My first flight took me to Newark. There I boarded a flight for Zurich, Switzerland. In examining my itinerary I realized I had a four hour layover. Ever up for adventure, I figured I could slip out of the airport real quick to see Zurich, especially since the downtown is only 15 minutes away by train. I also happen to have a friend who lives in Zurich. I contacted her and she was free that morning, so she agreed to meet me at the airport and take me on a tour. I landed at around 8:40 Zurich time and quickly made my way through customs (my bag was checked all the way through to Dubai, so I just had my backpack). She was standing right outside security and finding her worked out seamlessly. She guided me right to the correct train, helped me get a ticket, and we cruised to downtown Zurich. Given that it was the middle of the winter, it was cold and there was a slight drizzle falling, but she walked me around the downtown, visiting Bahnhofstrasse – the prime shopping area – and the Limmat River. She pointed out the university where her husband works (ETH Zurich), which is one of the best universities in Europe. After our quick tour, we got back on the train and headed to the airport where we chatted over a cup of coffee for about 45 minutes. I said goodbye and checked back in without any problems. Given how quick our tour was, I didn’t even take a picture in downtown Zurich. I took a couple at the airport, but they weren’t very good. So, no pictures for this post.
My flight to Dubai left around 1:00 pm and I arrived in Dubai around 10:00 pm. The airport is huge and very busy. Luckily, it also has free wi-fi. Since I hadn’t checked my email for about a day, I took advantage of the wi-fi while I waited to get my visa to enter the country, which took about 30 minutes because of the lines. I also noticed, while I stood in line, a man dressed in the Emirati style who, while talking on a cellphone, simply cut through the lines of people. Apparently he was looking for a friend. Once he found him, they walked up to the front of the line and went right through security. I’ll come back to the issue of Emirati behavior later.
The CIEE guide arranged for all of us to be picked up at the airport, so I just had to find where she had told us meet our drivers. No problems there. While I waited for my driver to arrange everything, I sat and watched the people in the Dubai airport. It became apparent very quickly that I was very much the minority in the UAE. As an Arab country, there were lots of men in variously styled “thawbs” (also called “dishdasha” or “kandura”; this is the long tunic that looks like a robe) and “keffiyeh” (the headscarf) and other Middle Eastern and South Asian clothing. Lots of women were also wearing variously styled “abayat“, some with matching “niqabs“. And then, of course, there were many dressed in the western style, which was standard for the many ex-patriots working in the UAE.
For clarification, the UAE or United Arab Emirates refers to seven distinct Sheikdoms (kind of like kingdoms) that have joined into a single political entity. The UAE was formed in 1972 when the seven emirates decided to join together to pool their resources, primarily for things like foreign relations and the military. The emirates are like US states, but are similar in that they have a federal-like government that unites them. However, much like the states in the US, the emirates retain a great deal of autonomy – more so than do states in the US. Each emirate controls citizenship in that emirate. Each emirate controls work visas. And each emirate controls its own resources. That is why some dole out higher welfare payments to their citizens then others – not all of the UAE emirates have oil. In fact, Abu Dhabi, which is the largest and wealthiest, has lots of oil. Dubai, which is second largest, had the second largest oil reserve, but it is almost gone. The other emirates have little to no oil, though Sharjah has natural gas reserves. The other four emirates are much poorer and much less developed.
While I didn’t learn these statistics until later in my trip, it is worth describing the make up of the UAE population to help explain my comment about feeling like a minority. Recent data, which the leadership of the country claims is a census, suggest that there are 8.26 million people in the country, roughly 948,000 of which are citizens (the estimates make it clear this is not a census; in all likelihood the data come from the extension of visas, which is where most ex-patriots are tracked). Citizens are called “Emiratis.” That means just about 10% of the people living in the UAE are citizens. The rest of the people living there do not have UAE citizenship and they are, in all likelihood, never going to get it, regardless of how long they live there. The reason why they are unlikely to get UAE citizenship is because citizenship comes with substantial benefits. Emiratis, depending on the emirate in which they live, receive annual stipends from the government (basically a form of welfare). While the estimates I heard varied, I found one source online saying the average male Emirati receives about $55,000 US per year (women may or may not receive welfare stipends). There are other benefits as well. Emiratis can attend school and college for free, receive a marriage dowry, but only if they marry another Emirati, and get free healthcare, utilities, and land as well as other benefits. Occasionally their respective sheikh will simply give them money or buy or build them a new house.
In contrast, ex-patriots, who make up close to 90% of the population, get very little. They cannot become citizens. They have to be sponsored to be in the country, either by an Emirati (who can sponsor as many people as he or she wants and can withdraw that sponsorship whenever he/she wants) or by the governments of the various emirates. The only way to be sponsored is to be working or studying. And as children get older, their ex-patriot parents can only serve as their sponsors until the children are adults. If they stay to go to college, their sponsorship is extended. But if they fail to get a job in the country after college, even if their parents live in the country, they have to leave. There are some perks – ex-patriots don’t pay taxes to the UAE government. And at least for college faculty their housing is free. But for many of the ex-patriots, particularly those doing the most menial jobs, their lives are very difficult. I’ll talk more about these laborers later.
Anyway, all of that was basically to explain why it was that I felt like a minority immediately upon arriving. I was told there are only about 20,000 American ex-patriots in the UAE; just a drop in the bucket. There are more Indians and Iranians in the country than there are Emiratis. Most of the ex-patriots are from the surrounding region: India, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other gulf countries. There are also many from southeast Asia (e.g., Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines). As far as Westerners go, I was told the British are the largest group. Just because I am a numbers person, and because there are no photos in this post, I figured I’d put together some charts. The UAE has a National Bureau of Statistics; it’s not very good, but I found some interesting information there. For instance, here is a chart showing the nationality (grouped, unfortunately) of UAE workers in 2008:
As the figure shows, Emiratis make up just under 4% of the workforce in their own country. The biggest group is Indians, Pakistanis, and Iranians at 82.7%. Amazing!
I also found data on the UAE National Bureau of Statistics website supporting the remarkable sex imbalance – 68% of the population of the UAE in 2005 (latest data available) was male; 32% was female. Data on that site also indicates that the average family size is 5.3, which suggests the average number of children is 3.3, though possibly higher given the increasing divorce rate. I may also discuss it later, but one of the major concerns of Emiratis is that they will grow increasingly marginalized in their own country. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics lends gravity to that concern. In 2009 there were 15,000 more births to non-citizens (45,415) than to citizens (30,951).
Here’s another interesting figure – crimes by nationality in 2007:
This is fascinating because it suggests that Emiratis are disproportionately responsible for crimes committed in the country. This is supportive of lots of research suggesting that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than are citizens, precisely because they want to avoid problems with the law that might get them deported. Anyway, hopefully that helps give some background on the UAE and the rather strange nature of the population. On with my trip…
My driver was Pakistani. He was very nice. But much of that was probably the deference that results from a very distinct and clearly divided hierarchy in the UAE. At the top of the hierarchy are the royals – the families of the various sheiks. Not only are these individuals incredibly wealthy but they also have what is called “wasta” in the country. It basically means clout. Because of it, royals can basically do whatever they want, regardless of what it is they want. They are at the top of the hierarchy. Next are the non-royal Emiratis, who, because they have citizenship, also have wasta. They do display some entitlement, as did the young male Emirati who cut in front of the lines where the rest of us were waiting for our visas. But in later discussions I concluded that Emiratis aren’t necessarily elitist, though certainly there is some of that. I’ll return to this point later in my trip report. Next in the hierarchy are the educated and skilled ex-patriots – the engineers, lawyers, doctors, etc. – who make up a large section of the work force and are basically the middle class. Many of these individuals are from the West, but some are from the region as well. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the menial laborer ex-patriots who receive virtually no respect, are largely ignored, and who are very deferential to those above them. My driver was at the upper end of the bottom of the hierarchy – he spoke English and had a license to drive, so he likely made more than the lowest paid workers. Even so, the deference he showed to me – insisting on taking my bags, opening my door, calling me sir, looking down instead of looking at me, apologizing for everything – it was really awkward. There are, of course, social classes in the US, and some individuals feel like they are at the top and they treat those lower than them poorly, demanding deference. But perhaps because I grew up middle class where the assumption was that we are all equal – hell, it’s in our Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…) – the hierarchy and its accompanying entitlement and deference was really awkward for me.
Anyway, rather than sit in the back seat, I sat up front with the driver and chatted with him (he initially tried to put me in the back but I insisted). He was single and had been in the UAE for 9 years. His family is all still in Pakistan. He said he would prefer to be in Pakistan but the money in the UAE was too good to pass up. He got several weeks of vacation a year and used it to go home and visit his family. When I told him what I do – a college professor – he became even more deferential. His perception of the prestige associated with that job was really interesting. He said he thought it was a really good job and assumed that I must therefore know lots of important people – like politicians, judges, police officers, business people, lawyers, and doctors. Admittedly, I do know some, but I’m guessing those types of connections are more common in less developed countries where the prestige of a college professor is higher. I asked him about the problems in Pakistan with violence and particularly about the recent conflicts with the US. His response was that the media can’t be trusted. He said that he thought most of what was in the news was driven by the interests of the wealthy and whoever was able to spend the most on the news coverage. He also said the media isn’t always accurate. He gave an example of a news report of a bomb going off in Pakistan near his home town. He called a friend whose business was just a street away from the alleged location and his friend said nothing had happened. Granted these are the thoughts of a random young man working for National Car Rental in Dubai, but I thought it was interesting to get his perspective.
I got to the hotel around 11:30, checked in, and wanted to go to sleep, but my internal clock was screwed up, so I stayed up for another hour unpacking and getting settled before I was able to go to sleep.
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