Thursday, June 24, 2010


What is it? Is it the place where you live? What about the place that you happen to be living at the moment?

For some people, I suppose, it's an easy question. Home is the place you come from, where you were born--where other family members and close relatives are. It can also take on a wider meaning, as in one's country of origin.

In a place like Dubai (or anywhere in the UAE) it is often a more complicated matter. Some people were born here to parents who were not passport holders. On reaching adulthood--18 or 20, I think--they are no longer allowed to live in the country unless they can get an employment visa or, with even more difficulty, a student visa. Imagine that--you are born and raised in the UAE and when you turn 18 you are no longer welcome. You are expected to return to the country of your passport--neither you nor your parents ever given any opportunity to apply for a UAE passport.

That is dire, extremely dire, and I would say the worst of any number of residency predicaments one can face in the UAE. But like many social issues here, the welfare of those affected is largely ignored. I mean, there is a kind of bottom line way of thinking here. If you're not a citizen--a UAE passport holder--then you are a guest, privileged on being allowed to live and work here. Anything else you get on top of that, like say basic human rights, is a bonus, an extra to be grateful for.

That sounds cynical, I know.

There is more to the picture--on the positive side, that is. Life isn't all bad for expatriates in the UAE. Some of us, myself included, are here by choice and happy to be here. But, everything in life has a certain amount of complexity and so too does living as an expatriate in the UAE .

Who's Counting?

Where is home is an especially complicated question for many in the UAE, when what one may feel about this may not be recognized on a legal basis. On the basis of UAE law, only 10-15% of the population of human beings who reside here (this is not including tourists) are recognized as citizens. That amounts to a huge number of homeless people. Incredibly, the government of the UAE has announced a UAE population figure of over 8 million. Five years ago this figure was put at between 4 and 5 million.

Has the UAE population almost doubled within 5 years? This is hard to imagine, especially with all the talk in 2009 of a great exodus due to the economic crises. Personally, I believe the numbers are credible. There was basically an unchecked explosion of new arrivals in the country in the boom years from 2002 to 2008. This could have well accounted for a doubling or tripling of the population.

In 2000, for example, when I first came to the UAE, the streets, pavements and parking lots of Abu Dhabi were largely empty and the road network, not to mention the number of buildings in Dubai, was less than one quarter of what it is now. For those familiar with the cities of the UAE, one might say that within a period of 5 years Ajman became as large a city as Sharjah, Sharjah become even larger than Dubai and Dubai become something of a world class metropolis. Had the economic crisis of 2008 not hit, Ajman, Sharjah and Dubai could have combined to become one the world's leading megacities.

So, yes I can absolutely believe that in 5 years the population in the UAE has gone from 4.5 to over 8 million. For the sake of clarity, population figures here normally include everyone with residency in the UAE. So that 8 plus million would include well over 7 million who cannot, from a legal standpoint, call the UAE home.

Home is where...

the heart is? I suggested in an earlier post that my home was my Peugeot 206 because I spend 3-4 hours each day travelling back and forth between work in Dubai and my home in RAK.

For me the UAE is home--for the past ten years--and Dubai, in particular, is where my heart is. It is a fantastic place to be. Since the closing of the 20th century, Dubai has been one of the few really it places on the globe. The world (Western world initiated) economic crises not withstanding, Dubai is still one of those it places. Even though I am not the sort of person to follow trends or care whether I am where the action is or not, the it factor that Dubai has is the kind of it that excites me. It is new and modern, it is ultra-international, it is bold, it is defiant and it has an attitude that says, Why not, this is Dubai!

I have read posts and commentaries of others who have said that Dubai has no soul, but that is just it... Dubai has a dynamism that can't be classified in static terms. You can't speak of it as having a particular style, look or flavor because these are the things that are constantly being melded and shaped by the flow of immigration and by the great effort of the rulers of the state to have a city and domain at the cutting edge. Dubai, inc or that so-called crass commercialism is a part of it, but equally important is the fact that Dubai is a city of Indians, Filipinos, Middle Easterners, East and West Europeans and others who, together with its rulers, are shaping a new kind of urban sphere.

That is the it that Dubai has, which is special, unique and above all exciting to experience. This is my home. I would be devastated if ever had to leave it.


It seems that today is the first anniversary of Michael Jackson's passing. Waking up early morning on 25 June last year to that news was one of those very surreal moments in life.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


That’s what I become when transiting Sharjah. It’s up-down-up-down-up-down on the pedal for the slow, painful creep along Emirates Rd. It is more relaxing to zone out than to get irritable and anxious about the lost time.

But even zombies have places to be and things to do. While in space mode I can't help but watch the minutes tallying up on the dashboard. The car inches more and more slowly, as the clock seems to advance more and more quickly. 10 minutes late for work, now 20, now 30…

Today I thought I’d beat the clock. The old highway connecting RAK with UAQ, Ajman and Sharjah is sometimes a nice alternative. Although undergoing roadworks—like everywhere in the UAE—it’s a nice relaxing drive from RAK until you hit the Ajman traffic lights. Here, they kindly display the time remaining for the signal to change. It is somewhat disconcerting, however, when the red digits on the display begin their countdown from 120 seconds.

Once in Sharjah, you can cross the whole width of the city (about 10 km), while encountering only 3 traffic lights. Starting from Ajman on the old RAK highway, you make a left at the massive Sharjah Airport Rd. roundabout (the first signal), then right at the first flyover. That puts you on the Dubai Airport tunnel road, so it’s straight into Dubai from there, with only two more signals to go.

But therein lies the catch. Each of those signals goes through a 3-minute cycle. My attempt to beat the clock today was thwarted with a 12-minute wait at the first and a 10-minute wait at the second. Once breathing a sigh of relief on crossing into Dubai there were still three more long signals to get through in Al Ghusais, before hitting smooth sailing at the Airport tunnel.

You can check in anytime you like...

The trouble with Sharjah is that it hasn’t bothered to invest much in infrastructure, unlike Dubai. I’m sure I am among many whose primary experience with Sharjah is traffic snarl on good days and horrendous traffic nightmares on bad ones.

The worst happens when it rains. Some people just lose their cars, forced to abandon them on the many roads without any drainage. But even on perfectly fine weather days a wrong turn in Sharjah can quickly dampen spirits. A major multilane road could without warning degenerate into a narrow path. Once you’ve tragically ended up on any such roadway to hell, you'll find there’s no turning back. At times like these, being a zombie on Emirates Rd. seems like the stuff of pleasant dreams.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


I guess I am getting used to it, but summer seems to have started later here this year. There were still comfortable days in late April--comfortable being anything with highs under 35 Celsius (95 Fahrenheit).

Now early June, the summer is definitely here with highs in at least the mid-forties (above 110 Farenheit), mixed with a good amount of humidity. The government is little-by-little taking steps to address the hardships of outdoor workers. What started a few years ago as a 1.5 month outdoor work ban between noon and 3 pm is now about 3.5 month-- as of 1 June this year.

A Pinoy Abroad article elaborates (Pinoy being the new most visible face of the expatriate community here):
Citing previous reports, Gulf News said that since the rule was implemented, cases of heat exhaustion in Dubai have dropped to 1,500 in 2005 from 5,000 cases a month in 2004. In 2007, there where only 82 reported cases of heat exhaustion and two deaths, the report said.

One of the most common ailments during the very hot weather is heat stroke or hyperthermia. Some symptoms of heat stroke are rapid pulse, difficulty in breathing, hallucinations, disorientation, and seizure. Victims of heat stroke must immediately receive treatment to prevent organ failure that could lead to death.

It is great that additional measures are being taken to protect these workers, but pretty shocking at the risks they still face. I imagine one can be easily lulled into thinking he has a high tolerance before suddenly being faced by a crises.

Enveloping Warmth

I consider myself one of those high tolerance believers. I don't face much risk, however, since I don't work outside or go for outdoor exercise. I just do the 5-minute walk from my parked car to the office, all the while thinking it may be hot, but I can surely take it.

I much prefer having too much heat to too much cold. Basking in the warmth or baking heat, as it were, feels kind of protective, like a warm blanket. I'll take that any day over shivering in a stinging, biting cold.

Sure, those warm and fuzzy feelings only come when the interval in the heat is brief. I have travelled a bit in India and know of people there who resort to sleeping outdoors at night, as the stifling heat can make it impossible to sleep inside. Their homes, built from concrete, absorb so much heat during the day that they continue to bake like ovens during the night. The only solution is to sleep on the porch or pavement in front of the house, while battling the mosquitos.

In the UAE everyone has air-conditioning, even the laborers. However, there are still the problems of electricity being cut, a current regular issue in Sharjah. It also happens often for the many bachelors living as unregistered tenants in over-crowded, shared accommodations, whose illegal landlords miss out on utility payments or air-conditioner maintenance.

That said, except for those outdoor workers, most of us happily hibernate indoors during the summer months.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


I wonder how many in the UAE are doing long commutes.

I used to do a two-hour run each day from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. Now it's 1.5 hour from RAK. I was covering around 300 km daily before, while now it is about 200. The total 3-4 hours of lost time is the biggest drag.

I usually listen to the radio or play CDs, which gets stale fast. I had tried playing MP3s through a doodad that broadcasts through the radio speakers but the static and fading in and out was annoying. Another option was a cassette thingy that you plug your MP3 to and play through the car's cassette player, but that produced an annoying ticking sound and eventually broke.

When I bought my car 4 years ago I asked for an audio deck with an input jack, but that apparently was too hi-tech for the Peugeot dealer. So I had to make do with a CD player and have suffered ever since.

Why can't I just get the Internet in my car? I always listen to my favorite public radio broadcasts from the US when online. It is so frustrating that, still in 2010, we have yet to have Internet available everywhere, all the time.

I know you can spend a lot of money and get whatever you want, like a data card in a mobile device, and use that to connect to the Internet anytime anywhere. But if I had that kind of money I wouldn't be needing to commute.

Home Sweet Home

For me, the long commutes are pretty much a financial necessity, even with rental prices in Dubai having come way down recently. I used to have to rent while making payments on two off-plan purchases. Now I'm living in one of the off-plans (completed) in RAK, while still paying for it, with nothing left over to make a final payment on the other off-plan in Dubai (also, now complete).

The trouble in the UAE is that there isn't any financing from banks, for the most part, and developers won't let you take possession of a property until you've paid in full. (My RAK developer has turned out to be the rare exception.)

Buying a home and living in it, while you spend the next 25 years paying for it, is not considered a valid way to achieve home ownership in the UAE. Instead you spend years paying for something while it's getting built (if it gets built). You finally take possession once, and only once, you have made 110% or so of the purchase price to the builder. That extra 10% (over and above the purchase price) is for the myriad fees required to be paid before handover.

For me, that all means that I continue to spend 3-4 hours daily commuting to work. For now, and much of the past 3 years, my car has been my home.

Monday, June 07, 2010


FIFA World Cup... coming soon. I don't care--not the least bit interested in football.

The BP Gulf of Mexico gusher continues... again I don't care, even though Louisiana is my home of origin. It's getting too much coverage, and it isn't another Katrina. So much media hype. Oh, and the president isn't showing his anger! The inane press--what does showing anger have to do with anything? That's the Republicans grasping at straws, trying their darnedest to pin something on the president. So, this is Obama's Katrina and he isn't angry enough. Give me a big, fat break! Take it off the news already.

Bhopal tragedy, 26 years hence. Now this is a story worth talking about. The stats I heard today: 4,000 dead in the immediate aftermath, 15-25,000 over the intervening years, and residents still suffering. What a tragedy.

Here in the UAE I used to work at one of Gasco's desert plants. We--I was there as a teacher for new local hires--were told that the sour gas risk at the plant was from the same gas that had killed all those people in Bhopal. We had gas masks ready in our dorm rooms, classrooms, etc. but few of us really took the threat seriously. Still, there were the occasional deaths at Gasco.

Despite the 1 million, 2 million... 100 million ad nauseam man hours without loss time injury endlessly being reported, there was the story of some workers who had got killed. One man was down in a pit and succumbed to a sour gas leak. When his workmates jumped into the pit to help him, they too breathed the odorless gas and died.

The moral of the story--beware of the invisible, odorless, fatal gas. And those poor workers who died didn't count in the LTI (loss time injury) stats. They weren't Gasco workers, but contracted labor--oh, like the 90% of the rest of the workers at the plants, all contracted in one way or another, so no LTI to worry about.