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.

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