My Middle East Adventure: Observations on International Travel and Comparative Business Cultures 1 comment
This tale begins in early February 2005. Having been laid off from my job at a state police training agency the previous August, I was bringing in a small income from writing for a police trade magazine and managing web sites for various clients. I was immersed in this work early one Sunday morning when my telephone rang. This was out of the ordinary in itself, as most anyone that is likely to call me is either in church or asleep at that time.
The voice on the other end was one of heavily Arabic-accented English. I had considerable difficulty understanding him. What I could understand seemed to indicate that he had found my CV posted on my web site, and based on its claims, was offering to hire me as the general manager of his security company in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. At first, I only caught the “Arab” part and thought he was in Saudi Arabia, a place that I didn’t want to visit, much less relocate to. But he eventually made himself clear, and I asked him to send me an e-mail with the details.
At this point, I thought that there would either be no follow-up at all, or I would get a crudely disguised message from whichever one of my friends that was orchestrating this practical joke. However, less than twenty minutes later, the following message appeared on my inbox. I have disguised the name of the company and its owner, but the other names and places in this document are unchanged.
THE BAD PRIVATE SECURITY SERVICES [TD1] CO..L.L.C
Dear Mr. Timothy
WE TBS (THE BAD PRIVATE SECURITY SERVICES CO LLC) BASED IN UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (ABU DHABI). WE ARE A LEADING SECURITY SERVICES COMPANY IN UNITED ARAB EMIRATES.
WE ARE LOOKING FOR A GENERAL MANAGER FOR OUR COMPANY AND OUR OFFER WILL BE AS FOLLOWS :
YOU WILL BE BASED IN ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. THERE WILL BE 150 TO 200 SECURITY GUARDS UNDER YOU. YOU WILL BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT, (SECURITY DIVISION) CONTROL OF SECURITY STAFFS. LAISON BETWEEN ABU DHABI POLICE AND COMPANY. THE AREAS UNDER YOUR CONTROL WILL BE ABU DHABI, AL AIN AND WESTERN REGION (WE PROVIDE SECURITY SERVICES TO GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS, GOVERNMENT HOSPITALS, GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS, PRIVATE BUILDINGS, BANKS, SHOPS, MALLS)
SALARY WILL BE $ 60,000/ YEARLY(TAX FREE)
COMPANY CAR WILL BE PROVIDED
COMPANY MOBILE WILL BE PROVIDED.
MEDICAL FACILITY WILL BE PROVIDED BY COMPANY.
COMPANY FLAT WILL BE PROVIDED
CONTRACT PERIOD WILL BE 2 YEARS..
DUTY 5 ½ DAYS PER WEEK.
TO AND FRO AIR TICKET (DUBAI /ABU DHABI – HOME COUNTRY) WILL BE PROVIDED BY THE COMPANY ON SUCCESSFUL COMPLETION OF 12 MONTHS.
IF YOU HAVE FURTHER ENQUIRIES PLEASE DO NOT HESITATE TO CONTACT US.
ABU DHABI (UNITED ARAB EMIRATES ) IS A VERY GOOD, CALM AND QUITE PLACE WHERE THERE ARE A LOT OF WESTENERS.
IF YOU ARE INTERESTED PLEASE FORWARD YOUR NEW CV WITH ALL THE CERTIFICATES, DEGREE, ASIS MEMBER SHIP ETC TO SUBMIT WITH THE LOCAL AUTHORITIES HERE AND GET IT APPROVED.
REGARDSBAD AL HAKEEM[TD2]
MANAGING DIRECTOR THE BAD PRIVATE SECURITY SERVICESP.O. BOX : XXXX ABU DHABI, U.A.E TEL : 00-971-2-XXXXXXX FAX : 00-971-2-XXXXXXX MOB : 00-971-50-XXXXXXX E-Mail : email@example.com,
Okay, if this is a joke, the execution is nearly flawless. Given that the originator hadn’t asked for anything that could be used in an identity theft caper, I decided to play along. I sent the documents that had been requested and sat back to see what the next move would be.
In the meantime, I did some research. About all I knew of the United Arab Emirates was that it was someplace in the Middle East, and because of that, I was envisioning camels, Bedouins, and hot and cold running terrorists. To my surprise, the UAE was described as one of the most Western-friendly and non-volatile states in the Middle East. The country occupies a stretch of land along the west side of the Persian Gulf, between Saudi Arabia and Oman. The entire country is about the size of the state of Maine, but it lays claim to about 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves. Because of that, the country is quite wealthy.
Only about 25% of the people living in the UAE are its citizens, usually called “nationals” by the government. The remaining 75% are foreigners brought in to work. The majority are service workers brought in from India, Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries, with others coming from the Philippines and a few Asian countries. For the most part, non-nationals cannot own property nor have a majority ownership in a UAE business.
A few weeks of back-and-forth between Mr. Hakeem and I ensued. In response to my questions, he reported that the previous general manager had left his post to return to the United States and care for his ill parents. The company “flat” (what I was accustomed to calling an apartment) was a two-bedroom unfurnished unit, with water and electricity paid by the company. All of their security guards were unarmed, and I would neither be required not permitted to carry a firearm in the UAE. Mr. Hakeem was getting a bit more anxious about when I could relocate and begin work.
Still a bit apprehensive, I asked if I could come to the UAE to interview for the position and to get a feel for the cultural and business environment. Mr. Hakeem agreed to this. I researched the airfares and found that prices varied widely depending on days of the week and airlines chosen. An economy-class round trip ticket cost as little as $1200 and as much as $6000. I managed to book passage toward the low end of that range and was set to go to the UAE the first week of March. Mr. Hakeem agreed to reimburse me for the cost of my airfare and to arrange a hotel for me.
Not counting a brief trip to Canada and a couple of cruises to Mexico and the Caribbean, I had never traveled outside the United States. I was working on my second passport (they have to be renewed every ten years), but had yet to get an entry stamp in one. My itinerary took me from the small regional airport near my home in Eastern Washington to Portland, Oregon, and then to Frankfurt, Germany. In Frankfurt, I would change planes to go to Abu Dhabi with a brief stop in Kuwait.
The first leg of the trip was on Horizon Air, a small commuter outfit. After that, I would be in the hands of Lufthansa all the way to the Emirates. On arrival at Portland’s international terminal, I found that the Lufthansa flight was scheduled to depart 90 minutes late. So much for that legendary German precision. While waiting, I noticed that the woman on my right was reading a book in Hebrew, and the man on my left was reading French. Of course, all of the flight announcements were in German and English (the German always comes first, just so we Americans will remember our place). I felt fairly outclassed with my mono-lingual abilities, and passed the time by reading my computer magazine.
Somewhere over the North Atlantic, an announcement requesting that any physicians on board make themselves known. We apparently had several. After 30 minutes or so of people going to and fro, there was another announcement to the effect that a passenger had become ill and needed immediate medical attention. We were going to divert to Keflavik, Iceland to transfer her to an ambulance and hospital, and to refuel the plane.
Iceland doesn’t look like an especially hospitable place, although I saw no ice. I thought they should let us get off the plane so that we could get our passports stamped, but that wasn’t going to happen. All I saw of Iceland, other than the part we flew over was flat, barren landscape with a city in the distance. About the only indication that we were in anyplace remotely exotic was a sign on a truck reading “LANDSBANKI”, which I learned later is the national bank of Iceland.
Long flights mean that the passenger is treated to an expanded version of what the airline refers to as its “entertainment program.” In this case, we started with a newsreel, followed by music videos made by what I presume are current pop stars (I have long since passed having any hope of being “cool,” as if I ever was. The watershed event that confirmed this for me was when I saw an episode of Saturday Night Live and had no idea who either the guest host or the musical guest were, or what they were known for), followed by two movies: Finding Neverland and After the Sunset. After our Icelandic side trip, we were treated to a third offering, Bridget Jones – The Edge of Reason. This last presentation was unfortunate on at least two levels. The first was that this movie was scheduled for flights along the same route going in the other direction, so I got a chance to see it again on the way back. The other was that it was Bridget Jones – The Edge of Reason. I suppose I should be thankful that I wasn’t subjected to nine hours of a singing David Hasselhoff.
I use a web site called SeatGuru.com to scope out the best seats whenever I fly, and do my best to reserve either exit rows or the first row of seats behind a bulkhead, as these typically have more legroom. This strategy served me well on ¾ of my trip, as I was able to get the coveted combination exit row/bulkhead/flight attendant’s jump seat area (which has so much room that I can’t even reach the bulkhead with my feet) from Frankfurt to Abu Dhabi and then all the way back home. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky on the outbound flight between Portland and Frankfurt. Not only was I in a conventional seat, but I was behind a man that reclined his seat shortly after takeoff and kept it there for the entire flight. Using the laptop was out of the question. Reading a magazine meant that I had to hold it about four inches from my face. I got up now and then to stretch, but it was a pretty miserable flight, comfort-wise.
Between the late departure and the abbreviated tour of Iceland, we arrived in Frankfurt two hours late, and my connection to Abu Dhabi was long gone, with no other flights until the next day. I was handed off to a series of Lufthansa agents at the airport, each of whom seemed to have some highly specialized mission that did not include assisting stranded American passengers. After about two hours of standing in lines only to be directed to another line to stand in, a ticket agent asked if it would be acceptable for the airline to put me up in a hotel that night and buy my dinner and breakfast, then book me on the Abu Dhabi flight for the following day. It was
Armed with a voucher for the hotel, I waited for a shuttle bus in an open area for about half an hour. This wouldn’t have been so unpleasant except that my luggage was still in the bowels of Lufthansa’s baggage service, I hadn’t brought any warm clothes anyway, and it was about -5° C in Frankfurt. I was real glad to see the shuttle bus get there. I am sure that the locals were looking at me and thinking, “stupid American.”
More so than in most U.S. airports, there is a strong police presence. I’m sure that some of the police were border security forces and some were local or airport police, but not being able to read German, the subtleties were lost on me. The police wore mostly two-tone green uniforms, but they were still clearly recognizable as police. Their vehicles were VW microbuses and Ford Focus sedans instead of the Big American Cars favored by U.S. police. I was able to read most signs and advertising, even with my lack of German language skills. It’s no small wonder that American brands and fads spread to Europe so quickly. Europeans see the signs of American pop culture constantly.
The hotel was a Best Western-class affair just outside the gates of Rhein-Main Air Force Base (that’s United States Air Force, by the way), and was occupied mainly by USAF transient personnel. I learned from one of them that the hotel had started life as quarters for USAF transient personnel, but that the base was being closed and gradually handed back to the Germans. The base is part of the Frankfurt Airport grounds, so the shuttle bus had only driven around the airport perimeter to get us there.
I wanted to eat something before I crashed, but passed on the opportunity to have a frankfurter in Frankfurt. Instead, I had a hamburger at the hotel bar (if I ever get to Hamburg, I’ll have to eat a hot dog to even things out), which was actually pretty good as burgers go. I turned on the TV in my room briefly, but, to no surprise, everything (except CNN and the BBC World News) was in German. I even found an episode of JAG, but the lead role was occupied by Herr Kommander Harmon Rabb. Oh, well, I had seen that one before, anyway.
I did call my contact in Abu Dhabi to tell him that I wouldn’t be in until the following evening. The call cost about €14, which was applied to my hotel bill and credit card. That was good, as I didn’t have any Euros with me. No one seems to know the exchange rate for Euros. It turns out that a Euro was worth about US$1.30. When I did get some paper Euros, I found that each denomination was a different size. Whose idea was that?
The German hotel was mostly like a budget motel in the U.S. There were no free toiletries in the bathroom, but Lufthansa had supplied me with an emergency kit (which included a new t-shirt – I found that to be a nice touch) to use. The bathroom tissue is of much lower quality than one finds in the U.S. Also, the bed was made up with a fitted bottom sheet and a comforter. No “top” sheet. I later learned from a Lufthansa flight attendant that this is standard European practice, and that they find the American custom of sealing one into bed with a second sheet as equally aberrant.
I got back to the Frankfurt Airport the next morning in plenty of time to catch my flight to Abu Dhabi. Once inside the departure terminal and past passport control and security, I found all sorts of duty free shops for luxury items like candy, liquor and cigarettes, but no vendor to buy a bottle of water. There were no public drinking fountains. I eventually did find a bar that was selling bottled water, but they wouldn’t take a credit card and I had no Euros. I walked in to the Lufthansa business class lounge and found the same lady that had assisted me in rebooking my flight the day before. I asked her what the best way to get some water would be. She invited me to be her guest in the business class lounge, even though I was an economy passenger, for which I shall be forever grateful. I made it onto the plane rehydrated and refreshed.
The procedure for getting on a plane at the Frankfurt Airport is a little obtuse. The waiting areas at each gate are access-controlled. If one is open, you can sit there for a while, but before the flight actually boards, everyone has to get up and leave, then be checked in again with a boarding pass. Then, before actually getting on the plane, the boarding passes are checked again. The gate agents can be, well, positively German about this. On the trip back, I had to change waiting areas three times during my six-hour layover. This sort of thing loses its charm quickly. I looked out the window and saw, yup, those big gray airplanes on the other side of the field did say United States Air Force on the side. We did win the war.
The five-hour flight to Abu Dhabi, with a stop in Kuwait, was uneventful. The in-flight movie (with Arabic subtitles) was preceded by music videos of Middle Eastern pop stars. Who knew that India had rappers? The moving map display that appeared in between video programs showed the position of the plane on a regional map. We flew directly over Baghdad. For once, I was a little thankful that I wasn’t on board an American plane, and hoped that the Germans hadn’t done anything lately that would annoy the insurgent Iraqis. How high can a shoulder-fired SAM go, anyway?
On arrival in Abu Dhabi, I found that the airline had ripped one of the carrying handles off of my six-month old Samsonite suitcase. I made a claim with the baggage handling service, and was told that I would have to follow up at the Lufthansa office in downtown Abu Dhabi. My Abu Dhabi contact and a driver were waiting for me in the terminal, holding a sign with my name on it (“MISTER TIMOTHY MICHAEL DEES CPP”). The airport is about 20 km outside of downtown Abu Dhabi. The driver, whose name I never did understand, drove about 140 kph the entire way. A beeping alarm activated at 120 kph, but it seemed to only encourage him. The speed limit varies between 60 and 90 kph, but the only enforcement seems to be via automated radar-activated cameras.
I was taken to the Dana Hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi. It’s not a fancy place, but clean and adequate. The room rate, which was paid by The Bad Private Security Services, was 250dhs, or about US$68 per night. There was a coffee shop and pizzeria on the ground floor, a bar on the mezzanine, and a steak house and night club on the penthouse level. I later learned that most of the women that could be found in the steak house were of the professional variety, and by this I’m not talking about doctors, lawyers, and accountants. I didn’t patronize any of the hotel’s services beyond the coffee shop, so I can’t speak to the reliability of this report, but my source did seem to be knowledgeable.
My room was reasonably spacious. It had its own hot water heater, controlled by a switch that the bellboy turned on when I entered. There were two kinds of power outlets, neither of them U.S. types, and I only had one kind of converter (I bought another one at Radio Shack while I was there). There was a bidet next to the toilet, which I found to be a fairly common amenity in UAE bathrooms. The room had a doorbell, guaranteed to wake anyone, no matter how sound their sleep. In fact, you could probably be three rooms away and still hear it. I found out about the doorbell when an attendant came to the door the next morning to see if I had any laundry for him.
The coffee shop offered a breakfast buffet the next morning. There were a few changes from what one might find in the U.S. There was (canned) fruit, cold cereal, and “porridge,” the origins of which were not clear. There was sliced bread, plain boxed donuts, sliced pound cake, croissants, and sweet rolls. There was also a plate of deli meats and cheeses. The hot offerings were sautéed mushrooms, onions, and fried potato cakes, beef bacon and kosher frankfurters, baked beans, and scrambled eggs that tasted vaguely of fish. The hot dish that I had to ask about was something called (I am not making this up) “foul madammes.” It looked like untreated sewage and didn’t smell much better. The waitress told me that it was an Arab bean dish. I never got up enough courage to try it.
At breakfast, I read the local paper which had been left at my room door, the Gulf Times. One of the stories caught my eye. It was a report that the Abu Dhabi Police had revoked the operating licenses of three private security companies for failing to meet their professional standards. I took this as a good omen, as there would be that much more business for my new prospective employer.
The same driver who had picked me up at the airport collected me at the hotel and took me to the offices of The Bad Private Security Services. A security guard at the door saluted me as I approached, a first for me. When I entered, everyone stood up. I later found this to be a standard practice there, as well as in many other (though not all) offices. I was told that Mr. Bad (I had been referring to him as Mr. Hakeem) would see me shortly.
Mr. Bad’s office was decorated with traditional Arab designs. He was dressed in a long white kameez that is common to Emirati men, with a smagh headdress and egal headband to hold it in place. Everyone else was in shirt and tie or comparable Western business attire. Mr. Bad told me in broken English that my first task would be to convince the Abu Dhabi Police not to revoke his company’s operating license, as his was one of the three companies that was referenced in the newspaper article I had read that morning. He seemed to think that all would be forgiven as soon as the AD Police learned that Mister Timothy Michael Dees CPP (he actually said this, and repeated my entire name and appellation every time he mentioned me) had arrived to be the new general manger of The Bad Private Security Services LLC. Mr. Bad further pointed out that, if I was unsuccessful in persuading the police to allow him to continue to operate, over 300 people would lose their jobs. Mr. Bad owned a number of companies, and claimed to have over 10,000 people working for him. Mr. Bad then introduced me to Raghu and Babu, the assistant general manager and operations manager, respectively. I thought of a couple of immature jokes about spaghetti sauce and Sallie Brown and Linus Van Pelt, but kept them to myself.
We went upstairs to the formal offices of The Bad Private Security Services LLC, where they ushered me into “my” office, complete with a brass sign reading “General Manager” on the door in English and Arabic. Okay, I think the Arabic said “General Manager.” There didn’t seem to be enough letters there to spell out anything like “infidel motherless dog of the Great Satan.” They both waited to see if I would invite them in, and they insisted that I sit in the big chair behind the desk. I don’t know if I could ever get used to being shown this kind of deference.
A “tea boy” then appeared at the door. There had been one of these when we visited Mr. Bad’s office, as well. These are young (teenage) men, mostly Indian and Pakistani, that are basically personal servants. Their mission in life is to run and bring coffee, tea, water and soft drinks on command. And I do mean run, as they were never gone more than a minute. They act a bit surprised and disappointed if you decline to have them bring you anything. Even though they immediately leave the room after they serve the drinks, they get yelled at if someone’s glass is allowed to become empty. I’m guessing that they have other duties, but it wasn’t made clear to me what they are or were. The office staff seemed to regard them as more commodities than as people.
Raghu and Babu then laid on me The Rest of the Story, as Paul Harvey would put it. The Bad Security (TBS) had been in sad shape for a long time. The company that had been the foundation for TBS was a janitorial service called Bad Cleaning Establishment (BCE – I made this name up, too). Many of BCE’s clients, such as hospitals, schools, and office buildings, were also markets for security services, and TBS had sought to capitalize on their existing client base. This wouldn’t have been such a bad idea in itself, but the security industry in Abu Dhabi is very highly regulated by a special section of the Abu Dhabi Police. The requirements to become a security officer and to run a security company are, in many ways, more stringent than those operating in the United States. Security officers must have forty hours of classroom training, after which they must sit for a written examination given by the police. Only then can they work as security officers (and all of this is for unarmed positions, by the way – only the police in Abu Dhabi can carry firearms). Security companies must post a bond, have a general manager with considerable education and experience, have a budget and a demonstration of their ability to meet operating expenses, and so on.
TBS had never done any of this. Of 324 guards that they had deployed on various contracts, only seven had met the required training and examination requirements. Most of the others were BCE employees who had been put in TBS uniforms and sent out to work. In fact, some were doing both jobs. There are labor laws in the UAE, but they don’t appear to be enforced too evenly. Even when they are, the conditions under which some people work closely resemble involuntary servitude. Security guards at TBS were paid 750dhs per month – a little over $200. Of this, 190dhs was deducted for their food. They worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, indefinitely. They were provided housing in a camp, where they slept 10 to a room, and in some cases “hot bunked,” meaning that someone got into their bed as soon as they got out of it. The company was not terribly diligent about paying them, “forgetting” to do so for months at a time. In some cases, they would be sent back to their home countries with a promise that they pay would be given to them after they were back home. You can guess how this went.
From time to time, I would see young men sitting on the stairwell steps of the building, apparently idle. I was told that there were usually workers who had decided to take a day or two off without having first secured permission (which probably wouldn’t have been given, anyway). They were required to sit outside the office until someone noticed them and allowed them to go back to work. This might take three days or two weeks. In the meantime, they were not paid, and the practice was mainly to remind them of their place and to discourage them from having any more independent thoughts.
TBS’ budget hadn’t existed because billing had been done by BCE, and BCE employees were charted as having worked the security shifts. Security company regulations required that each company be operated as an independent entity, and this was clearly not being done. TBS had been warned and fined twice before, once paying 20,000dhs and the second time paying 50,000dhs (US$5400 and US$13,600, respectively), and now the hammer was falling. Neither Raghu nor Babu thought that the Abu Dhabi Police were going to be very sympathetic to our request to give us another chance, new general manager or not. But, for what it was worth, we had an appointment to see the private security advisor to the Abu Dhabi Police that afternoon. Raghu suggested that I ask Mr. Bad to come to this meeting, so that he would get the word first hand. I agreed and asked Mr. Bad to come, and he said he would be there.
I had considerable difficulty understanding Raghu’s and Babu’s English because of their accents. I could hardly complain, as each of them spoke Hindi (their native language), Arabic, and English. They had no difficulty understanding me. The longer I listened, the more facile I got in understanding them, although I was still working on this when I left. For instance, Raghu’s “government” came out as “garment” to my ear. Both Raghu and Babu were highly experienced security and police professionals, and probably more qualified for the general manager job than I was. However, the unstated caste system that seems to pervade the UAE business structure required that they work for an Emirati or, more likely, a Westerner. While I was there, I happened to come across the job offer that had brought Raghu to TBS. He was being compensated at about one-fifth what they were offering me.
Babu told me that he was a proud Christian, a devoted convert of Billy Graham, who had come to his country during one of his many crusades. When I told Babu that I had once worked a bodyguard detail for Billy Graham, and had actually shaken his hand, I don’t think he could have been more impressed.
That afternoon, Raghu and I drove out to the private security administration offices of the Abu Dhabi Police. We were met by Peter D’Arcy, a Canadian who served as the advisor to the AB Police in this area. D’Arcy was gracious and almost apologetic when he learned how I had come to be in Abu Dhabi. I told him that, had I been in his position, I would probably be making the same decision that he had to revoke TBS’ license. We weren’t able to go into D’Arcy’s office immediately because it was time for Asr, or the mid-afternoon prayer, and the hallway outside of his office was being used as a makeshift prayer room. Shortly the prayer was over and we all met inside. After the ministrations of the tea boy were complete, Mr. D’Arcy started explaining the way the world was going to turn for Mr. Bad.
Mr. Bad seemed to have difficulty understanding Mr. D’Arcy, although I had the distinct impression that his comprehension of English was highly selective. Mr. D’Arcy then brought in an Abu Dhabi policeman who explained the reasons for the revocation decision chapter and verse. D’Arcy added that, at this point, the right and honorable thing to do would be to close the company down in an orderly fashion, and to give the employees their releases so that they could try to seek employment elsewhere in Abu Dhabi. Without the releases, their visas would become invalid and they could be repatriated back to their home countries. Mr. Bad’s reply to this was telling. He said, “They are my people. I will do with them as I wish.” This told me everything I needed to know about any long-term working relationship with Mr. Bad. He had treated me with deference and respect since he thought I could pull his company out of the fire, but the first time I displeased him, I would become one of those folks that he would treat as he wished. Mr. D’Arcy also required that all licenses, identification cards, and other documents issued by the Abu Dhabi Police on behalf of TBS be returned.
On parting, I did manage to secure a promise from Mr. Bad to reimburse me for my airfare before close of business the next day. When he was agreeing to do this, he held my hand to convey sincerity. I had heard that Arab men did this, but I still found it uncomfortable.
Raghu and I dove back to town, and he told me that he might be able to put me in touch with some other security companies while I was in Abu Dhabi. He did do this, and I met with three managers from a very large security company operating in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai before I left. None of these meetings resulted in anything fruitful, but it was still a nice gesture.
The next day, I did collect my airfare reimbursement from Mr. Bad’s secretary. He offered me first a check, then cash in dirhams, then finally had the money produced in good old American dollars. He spoke with me regarding transportation arrangements to get me back to the airport on Thursday night, and then our business was concluded.
If you were reading this to get my perspective on job hunting or the security industry in Abu Dhabi, your work is finished. From here on out, I’m mainly going to talk about my observations of life overseas as compared to the United States. It’s not like I have a great deal of experience to draw from, but it occurs to me that people that travel frequently might overlook some details as they become acclimated.
English is commonly spoken in Abu Dhabi. I don’t think I went anywhere that I wasn’t able to find someone that spoke and understood English well enough to help me. Their English tends to be heavily accented and they speak quickly, so my most frequent request was to ask them to slow down. I was surprised to find that many people who speak Arabic can’t read it. The Arabic alphabet is very different from that used in English (although, ironically, the “English” alphabet is often characterized as “Arabic”), and the letters don’t translate directly, as some represent sounds that are combinations of letters in English.
Businesses accept most “major” credit cards, but they don’t generally accept dollars. There are currency exchanges in most malls and transportation hubs, and the exchange rates are roughly consistent from one place to another. Restaurant wait staff expect to receive tips, although some restaurants add a gratuity onto the bill automatically. Hotel staff and cab drivers always acted surprised when I gave them tips.
Many businesses close in the mid-afternoon, from around 2 PM to 5 PM (the precise times vary). The 24-hour clock is used in posting business hours, so this would be detailed as 1400 to 1700. The same businesses re-open in the late afternoon and remain open until 8 PM to 11 PM, depending on the nature of the business. During Ramadan (a month-long Islamic observance where Muslims do not eat, drink or engage in sex during daylight hours), most food service establishments do not open during the day. Dining rooms in hotels will be open, but the areas that are kept open are screened from public view.
There is a very high level of personal service in the UAE, mainly because of the availability of cheap labor. Only about 25% of the people that live in the UAE are UAE “nationals” or citizens, called Emirati. The remaining population are expatriates that are brought in as labor at all levels. Businesses must be at least 51% Emirati-owned, and there are only a few places in the UAE where a non-national can own property. My casual observation was that most of the European and U.S. nationals in the UAE are working in professional or white collar occupations with relatively high compensation and living standards. Filipino nationals seem to be involved mainly in higher-end service occupations, such as hotel desk staffs and some food service occupations. Nationals from the Indian subcontinent (India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan) tend to get the scut jobs, such as janitors/cleaners, servants, and unskilled labor. At virtually every controlled intersection downtown, Pakistani newspaper vendors walk between the lanes of traffic, trying to sell newspapers. I was told that most of these men (and they are always men) had been displaced from whatever job brought them to the UAE and were now trying to make a living doing this, rather than be repatriated back to their home country. If they prefer this kind of existence, I can only imagine what life must be like back home.
Because labor is so cheap, just about everything is squeaky clean. There is little or no litter on the streets. It took me several days to notice it, but I saw absolutely no graffiti anywhere. I don’t think this is because it is painted over quickly, but rather because it just doesn’t get put up in the first place.
The malls in Abu Dhabi were especially sparkling. Unlike malls in the U.S., there were no youthful idlers hanging around. Instead, there were a number of Emirati men in kameez and smagh sitting on benches and in coffee shops, smoking and conversing among themselves. The malls are indoor, comfortably air conditioned, and spacious. Most of them have uniformed security officers walking about, although this seems to be more for the appearance of an amenity than the need for security. Most of the shops I saw offered high-end merchandise, such as designer clothing and expensive jewelry.
Clothing, even with designer labels, appears to be an excellent bargain. At a Pierre Cardin shop in the Abu Dhabi Mall, I saw a complete men’s outfit advertised (shirt, tie, trousers, suit jacket, and a cashmere top coat) for about US$150. I didn’t inspect the quality, but at those prices, it would be hard to go too far wrong. Custom-made men’s suits were advertised in the newspaper for about US$200.
I didn’t price the jewelry, not having much of an idea what a good price would be, but my understanding is that gold jewelry is a good bargain. Gold jewelry in the UAE is usually 18K or better, so it tends to have more gold in it (24K is pure gold, but is often too soft to be of use).
Electronics are not a good buy. Most of the items I saw were being sold for about 25% more than retail in the U.S.
Most of the buildings in Abu Dhabi looked relatively new, even though some were not well-maintained. Apartment buildings tend to be high-rise, with 10-20 floors. Some buildings clearly had high maintenance standards, but others had laundry hung on balconies and cables coming out of windows, snaking across walls, and going to rooftop satellite dishes or to neighbor’s (probably illegally) shared cable TV hookups. Construction is an ongoing process just about everywhere. I learned that building codes in Abu Dhabi require that buildings more than 30 years old be razed and replaced with new ones. Part of this is to keep the city looking new, but this is also because the soil is relatively unstable and tends to settle, so that the buildings gradually sink.
Everyone in Abu Dhabi gets their mail via a post office box, and there are no street addresses to speak of. Locations are described as being “on the corner of,” “near” “behind” and “across from” one major landmark or another. The streets are well-marked in English and Arabic, but many doorways open onto alleys that presumably have no names. When you go looking for a business, you start with the intersection or landmark that is described in the location, and start working out from there. Parking tends to be haphazard. There are parking lots, but many people choose to park their cars in the middle of the lot, between the rows of cars in painted stalls. This makes it difficult to get through the lot or to get in or out of the stall. I presume that there are no fire lanes or fire codes that prohibit this. The locals that I spoke to about this were amazed at the idea that people who parked like this in the U.S. would have their cars ticketed and towed at significant expense.
Most of the cars you see are non-U.S. makes, although American Iron can be found as well. I saw a Cadillac dealership outside of Abu Dhabi, although large cars don’t seem to be very popular. Four wheel drive cars are popular among those that like to go out into the desert areas.
Taxicabs are plentiful, cheap, and reasonably clean in downtown Abu Dhabi. Most of the cab drivers are Pakistani. A 20-km ride from downtown to the Abu Dhabi Airport is 50 dhs – about US$13.50. The drivers are easy to flag down, and if you stand in one place for very long, one will drive by and beep his horn to get your attention.
Street crime is almost unheard of. You will find people walking on the streets at all hours of the day and night, and apparently oblivious of any danger. Because alcohol is generally available only in hotels (and then only to non-Muslims), there is very little public drunkenness. When this does occur, the police are likely to take the offender to jail. Drunk driving is not tolerated at any level. Offenders can look forward to being jailed, fined heavily, and possibly deported. Muslim offenders are likely to be sentenced to receive lashes while in jail, although this penalty is not imposed on non-Muslims.
Although the Emirates maintains religious freedom as one of its guarantees, Islam is still both the state religion and the most ingrained in the local culture. The local newspaper will carry the exact times that the five daily calls to prayer will sound from minarets around town. These prayers are based on the times of the sunrise and sunset and change each day. At the call to prayer, Muslims go to a local mosque, or to an area in or near their business set aside for prayer. There are separate prayer rooms for men and women. Shopping malls and airports all have well-marked prayer room facilities. The prayer session itself takes 15-20 minutes. There is often some coffee break-type socialization afterwards, so the effective time of the prayer break can be longer before people are back at work. Advertisements for job openings will often specify the desired gender of the applicant, and will sometimes mention that a non-Muslim (who will not be called away for prayer several times a day) is desired for the position. Discrimination on the basis of religion and gender is an unknown concept.
Women have an active, although unequal, role in Emirate society. Unaccompanied women in western dress are commonly seen in malls, shops and on the streets, and no one seems to pay them any attention. However, most Middle Eastern women are more likely to be wearing conservative western clothes with the hijab head scarf (though with their faces exposed), or a traditional long dress or robe. One will occasionally see women wearing long black burqua robes that cover them from head to toe, with only a small slit for the eyes. I always saw women dressed in this way accompanied by men, also in traditional dress, presumably their husbands. The women would most often be walking about half a step behind the men.
There are female police personnel, but they are unarmed and have roles diminished in comparison to their male counterparts. The only female police employee I saw was there to search women at an airport checkpoint. I asked if I could photograph her, but she only waggled her finger and said “is not allowed.”
Polygamy is accepted and apparently common, at least among the more well-to-do. One of the ways to demonstrate wealth is to have multiple wives and to show that they are well provided for. I had one conversation with an Abu Dhabi policeman where he was impressed that an American policeman could make $50,000 or more a year. He assumed that any man with that level of income would have several wives and many children. When I told him that we could only have one wife at a time, he was incredulous.
I made a brief trip to Dubai, about 120 km from Abu Dhabi. The first thing I noticed about this trip was how well-maintained the highways are. The road was four lanes in each direction, lit with overhead sodium-vapor lighting along the entire route, and every lane marker looked freshly painted. There were no potholes or even rough spots in the pavement. Speed limits are comparable to the U.S., but the only enforcement I saw was via a radar-controlled automatic camera. The guard that was driving me got caught exceeding the speed limit in each direction. The flash of the camera tells you that you have been identified. The fine for speeding is 200 dhs – about US$55.
Dubai appears to be a much faster-growing city, and there is new and ongoing construction everywhere. There are lots of high-rises that are as fancy as the most modern buildings in Los Angeles. I saw what appears to be a massive indoor mall called The Mall of the Emirates under construction on the south side of town. Many buildings bear U.S. corporate logos. One of the more striking structures is the Burj al Arab Hotel, built on a landfill base east of the city. The structure resembles a tall sailing ship. The Burj al Arab bills itself as the “best hotel in the world,” and rooms start at about 2000 dhs (about US800) per night.
One drawback of Dubai is that there was lots of smog. Between the cars and the oil-fired desalinization and power plants (almost all of the water in the UAE is obtained through desalinization of sea water, so the tap water is clean and essentially distilled), there is substantial air pollution. Dubai is regarded by just about everyone I spoke to as the place to be for social life and cutting edge business. It is supposedly much less conservative a community than Abu Dhabi.
Well, that’s my Emirates travelogue. I don’t know if I will be going back there, but it was certainly an interesting trip.
My view of the United Arab Emirates in 2005 was through the filter of an American job seeker/tourist who saw very little of the inner workings of Emirate life. Since, I have come to understand that the working conditions and living for laborers are even worse than what was described to me. Recruits are told they will making a livable wage, then on arrival in the UAE learn their pay will be one-tenth of what they were promised. Their passports are held by their employer, so they can’t leave. Food and lodging is whatever the employer wants to provide–there are no worker protection laws to speak of. This underclass is regarded as a sub-human commodity, like cattle.
Construction workers have been the focus of many reports, given the ambitious projects underway in Dubai. Men work 12 or more hours each day in heat that commonly hits 120 degrees F. There are few measures to ensure their safety, because if one dies, there are more to take his place.
The economy centers on oil, and the Emirati have come to realize that there is a limit to their supply. Fresh water comes from a petroleum-fired desalination process which is regarded as too costly elsewhere in the world, but the Emirati produce water through this method on a grand scale. When the oil gets scarce, there won’t be less water–there won’t be any. The shiny new high-rises and luxury hotels will be deserted, like a scene from a science-fiction movie.
The buildings may go before the water does. Some of the structures in Dubai are among the tallest in the world, and they’re all built on sand–what could possibly go wrong?
For now, the Emirates are still a safe and interesting place to visit, so long as you are clearly a Westerner or an Arab of means. I don’t plan on any return trips in the near future, however.
[TD1]Not the real name of the company
[TD2]Not the real name of the proprietor