Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I suppose HIV status is passé for most of humankind unless one is or becomes a victim of the virus, or someone near or dear does. Fair enough. There are so many issues in life. Besides, HIV/AIDS basked in the spotlight of media and world attention in the 1980s and 90s. That is perhaps longer than a lot of other worthy issues have.

That said, it doesn't hurt to bring up the subject now and then as it remains a serious matter regardless of where it might be on the public's radar. In the UAE, in fact, it is not only a medical issue but a human rights one as well.

A scenario to consider... A person in the UAE goes in for medical screening (normally required when one applies for or renews a visa). The mandatory HIV screening shows up a posiitive--HIV+. This will automatically disqualify the person from receiving the visa or renewal. Department of Heath policy states,
HIV test is required for both new cases and visa renewal.
Test Interpretation: Positive result of the test will render the individual unfit to work in Dubai, U.A.E.
On the one level, so what? Why should a foreign applicant be granted a visa to live or work in the country when they are in some capacity not fit to do so? It is the prerogative of any country to admit who it pleases. Personally, I have no quarrels with this.

But what about in the case of visa renewal? In a country where perhaps as much as 90% of the resident population is foreign--non UAE passport holders--there are quite literally a million or more (of the total 5 million population) renewing visas and getting screened on an annual basis. Without researching the numbers, I would reasonably guess that a very large number of these renewals are for long-term resident expatriates.

Now, back to the scenario... Say, for example, a long-term resident has inadvertently and perhaps even unknowingly contracted the illness. Upon screening and being found HIV+, it isn't a case of simply being denied entry into the country. Instead, one is uprooted and expelled from the country. Regardless of what familial, financial and other commitments that person may have in the UAE, he/she is rather ruthlessly expelled.

There are stories of people being arrested at once and incarcerated, while immediate deportation proceedings are carried out. The person is hardly given the chance to make contact with family or loved ones much less make arrangements to relocate or settle their accounts--social, business, financial and otherwise.

Nightmare Scenario

Can you imagine! I don't think many take the time to think about what this must really be like. Ironically, it should make the impact of becoming aware that one is afflicted with this ailment seem almost trivial compared to the immediate trauma of being uprooted from one's life and livelihood.

That is where the question of human rights arises. If such stories are true, then it would mean that quite serious violations of human rights are occurring. I cannot even speculate on the number of cases there might be--if, again such stories are true. Sadly, for some, it would not even be a matter of repatriation, as there are among the expatriate population a percentage who were actually born here. To be forcibly deported from the country under such conditions would amount to forced banishment and exile from one's homeland.

My primary concern in this post is the human rights issue. But there is also a medical one, whereby such a draconian policy could in fact facilitate, rather than, impede the spread of HIV among the population. Just think about it--one may have reason to fear that he/she has contracted the virus. In most forward thinking societies the message is test, test, test! Know your status. But doing so--getting tested--in the UAE would risk facing the plight described above should one be so unfortunate as to have had contracted the ailment.

As a result of this fear--not of the disease but of government action--no one gets tested voluntarily in the country. One is practically forced to live with the virus untested and untreated, greatly increasing the risk of its further dissemination among the population. Touchet!

Dubai Cares... about what?

Shame on the UAE. I believe it is one of very few countries in the world with such draconian policy regarding HIV and AIDS. Now, what about Dubai's so called Health Care City. I am not sure that the word Care really belongs there. The country's stance on this issue is not only inhumane, but it also represents a potential failure to control the spread of the disease.


Recent reports speak of government plans to illiminate job discrimination against HIV+ individuals. Good news? Well, any such laws will be for the benefit of the 10% or so of the population who are UAE nationals. For the other 90% of the resident population, it remains a case of immediate arrest and deportation.

Free education, free medical care and other benefits bestowed upon the national population are well within the purview of any government. Little argument can be made that such privilages should be bestowed upon non-citizens. But a country does not have the right to treat its non-citizen resident population or even visitors in a manner such as that exercised against those found to be HIV+.

The Crux of the Matter:

UAE government policy is to...

  • deny the right to work or remain in country to any new arrival or new visa applicant found to be HIV+. Fair enough.

  • deny such rights to a person who has already established residency in the country who at some point is found to be HIV+. No, this is not fair.

  • incarcerate and immediately expell any non-citizen, resident or new arrival, from the country who is found to be HIV+. Absoluely criminal.

For further or more up-to-date info...

Feel free to scroll all the way to the bottom and start with the most recent comments.
I also welcome any personal mail to me at upandhi@gmail.com.

Best Wishes to All
B.D. (updated 12-Mar-2016)

Thursday, September 18, 2008


This is my final edition of the Fire report. The National, first published early this year and Abu Dhabi's answer to Gulf News, has done an excellent reporting job again. As an aside, I have to say I liked this paper the day it first came out for its style of writing long, in depth articles. It offers a good combination of info, analysis and commentary. Gulf News has the traditional format of rather brief articles, while longer ones seem to restate what was just mentioned, sometimes in identical words.

I didn't really expect The National to have been able to keep it up but but it has, this time with an excellent exposé on the cause of the fire and related commentary.

Interestingly, the article quotes the building manager as saying that the "penthouse" shacks on the rooftop were part of the original, approved blueprint. Perhaps so, but I'm sure they weren't intended as residences, nor needed for such a purpose, as in years past the UAE and Abu Dhabi in particular was a mecca of spacious, cheap accommodation.

Apparently, many of the tenants are concerned that the building will be condemned, as it probably should be. It is, however, a sturdy stucture, and were this not the land of brand new everything, it would probably be just fine. What it really needs, besides a lower residency count and a lot of paint and facade work, is smoke alarms and the like, which could probably easily be retrofitted. It could turn out that the fire is just what it takes to get added improvements.

If they do decide to condemn the building I suppose some could end up on the streets--well, that doesn't happen here in the UAE. I wonder where the destitute really end up if not being forced to return to their country of origin. I'm sure, however, that some don't have that luxury--perhaps they can't afford the ticket home, or there really isn't a home to go back to. As for me, I'd be forced to face that world of stratospheric rental rates.

Without further ado, I turn this follow-up report to The National:

Oops, Planers Investigate Fire "Penthouse" is the story but it appears to be available only in the print edition. The Gulf News follow-up article will have to do in its place.
Abu Dhabi: At least 67 people, including 14 fire-fighters, were injured in Tuesday's blaze atop a building on Airport Road, officials told Gulf News.

Eleven among the injured were hospitalised, though no one suffered any serious injuries, according to the police.

The fire, that had erupted on the roof of the densely populated 16-storey building, trapped dozens of people on top floors. A wooden shack, built illegally on the roof, and two apartments on the 15th and 16th floors were gutted.

"It took over a hundred firemen more than two hours to put off the flame that began around 12.45 pm," said Colonel Othman Al Tamimi, Director of Emergency Management and Public Safety.

"The fire began from a makeshift home made illegally on the terrace," said Lt Colonel Mohammad Al Nuaimi, the head of the Quick Intervention Team of Abu Dhabi Police.

"Most of the people suffered from excessive smoke inhalation and not burns", he added.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Day 2, after a restful night in Dubai.

I went to work in the morning as usual. The same friend who had alerted me to the fire, told me this morning of news reports that those affected would be provided temporary accommodation, on the generosity of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed and the Red Crescent Society. Interesting, I thought—it had never occurred to me that the powers that be would intervene to that extent. Perhaps part of the spirit of Ramadan.

Late in the afternoon I arrived back at the scene of the tragedy. My colleagues at work had commented on my calmness, but as I approached my building I began to feel uneasy. So different from just 24 hours earlier, the large parking lot was once again full of parked cars, rather than all the big yellow emergency vehicles. To that extent things had already returned to normal.

I entered the building—only the rear entrance open—and made my way slowly up the stairway to my fifth floor flat. There were lights on in the corridors but other areas were still dark. Glass and other debris littered the stairwell along with patches of water.

Reaching my flat, I was surprised to find a shattered window open to the stairwell and the door bashed in. It was quite apparent that the rescue teams were responsible for the break-in, as other flats were similarly damaged. It was a bit unnerving to find all my worldly possessions left exposed to any who might happen by.

Images of Katrina came to mind. One’s life suddenly borne open, exposed to the will of some unforeseen calamity. Of course, I was lucky that I had not lost my possessions to fire, but the feeling was a bit unnerving nonetheless.

It was, however, crystal clear to me that this was Abu Dhabi and not New Orleans. The risk of being a victim of looting seemed extremely remote. People just don’t do that here. Sure, you hear and read about what seems to be increasing incidents of crime in the Emirates, but if we talk percentages, I would insist that the risks here are still extremely low.

The office where I work, for example, is left most of the day and into the late evening open to whoever might push the door, even when no one is inside. The neighborhood bank branches have no security personnel on duty. Lock your car doors—why bother? Leave a camera, a laptop, your shopping bags inside—no problem. I love that.

But many, including myself, try not to take it all for granted. I have a habit of locking my car door, keeping a double lock on my flat, and making sure not to leave valuables lying about. Still, the law of percentages is certainly on the side of safety in the UAE. I plan to get my door replaced tomorrow, but I won’t worry in the interim that my unlocked flat remains vacant for another night.

That brings me to the highlight of the day-after story. That offer of free accommodation has turned out to be quite genuine. I find myself tonight enjoying the comfort of a new 5-star hotel in Abu Dhabi. It appears that on a first-come first-serve basis, those who applied for assistance were lodged in a nearby red light district sort of hotel. As chance would have it, I was a latecomer and that hotel was full.

I was directed instead to the 121 Hotel. Never heard of it, I thought, as I drove around in circles looking for another red light special. As it turned out 121 was in fact One-to-One, a newly branded 5-star property modeled loosely, it would appear, on the very high-styled One & Only Resorts. I have to blush and say it is one of the nicest hotel properties that I have ever stayed in—with attractive villa style layout and 5-star amenities.

Thank you, Sheikh Hamdan. The spirit of Ramdan has left its imprint on me.

Addendum: Cause

A report in today's Gulf News rings true. They blame the outbreak of fire on the existence of illegal, makeshift structures--shacks--erected on the roof of the building. This should come as no surprise to any current UAE resident. Although this is a country without visible slums, housing costs start at US $1000 per month for a studio--and studio flats are rare to find. The market provides mainly 2-3 bedroom apartments and 4-5 bedroom villas. What is a single-resident earning $250 per month to do?

Where planners and developers have failed to respond to the true demographic conditions, would-be entrepreneurs have stepped in to fill the void. They install plywood partitions in villas and flats or ply up to 20 beds (bunk-bed style) in rooms intended for use as single bedrooms and sitting rooms. Apparently, they build wooden shacks on the roof-tops of apartment blocks as well.

Even a bunk bed space costs $150/month upwards. A wage owner of $250/month is not going to want to spend 60% of that on a single bed. I would guess the makeshift shack on the top of my building provided accommodation in the range of $50/month. I didn't know it was there, and due to the fact that Abu Dhabi has rows of towers and apartment blocks all constructed to identical heights, residents of surrounding buildings are not likely to see these improvised solutions.

I had guessed all along, however, that there were a lot of partitioned rooms or bunk beds at the top of the building. The elevators went up to floor 15 and without fail, every trip the elevator made was to the top floor. So apparently there were larger numbers of people residing there.

The government here, really needs to address the housing problem, but not through rent control, as it is currently doing. It needs to provide dormitories for the hundreds of thousands of single (as in here in-country alone--married and not), low-wage workers.

Ironically, the so-called laborers are the ones to be envied by other low-paid workers now. Numbering a million or more, these who labor to construct the country's massive new infrastructure and construction builds are provided company housing--labor camps--for which the government in recent years has gradually forced companies to improve. It used to be the norm for these workers to be packed up to 20 in a room in rickety, port-a-cabin type structures. The average room population now is probably below 10, with some who were 16 to a room just a couple years ago now enjoying lodging shared with only 3 other co-workers. This is in contrast to low-paid service workers residing 8-20 in a room of strangers.

I can completely understand people resorting to makeshift shacks discretely poised on building roof-tops, although the hazards are apparent. My own building is also just old. There are no fire alarms, sprinklers or even fire hydrants. There are 12 flats to a floor which I would estimate have an average of 3 or 4 residents each. Rent-control, however, means that I stay there and pay the approximately $500/month charge for a studio flat, while at renewal time the landlord informed me that the rate for anyone who newly moved in was around $1500/month! This is a for an old, run-down, over-crowded building where bathrooms, for example, are open to the outside to allow the window or split ACs to vent.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


...at my building!

Helicopter Rescue in Abu Dhabi, The National

I haven't made a post in quite a while. Now I've got something to blog about. I reside in a crummy, 17-story apartment block in Abu Dhabi. Crummy because it's an old run-down building. In today's rent control environment, one basically has to stay put even if living conditions are less than optimal.

While at work today, 140 km away in Dubai, a friend calls and says, Hey, your building's on fire!

My building? I ask with a tone of surprise. No one around me in the office picks up on the conversation until I mention calmly that my building's on fire.

My friend reports helicopters circling the building, fire trucks all around, smoke pouring from the top, and he could even see flames. To my good fortune, I could ascertain that the fire was not near my floor, more than half a building below the fire.

More than two hours later I arrive on the scene. Fire trucks are still everywhere, a bit of white smoke rising from the top floor, but little visible sign of damage to the facade of the building. It wasn't that bad, I conclude. I gather from a few spectators that no one was hurt and that only the top floor burned. The helicopters? Apparently they were used to douse the fire, as water still seemed to be draining through the central elevator shaft out to the front and rear entrances of the building.

If there was any wild excitement I suppose it had faded, as most spectators--fewer than a hundred it seemed--milled about calmly. Some, for sure, were residents like myself. I recognized only a few, and the watchman. What was interesting was to see the mix of nationalities and cultures--Egyptians, Filipinos, Indians, Afghans... A few older Emirati men stood by and talked with police--perhaps the building owner.

Predictably the emergency personnel were mostly Arabic, non-English speaking. But there was a contingent of Europeans--rescue workers perhaps. At one point one of the non-English speaking officers was tasked with collecting the names, flat numbers and number of residents in each unit. One by one, we passed on our details. He spoke enough English to communicate what he wanted, although there was sometimes confusion about the numbers.

That was pretty much it. Less eventful than I might expect a my building on fire event to be. I am surprised at the number of emergency vehicles. Perhaps there had been no other such incidents this day.

After passing on my details I escaped to my car. Luckily I had my laptop inside, and where I park am able to pick up a stray signal to get online. This is a live report folks.

What next? Perhaps I head back to Dubai and find a hotel room. I've no idea when I'll be able to get back into my flat, but I doubt it will be today. Thankfully, no one was hurt. I guess tomorrow I should visit the insurance office and take out that policy to insure personal belongings--something which has long held a place on my to do list.

One final observation I can make is that as old as my building is, the fire predictably had not spread. I've seen lots of fires here--on the pages of the newspaper mostly--where flats in towers burn. They seldom seem to spread, although there have been some horrific fires recently at warehouses, buildings under construction and other sites. The fact that all tall towers and tower blocks here are built primarily with concrete (steel-reinforced, of course) means that the danger of massive building fires seems remote. I must also add that it is noteworthy that there were 4 helicopters--according to one spectator I spoke to--about 10 fire trucks and other emergency vehicles to attend the blaze. This indicates that the civil authorities, in Abu Dhabi at least, have their act together. Good on the UAE.


Although I don't normally post pics to this blog (I prefer to let the words tell the story) I make an exception this time with news accounts of my building's fire--apparently much more serious than I was told. There were injuries.

Gulf News photos

The National coverage

Saved from the Flames, The National article and video report.

The NationalGulf News
Abu Dhabi // A young girl and two adults were airlifted to safety by helicopter today in a dramatic rescue from the roof of a blazing 16-storey apartment block in the centre of the capital.

The fire is thought to have broken out at around 12.45pm in what appeared to be makeshift rooftop accommodation on the Fathima Supermarket building in Airport Road.

Thick smoke quickly engulfed the roof as the fire took hold in the 15th and 16th floors.

Firemen, hampered by parked cars and hundreds of passers-by who were watching the drama unfold, managed to evacuate the building.

Children wearing paper face masks to protect them from the dangerous fumes were led out to safety.

A reporter and photographer from The National who had climbed onto a neighbouring roof spotted a Filipino man and an Arab woman and her daughter trapped on top of the burning building. They immediately alerted the emergency services.

Within minutes, a fire engine had positioned itself below the blaze but its ladder was only able to reach the 13th floor – three metres short of the rooftop.

At this point an army and a police helicopter were dispatched.

On the roof the woman shouted in Arabic to the reporter: “Saedna (help us). There is fire outside my door and smoke is coming into my flat. I am too scared to go to the door.”

Four metres away, across a rooftop wall, the Filipino man, who had a white towel wrapped around his head to protect him from the smoke, yelled: “I was asleep and just woke up. I can feel the heat and can’t get close enough to the door to shout to the firemen.”

Minutes later the police helicopter carefully manoeuvred into place and a rescuer winched the young girl and then her mother to safety.

A larger helicopter from the UAE armed forces picked up the man. Its strong downdraught dislodged a satellite dish that fell to the ground.

Nour Omar, who lives on the 10th floor, said: “I was sleeping when I woke up and saw smoke outside my window. I ran to wake up my mother and sister and dialled 999 and was told to get out of the building as quickly as possible.”

While the cause of the blaze remains unknown, a woman resident, who asked not to be named, said she had heard it started in a faulty air conditioning unit in one of the houses built on the roof.

A man who gave his name as Nishab, who has worked in the supermarket on the building’s ground floor for four years, said it was an old structure. The makeshift rooftop dwellings were apparently jokingly referred to as “the penthouse” and one or two were occupied, he added.

It took firemen about an hour and a half to extinguish the blaze. No one was killed, although several residents and two firemen were treated at Sheikh Khalifa Hospital.

Several firemen were also treated at the scene suffering from exhaustion attributed to smoke inhalation and their day-long Ramadan fast.

Mohammed al Niami, head of Abu Dhabi’s Quick Intervention Team, a new rescue unit trained to tackle large-scale emergencies, said his first priority was to evacuate the top two floors of the building, which were engulfed in smoke and ash. “We didn’t have any problems fighting the fire because it was under control. Smoke was the main problem.”

He added that several firemen had collapsed. “It was in Ramadan and they were fasting and they needed water,” he said. “Some of them collapsed unconscious because they were fasting. It was a small problem – they were given food and water.”

The large-scale emergency required co-operation from several branches of the Abu Dhabi emergency services. Eight fire engines from five stations across the city attended the scene with a number of ambulances and two “bus” ambulances, provided by the Emergency and Public Safety Department, to treat light injuries.

“There was good co-operation between us and civil defence, the owner of the building and the owners of the helicopters,” said Mr Niami.

Jane, a resident in a neighbouring building who refused to give her last name, reported seeing emergency vehicles struggle with the chaotic parking outside apartment block. “I’m really concerned,” she said.

“Fire trucks and ambulances should be able to come through. In case of emergencies, how are people supposed to get there?”

* Essam al Ghalib, Matt Kwong, Matt Bradley and Daniel Bardsley contributed to this report.
Dozens injured in Abu Dhabi blaze
By Rayeesa Absal, Staff Reporter
Last updated: September 16, 2008, 16:29

Abu Dhabi: A fire broke out in a 16-storey building along the Airport Road on Tuesday, injuring dozens of people, including women and children, police said.

The fire, which erupted at around 1pm on the 15th and 16th floors, also destroyed two floors of the building, which is located between 13th and 15th streets.

Civil defence and rescue officials were still struggling to put out the fire when Gulf News contacted them at 5pm. "The exact number of those injured is still unavailable as all our officials are still at the scene," a spokesperson for the civil defence said.

Initially, many people, mostly children, were trapped in their apartments. "I saw smoke coming out of the window and rushed to see what happened. When I realised the building was on fire I took the stairs to go down at the earliest," said Mohammad Abbas, a resident.

According to a civil defence official at the scene, the cause of the fire is still unknown. However, a resident of the building said on condition of anonymity that a penthouse was set up illegally on the roof of the building. "The fire seems to have erupted on the roof," he said.

Frantic scenes

Rescue officials acted quickly to evacuate the building. Several children were airlifted in helicopters to safety. Dozens of frantic parents were in a state of panic, as hundreds of onlookers gathered around the area.

"Give me my child ... please bring my child," cried a mother before she fainted and fell to the floor. She was looking for her daughter, who was undergoing treatment for smoke inhalation in a mobile clinic. Officials pacified the woman, gave her some water and explained the situation.

Dr Bawsan Hallawi, a resident of the building who was treated for smoke inhalation, said, "I was given oxygen at the mobile clinic and am feeling better now."

Minutes later, members of the community police arrived at the scene to calm panicky residents. In between, as the helicopter came down close to the building, clouds of dust were blown at the onlookers and people rushed for shelter in nearby buildings.

Josephine, a teacher who resides in the next building, said the police prevented them from going up their building until around 3 pm, as there was risk of a power disconnection.

Parents of schoolchildren were seen making calls to locate their offspring.

"The bus is supposed to reach here at 1.30pm. I assume the police stopped them from reaching the area," said Aisha Sulaiman, a parent.

Saturday, March 29, 2008


I've seen the bridge and the bridge is long, and they built it high and they built it strong. Strong enough to hold the weight of time. Long enough to leave some of us behind. And every one of us has to face that day. Do you cross the bridge or do you fade away?
I listen to these words often as I travel up and down SZR going to work and returning home. While the words are sung by Elton John the image they conjure up is that of the planned Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Crossing, the sixth bridge to span Dubai's Creek and a bridge destined to become one of the most striking landmarks in Dubai.

It seems today that Dubai is a city where a new bridge opening is announced every four months. Within the past year or two we've had the widening of Makhtoum Bridge, the construction of the Floating Bridge, the opening of the Business Bay Bridge, the re-construction of Garhoud Bridge and now the announcement of the 6th crossing, the grandest of them all. Each of these new bridges or widening projects has represented a major construction feat in and of itself, the Business Bay crossing, for example, comprising 13 lanes.

The Floating Bridge is also quite remarkable. It seems to have been put together in about a year's time, has 6 lanes and actually floats on the the water's surface while being joined to the shore on either side. A span is even opened at night to allow boats to pass.

$100 a barrel of oil buys plenty of toys (not to mention bombs, madrassahs, and board seats in US companies).

I.e. just one more extravagance in oil-rich Dubai. This derisive comment appears following an online post extolling the virtues of the new bridge. While Dubai could hardly be any further removed from the kind of radicalism that produces the bombs of terrorists, its wealth, only partly attributable to oil, is certainly financing its multitude of building and infrastructure projects. That, however, should not detract from what will no doubt be an architectural and engineering wonder to add to Dubai's ever futuristic cityscape. If built to plan, the bridge should rank as one of Dubai's most recognizable and appealing landmarks, only second to its new 160+ story Burj Dubai tower (U/C) and ahead of the its iconic Burj Al Arab Hotel .

It will have 12 lanes and a dual metro track running through its center. Its length will be 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) including 2 arched spans. The larger of these spans will be 205 meters in height and 667 meters in width, to make this bridge the largest arch bridge in the world. Tribute should go to the bridge's designers as the render depicts the most magnificent of structures (details). As the melodic percussive notes in the Elton John ballad lead to the opening verse, "I've seen the bridge, and the bridge is long...," the beautiful image of the Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Crossing comes to mind as a new symbol for Dubai.

It will be Dubai's Brooklyn Bridge or Golden Gate. Indeed, it will become Dubai's Sydney Harbor Bridge with an opera house to boot. The entire surrounding area, like so many parts of Dubai, is scheduled for a total transformation, to include a massive Sydney style opera house and a collection of dancing towers, the tallest to rise some 100 stories.

Where’s [sic] the environmental impact statements for the, carbon footprint, snail darter, spotted owls and all the other must haves before projects like this can be started?

Another commenter raises this interesting question. One reason Dubai is getting built on such a massive scale is that the rulers, who authorize such projects, may do so by fiat. This, however, does not mean environmental impact studies are not done. Studies are done and some recommendations are followed, especially now as Dubai appears more and more prominently on the radar of international observers. That said, the site of this construction is on the edge of a large bird sanctuary, extremely rare in a region covered with harsh desert terrain. The government asserts that it will carry out these feats of construction without destroying this amazing natural habitat. Time will tell.

The time frame for construction, according to New York architecture firm FXFowle which designed the bridge, is from the present till early 2013. By that time three or more metro lines will have been constructed, along with additional Creek crossings and the extension of the Creek itself to the Arabian Gulf, thus turning most of central Dubai into a virtual island.

The song's lyrical bridge takes on a cautionary tone,
And the bridge it shines, all cold hard iron saying, "Come and risk it all, or die trying."
And the online commenter waxes, "If the current 'Disneylandia' (to use a non-word) over Dubai ends, the city will end up being one of the world's prettiest failures."

No, Dubai won't fail--oil prices are not going to fall. Dubai, in fact, prospers because, rather than in spite, of the turmoil that afflicts nearby countries. Dubai is the safe haven that the wealthy, with their wealth, flock to. Adverse conditions in distant economies as well, mean that the oil riches of surrounding emirates and states get parked in Dubai's flourishing markets--primarily real estate.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Here is my theory. The government conspired to minimize and obfuscate the scale and extent of the 11 March highway tragedy. There are a couple of strong indications of this. One, no mention was made (allowed) in the media of the approximately 80-car pile up that took place near Al Rahba. How can something of this magnitude go unmentioned even if the 200-car pile-up at Ghantoot was obviously a more dramatic story?

Two, it would appear that there are a number of other patches of scorched roadway on both sides of the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway, much smaller, but similar to the massive patch of scarred tarmac at the site of the 200-car crash. These include one, some 10 kilometers before the Ghantoot crash site (Dubai bound), and two others on the Abu Dhabi bound side of the highway, one not far from Ghantoot and another not far from the Al Rahba crash area. I had travelled this highway daily for 3 months prior to the 11 March tragedy and never noticed these patches of burnt tarmac. It appears, therefore, that there were fiery crashes at at least 3 other points on the highway.

Although I can only speculate on whether any other fiery crashes occurred, there is little reason to believe that, had these accidents indeed occurred, they would have been reported by authorities. The approximately 80 crashed cars that I drove past that morning failed to merit mention so why should a few other small crashes here and there get acknowledged? Scattered patches of extremely dense fog could have led to numerous smaller accidents all along this stretch of highway and along other highways as well. In fact, a newspaper reader that day commented in an online post that there was a 14-car pile up in Abu Dhabi's Western Zone, near Tarif. Unfortunately, the true extent of carnage that took place on the roadways of Abu Dhabi on 11 March 2008 will most likely never come to light.

Official reports had said that there was a 200-car pile-up on the Dubai bound highway at the Ghantoot exit, resulting in some 30-burnt cars, 300 plus injuries and 3 deaths. Wow, that is a big story, which had plenty of dramatic photos and video footage to accompany it. Such an event was hard to keep under wraps, so it made the headlines. The authorities, it would seem, would take advantage of all the attention this event garnered to keep a lid on reports of any other incidents. Their strategy worked. I only know about the separate pile-ups involving 80 cars because I was there. I know about the 14-car pile-up on the Tarif road because I came across a comment online. I can only speculate on the three other possible fiery crashes along the Abu Dhabi - Dubai highway.

What about other crashes that did not result in fires? What about other possible incidents along Abu Dhabi's other highways?

Why Not the Truth?

Image... reflex... Abu Dhabi is not Dubai. It is conservative and it is used to obfuscation. It's hard for an old dog to learn new tricks. Does it really make sense to downplay the dangers of fog and less than careful driving? All news is bad news, I suppose, is a dictum that the powers-that-be pay homage to. That would have certainly been the case in an Abu Dhabi that began in the 1970's its rapid transformation from scattered tribal communities to an urban metropolis. The family (the ruling tribe) would control everything including the news, as any good feudal leadership would do. Some 30 years later, this manner of leadership is on the wane in the UAE, but it still exists.

Although the rulers still rule by fiat, other voices can be heard and the leadership's focus appears above all (more so in Dubai than in Abu Dhabi) to be on the development of a modern prosperous economy, which is likely to benefit all, not merely the rulers and their clans. Nevertheless, many of the old bad habits persist, among them the effort to keep critical and unflattering reports out of the press. The reflexive reaction is to deny that anything else happened on the highways that fateful morning.

Had the melee occurred on the Dubai side of the border, I believe a more complete picture would have emerged. Read the local dailies, for example, and note that the nation and crime pages report almost exclusively on events in Dubai. What about Abu Dhabi--is it so much more safe and quiet here? Do domestic disputes not take place, do workers labor in tranquility, are petty thieves and crime gangs non-existent? There is a lingering climate of secrecy and press manipulation in Abu Dhabi, much stronger than exists in a Dubai which seems to have had, even historically, a more open and liberal climate.

As a case in point, on the morning of 26 March many in Dubai found themselves rising to the powerful blast of an explosion on a warehouse site. A mushroom cloud rose into the sky and a large portion of city skyline was shrouded in black. Reports of the extent of the tragedy were largely unfettered. It was being reported that 80-100 warehouses were burnt resulting in as much as 600 million AED (163 million USD) in damage. I cannot imagine that any similar degree of unfettered reporting would have taken place had this tragedy occurred in Abu Dhabi.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

the Fog

It still bothers me--the circumstances around the 11 March highway melee. There are two things that trouble me. One, the apparent cover-up of the extent of what happened. The other, the cause. I will start off with the easier of the two to analyze--the cause.

People's knee-jerk reaction, you see, is to blame the drivers. The UAE, among its residents at least, is notorious for its wild, reckless and arrogant drivers. So, why blame mother nature when it seems there is a more likely culprit. My experience on the roads of the Emirates over the past several years, however, tells me that drivers are becoming more careful and indeed more adept at driving. Five or six years ago, a crashed car on just about any weekend night along the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway seemed quite the norm. Now, it is quite rare that I see one, even though the number of cars on the road have increased several-fold.

Like anyplace, you will have that percentage of wild and arrogant drivers, but I would dare to say that many a UAE driver has learned lessons the hard way from mean and careless driving, and that things have been improving over the years.

It Was the Fog

On that incredibly foggy morning, I myself, had slowed down to 60 kph. There were some drivers going even slower, while only a few were going much faster. There was no great multitude of speeding drivers that might easily account for pile-ups adding up to over 200 cars. In fact, at 6:45 in the morning, when the Ghantoot pile-up occurred, there would not have been that great a number of cars on the road. On this fateful morning, regardless of who the driver was, the fog had the upper hand.

When I started off from Abu Dhabi that morning I thought to myself, "Here we go again." It was the third day running for this kind of weather. But not long before I reached the first crash site I was thinking, "Oh my God, this is the thickest fog I've ever seen in my life!" My technique, under such conditions, was to make sure that I was close enough behind any car in front of me to see its tail lights. In that way I could be certain of the length of the gap between us and could adjust my speed accordingly. But where the fog was its thickest, this was almost impossible to do. In seconds the tail lights of the car in front would disappear and leave me with no idea how much space there was between me and the next car.

Only a couple of minutes before reaching the first crash site I had already decided to pull off the highway, but would not do so until I reached the next petrol stand--about 10 kilometers away. As events would unfold, however, I would never get that chance. Reaching the initial crash site and eventually passing 80 wrecked cars, I and everyone else still moving on the road, were diverted at the next interchange and forced to return to Abu Dhabi. It was some 2 and 1/2 hours later and the fog had lifted as the sun shone brightly, but the highway onward toward Dubai remained a no-go, for all the crashed cars that littered the road further ahead.

I was also thinking to myself shortly before reaching ground zero, "Man, I'm in the clouds!" It was the fog that morning--so thick in places--which had caused the melee. Just as airport runways are closed when the fog reaches certain levels, so should the highways. Official announcements ought to be broadcast that highways will be closed from time X to time Y, thus forcing drivers to remain put.

Next post on the nature of the cover-up.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Day one, post tragedy... try New York City, early morning 9/11, 2001. Many will remember this as one of the most glorious days a city could have--weather-wise. The day after on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway was like that. A bright, crisp, beautiful morning. The skies at the Abu Dhabi-Dubai border were bluer and much clearer than normal. Usually one reaches the border from Abu Dhabi and notices an immediate change in the color and clarity of the sky. One wonders from where the pollution in Dubai's skies emerge, but on this 12 March morning one could clearly trace the trail of brown haze emanating from the region of Dubai's large power station and aluminum plant.

That streak of brown was only recognizable because of the contrasting blue and clarity in the rest of the sky. The skyscrapers of Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Lake Towers' districts could be seen some 30 kilometers in the distance, usually quite impossible. Crucially, there was not a hint of fog in the air.

In deed, the highway itself was almost clear of traffic. Was it the absence of the 300 or so vehicles wiped out in the preceding day's melee, that would have otherwise been plying the road at this time? It had to be the humor of fate to follow the most wretched of days with the most beautiful.

Likewise, the authorities did their best to erase any trace of the calamity that had finally come to pass. At the Al Rahba site of the 60-80 crashed vehicles there was not even a scrap of noticeable debris. There was some damage to a roadside guard rail but by the looks of it, that could have happened any time. Further along at the site of the horrific Ghantoot calamity, there was the dark, scorched highway and some debris still littering the grassy areas of the interchange.

This almost paralleled what remained of any news accounts of what had happened. The Ghantoot incident was undeniable but descriptions of its magnitude had been toned down. Online news reports the evening prior had referenced 200 crashed cars and 8 deaths, but the morning news would announce only 80 crashed cars and 3 fatalities. Meanwhile, the Al Rabha incident went completely unmentioned, as though it had never happened--as though those 80 crashed cars and the commuters involved were but a figment of an over-active imagination.

True to my concerns, it seemed likely we would never know the full extent of the calamity. I am almost certain that, on my way back to Abu Dhabi this evening, I drove over patches of scorched highway that had not been there before--two to be exact, one not far from Ghantoot and another near Taweelah. But there were never any reports of crashes or fires on this side of the highway. One will never know. Abu Dhabi authorities are concerned about the reputation of the emirate, so wish to keep a lid on what really happened that fateful morning.

This is shameful, for it means a missed opportunity to use this tragedy to instill a sense of urgency among the public and those charged with maintaining safety on the highways to change their ways. Everyone needs to learn from this incident--drivers to be more careful and the officials to implement better safety measures.

Regrettably, what follows the tragedy of 11 March is an attempt to erase it from memory and pretend that all are bright, sunny days.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008



Thick white mist, pairs of diminutive red and yellow lamps. A hitchhiker waving arms, running beside the road. Flames, crashed cars, debris-strewn highway, silence.

11-March-2008, the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway.

What began as a normal morning soon turned into the most incredible commuter's nightmare. Alas for me, I would be among the lucky who only witnessed the tragedy rather than having joined it. The sufferers must include also those who saw the worst of it--the flaming cars and crashed cars into the hundreds.

It had started as quite a normal morning as dawn had broken and traffic had already begun to make its hasty way out of Abu Dhabi, toward Dubai. It was normal for this time of year in that the early morning streets, and the highways especially, were obscured by dense white clouds of fog. It was, in fact, the third day running for the dense morning fog, so drivers I'm sure had an added level of confidence in their ability to maneuver.

But normality began to wane when the thickness of the fog brought visibility down to near zero. Perhaps one could see faintly the tail lights of a car up ahead, to a distance of no more than 10 meters. Some drivers heeded the poor conditions, while others dared to beat whatever clock they were racing. "Just go with the flow... keep some distance between the next car ahead... but where is the next car ahead?"

These were some of the thoughts going through my mind, when suddenly I noticed the foolish/desperate hitchhiker waving his arms, running beside the road. "Wait a minute; he's not a hitchhiker. Something's afoot..." I quickly slowed down, then noticed that the traffic ahead had come to a standstill. Thanks to those frantically waving arms, I had plenty of time to stop.

I soon forgot the heroic efforts of the man or men--in fact there were two or more--waving arms to warn drivers of the dangers ahead. They weren't policemen. In my mind's eye I recall one wearing the familiar white tunic of a Pakistani laborer or driver. I can't recall what the other or others looked like. But I soon forgot their deeds when the traffic eventually inched its way to a scene of several crashed cars, one or two still in the road and a few others along the side. But there would be more, much more.

Moving slowly, stalling, then moving forward again, the four lanes of traffic finally made its way past car upon car, wrecked vehicles lining both sides of the road. I began to count as I rode by... 1, 2, 3, 6, 12, 20... then I lost count as it would appear there were 50 or 60 strewn along the highway. Just past the melee, once again traffic came to a dead halt. After an hour the stream made its way another kilometer forward, this time passing another dozen or so crashed cars.

I had never seen anything like it before. The highway was littered with fragments of glass, plastic, rubber and metal. Emergency vehicles--patrol cars, ambulances and tow trucks--rode by with sirens blaring intermittently. The fog was steadily lifting and people began to emerge from cars as traffic came to a standstill. There was not the usual giddiness one finds among spectators at the scene of a traffic accident. Most did not know exactly what lay ahead but there was among this impromptu assemblage of an audience a sense of awe at what they might expect to see. There was, too, a sense of relief that it was "not me" in the wreckage that was sure to lie ahead.

Radio reports were coming in of a huge pileup with cars aflame at Ghantoot, some 50 kilometers ahead of where we were. Surely, this was not the tailback. Even before catching a glimpse of the man waving arms, I had decided to pull off road and wait at the nearest petrol station for the fog to clear. But I would never make it to that station in Taweelah. The 80-car series of crashes occurred in between Taweelah and the preceding interchange at Al Rahba. At the Taweelah interchange traffic was forced to divert toward any heading except Dubai. I returned to Abu Dhabi, having witnessed a part, and apparently the lesser part, of the UAE's worst ever traffic melee.

I later discovered that Ghantoot was, in fact, the scene of the greater tragedy with up to 200 cars crashed and 30 or more having gone up in flames. Was the weather to blame? Six weeks earlier the country was swamped with a week of rains that led to numerous traffic accidents. At that time I felt nearly traumatized as I daily passed cars lying wrecked along the side of the road--at most I would count six in one journey along the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway.

This time, however, it was different. The extent and scale of the disaster was unprecedented. The 125 kilometer stretch of highway was this time the scene of numerous multi-vehicle pileups. I truly believe that one contributing factor was that many drivers had gotten used to the foggy conditions, and felt no need to exercise extra caution--even as the fog became thicker than ever.

In the end, the numbers traumatized must go into the hundreds, not including the hundreds who would have sustained injuries and the dozen or so who would have tragically died. But one thing that I hope I will not forget are the heroic efforts of those running arm-wavers who are likely to have prevented many more from becoming crash victims on 11 March 2008.