The Dubai International Airport offers more than just a point of entry to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is a window of insight into the UAE. In a way, it symbolizes what the UAE is and what it is trying to be.
It is huge. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of gates for the flights coming into and going out of Dubai to destinations around the world. This shows the effort being made to make Dubai into an international hub for travellers, tourists, marketing and conferences. When the oil runs out, the Emirates will have a well-established alternative income. But then again, with few other natural resources, the Arabs have been traders for millennia, so this is simply a current adaptation of ancient custom.
Secondly, it is efficient. There are clear, sign-posted directions in English and Arabic and symbol indicating to arriving/departing passengers where to go for check-in, immigration, collecting luggage, boarding the flight or exiting the airport. There are even signs where to stand to be photographed for immigration! The airport staff put great reliance on these signs. Rarely is there human interaction, officials telling passengers where to go. So if you are not able to follow directions, you might get lost. However, I did notice a group of novices with T-shirts inscribed “How may I help you?” being trained in assisting passengers who need help. On both arrival and departure, I followed the signs and went through the proceedings quickly and efficiently, though I was told that sometimes there can be long queues.
Thirdly, it is new, clean and tidy. It is pristine. There seem to be literally acres of marble tiles! Cleaning staff are on the go all the time ensuring that the venue remains free from rubbish.
These same features I found in my travels in Dubai and Sharjah.
The roads are enormous. The main arterial roads into/out of the cities are divided carriageways with four, five and six lanes going each way, or when there are exit lanes, as many as eight lanes. Instead of intersections and traffic lights which would halt the flow of traffic, there are great whirling loops by which traffic exit from one road and enter into the other road, thus maintaining the flow. The speed limit could be as high as 100 km per hour or more, even in the heart of the city. Buses and trucks are restricted to the outside lanes. Cars and other traffic moved across lanes, sometimes indicating, often not, but always seeming to allow just enough space so that there were no accidents. Using the mirrors to check available space before starting to change lanes is a must! The road network is obviously highly planned and well laid-out, but even so, the amount of traffic hurtling along is so great that at peak times the roads become congested and everything is bumper-to-bumper and slows to a crawl. Sometimes it is possible to take an alternate lesss-travelled route. Otherwise, it can be prudent to take time off (for a meal) and travel later when there is less congestion.
The desert road from Dubai to Al Ain, a distance of about 150 kms, is dual carriageway all the way, with at least two lanes, sometimes six, and a speed limit of 120 km per hour, though one section allowed 140 km per hour, so took only an hour and a half. Though it passed through desert, it had streetlights all the way, as if it were in a populated city! Such infrastructure is impressive.
The shopping malls are enormous. Again, there are acres and acres of marble. The corridors are wide and spacious (even the public toilets seemed capacious!). The shops are numerous. The Dubai Mall hosts over 1,200 shops, not to mention the tourist sites – the aquarium, skating rink, water fountain, waterfall, and forecourt of the Dubai Tower (Burj). There did not seem to be a lot of people shopping during the day, but I am told that shops open till 1.00 or even 3.00 in the morning, so some people do their shopping then! These malls are and will be the trading centres of the future economy when the oil runs out. Besides the major malls in the main city, there are smaller malls in the suburbs catering to the locals, but even these are as big as some of the Westfields in Australia. Though most are called “supermarkets”, I noted that some were called “hypermarket”, which I though was a more appropriate title! The goods available were largely consumer and fashion goods, top label goods, electronics, fashions, sports, toys, luggage, though there was some regular supermarket fare too for daily food and other groceries and household goods.
There are also many large hotels and conference facilities. The Burj Hotel on the Dubai foreshore is one of the few 7-star luxury hotels in the world. The UAE are attracting people to come to Dubai for international conferences – hosting of which is and will be another source of post-oil income. They also have stadia for major international sports events. There is also tourism, with beaches and desert safaris.
All in all, the quality and the range of the infrastructure—roads, bridges and buildings—give the impression is of solid planning and thinking ahead. And it is all carefully maintained.
However, for those with an eye to see it, there is also a huge cost. While many of the Emiratis and other high level society enjoy an extravagant lifestyle, it is maintained by immigrant workers, many of whom do menial tasks for pittance salaries. They come from all the developing countries around the world – Philippines, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria …… There are nannies dressed in suits that look like pajamas who mind the children. There are teams of young men (they look sixteen years old!) who pick up the rubbish and clean cars in the shopping mall car-parks. Others operate the petrol pumps, standing all day, even in 50 degree Celsius summer heat. There are employees who stand and pack goods into plastic bags at the supermarket checkout. There are others standing all day spruiking the wares in the shopping malls. Some of these are mind-numbing jobs with little or no job satisfaction or sense of achievement, but the immigrant workers are doing them to support their families back home, and suffer all the consequences of isolation and toll on family relationships.
I was touched to attend the English Catholic Mass in Dubai. There are several Masses on the weekend, others during the week, in a variety of languages reflecting the variety of countries in the congregation. The church was packed. There were no vacant seats. Even the aisles were filled with worshippers standing throughout the Mass. When there was no further room inside, the doors were closed. I presumed that the overflow remained standing in the forecourt outside. The worshippers were fervent, devout and attentive. I guessed that the familiar Mass was a consolation and a support to these workers who were making sacrifices for their families to get education and get ahead.
Of course, the Emirates is a Muslim-majority country. There are mosques in each of the suburbs. There are prayer halls in the shopping malls. I am told that the mosques are frequented on Fridays especially, when people double and triple park so that the men can attend the obligatory Friday service. I did hear the azan, the call to prayer, on several occasions, in the morning, and in the malls. But it was the official requirement only, no protracted preaching as in some other countries. I had the impression that the lived Islam was as orderly as the rest of society.
My visit to Dubai was very interesting and enjoyable. My thanks to my cousin, CW, for hosting me during my stay.