Sunday, 10 October 2010


On our recent trip to Europe we had a stopover in Dubai on the way back. Now normally we have a stopover somewhere in SE Asia such as Bangkok, KL, or Singapore as the time difference between these cities and Australia is only two or three hours, and Australia is only eight or so hours away.

That way a stopover lets you reset you body clock a bit, and, even with an overnight flight, you are not completely wrecked the next morning.

Not so this time. Dubai is only three hours ahead of UK summer time and fourteen hours flying time from Sydney, meaning that we didn’t gain much in terms of body clock reset and were reasonably wrecked when we got to Sydney. Flying straight through might have been a better option.

So why did we do this stupid thing?

Curiosity. I’d always wanted to visit the Emirates since reading Jonathan Raban’s ‘Arabia through the Looking Glass’ – basically on the impact of oil wealth on the countries of the Arabian peninsula – some thirty years ago.

Etihad of course flies into Abu Dhabi, but there is free bus to Dubai provided as part of their attempt to steal clients from airlines using Dubai. So we stayed in Dubai on the advice of our travel agent on the basis that Dubai was slightly cheaper and more to do.

Well we arrived in the dark, and the bus eventually rumbled off down the freeway to Dubai past exits for exotica such as camel racing tracks and the like and eventually arrived in a huge conglomeration of tower blocks.

A chaotic unloading of luggage and a cab to the hotel and we were checked in to our hotel. The first thing we noticed was extra security, like having to use the keycard for your hotel room to use the lift, and the way all the free shower gels and shampoos in the bathroom had tamperproof seals – perhaps as a result of Mossad’s assassination of a prominent Palestinian activist in a Dubai hotel room earlier this year.

However, that was all too much for us and we crashed out. Due to our flight schedule we only really had a day in Dubai, so what to do?

Dubai city at first appears to be an incomprehensible mixture of building sites and tower blocks linked by a network of freeways in perpetual construction. You don’t walk, you drive or take a cab. There is a Metro, but without any idea where it went to it was useless to us.

We had also failed to check any guides so basically it was beach or shopping. We chose the mall as a quick glance at the Time Out provided by the hotel revealed that you basically needed a day pass to a beach club to get anywhere decent, the public beach apparently being crowded and rubbish strewn. Whether this is the case or not I have no idea as we never went to have a look.

Instead we went to the mall, and it was absolutely fascinating sociologically.

Basically there appear to be four classes in Dubai:

  1. The Arab elite. These are wealthy and don’t need to go to the mall
  2. The Arab citizenry. Underemployed and not necessarily highly skilled.
  3. The expatriate experts. Basically educated people from Europe, India and America who run the oil industry, staff the universities and work in the hospitals, make the banks and the phones work.
  4. Guest workers. Overwhelmingly from South Asia. They build the tower blocks, drive the cabs, clean the toilets, water the trees and basically do everything the citizenry won’t or can’t do

It reminded me of the class structure of second or third century Rome, Patricians, Plebians, the undefinable class of Greek freedmen, German foederati and the rest who actually ran things, and the vast mob of slaves who cleaned the drains, grew the food, and made things.

And resonances kept coming. The security guards in the mall were Kenyan, the shop assistants from India, Indonesia or the Phillipines and we were Mam and Sir – something peculiarly discomfiting to a pair of left leaning Australian liberals.

I personally found the class divide shocking, more so when I bought a t-shirt from a shop and went back as the girl serving me had forgotten to remove the security tag. The manageress bawled the girl out in front of me, and while I don’t speak Hindi, I could tell it was more than for show. I had to spend time reassuring the manageress that I was not upset about the error, and that it was only an inconvenience otherwise I was worried that the girl who’d left the security tag on might have been out of job. And it was that sir and mam class thing.

We also probably bent some of the social rules by eating at the food court – where we had some of the best Indian vegetarian food ever – where we were almost the only white people, but then there were some Indians who looked like hospital staff on their lunch hour so I don’t think it was that gross an error.

And this thing persisted. We decided that, rather than use the free shuttle bus, we’d get a cab to the airport in Abu Dhabi, as it saved us having to get up at 4.30 and cabs are cheap in Dubai.

So next morning we got an ordinary city cab to Abu Dhabi, out through the mad traffic and perpetual roadworks of the city centre and the construction sites building apartment blocks and offices, weaving in and out of the battered white buses crammed with construction workers. After this chaos I’d expected the freeway to be as anarchic, something based on past experience of long journeys in big old battered Merc taxis collectifs in Morocco barrelling across the desert.

Not a bit of it. The freeway was restrained and disciplined. The driver stuck to the 120 km/h limit as did almost everyone else and lane discipline was exemplary. One thing that was noticable was that once you got out of Dubai city the freeway just ran across desert enlivened by the odd scrubby bush. As soon as you crossed into Abu Dhabi the freeway was lined with trees and bushes, admittedly only a few metres wide and irrigated, but it made a difference. But that sir and mam thing caught us out again. The driver took us to the airport, and this horde of porters rushed up wanting to know if we were first or business. We of course were economy. You could see this didn’t compute. White people who could hire a taxi to come from Dubai (actually the fare was less than $60 for a 150km, and moderate by Canberra or Sydney standards) must of course be travelling business at the very least. They clearly didn’t know what to do so wandered off leaving me their trolley.

And that was our adventure in Dubai. The mall was just a shopping mall, it could have been Bluewater outside of London, most of the shops were the same, or even the Canberra Centre. But it was enough to give us an impression of a highly stratified ‘money talks’ society. An Islamic Los Angeles.

I have no idea if that is typical of just Dubai, or the Emirates in general. However there are other things that might well make it worthwhile to go back on another occasion.Sharjah is said to have an interesting archaeological museum, Abu Dhabi is building a Guggenheim and a Louvre, there are of course trips into the desert, and anywhere on a major trade route (as shown by the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and other texts). The place should be littered with interesting remains and wrecks showing evidence of Graeco Roman and Byzantine trade with India, and while there are clearly things happening, it all seems little known out side of the Emirates.

A strange, odd, confronting place, but well worth a visit.

[Note: Aristophanes tells of the use of exotic Scythian Archers as police slaves in Athens, hence the resonance with the use of Kenyans as security guards in Dubai. Of course it could be a process of self selection - the late night security guards at our local supermarket in Canberra are overwhelmingly Samoan and Maori, and it's probably the ideal job for beefy guys with a less than full education ...]

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