Living in Dubai

Indian Hump-backed Dolphin

These are frequently seen in the Gulf and will swim in boat wakes, as this one was doing.

Afternoon

Perhaps the most pleasant time of the day; the air cools and there is often a soft breeze, making it perfect for a stroll.

 


 

Living in Dubai has been something of a mixed blessing; it has the best of some things and, far too often, the worst. Working there is a bit like selling your soul; it's all alright or better than alright when it's going well but when it's not the wheels come off very quickly. So, in a global crisis there are other places you'd rather be. Dubai hasn't had a very comfortable couple of years but it is bouncing back and life is feeling very much like normal in a lot of places. Not on the viewing gallery of the Burj Khalifa, I suspect, but when did a little electrical problem cause that much of a setback? By the way and for the record, I've decided not to take in the view from the gallery for myself. Not yet. Not until they move it down to the third floor.

Dubai is a city-state of the 21st century; tall towers where they can cram them in and 14-lane highways that allow bumper-to-bumper trucks to crawl from one end of the Emirate to the other. The traffic drives many of us crazy even though the recent downturn reduced it by 40%; in a country that used to measure distances by the number of days it took to get somewhere by camel everyone is obsessed with getting to the next point, even the road junction just up the road, before everyone else. If you don't race away at green traffic lights you are instantly subjected to a cacophony of car horns; if you drive for any time in the outside lane your rear-view mirror is quickly lit up by someone approaching from a kilometre behind you, flashing headlights, blaring the horn and, alarmingly, not slowing down as it is you who's expected to move out of the way. Vehicles - that I assume are driven by guys with some sort of immunity - travelling at 200kph are not a rare sight! With no tax and, until recently, excessive amounts of disposable income, expensive, big and fast cars are all too common. The standard of driving has to be seen to be believed. Even after many years living in this part of the world I am still rendered breathless at the combination of madness, arrogance and incompetence that I've been confronted with daily. Collisions are frequent and commonplace; I've witnessed some horrendous crashes and have heard local Emiratis say that they believe traffic would be a lesser problem if there were fewer expatriates getting in their way. Well, there is a perverse logic to that.....

Dubai at night

A night view from the apartment. Dubai is frequently lost in construction dust, humidity or heat-haze so the clarity of a rare cold, winter evening can be spectacular. This picture shows the Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach Hotel to its right and the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest structure, beyond.

And the Emiratis are not insensitive to what sometimes amounts to carnage on the road. There are initiatives aimed at education and improving the standard of driving and there's also more transparency, it being understood that taking a clear view of the problem you're dealing with goes a long way towards finding a solution. So a culture of denial is a thing of the past and statistics are published. That should be a good thing but the last figures I saw, in March 2011, included the sobering statistic that the youngest driver involved in a crash on the main Dubai-Abu Dhabi road was seven. I have to admit that had me thinking about how he could reach the pedals and see over the dashboard at the same time - perhaps he couldn't. Scary, eh?

Until the global credit crunch put something of a dampener on it all every square metre seemed to be being built on. Traffic fumes and dust from construction sites meant that visibility was sometimes down to 500 metres and the noise just never stopped, twenty-four hours a day, every day. A lot of us developed a little chesty cough that meant greeting friends not with a 'hello' but with a discreet clearing of the throat. Flyovers, towers, theme parks, hotels, housing and shops, lots of shops; it seems that you just have to think of a project and someone would develop it; the tallest, the biggest, the most luxurious. I've recently been back to look at some of those wondrous projects and there are a few photographs on my blog, if you're interested.

T E Lawrence had it about right, even if the context was a little different, when he wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom;

''All men dream; but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible''

The recession started to affect us around September 2008, when the collective concerns of investors and revellers alike indicated that it couldn't go on like it was for much longer. I suspect it was a bit like my parents generation just as war was breaking out. But it crept up on us slowly - the hotels that hosted the infamous Dubai brunch that needed a table booking weeks in advance suddenly had tables free. The traffic was still blocked up at the roundabouts and signals but the queues were shorter. There were only 70 trucks in convoy on the Emirates Road and not 120. We've now experienced half-empty hotels, reduced service in restaurants and echoing shopping malls. Stories of thousands of cars being abandoned at the airport are a bit over-egged but there's truth nonetheless - many were abandoned. Whole office communities went missing overnight leaving furniture, files and ringing telephones and we've even heard of houses left with crockery on the table and children's toys on the floor. New projects had been appearing so fast that it made you dizzy. Launches were usually limited to a select group of investors and apartments were frequently sold within hours. It wasn't uncommon for houses or apartments to have had three different owners before they were completed and by that time the developer had moved on to the next project, busily selling that to 'selected investors' who had made substantial profits from selling the first, still incomplete, unit at a vast profit. There are a lot of incomplete structures gathering dust now.

When it did all come to a halt it was fast and furious. A lot of people - the tail-enders - have lost a lot of money and the good life we were living turned a little sour. There has been a lot of downsizing, a euphemism that belies the difficulties that many have experienced. Residency and visa laws are catching up with the situation and the expatriate population, particularly those associated with construction, development and related services, has been decimated. It's all left a lot of people not paying and not being paid and it will probably take a while for the street-fighting to sort it all out. There is some fall-out and issues such as service charges for the wonderful developments and the cost of utilities are showing weak underbellies as processes weren't thought through at the outset.

But it's more than two years on and there are signs that it is starting to stabilise - Dubai always does - only this time it might take a while longer before normality returns. There is still less traffic and fewer expatriates but the shops are busy and life seems to be going on as normal.  That's in spite of the Dubai World restructuring and the delay in meeting credit commitments. The price of oil is up quiet a bit on last year - $90 or so as I write. It's also good news that the Government is putting some money Nakheel's way. That will instil some confidence and I sense a continuing perception of light at the end of the tunnel. People are getting by; the lower level of rents seems to have stabilised, the choice of restaurants and bars is still pretty good and, of course, the sun still shines. The troubles in other parts of the Arab world - Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia - have also had an effect; people are looking for a safe haven and Dubai offers just that. So it's busy and a lot of the cars in the shorter traffic queues have foreign number plates.

If the New Year's celebrations for the arrival of 2011 are anything to go by Dubai reckons it's back so we won't give it up entirely; Dubai will always have a strange fascination even if it's sometimes a little hard to love.

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Crested Lark

Common here and able to stand the heat better than me.


 

Hoopoe

Now a breeding bird that has benefited from the greening of Dubai.

 

 

Construction dust

Humidity, traffic smog and strong winds often combine to lift construction dust into the air.