Thursday, November 01, 2007

Adieu Dubai

I first visited Dubai in 1992. That was via Abu Dhabi. In the very first visit itself, on way from Abu Dhabi airport to the city, I saw Sheikh Zayed driving past me amidst helter- skelter of traffic policeman who were taken by surprise. This was indeed a rare sight as for many people who have stayed lifetime in UAE perhaps never have had a glimpse of Sheikh Zayed except on TV.

There is no other city that has changed as dramatically as Dubai in such a short span of time. During early 90’s when I visited from Muscat, I would drive my car in the direction of World Trade Center building. That was the easiest way to reach Dubai without any hassle. Now, this building is dwarfed by all those imposing skyscrapers including world’s tallest structure ‘Burj Al Arab’ that have lined up on Sheikh Zayed Road. Those were the days when visiting Sharjah via Dubai-Sharjah road, one could see a barren stretch of desert with an exception of motley of fast food joints like KFC, Pizza Hut that stood like an oasis in middle of nowhere. Now, the demarcation between Dubai and Sharjah is only left to the overhead bridge sign that says ‘Welcome to Sharjah’. Visiting Jebel Ali was like almost half way down to Abu Dhabi, today bulk of Dubai’s population stays in Sharjah and work around Jebel Ali. Dubai and Sharjah have a mall within one kilometer radius of their residence, grocery store down below their apartment that would do a free home delivery even for a purchase of match box.

There are two aspects Dubai has changed. First is airport and second residential buildings. It is often said that Crane is the national bird of Dubai. They are omnipresent everywhere. The whole city is just too busy making buildings. Dubai airport is one of the most spacious, glittering airports that I have ever seen. Now Terminal three is getting ready to house Airbus 380 and another new cargo airport is being undertaken at Jebel Ali. But there are some signs that have remained the same like Clock Tower Round About, Gold Souq, Creek side dhows, Deira and Bur Dubai Market. The advertising signboard of Bose and Titan watches in Deira has been there over a decade. Apple computer signboard at Bur Dubai was there a while ago till metro construction took over.

I remember the incident when drama troupe members from India were prosecuted as their script violated Islamic code of conduct. Law was feared then and people seldom did anything to take law in their hands. I also remember an incident when Dubai Govt. promptly rounded up almost all illegal immigrants from Pakistan and dispatched them by planeloads after witnessing a protest march by expatriate Pakistani Muslims against the demolition of the Babri Mosque. Dubai Govt. was quick in response “If you want to protest, do it in your country”. The problems of returning immigrants reached such a magnitude that then PM Benzie Bhutto had to visit Dubai and plead with Govt. to stop exodus. In Dubai, there is a clear line between expatriate and locals and no special favor is given to expatriate from any country irrespective if it’s Islamic or not. Now, the situation is more tolerant. Construction workers from subcontinent do protest if their working conditions are appalling or their salary is not given in time and Press is allowed to highlight their grievances. Dubai in desperation to come in league of Singapore, Hong Kong seems to appear more flexible in protecting human rights abuse.

My colleague from Philippines calls Dubai as United India Emirates. Her comments are not misplaced, Dubai is built, nurtured and sustained by Indians and local Arab acknowledges that. Recently Dubai is embraced by Africans, Russians- the hold of Indian is still evident. Today, Indians enjoy coveted spot among both Dubai elites and working class as well. Another fascinating aspect of Dubai is true assimilation of Indian and Pakistani identity and what remains is unified subcontinent culture. Three generations of Indians and Pakistanis have lived together and some have even had happy cross country marriage.

Dubai has its share of woes as it gets on fast track of modernization with toll highways, metro railway, sprawling malls. ‘We used to know everyone by name’, a comment by old timer summed up the loss of human touch that must have existed. These days, in secluded apartments, one may not even know one’s neighbors. During one of my travel from Mumbai to Dubai, a ripe and seasoned business man named ‘Bhatia’ was sitting next to me. He had come to Dubai before 1947 from Pakistan and since then made Dubai as his home. He was proud of being the only the second expatriate person to get life time resident visa status by the ruler of Dubai. He recalled days when they would walk miles to fetch water from Jumeriah well and water was so scarce then that they sometimes cooked rice in rum or whisky. (I must try to see if lingering taste still remains after all the alcohol is evaporated).

During my five year stay in Dubai, I learnt about three big Industries of Dubai in terms of wealth generation and employment opportunities. First is Immigration and Visa Industry, Second is driving License Industry and third is Bottled water. First industry aided by unscrupulous agents fueled the growth of Dubai. They in turn stimulated the growth of second and third industry. In last few years, as Dubai real estate gets opened up, there is mad rush of construction developers and agents upstaging all three industries. But I fear, unless Dubai has tangible wealth creation by value added services, the spiraling spectacular growth of Dubai may not sustain. It pains me to see the cost of living going up in Dubai. Unrealistic rent prices, lack of open space and growing economic disparity may cost Dubai to lose its shine. Dubai doesn’t have domestic market, their raw materials are imported and high cost of living would mean high processing cost. This would make Dubai uncompetitive and Qatar is waiting in wings to grab that opportunity. I hope Dubai balances its growth with social and economic parity.

As I leave Dubai, I am sure going miss many things that have become a part of my daily existence. Foremost is Dubai FM, in initial days – it was Gagan Mudgal on FM 101.6 and now Charu + Hans/Sid on 91.4. Communication and finesse of Dubai FM presenters are enchanting. They become part of your daily routine as the car crawls from home to the office. I would miss interaction with my Pakistani friends and neighbors. For me, they were closer to my culture than most of the south Indians. They bridged the gap between perceptions of Pakistan in India and the reality. I would miss my tête-à-tête with Pathan taxi drivers while going to airport on business trips. Pathans from North West Frontier are one of the finest human beings I have come across on this earth. Wearing traditional attire, they work long hours in the hostile conditions of the Gulf to feed and defend his extended family of his parents, wife, children, brothers, their wives and children. I learnt from them the ethos and pride of being a Pathan, their social life and importance of being male guardian. Every one of them have AK 47 at their home, some even have rocket launchers. For them, it’s a necessary deterrent from any trouble or gang war between tribal factions. They are huge, rugged and tough but beneath all that there is malleable heart as that of a small child. For them, emotions run supreme. Very rarely you would see a Pathan overcharging you or cheating you. I have even come across few of them who would refuse to accept money just because I treated them with dignity and respect. Perhaps their innocence was exploited by many Pakistani Politicians and even by Taliban to serve their own interest. Shahid Afridi is their hero and often they make it a point to mention that his village is not so far from him. Sadly, their livelihood is being snatched by private companies who recruit English speaking taxi drivers. But Pathans who are in the business of manual labor (mainly in carrying heavy goods on their back and shoulders) are guaranteed their Pakistani Roti as no one including automated machines would be able to match their power and hard work. If I ever visit Pakistan, I would love to visit those places around Peshawar who I have come to relate in my chat with Pathans during taxi rides.

There are some things that I shall always cherish. One is Dubai’s night life, restaurants, and Indian dance bars. Over a can of beer, one can have sheer entertainment of quality of dancing and singing. One thing that differentiates Mumbai and Dubai dancing bars is the ambience. In Dubai, one need not feel scared or doing anything illegal when visiting them. They aren’t sleazy nor have they hidden underworld presence. In fact some of them you can even go with family and have a dinner. Few other things that would come on the list are shopping at Lu Lu hyper market where one can buy virtually anything from any corner of the India, walk along the Sharjah creek and Jumeriah beach. Clean and hygienic south Indian eating joints of Sarvana Bhavan, Venus and Sangeeta. I would also miss an occasional interaction with UAE Arabs, who I felt were extremely polite, hospitable and charming. I would often have sense of guilt of not knowing Arabic after seeing them conversing in Hindi at immigration office. I do hope I master few greeting phrases in Arabic that I can use when I meet Emirati person next time.

Some time ago in response to a reproduction of article by another Blogger that commented on the harsh realities of Dubai, an anonymous visitor asked me to ‘leave this country if I don’t like the place’. His marching orders may have come true but not because I didn’t like or loved Dubai. On the contrary my fondness for Dubai would grow as I stay away from her.