Life in the U.A.E.
I spent about a week in Abu Dhabi and the first thing that struck me was how enormous this city was. Skyscrapers 20 or 30 stories
high line the avenues and even in the midst of the summer heat, the city was buzzing with
life. That's all because of oil, of course. The United Arab Emirates
is only about the size of the state of Indiana but has the sixth largest
reserves of oil in the world. There are seven emirates, which are
something like states in the U.S. but the confederation is much looser than the
U.S. states. The most famous -- some would say egregious -- city in the
U.A.E. is Dubai, which is about 100 miles north of Abu Dhabi and has
grown tremendously in the last decade, due mostly to finance and trade, not oil,
since the Dubai emirate has virtually no oil. Almost all of the oil in the
U.A.E. is in the Abu Dhabi emirate, making it the wealthiest of the seven
emirates, by far.
Winters in the U.A.E., from what they told me, were pleasant with high
temperatures in the 70's, but summers, as I was discovering first-hand, were
blistering hot, with daytime highs often exceeding 100 or even 110 degrees
Fahrenheit. And even though Abu Dhabi is in the desert, there's no escape
from humidity because the city is right on the Arabian Gulf, which is what
Americans call the "Persian Gulf." If you're in the U.A.E., though, you
don't call it the Persian Gulf because Emiratis (natives of the U.A.E.) don't like that name. I
had learned this a few months earlier after I made my first map for this project
and ignorantly labeled it the Persian Gulf instead of the Arabian Gulf.
The client politely but firmly corrected my mistake.
Culturally, the U.A.E. is unlike any place I've ever been. First of all,
it's a Muslim country of course, and over the next week I learned a lot about
Muslims. There's a lot of fear-mongering in the U.S. about
Muslims, almost all of which was totally dispelled for me during the week I was
in Abu Dhabi. The religion of Islam is totally ingrained in every aspect of life
here and is constantly evident, unlike religion in the U.S. which is often
practiced only on Sunday, if then. For example, the call to
prayer is broadcast over loudspeakers throughout the city five times a day,
starting at sunrise with the final call well past sunset. You can clearly
hear the call inside your hotel room, and there are small, directional arrows
inside the rooms pointing to Mecca, in case you're not sure which direction to
It took me a
while to adjust to being in a Muslim country, and while there's only so much a
foreigner can learn or absorb in a week, I think I did pretty well and
assimilated fairly easily. Like every place in the world, if you show
respect to the local culture and customs, you'll be fine.
I spent four hours in Amsterdam, enough time to load up on
Dutch chocolate and souvenirs.
Above center: And here's the
next morning in Abu Dhabi. This is the Corniche, or waterfront.
Abu Dhabi is a bustling city and the pace of growth is
frenetic. It's like the Las Vegas Strip, but times 100.
The United Arab Emirates is about the size of Indiana and
has the sixth-largest reserves of oil in the world. The largest cities are
the capital, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai, both on the coast.
Here are some historic photos of Abu Dhabi so you can see
how much it's grown. This is the Corniche about 50 years ago. Of
course, this was before oil was discovered.
the Al Hosn Fort, the only historic building in Abu Dhabi that's been preserved.
I believe this was taken in the 1950s.
Here's the Al Hosn Fort
today, totally surrounded by skyscrapers and developments. You can see how
oil changes everything.
Above center: The fort
and "downtown" Abu Dhabi in the 1960s.
This is an undated photo of the Zayed Bridge, linking Abu
Dhabi Island (left) with the mainland. Almost everything you see is now
developed with resorts and high-rise buildings. The village of Abu Dhabi
is on the horizon, top left, at the end of the island.
My favorite hangout in Abu Dhabi was the Marina Mall.
Uh... just kidding. But seriously, because of the summer heat, the
air-conditioned mall is one of the most popular places in the city.
Above center: There really
are Starbucks everywhere.
Walking along the Corniche after work. It's cooled
down to 105 degrees (seriously) with very high humidity. Can you say
My cab drivers didn't speak much English but were very
friendly and curious.
Above center: Here's an
Indian market. Because the U.A.E. is such a wealthy country, there are
many more foreigners than nationals here, and many of them are from India and
I walked around for four hours one night and didn't see
one other Caucasian.
Things are Different Here
The demographic situation in the U.A.E. interesting. The native Emirati
population is small, less than a million, so the government imports large
numbers of foreigners, mostly single men, to do much of the work. About
90% of the population are foreigners and they do most of the menial labor, such
as construction and service work. Due to the large number of imported
workers, men in the U.A.E. outnumber women by more than 2-to-1, the largest
gender disparity of any country in the world. As I learned, there's a stratification
or "pecking order," with Emiratis at the top of the pile followed by Caucasians,
many of whom are consultants or contractors from Europe, mostly from England,
then Indians who often have technical knowledge, Pakistanis and so on down the
line. I've never liked class boundaries so this very apparent
stratification made me uncomfortable and I never got used to it.
The class system was apparent both on the streets and in the office. A few
times during the week, I saw a senior engineer at Otak, a Caucasian, publicly
berate a co-worker who was younger and from India, something that would never
happen in the U.S. One morning, I met with my client, an Arab woman
dressed in a long, black robe, in a large and well-appointed conference room,
when a young fellow wearing a white shirt entered the room. I stood
up, introduced myself to him and extended my hand -- then I realized that he was
a servant and was wondering if I wanted anything to drink. I sat down
sheepishly, but being an American, I'm not used to being served by anyone except
waiters in restaurants.
I was often treated with deference and respect simply because I was white, which
I was uncomfortable with, but on the other hand, my American egalitarian
attitude also ingratiated me with the locals at times. As I approached the
entrance to an office building one day, I noticed how foreigners walking behind
me moved to open the door for me, but instead I opened the door for them.
They looked at me first quizzically and then smiled with appreciation,
apparently not being used to Caucasians opening doors for them. Each night
after work, I walked alone around Abu Dhabi in the steamy heat with my camera
amidst the throngs of Indians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, and Filipinos.
Many of them looked at me with curiousity and shyness, apparently not used to
seeing a Caucasian alone on the street at night. The U.A.E. is a rich
country and there's definitely a snootiness among some of the Emiratis I met,
with their extravagant oil wealth and the perks (for Emiratis, at least) that
come along with that, such as guaranteed jobs, free education and free housing,
along with no taxes. Because of that, I felt much more comfortable among
the working class than among the elite Emiratis. And by the way, Abu Dhabi is a
very safe city. I meandered each night through the streets and back alleys
with my camera taking pictures, but I never once felt in danger because personal
crime in the U.A.E. is virtually non-existent.
Another thing that was different here was the political framework. In the
U.A.E. and in many Arab countries, political power is based on family
relationships or someone's heritage or tribe, not a political party. The
leader of the U.A.E. is Sheikh Khalifa (pronounced "Shake Ha-LEEF-a)" and his
likeness is everywhere. It's a largely benevolent leadership relative to
other countries in the Middle East, and most locals I talked to thought
favorably of the sheikh. But what the sheikh wants, the sheikh gets.
A colleague told me a story that made me laugh. The sheikh's limousine,
with him inside, pulled into a petrol (gas) station one day and waited to fuel
up. The sheikh asked, "Why are we waiting?" and the driver told him that
several cars were ahead of them, also waiting for petrol, so the sheikh said,
"Well then, let's build more petrol stations." So that's what they did.
As you can probably guess, there aren't a lot of environmental
regulations in the U.A.E. limiting development, like there are in the U.S.
If someone here wants to build something and they have political power, they build
it. But that being said, the government of Abu Dhabi is also striving to
become a world-class city and a role model for the rest of the world, especially
the Arab world. They're taking steps, like developing mass transit, creating sustainable systems
and developing a detailed comprehensive plan, to create for themselves a city unlike any other
in the world, and they apparently have the will to make it happen. And
that's exactly why I was there.
Michelle, a friend from Portland who moved to Abu Dhabi
and is and now a client.
She's holding a Portland magnet that I'd sent her a year earlier for her
Above center: Easy
In the U.S., they play
baseball in the streets, but here in the U.A.E., the Indians and Pakistanis play
My buddy, Bee, in the Otak office.
Above center: Here's
Mohammed, a computer mapping colleague. Men in Arab countries frequently
wear white robes while women wear black.
Having dinner on Friday at the Al Raha Resort.
Friday is prayer day and most restaurants, except those in resorts catering to
Westerners, are closed. By the way, I
have no idea why I'm holding a pineapple.
An Amazing Week in the Desert
I spent a week in Abu Dhabi and was mesmerized by everything I saw and
experienced: the frenetic growth, the oppressive heat, the kindness
of the locals. Being in a Muslim and multi-ethic country was a fascinating
experience and I soaked in as much as I could, and the people I worked with were
incredibly kind, which wasn't surprising because Emiratis, and Arabs in general,
consider guests with high esteem and treat them with a great deal of honor and
At the end of the week, Colin, a colleague in Otak's Abu Dhabi office, was kind
enough to drive us around for several hours so we could get a better feel for
the area. The city of Abu Dhabi sits at the end of a large, sandy island
many miles long, but Colin drove us over to the mainland, with its large
expanses of sand and desert, dotted with settlements and occasional resorts.
This remote area was a world away from the high-rises and fast paced lifestyle
of Abu Dhabi, but vast expanses of the desert here would soon be developed.
Looking at miles of sand, it was hard to imagine that much of it would soon be
filled with communities, golf courses, and swimming pools, but I suppose they
said the same thing about Abu Dhabi 50 years ago and look what's happened there.
It was a fascinating visit and Abu Dhabi was unlike any place I've ever been.
I wouldn't want to live in Abu Dhabi because it's just too different, but I was
grateful for the time I had here. It had been an incredible week, but now
I was heading back to Portland.
In Abu Dhabi, with its frantic pace of modernization, they
tear down one building only to build another.
Above center: Hamdan Street
is the heart of Abu Dhabi. There are white taxis everywhere, including
four in this photo.
Above right: Just relax...
It's 100 degrees now with high humidity and I'm sweating
like a pig. But I'm having a great time exploring.
Above center: They're
sweating like pigs, too. I'm strolling along the Corniche on Friday
afternoon. Weekends in the U.A.E. and in most of the Muslim world are on
Friday and Saturday, and Sunday is the first day of work.
I was the only Caucasian walking around and, with my SLR
camera, got lots of curious smiles. This sedate looking fellow pulled at
my shirt and insisted on having his picture taken with me. I guess I'm a
star, just like Paris Hilton -- but with a sweaty shirt and no chihuahua.