Sunday, April 22, 2007

UAE: The Big City's Blinding Lights

It's a cliche to say that the territory of the United Arab Emirates has been transformed by oil wealth, but it got to be a cliche because it's true. It is strange today to think that in 1955, when Saudi Arabia tried to annex the Buraimi/al-Ain/Tuwwam oasis, the region had no know oil reserves, and none would be discovered for another three years. There was no road connecting Dubai and Abu Dhabi - to get from one to the other by land you had to make a rough journey over the coastal salt flats known in Arabic as Sabkha. In the late 1960's, J.C. Wilkinson, one of my more relevant intellectual predecessors, wrote that in Liwa, considered the "last oasis before the Empty Quarter," there were no permanent dwellings, and much of the population lived there only part of the year. The country may have been one of the world's least developed, dependent ever for its education system on aid from Kuwait and Nasser's Egypt.

That was before the UAE was the UAE, just seven small coastal city-states dependent on the British. The modern United Arab Emirates as a country is largely the life's work of one man, Emir Shaykh Zayed b. Sultan Al Nahyan, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1966-2004. Shaykh Zayed was one of the great traditional Bedouin leaders, perhaps the last of them to lead as a son of the desert rather than a modern statesman, though he learned the latter art as well. When oil was discovered in his emirate, he did not act simply to enrich himself, but distributed the wealth among the other emirates of the coast, gaining a reputation for generosity to go with his existing status as a local mediator. When the British announced they were pulling out and the rulers panicked with fear of their more powerful neighbors, Zayed took a stand in favor of federation, perhaps the only option, but one which took years to finally hammer out. When the UAE officially came into being in 1971, Shaykh Zayed was chosen by the other emirs as its first President, and he was the only one it had until his death.

Shaykh Zayed was no believer in democracy, and during his lifetime the UAE was the only Middle Eastern country not to have even token elections. Most people didn't care, however, as aided by the oil windfall, the country was prospering. Many of the country's leaders feared becoming too dependent on oil, so they put much of the wealth into building agricultural and industrial infrastructure. The former is not a pipe dream, as due to the large aquifers on which it sits, the UAE is the only country of the Arabian Peninsula that has the potential to meet all its own water needs. A favorable tax climate has made the country and important business hub, and Dubai has also become one of the world's great conference cities. Needless to say, you can now travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai in an air-conditioned bus along a sometimes busy eight-lane highway in under two hours, and you have at least four lanes much of the way to Liwa, now home to several prospering villages with their own local public transportation system and a couple of desert resorts.

Arriving in Dubai is crazy. I got in at about 1 a.m., and after taxiing past craft from a greater variety of airlines than I've ever imagined, wound up in an airport of science fiction ambiance. It took an hour to get through passport control, not because of any hassles, but because it was so busy, with 24 lines of about 50 people each. A travel provider meeting a couple on vacation told them it was worse during the day. When you get past that, unlike other airports where taxi drivers are constantly after people trying to find business, at Dubai the passengers have to line up until a taxi is ready to go, and the drivers, carrying your luggage at a quick jog, complaining about how busy they are. I was really lucky in that the day before I had decided to book a room for the night. Places were so booked up I couldn't find anything for less than $60, and even that backed me up into Sharjah in the next emirate, though today part of the same sprawling metropolitan area. My driver said if I hadn't done that I might have been in trouble because lodging was really tight that weekend, thanks mainly to some huge gathering of Iranians which had taken the bulk of the rooms in the city of over one million. Traffic still seemed steady even though it was then the solid middle of the night. It was, I must say, memorably wild =)

Skyscrapers dominate the skyline of the Emirates' largest cities, and countless more are under construction. It is said that half of all the construction cranes in the world are in Dubai. Going down the main highways is a bit like passing through a small ravine. Still, it is this construction that starts pointing to the country's dark underside, its foreign guest workers. I say "dark underside" because of how exploited they often are, though because I know of people that have been visited by UAE security officials for asking too many questions, I didn't try to probe that firsthand. Still, in the modern UAE, the Arabs are really just an elite ruling class that reminds me a bit of the role they played in the Umayyad caliphate. The guest workers are the real population, even if many seem to plan to only work there for a few years to support their families back home. Newspaper stands have not just English and Arabic, but a variety of South and Southeast Asian languages, as well. In the evenings, Sharjah's Rolla Square is filled with chatting South Asians, by far the cheapest places to eat are cafeterias frequented by workers on their lunch breaks where you can get an ample Indian meal and something to drink for $1.

In the big cities, these guest workers tend to congregate by ethnicity, and you see signs posted for people seeking a flatmate specifically from somewhere like Kerala or a Tamil-speaker. Major projects and jobs also seem to fall to people of one background where that company recruits, as well. All taxi drivers in Abu Dhabi Emirate are Pakistani Pashtuns, and I spent lots of time being driven around by guys with a really long series of names one of which was inevitably "Khan." All of them talk really fast, and were extremely friendly - if I spoke Pashtun, I would know lots of stuff about them and the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, most had picked up only a seemingly rudimentary colloquial to go with their Pashtun and at least enough Urdu to watch the Pakistani news, which made communication difficult, even at the level of, "Stop here!" (I later talked to an Omani guy, and learned that this set of observations is quite common. Everyone rides around Abu Dhabi with Pashtun taxi drivers with really long names including "Khan" who are really friendly, but no one ever understands what they're saying.) Hospitality, incidentally, is just as common among the guest workers as among the Arabs. When in Liwa, I wandered into the nearest village, where like everywhere else there were lots of guest workers. I wound up eating in a small restaurant where I had chicken biryani and tea; the owner refused to accept payment for the tea part, saying that was on him.

There are, of course, som actual Emiratis floating around. The men stand out with their white dishdashas and usually black headbands, but there are also women around, as Shaykh Zayed was a feminist who pushed for formal legal equality in the country's laws. The major hang-outs for young people are the malls, which are all over the major cities and where food courts where you can get goodies hard to find in Jerusalem, such as sausage and pepperoni pizza. In Dubai, I even had a quesidilla, surrounded by mall-goers watching the Cricket World Cup on a big-screen TV. It's striking, though, when you think about how much as changed in the lives of the older people. I mean, in Liwa, you go from tents to air-conditioned busses and a little ways away, multi-lane freeways. On my last day in the country, I was along the corniche of Ajman, the smallest emirate, having some sort of caffeinated beverage and watching a steady line of ships in the distance making their way to the Strait of Hormuz when I started overheading/eaves-dropping on a conversation nearby in which a couple from Europe was talking to an Emirati guy. He was actually talking about the changes in the country, and about how he'd changed with it. "Until I get to 70," he said. "At 70, I stop." I guess everybody has a limit.



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