When I arrived here three years ago, I had never lived outside Australia. I had no real idea of Arab culture or Islam and had a naeve expectation that a country with incomprehensible wealth would have "bought off" all its problems. I now realise that contrary to my expectations, money creates its own problems here as elsewhere.
I had already experienced the problems of welfare dependency among indigenous Australians who receive "sit-down money" literally so they can sit on their black butts and do nothing. Why should I have expected it to be different here?
The truth is, since discovering vast oil wealth a few decades ago, the majority of the 830,000 odd Emiratis have spoiled themselves to the stage that they have now become largely moribund. With a surplus of money, they have been able to hire others to do not only their dirty work, but everything else. This has led to a largely youngish population unmotivated to work, undereducated, spoiled by access to large quantities of food (largely high fat, high sugar), high powered motor vehicles, whizz-bang electronics, and subsequently, high rates of death through lifestyle diseases (diabetes has reached epidemic proportions) and traffic incidents.
The UAE Government, much to its credit, is trying to address many of these ills. For example, it has an Emiratisation program that aims to get Emiratis into jobs. This is accompanied by free education at all levels, but is largely a failure here for the same reason that the Indigenous Recruitment and Development Programs are a failure in Australia: putting people in jobs because they are a particular race or nationality, doesn't provide a source of capable, motivated, work-ready individuals. While the government and semi-government agencies hire a handful (9%), the private sector (at just 1%) avoids Emiratis like the plague because they are quite simply, a very poor return on investment. When you can hire an Indian worker who will work 12 hours per day, six days per week and give his heart and soul to the job, why would you want a work-shy Emirati?
Additionally, some of the Islamic religious and cultural practices affect everything from road safety to the number of women in the workforce. A few drivers have told me here that wearing a seat belt is an affront to Allah because it's as good as saying you have no faith that he will protect you. Given the evidence of a road death rate that is among the highest, if not the highest in the world, it's hard to justify that type of logic, especially when many of the deceased are muslims.
Although the lifestyle here is idyllic for well-educated, Western expatriates, there are hundreds of thousands of exploited Asian and Indian workers for whom life must be hell. They are the maids, drivers, construction workers and labourers who work incredibly long hours for very little pay and who are often treated poorly. With a handful of white Westerners, they make up the vast majority of the 90% expatriate population.
So, we expatriates keep the schools, power houses, water supplies, communications, hospitals, and everything else running. This has the potential to be a huge problem for example, if a militant Islamic group decided to bomb a few venues where expatriates gather. Many expatriates would flee the country and it would literally grind to a halt.
As with most societies that have been overtaken by other cultures supposedly more advanced, maintaining a balance between the worst of the West and the best of the Arab/Islamic culture is increasingly more difficult. Levels of prostitution, drugs use, alcohol, and crime in such "progressive" cities as Dubai are slowly eroding the values of Islam and changing the culture, perhaps for the worst.
The frenzy of construction in Dubai has turned it into an unfriendly mass of ever-changing, convoluted and traffic crammed roads that snake through the desert dust to this or that mall. One day it may become a destination of choice for the well heeled, but at present it is an over-populated, polluted city in which hundreds of thousands of over-priced residences are being constructed for who knows whom.
I've enjoyed my stay here immensely and appreciate the opportunity to experience this interesting society of largely friendly and welcoming people. I do however, have a great concern that the country is heading in the wrong direction. And every so often I wonder how better off we all would be if some of this vast wealth was redirected to the starving millions nearby rather than being squandered on yet another mall or world-first tall tower.
Copyright 2008 Robin Henry