A lesson on Dubai


Well, here I am in Dubai, land of sand dunes and outrageously ostentatious architecture. With less than two weeks here, I obviously can’t do a very in-depth report, but what I have seen is pretty interesting.

When I got off the plane, the first ad that I saw was one for a gold-plated cell-phone – I knew I must be in the right city. Apparently, I was a V.I.P., because I got special treatment at the airport. And how does one get to be a V.I.P.? Well, the company that you work for hires an outfit to provide an escort who accompanies you to the front of the line at immigration, where she answers all of the immigration questions correctly for you, and then past customs without bothering to stop. In essence, you (or your company) buy your way into being a V.I.P., much like everything else in Dubai.

I got picked up and driven to my apartment, which is VERY nice: BIG living room, big master bedroom, nice-sized second bedroom which I use as an office (and guest room!), and a kitchen with a washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher (those second two items being a real luxury outside of the United States!!). My building has its own little supermarket, pharmacy, and barbershop; is right down the street from a pretty big mall; and is only a fifteen minute drive from my school. The apartment is close to the airport (good) and almost directly under the flight pattern (not as good). Actually, I am close enough to hear each plane, but far enough to not have it bother me. I mean, you can’t open the windows anyway. When I landed at eleven o’clock at night, the temperature was still over ninety-five degrees!! This is definitely summer in the desert!!!!

The heat is absolutely oppressive. Where Chennai was hot and humid, Dubai is just hot and hot – OVEN-like hot. Without air conditioning, this place couldn’t exist. Officially, it never gets over 105 degrees, because then they would, by law, have to give the imported laborers the day off; but the temperature is clearly hotter than this!! Even STANDING in the sun is brutal. And BRIGHT!!! Even with sunglasses, the glare is blinding. Outdoor swimming pools in Dubai need to be COOLED in the summertime!!!! And my cold water tap dispenses water warm enough to shower in – in fact, I HAVE been showering in it, thinking that it was just an inadequate hot water heater!!!!!!! I am told that things will cool down in about four weeks, and that winters here are like summers in Italy. I hope they are right!!!!

Sadly, driving is a must. There is almost no public transportation. I never drove in India, because there were a million little auto-rickshaws to take me where I wanted to go. Here, there are taxis, but they are expensive to use on a regular basis and there are not enough to go around. I have seen bus stops around, but I have yet to see an actual bus outside of the city center. My area is like some sprawling American suburb with wide empty streets, deathly empty neighborhoods of faux-aristocratic condominiums and McMansions, occasional strip malls, and regional shopping centers. The other day, I went downtown, and it was similarly deserted (it was a weekend) and drab. Driving around here is like being in the far suburbs of a place like San Diego or Phoenix – except that the vacant lots, instead of being hard-packed dry dirt and scrub, is sand dunes.

You know how they say that Eskimos have twenty words for snow? Well, when you look at enough desert around here, there are similarly subtle differences. Some of the sand is like beach sand, tan granules of silicon. Some of it is more like Death Valley, harder-packed and studded with heat-blasted rocks. And some is very fine and grey, like concrete cement. In fact, it may well BE concrete cement!!! Dubai is one gigantic building site. There are cranes everywhere, and streets are constantly being re-routed and re-built – even the taxi drivers get confused!! And the air quality is horrendous because the air is filled with the sand being kicked up by the construction work; the downtown can be seen only through a thick haze of the stuff.

It is this runaway construction that defines the place, and it is a bubble that cannot avoid bursting. You have probably seen or heard about the building boom, how Dubai now boasts the tallest building in the world and is building one even taller. Well, it turns out that the vacancy rate is very high already. These building are not really being built to fill a need; they are being built to create an image and are being financed by speculators. And we all know what happens when a building frenzy is fueled by speculators rather than demand – eventually the party has to end. The gamble is that the image will CREATE the demand, that if they build enough sparkling luxury, people will come.

Part of this is economic calculation on the part of the Sheik. But this focus on image is also an ingrained part of the culture. The abaya, meant to ensure modesty and simplicity, is, when worn by wealthy Emirati women, richly embellished with beautiful hand embroidery and sequins and can cost thousands of dollars. Some women, particularly younger women, now sport styles that are open in front, allowing people to see the expensive designer fashions that are worn beneath the abaya. No cars over twenty years old are allowed in Dubai – by LAW!! My school lost twenty percent of its enrollment when it moved to temporary quarters in a non-prestigious neighborhood.

This drive for modern luxury makes Dubai seem more like America or Europe than the Middle East. I bought my furniture at Ikea and grabbed some hardware needs at an ENORMOUS Ace Hardware. The huge supermarkets stock anything available at Safeway (and more!), and the food court at the mall has a Burger King, a KFC, a Starbuck’s and, of course, a McDonald’s. But this is much more cosmopolitan than any city in America. People-watching at the mall is like that early scene in Star Wars, where all these different aliens are strolling around – 80% of the people in Dubai are expatriates!!!! There are Bedouins, men in their robes, women in their abayas; people from around the Middle East, some of the women in the full burkha covering everything but their eyes, others in jeans and t-shirts; legions of folks from Australia and New Zealand, as well as many from Europe and America; LOTS of people from the sub-continent: Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis; and almost as many people from Southeast Asia: Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines.

These latter two groups do all of the hard labour and most of the service industry jobs. In terms of construction, this produces an interesting result. In the West we are used to skilled workers doing our construction, workers who started at the bottom helping and learning from experienced workers. This is a hold-over from the old apprentice system, and it ensures reasonable quality workmanship. Anyone who has tackled a complicated home improvement job knows how many details these skilled workers know that make for accurate, esthetic results. Here, all of this work is done by unskilled, untrained, uneducated laborers from South Asia, and this results in work that is almost right, but not quite: floors not quite level, cabinets not quite flush, paint not quite contained where it is supposed to be.

Emiratis are happy to let the South Indian workers bake in the 115 degree heat on construction sites, but service industry jobs are another matter. Dubai has created enormous wealth, but it is not evenly distributed, and neither is the education. The public education system is beyond horrendous, with most graduates barely able to read or write in Arabic. These people need jobs, but those jobs are being filled by inexpensive workers from Southeast Asia, creating a lot of resentment. Most companies are saddled with a quota of Emirati workers, many of whom do absolutely nothing because their jobs are assured by the government.

But Dubai is still an Islamic autocracy. The Sheik is an absolute monarch – a benevolent one, but a dictator nonetheless. No one can own land in Dubai – “buying” a property is really taking out a fifty year lease from the Sheik. And as part of his role as benevolent monarch, the Sheik takes it upon himself to protect the morals of his presumably simplistic and child-like subjects. Movies, books, music, and the internet are strictly censored. One of the categories of the international program at my school is Homo Faber, Man the Creator; but the coordinator could not send that in any e-mails because the word “Homo” was filtered!! Facebook and MySpace are periodically filtered out as threats to the public morality. Boys and girls at the school cannot be in the swimming pool at the same time, and although women can supervise the boys in the pool, men are now allowed to supervise the girls.

And the censorship is educational as well. The Education Ministry will not allow maps showing Israel – it is “Occupied Palestine”. The Holocaust happened, but, contrary to Jewish propaganda, only a few thousand people were killed. Even a unit on the ANCIENT Israelites was objected to!!! No mention of evolution or of Darwin is permitted, even presented as an opinion. Sexual repression might be foreign to our thinking, but it is a cultural choice; enforced ignorance is not cultural sensitivity, it is cultural condescension!!!

But the clash between Islamic Fundamentalism and the drive for modernity creates a looking-glass world of bizarre contradictions. Sexuality is severely repressed, but issues of Maxim and Cosmopolitan are on the newsstands. Alcohol is forbidden, but foreigners can obtain a liquor license to buy it. Tourists hotels can also sell it, even though Emiratis routinely eat (and drink) there. A bunch of us went to a brunch, where they had to stop taking orders for alcohol at 3:30 because it was Friday (good Muslims must attend prayers at the mosque on Friday nights); but we went down the street to a pub that was still serving alcohol at ten o’clock when we left. We’ll see how this whole conflict plays out at the school next week; the first month of school this year just happens to also be Ramadan!!!


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