Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Middle Way

Here are some miscellaneous observations and ponderings from my trip last week to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

- In some ways, Abu Dhabi and Dubai look like Chinese cities--cranes and construction--without all the chaos of the teeming masses of people.

While there was certainly traffic at times in both cities, it was usually nothing compared to what you typically find in metropolitan areas in China. There was a large public park in Abu Dhabi close to our hotel which was almost eerily empty whenever I ventured through it.

- It's be said that Dubai wants to be the Singapore of the Middle East. And it certainly looks like it's on the way. With new and uniquely designed buildings cropping up everywhere, the city is an architect's playground. But while the designs may be unique, what's being built--skyscrapers, shopping malls, amusement parks--are really the same things that exist elsewhere, only bigger and more extreme. Everything, and at times it seems, nearly everyone is from somewhere else.

- When it comes to the United Arab Emirates as a country, I was advised that Meatloaf's wisdom that "two out of three ain't bad" was applicable. They are Emirates. They are Arab. But they are hardly what you would call "United," especially as that title is understood here in the States.

- What happens when you're born into fantastic wealth with no expectation--unless you choose some form of "public service"--that you'll ever have to perform an honest day's work your entire life? No, I'm not talking about Mark Dayton. I'm talking about the people of the UAE, the Emiratis. It's not exactly clear exactly how rich each of the close to one million natives of the UAE are, but judging by the cars, boats, and upscale shopping in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, they're not exactly pinching pennies. The questions is what does all this individual wealth--"earned" by virtue of country's oil reserves--without any real responsibility mean for a society in the long run? Despite the attempt to set up Dubai as a the region's preeminent financial center in order to secure a post-oil future, it's hard to imagine that all the years of extravagant living from black gold won't come back to bite the UAE at some point.

- I found it amusing that there donation boxes at the Dubai airport where travelers could pitch in to help needy children. You would think a country as out rightly affluent as the UAE could manage that on their own. I gave at the gas pump.

- One sign of just how wealthy the UAE is are the changes they have made in the sport of camel racing. While gambling is not permitted under Islamic law, racing camels is a favorite past-time for Emiratis. We were told that prize camels can fetch millions of dirhams at auction, which lead me to wonder if there might not be a friendly wager or two going on underneath the table. In the past, the jockeys racing the camels were children , who were often mistreated and almost starved to ensure they weren't too heavy. But the UAE banned the use of children jockeys and instead now employ robot jockeys. Yup, it's all robot jockeys at the camel races these days. Operators with remote controls drive alongside the camel track and direct the mechanical jockeys to spur their camels on. When you can afford to have robots racing your camels you know you're doing okay.

- In general, Abu Dhabi is less cosmopolitan and more conservative than Dubai. We were warned against drinking alcohol or wearing shorts in public and heard that some foreign couples had been arrested on Valentine's Day for excessive public displays of affection (holding hands is okay as long as you're married). But for a short time visitor, there wasn't much that really cramped my style. I was advised to pick up a bottle of whiskey at the duty free shop at the Dubai airport as procuring booze in Abu Dhabi would not be possible and the hotels charged premium prices. Having my own reserves allowed me to pass on raiding my room's mini-bar and no doubt was much cheaper. I paid close to $10 for a pint of Guinness in one of the hotel bars and their prices were probably a little more inflated than usual. On Mohammed's birthday, none of the bars or restaurants in the hotel served alcohol although they would bring you beer with room service. Still, with a bit of planning and preparation, the disruptions were minimal.

- While unrest was rampant in other countries in the area, all was quiet when I was in the UAE. Being fabulously wealthy probably helps dampen the desire for democracy and it seems that the status quo suites most of the Emiratis just fine. The local English newspaper in Abu Dhabi provided what I thought was pretty fair and balanced coverage of what was happening in Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Yemen, and Libya. Their international news in general appeared to be mostly uncensored and provided the same information you would be reading elsewhere. What was unusual was any reporting that involved the government and especially the sheiks who run the Emirates. The groveling, obsequious, boot-licking nature of that coverage would do Mr. Smithers proud. The way the paper presented it, the sheiks could do no wrong and the people loved them for it. It's probably not even active censorship as much as it the reporters know what they need to do to play ball. And if you don't want to play, there's always someone else willing to.