translates into US$ 20 billion. That is what, I would suppose, a mid-sized country might spend on transportation projects, not a single city.

The thought comes to mind of other cities and governments in the world debating for years whether or not to implement this or that new project or scheme to improve transportation, while in Dubai these things are introduced almost monthly. It isn't just talk either. Work on a new massive interchange is announced and in a year you have it. Month to month, riding along the main expressways one will find a new flyover here, new lanes there and so on. It seems the latest bridge across the Creek was started and finished in hardly a year. Not least of all is the new Metro--a 3-year project (for the 40+ kilometers of its first phase)--which while creating chaos across the city, appears to be materializing almost overnight.

People always complain about gridlock, but I see more to be thankful for than to complain. The RTA should be the most admired department in government.

528 words
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Postscript: The RTA Never Sleeps

Gulf news reports on 3 March, Emirates Road to be expanded to 12 lanes.
...meanwhile, construction on a three level interchange with 13 bridges is going on schedule on the roundabout at the Emirates Road linking Dubailand, Autodrome and Arabian Ranches.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007


It's just like prison.
How many times have you heard this, or perhaps thought it yourself about some aspect or another of life? Recently these words were spoken to me by the employee of a catering company where I work in reference to his job and situation. Obviously he's unhappy, but is it really like prison?

As far as I know of his situation it involves a 12-hour workday, more or less for 6 days a week. The off-day offers little chance to get away, as public transport, including wait time, could mean 3 hours in transit to reach the city from the desert site where we work. That's up to 6 hours on a round trip.

On the other hand, his pay while not high includes a hardship stipend. Accommodation--less cramped than that in labor camps or the inner city--is also provided along with meals and some amenities, and the grounds are quite nice for a desert compound.

I recall my own experience when much younger of working in an even more confined and isolated setting. It was on an off-shore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. My 12-hour shift was everyday and I opted to spend up to 5-weeks there without a return trip to the mainland. Once I got used to the environment, it all just came to seem normal. It was a 4-month sojourn in total for me.

Admittedly part of it was the luck of being with pleasant or at least interesting co-workers and other residents. Although I was nothing more than a lowly cleaner, the technicians and hardhat workers above me in status were often more than appreciative of the job I did. In the UAE, such niceties as people to clean up after you are often taken for granted if not expected and demanded. So, doing such work can clearly be more demeaning here.

Glass half-empty or half-full...

In a relative sense one may feel imprisoned within his or her particular setting. Whatever the amenities or lack thereof, one may just need to get away at regular intervals. Even a long time in transit might be a worthwhile price to pay. But many, I suppose, would choose to forgo the lesser of two bad choices and settle for the do-nothing-but-complain option. Even if several hours on a bus were too much to ask, a thirty-minute trip to a nearby albeit less exciting town could do the trick, which is another option for those stuck out at my desert compound.

Alas, that is one fundamental difference between real prison and the prison in our minds. There are options in even the hardest of situations on the outside. But we usually make life more difficult when choosing the wrong, perhaps easier, options that leave us with more despair.

The Real McCoy

I have seen a bit of real prison in the UAE. It usually starts with police confinement, where the accused suddenly finds himself whisked out of normal society and locked into a small hall with others. The wheels of justice which then go into action are slow and non-transparent. While one reads in the newspaper of people getting one to a few months in sentences for this or that minor infraction, the reality is that one never really knows what is going on with his case as the weeks and months roll on.

If only it were the matter of a clear-cut sentence, prison might be almost easy to bear. Instead, everything is a tomorrow or a day after that never comes... until it comes. And when it happens, it occurs in such a flash that one never has the chance to experience the gratification that anticipation should bring.

In a country where a majority of residents do not speak Arabic it is an added hardship that the justice system is conducted only in Arabic. From the menial traffic fine to court proceedings, everything is in Arabic and there is reticence to communicate in any other language. Real incarceration or imprisonment is, in every sense, a whole lot worse than even the most difficult of environments on the outside.

Perhaps there are exceptions. I have heard that some laborers would rather spend time in jail than remain in the predicaments they find in employment. They would prefer to take up an illegal yet more lucrative practice with risk of arrest, than put up with the hardships of job and squalid accommodations. Prison with its solid roof over head and 2 or 3 square meals a day seems less a disincentive to stay away from a life of crime. Jail becomes the better of two evils.

That is what I have heard, but I have never spoken to anyone who had carried out or planned such a strategy. A few perks, like a building with solid walls and regular meals, do not seem to me to be adequate compensation for the complete loss of one's freedom. Perhaps even under such adverse circumstances one can manage to cope by taking a glass-one-quarter-full perspective.

In any event, as few or limited as one's options may be in any situation within normal society, I doubt that it could ever really compare to being in prison.

894 words
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Monday, January 29, 2007


I don't know why it is that the small, neighborhood barber shops are always populated with young men who seem to just be hanging out. The shops I am familiar with usually have on hand their two or three barbers--Bangladeshis, Tamils, Keralites, et al.--in addition to two or three other young compatriots. They sit quietly against the back wall, hang outside the front door or just wander in and out. Sometimes they'll chat with the barber, until he needs to turn away to attend to a customer. That would be someone like me.

These little salons are like relics of times soon to go by, an endangered species on the UAE's quickly modernizing urban landscape. Haircuts go for as little as 10 dirhams, and at times you get what you pay for--a quick, no-frills chop and a shave of questionable hygienic standard. Often, however, you leave with not only a good trim but a complete, invigorating experience.

You are likely to get a close, attentive shave with multiple fresh razors, followed by a spicy aftershave and a good facial rubdown. Next comes a brief, but thorough, massage to head, shoulders, back and arms. There is also the standard, but not-to-be-recommended neck popping. The experience can really amount to a rather extensive, one-stop solution for the man who needs a makeover.

For years I had a favorite barber, who spent up to an hour performing his craft. And that is exactly what it was. He was a barber, his father in Bangladesh a barber and I wouldn't doubt that his grandfather had been one, too. One day, however, he was gone--not on leave, but on an indefinite return back to his homeland. I didn't imagine I would easily find another who could replace him. His skill at giving me just the right cut--and all the little frills--had been, by my reckoning, second to none.

With no alternative, I sought out a salon I had gone to once or twice some years earlier. As expected, the cut I was to get would not be up to my favorite barber's standard, but that was made up for by the excellent service I got at the discretion of the young barber. The eager young man sat me down in a chair in one corner, curtained-off the rest of the salon and turned on a little counter top TV giving me the choice of channel. "This is going to be nice," I thought, and indeed it was.

He followed the trim and shave with a cool, tingling facial and then began the routine massage. Unfortunately it was time for the mid-day break and his colleagues began urging him on. So the massage was abbreviated. Still, it was more than I had expected, and worthy of the wonderful salon attendant's craft that I have come to appreciate in this country. "How much," I asked, prepared to give him whatever he requested. "Thirty-five dirhams," he replied. I gave him 50.

That was far too many days ago. I was looking forward to my next visit, but it was one of those bad hair days that meant I couldn't put off going to the barber any longer. Not on my home turf I had to once again find a new place. Since I was in the Dubai Marina I thought I'd see what was on offer there. There is one side of the Marina where a few of the newly completed towers have small shops on the ground floor. This would probably be cheaper, I thought, than in the more upscale Marina Walk area.

I entered the one salon for men, but no one was in attendance. It was just as well, as I spotted the service menu which read, "Haircut only, Dhs 85." "Eighty-five dirhams! No way," I thought as I made a hasty exit. It was time to head for the cheaper side of town.

That led me to Satwa where a came upon a few shops located within a single block. "Now, which shall I go with," I wondered. My instincts, as it turned out, were not very good that day. What I got was a quick, gruff job. I passed on the shave, and the usually pleasant massage was more a rough smudging of the face and a few hard pats on the head. The barber asked for Dhs 15. I gave him 20, and thought I can't wait till my hair grows out again so I can return to my newly favored barber to get that special salon treatment.

783 words
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Sunday, January 28, 2007


The not-in-my-backyard (n.i.m.b.y.) attitude is alive and well in the Dubai Marina. One forum contributor to's Dubai Marina thread bemoans,
Dubai Marina is absolutely stunning, and with Jumeirah Lake Towers in the background it will become a great skyline; but one thing that ruins it is that UGLY POWER PLANT directly to the left of these developments. I know the power plant is necessary but it is truly unsitely; you can even see the plant from the Palm Jumeirah. I wish there was someway they could relocate this plant!!!
It's an easy sentiment to appreciate. The Marina is billed as an exclusive, upscale high-rise community, where any plot of land large enough to construct a multi-story condominium tower sells for a cool US$40 million. Residents pay top dirham for views of sea, boats and twinkling tower lights--not for smokestacks! But the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority's massive Jebel Ali plant flanks the Marina and occupies as much prime beachfront real estate as all of the Marina.

Like many nimby scenarios, there is little to do but learn to live with it. This power station, Dubai's largest, is crucial if for nothing else than to power and water all of the city's massive new developments. It is almost poetic justice that the huge power station reside beside the Marina, one of the city's first and largest new projects. Although there are rumors (or more accurately, hopes) that this plant will in time be shifted, all indications suggest otherwise. Like the Marina itself this baby is growing larger by the day, as more processing capacity is being built in.

In July 2007, the power plant is due to begin receiving a flow of natural gas via pipeline from Qatar, some 350km across the Gulf. This plant isn't going anywhere. At least, the natural gas feed may mean that it can begin burning more cleanly.

Another Dubai development at which nimby frets have surfaced is the expansive new residential community, International City. Buyers and residents have reported the smell of sewage wafting in from a nearby waste treatment facility. Rumor (or more accruately, hope) was that the plant would be shifted. Instead, master-developer, Nakheel, has announced that the sewage plant would be upgraded and expanded in order to better serve the needs of the sprawling community. Like the power station, the upgrade should mean, at least, that the discharge will be cleaner.

Perhaps I am the eternal optimist when it comes to Dubai. I think it is wrong to take the nimby stance when one clearly benefits from the object of one's opposition. No doubt, the huge Jebel Ali power station is needed now more than ever. There has to be a way to take pride in this mammoth facility rather than begrudge it. It can even be beautiful at times, when seen from Sheikh Zayed Road with the setting sun as a backdrop.

High-tension wires (in the hundreds, it would seem) fan out from the plant, pass over SZR's 10 lanes, brush up against the new Discovery Gardens development and then trail off into the desert. An amazing eyesore, no doubt, but perhaps this along with the power plant can be viewed as an impressive testiment to progress. Dubai, after all, has emerged as not only a tourist mecca but as an economic and industrial powerhouse. There is a measure of pride that one can take in this. One can learn to see beauty not only in presence, but in function as well.

605 words
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Saturday, January 27, 2007


Not sure what to entitle today's post, I settled on Dubai as being closest to what's on my mind. This won't, however, be any sort of overview or particularly representative account of Dubai. Instead, just a few snapshots, so to speak, of the bit of Dubai I experienced today.

One compelling image of the day was smog, in that it made for a particularly striking image. It was in fact a beautifully clear day. I was cruising along Sheikh Zayed Road at about noon, leaving Bur Dubai and heading in the direction of Jebel Ali. As I made my way toward new Dubai the Burj Al Arab was off in the distance in all of its postcard splendor. However, that perfect image was being transformed right before my eyes as two streams of brown-colored atmosphere moved toward and beyond the tower, creating an almost pretty contrast against the rich mid-day blue.

I wondered where it was coming from. I thought I might be lucky to be able to determine, definitively, the source of Dubai's smog. "It's probably coming from the Jebel Ali power station," I surmised, as I had recently read that due to a shortage of natural gas supply the plant had been forced to burn oil for electricity, apparently a much dirtier fuel. But as I approached Dubai Marina, just before the power station, it was apparent that that was not the primary source of the brown haze. The Marina was already enveloped in it, though it seemed more diffused than the streams that flowed past the Burj Al Arab. The source, now undeterminable, was somewhere out in the distant inland desert.

Was it perhaps sand turned up by the countless construction vehicles that incessantly plow the desert? Were there factories of some kind out there? Unfortunately I'd have to remain in the dark a bit longer on the source of Dubai's pollution.

As I continued on with the rest of the day, I soon forgot about that little quest to find what was dirtying the air. I walked around Dubai Marina, where I was instead mesmerized by the towers against the blue sky backdrop and the green and blue waters of the Marina and nearby sea.

The number and height of towers are steadily on the rise. Although I've been in the Marina countless times it appears more and more built up with each visit. But I have no qualms with the ongoing construction and endless detours on the roads. It is clear that what is emerging is something that will be quite spectacular when most of it is said and done.

Later, I made my way to the Ibn Battuta Mall, with its beautiful and varied Oriental themes. Some complain about its Disneyland quality, its artificial and rather superficial display of history. Its Indian, Chinese, Persian, Egyptian and other styling is picture perfect, and all too new. But it is so wonderfully colorful and eclectic. That sufficiently makes up for the fact of having to cross great lengths to get from one establishment to another, as the mall stretches on for hundreds of meters--one or two kilometers I would guess.

As I entered the Chinese court with its huge life-sized replica of a Chinese junk, I marveled to myself, "This is Dubai." I really thought that. It was a completely spontaneous thought, and soon forgotten, until now. At that moment I imagined myself having friends and family visiting me from overseas and showing them this place and saying, "This is Dubai."

605 words
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Friday, January 26, 2007


It may be useful to view the collection of nationalities that co-exist in the UAE as a patchwork of colorful fabrics, which while interconnected remain separate and distinct. As one walks in a shopping mall or down a street--in those parts of cities where one walks rather than drives--an individual's nationality can often be understood by how he or she dresses. Among the various Arab groupings, the color, design and style of the traditional gowns and headpieces are distinctive. Some also wear Western-style clothes, which distinguishes them from those Arabs who generally do not.

It is the same for those from the varied countries of South Asia, who populate the country in large number, where there is a mix of traditional and Western-style clothing, which together with other identifying features--such as hair styles, facial hair, mannerisms, etc.--distinguish one from another. Among Europeans, both Eastern and Western, and among Westerners of various ethnicity, dress is less a distinguishing characteristic than mannerisms or behavior. And of course, among all groupings language, dialect and accent play a big role in identifying nationality.

By way of comparison, one might similarly come across a plethora, as such, of people speaking various languages and dialects, wearing national dress and exhibiting other features of their national origin in other cosmopolitan centers, like New York City, London or Paris. But on the streets of New York, for example, there would appear to be greater intermingling, or at least a tendency for non-locals to begin taking on aspects of the dominant or native culture, whether that be in language, behavior, dress or other forms of expression.

In the UAE, by contrast, this generally does not happen. While all here co-exist, living peaceably and sharing the public and common spaces, the roads, shopping malls, restaurants, parks, etc., the separateness of each group or nationality is quite remarkable. It is rather colorful, and in that sense positive and very much like a tapestry, which can be admired for its richness, contrasts and color. But, this separateness has its negative sense as well, including the commonly recognized failure of different communities to understand and appreciate one another.

Having been in the UAE for over six years, I have always been struck by this notion of distinctiveness among groups with both its good and bad aspects. On balance, it is obvious that people find this arrangement comfortable as it allows them to feel more at home in what might otherwise be an alien environment, even, if not especially, for the native Emirati.

As a Westerner, myself, of United States origin, and in terms of what I consider unique affinities from having lived and travelled in different parts of the world, I find that what I like most in the UAE, and especially in Dubai, is that I can live largely uninhibited the lifestyle I feel most comfortable with. I am bound by neither local traditions nor by my own Western or American heritage. There is a definite and distinct level of freedom in this society that is even somewhat lacking in societies traditionally described as liberal or multicultural.

In America, for example, despite its freedoms, there is sometimes the overbearing sense of Americanism in terms of attitudes, behaviors, outlook, etc., even though the culture accepts a great deal of individual expression. In the UAE, by contrast, I feel I can be as American or un-American as I want to be and not feel out-of-place either way. If I desire I may indulge in Arab, Indian or any number of other cultures without the sense that I am being un-American. This is not to suggest that the UAE is a more free or liberal country than the US; it clearly is not, especially in terms of freedom of speech, religion, politics, etc. But in the sense that such a great variety of lifestyles and cultures co-exist here, UAE society is in many ways more pluralistic than that of the United States and most other countries.

In contrast to the explicit distinctions that exist among the various nationalities here today, I believe that a more assimilated national character will develop within the UAE in time. The fact that this does not exist today is in large part due to the relative youth of the nation and its constant evolution demographically.


The thought behind today's word came to me yesterday as I was sitting at a table in one of the Adnoc Oasis stations between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I was once again struck by the apparent separateness among nationalities here--an Indian (Keralite) family at one table, a group of local (Emirati) men at another, a middle eastern (Lebanese, Jordanian or Syrian) family at yet another, and so on. The first thought that came to mind was, why do they (we--myself included) remain so separate and distinct from one another? But then I thought, this is what works for us here. It is how we are all able to feel most comfortable, whether expat or native.

Then again, there are the so-called local-expats, those born locally of expatriate parents, who could well serve as a bridge across the various divides. They represent, perhaps, a preview of what in the future could be a more assimilated UAE national character.

892 words
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Thursday, January 25, 2007


On 17 January, the UAE had its own version of 9/11. It was in retrospect a rather small scale event, but when people saw images of thick black smoke pouring out of a high-rise tower in Dubai and what appeared to be people falling or jumping in desperation, thoughts of 9/11 resurfaced.

In fact the incident was a fire on the top floors of a 35-story tower, still under construction. The initial images for most were seen not on TV but on the Internet. While there were reportedly up to 300 people trapped on the tower's upper floors, many were rescued by helicopter from roof-top and the majority able to escape via staircases once the fire was brought under control some 2 hours or so after it had started. Final reports are of 2 fatalities and a few dozen injuries, most released from hospital the following day.

It was not 9/11 and rather than terrorism--never even suspected--the cause is being reported as an electrical short or other construction related mishap, aggravated by the fact that the building's fire safety mechanisms were not yet being utilized.

The hallmark of this thankfully limited tragedy is the attention it directs toward issues such as
  1. evacuation and fire-extinguishing procedures in high-rise towers--Dubai will soon have the singularly tallest building in the world along with hundreds of other towers including several over 100 floors; and
  2. safety measures in construction--the fire is only one of a number of high profile accidents in recent years at construction sites or affecting the workers who build them.
Is Dubai moving too fast, is one question that has been raised. Is the government not too negligent if not complicit in poor safety measures at building sites and poor health and safety regulations in general?

These types of questions are useful to raise, but one should not be so quick to point fingers. Although the exploding construction sector and over exuberance for grandiose projects clearly have their faults, Dubai is engaging in a social and engineering experiment of sorts which requires all parties to improve and expand their functionality and effectiveness. The country is in essence attempting a speedy transition from a third world paradigm to a first, with a substantial measure of success. Anyone who has been in the UAE over a period of a few years will be aware of how many changes there are, often improvements, within any relatively short span of time.

419 words
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Wednesday, January 24, 2007


I'm sitting in my classroom. Like the naughty pupil who does his own thing while the teacher thinks he's studying, I work at my blog. But I'm the teacher, not the student. My small class of Emiratis are chatting in Arabic about last night's soccer match, I presume. I was told I am not to refer to them as students, as they are all adults and may be insulted by the suggestion that they are akin to school brats.

I've been teaching similar groups of Emirati young men for the past 6 1/2 years. They've ranged in age from 17 to the late 30's. It is easy to generalize and say that they are not keen learners. Why would they be, actually, when education and learning are presented to them more as a formality for the job or position they are otherwise guaranteed to get?

Despite that, there are always a few who are well-motivated and gifted. Likewise, while many are boisterous and insolent, there are the few who are quiet and reserved. This exception is one that really stands out. Such individuals seem to possess a spirit of quiet resolve and defiance. They appear to go against the grain of Emerati society which tends to enforce a common group identity above that of the individual.

My trainees, as I am asked to refer to them, are enjoying their chance to chat unfettered as much as I am my chance to blog. But it's time to get back to the job at hand.

263 words
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Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Pardon the dramatics, but I'm wondering if my little blog here is as they say, dead in the water. It's definitely out of steam, but I'm reluctant to let it go. I've tried and failed once to resurrect it, but here goes another attempt. It will mean a radical shift in style, but that is hopefully better than closing shop.

The new flavor involves spontaneity and letting go of the presumption of expertise. It was my intention, formerly, to offer reflective comment based on the experience of being on the ground in the UAE. While the being on the ground part was real, my ability to reflect and then elaborate in any meaningful sense on that experience was the really hard part, especially on a daily basis. So, the alternative is just to write briefly on whatever thought that presents itself, and just hope a few meaningful images or anecdotes spill out.

And, the real kicker is that I'll give myself just 15 minutes to do it--the rough draft, that is. So, with just two minutes to go I'll add that it is worth blogging about life in the UAE because this has to be one of the most fluid and changing societies in the world today. That makes life here both challenging and fascinating. It is a place of constant change, but this change is neither random nor anarchic. It is purposeful and driven by a dream--of the state and of many individuals--to become something great. Times up!

258 words
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