View from Dubai
It all started out with a surprise phone call. There I was in India, living happily with my family. We were all ready to move into a brand new apartment.
The last thing I expected was a call from a headhunter who proposed an all expenses-paid trip to Dubai with no strings attached. What could I lose? Seduction is a step-by-step process and by then I had already taken the first mental step.
The interview was scheduled for early May.
Before I knew it, I was on a flight, my heart pounding in anticipation every time I heard announcements in Arabic. The prospect of the job or the interview did not weigh much on me. Having many years of work experience in India and the US under my belt, I knew I could swing it on the professional front. The social angle however had me a bit nervous. I was headed for an Arab country and I had never interacted with people from this part of the world. So there was the natural uneasiness which one feels when faced with an unknown. During the drive from the airport to the hotel, I had my first glimpse of Dubai and I liked what I saw – well laid roads, high rises, the smooth and fast traffic (such a relief from the crowded chaos back home).
Outside, the day was warm bordering on hot with only a few wisps of white in a wide blue sky. It was the kind of day you want to wear shorts and slippers and head for the swimming pool, but I was headed for an interview in a tie and leather shoes.
When I got to the hotel, I noticed the squeaky clean marble floors in the foyer. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the receptionist spoke fluent English and Hindi. Noticing my amazement he said, “Hindi is practically the unofficial second language in UAE.”
I was to get a first hand experience of this many months later when an Arabic policeman, who had just failed me in my driving test, calmly told me in Hindi, “Aur taleem karo” – practice some more. In some countries, foreigners who struggle with the local lingo are treated with patronizing looks if not downright condescension. In Dubai, on the other hand, most locals are tri-lingual. They know reasonably good English, Hindi, and, of course, Arabic.
On my first day in the UAE, I was driven by a Pakistani cabbie and interviewed by British managers. I chatted with future colleagues from Palestine, Sudan, India and Sweden, met workmen and checkout girls from the Philippines, and greeted a Bangladeshi bellboy at the hotel, not to mention many Arabic nationals. And Indians were everywhere. In fact, Indians comprise nearly 50 percent of the UAE population; 19 percent are local Emiratis, while over 160 other nationalities make up the remaining 21 percent.
Incidentally, this Indian ubiquity was to become a professional challenge for me much later. Laws (dubbed as “cultural diversity” requirements) were on the anvil, which would impose stiff fees and other deterrents on all companies having a lop-sided demographic profile (i.e. a high percentage of employees of any one nationality). But this was still to come and that’s a story for another day.
At any rate, the term “global village” took on a whole new meaning.
The interview and visit went very well and I ended the day buying the usual trinkets as souvenirs of my visit to Dubai. My return flight to Mumbai was sleepy.
When the actual job offer came a few weeks later, the reality of it upset all of our best-laid plans. Consider this: I was 42, well settled in a good job, my wife’s career was looking up, our son was doing well at school, we had an active social life with friends, and a new apartment. Was it worth giving all this up for a seductive, but possibly insecure career in a Muslim country with unfamiliar customs and no friends to fall back on?
At the time, some lines from Shakespeare surfaced from my mind, “He who hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail“, and “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at flood, leads on to fortune“. The fact that both Romeo and Brutus met with tragic ends had not escaped my attention.
I was given very little time to make the decision. We talked and consulted with close friends and relatives, some of whom were supportive, some skeptical. No clear consensus. In the end it was up to the three of us. Although our son was only twelve, it was he who delivered the clinching argument, “It’s either all of us, or no one. You’re not going alone.” So, finally, what came out of our discussions was a resolve that we would all go together. I accepted the offer and we moved to the United Arab Emirates.
In my new job as head of manufacturing, the factory and warehouse were my responsibility. On the very first day on the job I was called upon to look into a problem in the production process. In the factory behind the plush exterior of the Executive offices we were surrounded by sweating workmen. Huge fans spewed out air and there was the general hubbub of a busy shop floor. We were standing in front a bath of molten metal and the excessive slag on it was adversely affecting our final product quality.
To add to this professional challenge was the summer weather, which was coming into its own. It was mid August, the sky was cloudless and the temperature was a scorching, sweltering 49 degrees centigrade (120 degrees F). Humidity was 87 percent, and my full-sleeved shirt and Windsor knot tie weren’t helping. It was there and then that the reality of our decision hit me. My boss, a Brit, very fair skinned, with penetrating blue eyes and a heavy set build, must have sensed my shock and wryly said: “Its baptism by fire, Vibhas.” Against our determined efforts, the production problem lasted only a few days.
The summer, however, lasted much longer. That was eight years ago.
During the first couple of years it was particularly tough on my wife. She had given up a good career for me, and in Dubai she stayed at home. I was away for most of the day and even some weekends. Plus we didn’t know anyone.
But adversity can be a good teacher and out of this loneliness, my wife created something beautiful. Being a computer web design professional she used her skills and her love of songs to design and launch a website of Indian Marathi songs.
What started as a purely recreational venture is fast becoming a reference site and has links and hits from Seattle to Singapore and London to Mumbai.
Many things are different in Dubai. Take furniture shopping for instance: we had bought our first washing machine in India on an installment plan and taken three years to pay it off. In Dubai, we bought all our furniture – sofas, dining table, chairs, bed room sets, wardrobes, curtains, carpets, double door refrigerator, washing machine, dish washer, microwave in one fell swoop and all in one whirlwind week. We were not used to such extravagance and my wife was moved almost to tears during this shopping bonanza. All her life, my wife was used to carefully planning her expenditure and working within budgets. This purchasing spree, then, left her disoriented and a bit apprehensive. Were we moving too fast, she wondered?
There were other things that needed some getting used to. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, everyone has to follow certain rules like no drinking or eating in public between sunup and sundown. Public displays of affection (like kissing and hugging) can lead to prosecution under obscenity laws. One has to drive very carefully here too. If an accidental death is caused (e.g. in a motor accident), in addition to the normal legal culpability, the offender is liable to pay “diya” payment (blood money), which is determined by the Islamic Sha’riat court and can be quite hefty. Since this is a monarchy, press freedom is restricted and political rights, even for locals, are limited.
While all this sounds ominous, in real terms it makes little difference to most residents. You are free to go where you please. There are beautiful parks, gardens, incredible beaches and water parks, theme parks, and loads and loads and loads of shopping malls. As long as you are not silly, you can wear what you like. There are churches of various denominations and even a Hindu temple in Dubai. The weather is quite reasonable and mostly sunny, except for the peak months of June to September. The period from November to March is particularly pleasant indeed and roads, parks and malls overflow with people. From January to March, there is the glittering Dubai Shopping Festival with discounts galore and prizes in plenty. The nightlife during the shopping festival and Ramadan is exotic with shimmering lights, fireworks, and street performers. The Global Village is replete with pavilions from dozens of countries. At the Global Village you can buy authentic Egyptian cottons, Thai silks and Iranian pistachios, and enjoy Turkish coffee, all in one evening!
If anything, there is a profusion of cultures. Latest figures released by the UAE Ministry of Labour inform us that the 3.1 million expats that live here come from as many as 202 countries around the planet. Musical events of all genres from Jazz to Indian Classical and entertainment from Shakespeare’s plays to Hollywood and Bollywood, not to mention Arabic cinema, are commonplace. Singers from Shakira to Haifa Wehbe to Beyonce and Phil Collins have performed in Dubai. World leaders and particularly ex-leaders love to lecture here. Rumor has it that they have a room permanently reserved for Bill Clinton at the Burj Al Arab (the world’s first seven star hotel). On top of all that, there is no income tax or corporate tax.
All in all Dubai is a happening town and is carving out its place on the world map in a hurry. This frantic speed of growth is evident on every street corner. You see it in the multi-billion dollar construction projects like the Palm Islands, or the state-of-the art toll bridges, which one drives through at 100 km-62 miles/hr. News of Dubai seems to have reached odd corners of the planet, too.
Earlier this year, while on a business trip to the US, I was shopping at the Cherry Creek Mall in Denver, Colorado. A sales assistant asked me where I was from.
Hesitantly I said, “Dubai, you know it’s in the Middle East,” thinking she might not have heard of Dubai. But as it turned out she knew all about it and even hoped that some day she would visit. Whad’ya know!
Today, I am 50, well settled in my job, my wife’s website is looking up, our son is doing well at school (in the US), and we have an active social life with friends and a high rise apartment with a lovely view. The traffic is smooth, but slow due to all the road and construction works.
There you have it.
What began eight years ago as a tentative adventure has turned into daily life for us. At what point exactly this risky detour changed into the high road of our lives, is still a bit unclear. We are quite content here – but then again we were content in India too. You never know. Life has a way sweeping you up in its flow and wafting you away when you least expect it. Perhaps the trick is to go with the flow, no matter what.
As for us, many of our initial hesitations have proven completely unfounded. For instance, our fears of discrimination and “secondary” treatment had no merit as Indians are well accepted in this part of the world. As for “terror,” although countries and regions, which conjure up headline images of Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, political conflict and war, surround the UAE, there has been no terrorist incident here. Dubai is actually quite tolerant of other religions, so religious discrimination has never been an issue for us.
Perhaps, Dubai’s openness stems back to the fact that the region has traded with Europe as well as India for many centuries, so this land is no stranger to strangers.
But sometimes I wonder about Dubai’s ‘cultural diversity.’ As I mentioned, sheer numbers would have you believe that this land is a utopian melting pot of cultures (Over 80 percent foreigners from 202 nationalities building a nation on sand at the speed of thought). But, is Dubai really a melting pot? Is there any significant cultural interchange, or is it merely superficial?
And with all the rapid change and development in the region attracting so many different nationalities, where is Dubai headed in the future?
All that and more for my next column.
Vibhas Tattu hails from India and is a manufacturing engineer by profession. He has worked in India, USA and now in the United Arab Emirates. Vibhas is interested in Shakespeare, Indian music, poetry (English, Hindi and Marathi) and a new found love of writing.
Tattu has a bachelor’s degree in Production Engineering from the University of Bombay and Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from the University of California at Berkeley, where he was a Fellow.
by Vibhas Tattu
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