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.

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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.

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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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