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The UAE - first impressions
Sunday, 24 February 2008
Five weeks after our arrival in Port Khalid – Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates we settled down for a bit in the beach area’s in Dubai and Sharjah. Life here stands in sharp contrast to what we’ve experienced in Iran, Pakistan and India. It feels a bit like strange birds having arrived in a region far outside the normal migration routes. Nearly every tourist / traveller / foreigner arrives here by plane, stays in hotels and fits the designed visitor mould perfectly. We stay overnight in our truck on parking lots, beaches and shop with the locals in Carrefour and Geant hypermarkets. But the backdrop of life here has many interesting similarities with India and Pakistan.

For truck travellers like us it’s fairly easy to stay in this region. There’s a lot of space to park in and outside the city area’s or at the public beaches. There’s practically no police or military who want to know what’s we’re doing and locals don’t really seem to bother. In the past weeks our only worry was keeping our 24 volts living batteries charged.

Drinking water is available from many (refrigerated and filtered) public taps – however it’s not pressurised so it takes quite some time to fill up our 400 litre tanks. Groundwater is salty and sweet water is made from seawater at desalination plants.
One thing immediately stands out here compared to the Asian countries we’ve visited. There are many many migrant workers from Asia here. We see Pakistani’s, Indians, Philippine’s, Iranians work in the jobs of every day life. Taxi drivers, truck drivers, cleaners, shopkeepers, cashiers and on and on. Asian’s who left their country to try and make a better life here.

While filling our water tanks at the water treatment plant in south Dubai we felt like we’re in Peshawar – Pakistan. All the truck drivers came from there. At some locations in Sharjah we could be Islamabad – Pakistan just the same. Or when sitting at Mc Donald’s for a drink, a group of young Indians sat down behind us. Their language and behaviour, it was like a flashback into India for us.

Having seen a bit of the family life of Pakistani’s, Indian’s in their home country, being here as a temporary migrant worker without family is undoubtedly a big sacrifice from a social point of view. They live together in small shared rooms without their families – most for many years with an average 1 month return in a year. A taxi driver makes around 2000 AED a month. (about € 375,-) With average metered taxi fares of 7-10 AED, even a small tip is significant. A migrant construction worker has a lot less – 600 AED / month. But there are also different stories, some have settled here for life and try to make a good living with their families. And not without success – their kids are born and bred in the UAE and want to continue living here.

In the many luxurious shopping malls we see a lot of “western” faces during the day, nearly all tourists or women, many with small children. And they’re are not all from central Europe, people from Russia and former east-block countries have joined the expat community. In the evenings we see Arabs with their families – shopping in the malls. But also Indian, Pakistani and Philippine families doing just the same. The mix of nationalities we see here is unprecedented on your journey.

On the outside, daily life looks like the next version of western society. Everything looks newer, a bit more expensive, a little more organised and cleaner. And commercialism clearly stands out on top of everything. Marketing, branding, advertising, designs – it’s all here and to us it seems all top-notch. The best of the best, whatever money can buy. Architects, designers, advertisement and marketing agencies of the “western world’ are here to do what they do best. Make an impression of successfulness, quality of life, and so on – with lots of pictures of smiling men, women, families mixed with sophisticated graphic designs.

The message here is : SHOP!! Shopping malls are extremely luxurious and squeaky squeaky clean. Specially after seeing the souqs, bazaars of Iran and Pakistan.
The shops have expensive interiors and products on luxurious displays are mainly clothes, shoes, cosmetics, perfumes, jewellery, electronics, and toys. The hypermarkets like Carrefour and Geant sell the everyday products. And they are massively huge with a lot of people shopping there every day. Compared to this the luxurious shops seem too empty to us. The picture of the lone salesman or woman standing between expensive clothes, perfumes and cosmetics without customers keeps sticking.

With Iran in our minds, the outside signs of life in the UAE contrasts sharply. We got used to a bit sober street scenery without advertisements and the extravaganza of this world. Even compared to what we’re used to in Europe, what we see here still contrasts. Anyhow, what it must feel like for first timers from India, Pakistan and Iran for them? it must be an extreme experience. And we think even more for Indians. The “cleanness” contrast with the average Indian street filled with heaps of rubbish is beyond extreme.

Driving in the city regions of Dubai and Sharjah feels a bit like it’s the Netherlands. Congested, no parking space, excessive speeding and stressed driving. Doing over 100 Km/hr in city regions is not unusual, even for taxi drivers. And there’s not much police on the streets. We’ve been in several traffic jams with all the signs of classic road-rage. Traffic here is more organised, structured, boxed-in so rule breaking behaviour stands out immediately. The cars are also bigger, shinier and more sophisticated with blacked out windows so you can’t see anyone inside. The norm is SUV or 4x4 with huge petrol engines. Exclusive cars are everywhere, some extremely overpowered. And very very lethal in the hands of rich inexperienced drivers. We find crossing a street in Sharjah and Dubai far more dangerous than in Iran and Pakistan together.

An average drive in this region shows massive building activities. 24 hrs a day with modern equipment and many migrant workers. Every new building is build with the hands of Pakistani’s, Indian’s and Philippine’s. Cheap TATA and HINO busses full with men are transported from and to their workplace. Construction work looks modern and it seems with safety regulations. The same construction work in India and Pakistan is definitely far less safe and organised.

At the end of the day one question surfaces, how long will the luxury and building extravaganza in the UAE last? With recession looming in other parts of the world, nervous stock markets, sudden stock market dips like the one of 22 January 2008 – at some point it must have an effect in this region. Oil revenue’s are undoubtfully high with a 90-100 US$ price / barrel. That’s a lot of money ready to invest in the region. But will the investment returns even be higher? There must be something more to it….

Anyhow as fresh visitors we’re slowly getting used to life here. In any case Indra – our Swiss Sheppard - has a blast at the public beaches. And there are other domesticated dogs here with Labradors being the top “brand”. Leashed, groomed and clearly happy dogs. A big contrast with the miserable lives of the street dogs in Iran, Pakistan and specially India. Nearly all street dogs are gone – but cats with big ego’s rule the streets here. They live on the rubbish in the bins and roam their territories with pride and a lot of smelly cat pee! Indra has a blast chasing the ego-cats in the area.

For the coming month we plan to visit Oman and after return for the UAE to prepare for a transit journey to Jordan over Saudi-Arabia. We hope that all works out.

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