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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

You Say Dubai & I Say Hello

What does the Middle East need the most? You were thinking maybe a little peace and quiet? Heck no! How about Dubai! Who doesn’t need a huge shopping mall where you can ski indoors? Why not a city in the middle of desert with the most outrageous architecture and hotels to be found? Better yet, why not funnel mounds of cash to create a Middle East Las Vegas (sans gambling) where globetrotting tourists can shop and tan? While businesses from around the world make a mad dash to grab a foothold, the native people of Dubai watch in shock and awe.

My waitress was from the Philippines. My doorman was from Thailand. My taxi drivers were Pakistani. The business group I was consulting with focuses on expediting business expansion into all parts of the world from port entry to real estate to construction to maintenance. “How do you like Dubai? Is this your first time here?” people would ask. How could I tell them I felt both amazed and crazed all at the same time.

When I decided to walk the 1/4-mile to a neighboring hotel, the doorman told me, “It’s not safe.” Why? I wondered. Was it because I was a foreigner? No. Because I was a woman? No. I couldn’t pin them down, so off I trod into the dusty night air. By the time I had gotten to my destination, my nicely pressed shirt was sopping wet from the heat, my shoes were filled with dirt from the construction and I had almost gotten killed crossing the street when a bus full of workers unexpectedly careened around the corner at breakneck speed. Suffice it to say I took a taxi back.

But like so many others, I was Svengalied by Dubai – so many cultures, so much rapid change, so many opportunities. Four years ago the spot where my hotel stood (and 13 other hotels, shopping malls and corporate housing sites) had been a vast desert wasteland. For someone whose Strengthfinder's profile includes the top strength of Activation, I was duly impressed. Construction is 24/7 and despite the noise, dust and din, everyone is friendly. Well, why not? No matter where you are from, you are employed. Better yet, if your current job doesn’t work out, hey no worries, there are a thousand more to be had.

Still I couldn’t help but wonder, is this kind of capitalist indulgence all that great? The discrepancy between the haves and have nots has pushed the natives and workers to neighboring towns to live where they squeeze six to eight bachelors into a studio apartment. There is a constant parade of busses in and out of Dubai packed with workers for all the construction and service jobs. Want a little work life balance? Don't go to Dubai. When I asked my driver what he liked to do for fun he said, “I don’t think I have time for fun ma’am.” Taxi drivers work a minimum of 12-hour shifts 7 days a week shuttling business people, tourists, and workers- who have missed their busses - to and fro while the city expands and rises overnight. Want a monorail? No problem. Dubai's will be completed in less than two years from its inception.

Despite having already worked 12 hours, my particular taxi driver returned to my hotel to pick me up so I could “tour” Dubai at 8:30 at night when my own long working session was finished. He suggested I see the big mall. There I found the shopping was insane and non-stop. It was packed with people eating, drinking and gawking at others skiing the indoor slopes of Ski Dubai. I thought I might have a second to swim in the Gulf after work the next day, so I stopped to see if I could find a cheap swimsuit in the Nike store. Cheap? Not quite. In addition, it was a complete feeding frenzy, the lines were too long to purchase anything.

Back in the cab, my taxi driver drove me to all the famous hotels, newly planted harbors and finally the beach at the Gulf, stopping there so I could snap a photo and put my feet in the water. Two hours later, when he dropped me at the Buddha Bar to eat dinner, I asked him what was an appropriate tip for our evening's jaunt. He put on his best, “I am just a humble guy” demeanor, bowed his head and asked for an outrageous tip. I had just spent two hours talking with him about his wife and family in Pakistan, heard his stories of his goal to stay just one more year to be able to finally (8 years later) return home with enough money to buy his own house, in his own country. I’ll bet you can guess what I did.

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