Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

I've been in Abu Dhabi for not quite two weeks now, interning with the United Nations Development Programme, and the contrast with Dubai is interesting. I will admit that I had a lot of preconceptions before I got here; several people I know in the US with experience over here told me that I would like Abu Dhabi much better than Dubai. They told me that while Dubai was all glitz and media hype, Abu Dhabi was a more relaxed, somewhat more traditional Middle Eastern City.

In contrast, once I got to Dubai, all the UAE people I met, regardless of where they came from initially, warned me that Dubai was where all the action was, and Abu Dhabi was just boring.

After a week and a half, I can say that neither of these is really true; Abu Dhabi certainly isn't more "traditional" as far as I can tell - there are far more old buildings, neighborhoods, souqs, and dhow wharves in Dubai. In many ways, Dubai remains much more linked in with its traditional commerce activities, where oil-driven Abu Dhabi has just built a massive amount of apartments and office buildings from scratch.

But its not boring, really - its a little less colorful and active than Dubai, but the problem seems to be one of timing. Everyone talks about the contruction in Dubai, but at least in 2009, there seems to be much more here. Half the city is a construction site, and some of the plans look really interesting. There's a Formula 1 Grand Prix racetrack under construction on the next island over. Just this week, Abu Dhabi won the hosting rights for IRENA, the new international organization for renewable energy - its going to be housed in a whole section of the city, called Masdar, built to develop and test green technology. The plans look as crazy as anything we saw in Dubai - but none of it is finished yet. Even Qasr al-Hosn, the traditional palace of the ruler and seemingly the only building in the city built before 1970, is closed for renovation until next year.

So at the moment, I have the opportunity to experience what should be a really interesting and fantastic city in a couple of years. Right now its a city in transition - but getting a feel for what came before is a worthwhile enough pursuit, even if just to see how quickly the Gulf can change once it decides to do so. That, and the water is beautiful and much easier to get to than in Dubai - I'll content myself with that.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Road to Buraimi

The value of a program like this comes when you actually run into the reality of something you’ve been talking about in class. We’ve spent the past several days crisscrossing the UAE and Oman, getting a sense of the diversity of this small corner of the Arabian Peninsula. There are enormous differences between one place and another, and yet many places that share almost everything are arbitrarily divided.

At about 11 am we began working our way to the port of Sohar in Oman, where Sinbad the sailor is said to have been born. I suspect the promise of an Indian Ocean beach town was meant to lure us out of the Emirates for the day’s main attraction, the Buraimi Oasis. In a region so geographically divided by deserts and mountains (as we’ve seen vividly the past few days), a community like Buraimi (and Dubai) is at once a self-contained island of human activity, and intimately and inseparably linked with other such islands all over the Peninsula, the Indian Ocean, and the world. This web of community centers doesn’t quite fit our classroom maps, where different countries fit together like puzzle pieces, so when the UAE and Oman agreed to split the oasis in the 1970’s, life went on as usual until just a few years ago, when UAE decided the border must be regulated, putting an enormous barbed wire fence through the middle of the city and calling its half Al Ain.

Driving down the new highway that follows a line of ancient forts over the mountains, Isa called a former student of his and asked if she could show us around. We were stamped out of Oman way outside the city at about 5 pm, and weren’t stamped into UAE until after 8 pm when we were finished in Buraimi. We were stateless persons for about 3 hours.

When we arrived in town, Isa’s student showed us through an antique shop that held leopard pelts and century-old Ottoman textbooks, past a marketplace set up on the asphalt near the old fort, full of fresh dates and baskets of dried-up fish, and of course past the border post where Gulf citizens have to flash their passports or ID cards before crossing to the other side of the city. Most of the jobs are in Al Ain, but of course that means the rent is much more affordable in Buraimi. There are Omani and Emirati flags flying everywhere, just in case people get confused.

After the sightseeing, Isa’s student invited us in for tea and snacks, serving dates, figs and mangos with rose juice and Omani helwa, which is . . . not entirely unlike the filling of a pecan pie. Oman and Bahrain both claim their version is better, and all I can say is that Bahrain has a tough act to follow. Conversation went from pop culture to politics, including “how everyone in Dubai now thinks they’re the cool place to be. Well, fifty years ago, everyone thought Buraimi was the cool place. That’s not even a lifetime.” It’s hard for a city to be the center of it all when it’s split between two countries. That said, we thought we’d have to go all the way outside the oasis to get our UAE entry stamps, but there was a border post open to non-residents not far from the center of town. Things are getting a little closer together.


For our classes in Dubai, we have been fortunate several days to be hosted by the Dubai School of Government. Founded in 2005 to help promote public policy best practices in the Arab world, the DSG plays an important role in gathering people together to discuss teh important issues of the day. Last week alone, this included events with Dahlia Moghed and John Esposito on "Who Speaks for Muslims", a half day conference on opportunties in the Finanical Crisis with panelists from the Tunisian, Syrian, and Bahraini governments to discuss the approaches of their respective states, and a presentation on women in the finanical crisis with Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, Assistant Secretary-General, Assistant Administrator of UNDP and Director of its Regional Bureau for Arab States.

While the topics are similar to those at events in Washington, DC, the discussions take different turns largely due to the differing concerns of the audience. It was interesting to hear about the different ways the current economic sitaution manifests itself in different countries and what steps are being taken to address these issues, from concerns about the loss of remittances and the return of the expatriate labor force to the impact on financing for Dubai's many construction projects.

And it is pretty cool to be in a classroom overlooking the Burj Dubai and the other extrodinary buildings in the city.

The Northern Emirates, Musandam (Oman), and...Dibba?!

After a week of exploring Dubai and witnessing the rapid development and wealth that has transformed Dubai in the last several years, Isa decided that we needed to see what the UAE was like as a whole, and get a glimpse of countries next to the UAE; to this end, Isa engineered an adventure - a road trip that would take us through the northern emirates of Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, and Ras al-Khaimah, as well as Musandam, which is part of the Sultanate of Oman.

Beginning in Dubai and heading north through Sharjah and onto the northern emirates, the scenery changed very quickly from skyscrapers to more modest buildings and housing complexes that reflect the economic realities of the UAE. Traveling through the northern emirates augmented what we have been learning in class in regards to not only the economic disparities that exist between the emirates, but also the interlinked history of the UAE - Dubai does not, and never has existed in a vacuum.

As we continued to move northward towards Musandam, one of the most remarkable observations that we all had was how rapidly the scenery began to change. From desert and semi-arid land, we progressed towards a more rocky terrain that eventually gave way to full-fledged mountains; entering Musandam was like entering another world. The mountains that had started in the UAE rose higher still and became cliffs, brushing right up against the sea and creating some truly spectacular scenery.

By the time we had left the coast behind, we had decided that we were going to push through the inner mountains of Musandam and aim for Dibba on the opposite coast of Musandam, before eventually heading down to the emirate of Fujairah. However, there was one little problem...there isn't a finished road from northern Musandam to the opposite coast. Naturally, such a fearless leader as Isa Blumi was not to be deterred by such a small inconvenience - after all, we were in a Toyota minivan, what could go wrong? As it turns out, Toyota minivans are not very adept at going up mountains on unfinished roads; instead, as we discovered, they prefer to slide backwards towards the edge of massive cliffs; sadly, our fearless leader decided that this was the end of the road (literally!), and we headed back to Dubai once Isa managed to reverse down the cliff while making sure not to back off the mountain. Well done Isa, well done.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Night Safari

After discussing it over the course of last week, we finally decided to go ahead and reserve our places on a ‘night safari’ last Friday. At around 4pm, we all piled into the Toyota Land Cruiser that picked us up at our hotel and drove about half an hour outside of Dubai to the middle of an expansive desert. With sand as far as the eye could see, fifteen Land Cruisers lined up one by one and began to let the air out of their tires in preparation for the ‘dune bashing’ that was up first on the evening’s agenda. None of us really knew exactly what was in store as we waited, but when we got back into the SUV, the real fun began. We immediately began plowing through the dunes; jumping over some and sliding down others.
After about half an hour of getting tossed around our SUV on the dunes, we drove to another part of the desert to watch the sun set. Upon arriving at the look-out point we were greeted by a man with three camels who gave camel rides as the sun went down over the dunes. Once the sun had set, we drove a bit more to a large camp which had been set up to re-enact the camps of the traditional Bedouin tribes. From there the night went on with various festivities including henna tattoos, smoking shisha, an Arabic barbeque and of course, a belly dancer. After the food and festivities, the lights were turned off so that our group could take in the night sky before once again piling into our Land Cruiser and returning to our hotel. All in all it was a great day, a fantastic experience and a lot of fun!


Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Other Side of Dubai

So I will diverge ever so slightly from the focuses of my distinguished colleagues. Its all fine and good to talk about the academics and the cultural side that we see in the poorer areas of town but I think equally as valid is the experience to be had in the glitzy side of Dubai. So here's my post.

Within the first day or so of arriving in Dubai I had the opportunity to meet and hang out with a native for a little while. While

Tears still streaming down my fac he's not ethnically Emirati he's lived here his virtually his entire life and as I've found is better connected than just about anyone I've ever met. So when I needed a power adapter for my super swanky MacBook he was who I talked to. Off we went speeding down Sheik Zayed road, cruising by the tallest building in the world and some of the most incredible architecture on Earth. He blasted American music on his radio and talked me into smoking a very traditional Emirati tobacco pipe (a "midwakh") convincing me somehow that it was the most Emirati thing I could do. My charming classmates still haven't stopped making fun of me for how hard I coughed.

e from the incredibly hard tobacco we waltzed into one of Dubai's several malls and to the RadioShack where I got my adapter. It was on the way back that my guide mentioned it first... "Buddha Bar" I had actually heard the name before, it turns out this place is literally the best bar in Dubai. But of course, with this guy, just getting in isn't a question, we were destined for the VIP section.

And it was incredible. Waved through the first felt rope without a second glance and then up the stairs to hang with the sheiks. It was rumored that Paris Hilton might be stopping by (not true apparently, some other place received the Hilton queen that night.) We sipped flaming cocktails and I think Kate touched the giant Buddha at some point. All the gulf's high rollers all converging in one spot that had five years before been nothing but sand.

My roommate from the last two years is headed to Brussels in the Fall. Pretty cool man... But for those of us who are pas
sionate about the Middle East and the different world that exists over here and the incredible p
otential a place like this has, there appears to be no better place to experience it than right here in Dubai where the glitz and glamour meets the regional political economy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Arabia and Maybe More . . .

We have been in Dubai now for three days. Giant buildings, check. All of them still under construction, check. An odd drained feeling from constantly walking between 110degree sunlight and 45 degree air conditioning, check. But what I think everyone has been most surprised by is the sheer diversity of this city. Several of us came with previous experience in and interest in the Arab world, eager to see what promised to be a uniquely high-profile and different Arab city. What we didn’t quite count on is that Arabs are a huge minority in Dubai, and that it is just as much an Indian, East Asian, and African city as a Middle Eastern one.

Two blocks from our hotel, dhows line up on the Deira wharf. Some of them are for personal and tourist use, and are so ornately carved they look more like antique furniture than ships. But farther down the wharf, the dhows are stacked three deep and stacks of boxes and crates sit on the walkway – tires bound for Iran, refrigerators heading for India, and I’m told sometimes they’ll load up a few cars to take to Somalia.

There is no lingua franca here. Though I had read that only a minority of Dubai’s inhabitants were native Arabic speakers, I still expected it to be in daily use by others. Instead, the Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, Tagalog, Chinese and Russian speakers resort to bare-bones English to communicate with each other.

We’re trying to wrap our heads around this diversity in class. In our conference room overlooking the Emirates Towers and the Burj Dubai (the uncompleted tallest building in the world), we’ve talked about the pressure put on Dubai to emphasize the Arab elements of its identity. Meanwhile, some students from the nearby American University of Sharjah, originally from Nigeria and Zanzibar, paid a visit and emphasized what a tall order that is, pointing out the window to a housing project filled with Zanzibaris with Omani passports (or sometimes no passports), allowed to stay in Dubai since the Sixties. If it sounds confusing, it is – and the dizzying swirl of skyscrapers, traffic, and the biggest of everything in the world is nothing compared to the diversity of people passing through and settling here.