It’s rare to get a glimpse “behind the scenes” as to how a country like the United Arab Emirates is kept running – located in the middle of the desert yet having all the infrastructure one can possibly expect.
To get a real feeling for the relations between locals and migrant workers and the contrasts between high-tech and traditional trading, the first step is to explore the quays of the Dubai Creek and the its back streets. About 40% of the population of the UAE is from India and Pakistan, while UAE citizens only account for 11%. The Arabian local population leads a good life, financed by the rich resources, Europeans and Americans make up the management class, staying in the country for a few years in the hope to get rich quickly, and a working class from India and South-East Asia keeps it all running. Even the metro trains are divided into classes that seperate the population groups! Take the metro, walk along the trading quays of the Creek and through the streets of the souks and you will notice that the society is highly stratified.
To get there, take the Dubai metro to Al Ras, and walk along the Dubai Creek inland. You will pass the quays at which the dhows land their cargo – don’t hesitate to talk up their crews, most of them will be happy to tell you their stories. I talked to a crew of one old dhow that travels to and from Iraq, always two days at sea in a small (and not very trust-inspiring) wooden ship to transport refrigerators and flat screen TVs.
Everywhere in the UAE, you will meet people, working to keep the country running, to build new buildings, to move you around and to keep everything green and tidy. Don’t hesitate to listen to their stories: some of them just moved their a short while ago, some have been living there for decades, all of them came for a better live and have great stories to tell.
Behind the scenes
One of the places where it is relatively easy to take a look “behind the scenes” are the backstreets and the Indian alleys of the old Souk of Dubai. Everyone knows and visits the Gold Souk, but in many ways, the backstreets of the Old Souk feel a lot more real. This is where locals and workers from India and Pakistan mingle. Take an “Abra”, a traditional small water taxi to cross the Creek (for 1 Dirham!). Just take a corner when in the old souk and pass through one of the smaller passageways and gates and you instantly get transported to a world that is a lot less touristy. Be it the small streets of the Indian Bazaar, where people search for affordable living quarters or the warehouses and distributors for the Souk.
Obviously, the same is true elsewhere in the UAE: dare to leave the main streets and touristy squares and have a look at the small souks and even a few run-down places that look so different from the glitzy facades of the skyscrapers.
As a tourist, you are often shielded from the real life of the people. Be it the construction sites for new hotels and offices that are hidden behind fences, be it the houses where locals and workers live as neighbours (but under very different living conditions), be it the Indian workers who go fishing in the evening or the Arabian folk dance group we came across one day.
Don’t just take the shuttle bus to the beach. Walk and take a detour. Don’t take the taxi but take the Emirates Express intercity Bus to Al Ain. Go with open eyes and talk to people.
Straying from the touristic paths is easier and safer in the UAE than in many other places because the UAE is exceptionally safe. But this safety comes at price. Rules are everywhere, even for the strangest stuff (ever seen a “Do not ski” sign in a desert oasis before?) and you are monitored all the time. Even small deviations are noticed right away. Take a photo at the wrong place or stand on a stone wall for a few minutes and a security guard will come along and chase you away. And the omnipresent police stations that look like airport towers are never far away.
While you are here: how about more contrasts of Arabia?