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(Reprint from News:  July 6, 2008)

 


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 pray.

 

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.

 

       

Above left:  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.

Above right:  Abu Dhabi is a bustling city and the pace of growth is frenetic. It's like the Las Vegas Strip, but times 100.

      

Above left:  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.

Above center:  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.

Above right:  This is the Al Hosn Fort, the only historic building in Abu Dhabi that's been preserved.  I believe this was taken in the 1950s.

 

     

Above left:  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.

Above right:  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.

 

 

       

Above left:  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.

Above right:  Walking along the Corniche after work.  It's cooled down to 105 degrees (seriously) with very high humidity.  Can you say "steam bath"?

 

       

Above left:  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 Pakistan.

Above right:  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. 

 

       

Above left:  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 birthday.

Above center:  Easy riders.

Above right:  In the U.S., they play baseball in the streets, but here in the U.A.E., the Indians and Pakistanis play cricket.

           

Above left:  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.

Above right:  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 respect.

 

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.

 

 

       

Above left:  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...

 

       

Above left:  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.

Above right:  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.