united arab emirates

Ejo #25 – Sheikh Zayed: The Father Of The United Arab Emirates

Every day I drive to and from work on a freeway called Sheikh Zayed Road.  It’s a 16 lane behemoth, flanked on either side (in the downtown area) by the soaring skyscrapers that define the city’s skyline.  It’s a very impressive thoroughfare and so it should be, for it is named after a very impressive man.  That man is the topic of this month’s ejo.


Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is widely regarded as the father of the United Arab Emirates.  Before 1971, the country as we know it didn’t even exist.  The seven emirates that make up the country (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah) were then collectively known as The Trucial States.  They were called that because in 1820 they all signed a treaty with Britain, called the Perpetual Maritime Truce.  In layman’s terms, the treaty gave Britain exclusive rights in the region in exchange for protection against external threats, particularly from Europe.  England allowed the emirates to rule themselves but oversaw governance – which involved, amongst other things, arbitrating the frequent disputes between the sheikhs.


Almost 150 years later, in 1968, England announced that they planned to withdraw from the region and Sheikh Zayed (ruler of Abu Dhabi at the time), sensing an opportunity to form a coalition with the other emirates, proposed to them that they unite to become an independent country.  Of course, now it seems obvious that they would do so.  But at the time, this idea was revolutionary.  The states may have agreed to form a trucial union way back in 1820 as a British protectorate, but the ruling Sheikhs of 1968 were prone to disputes, and in particular Abu Dhabi and Dubai had clashed a number of times.  They weren’t exactly on friendly terms.  In addition to this obstacle, some of the other states (namely Bahrain and Qatar) had plans for their own independence and wanted no part of Sheikh Zayed’s preposterous idea.


However, such was the Sheikh’s conviction that unity would provide strength, that he diplomatically persisted for three years until he convinced the others to sign on.  On 2nd December 1971 six of the emirates signed an agreement to form the country the United Arab Emirates.  A few months later, Ras Al Khaimah joined them and the country as we know it was born.  Last year marked the 40th birthday of the UAE (an excellent vintage, if I do say so myself)!  Now, if you think the USA puts on a good show for their Independence Day (4th July) celebrations, you ain’t seen nothing!  The citizens of the UAE are not just proud of their country, they absolutely adore it.  The National Day celebrations each year are bigger than anything else on the social calendar, including New Year’s Eve.  Emiratis, and expats alike, adorn their cars with the national colours of red, white, black and green.  Ribbons, stickers, flags, paint (yes, people paint their cars) and streamers.  They fill the streets, covering everything with glitter and silly string.  They sing, they dance, they do cartwheels.  They beep their car horns and shriek with glee.  There are parades and concerts and fireworks.  It’s quite something to behold and you really can’t help getting caught up, not just in the excitement but also the great sense of national pride.  And of course the undisputed hero of National Day is the man that made it all happen, Sheikh Zayed.


National Day car decorations


Zayed was born in 1918 into Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.  When he was ten years old his father died, leaving Zayed’s older brother Shakhbut ruler of the emirate.  Back then the entire region was poor and underdeveloped – oil hadn’t been discovered yet and the economy relied heavily on pearling and fishing, which provided scant income.


Zayed spent most of his youth in Al Ain (a desert oasis outpost), hanging out with his Bedouin tribesmen.  They taught him their way of life, skills and traditions – a love of which stayed with him for the rest of his life.  In fact even after he became very powerful he preferred to spend time with the Bedouin rather than with people of his own status.  It was in the desert that he felt most comfortable, and it was there that he was taught, and became passionate, about hunting and falconry (though when he was 25 he famously gave up rifle hunting to set an example for wildlife conservation – another of his passions).


When Zayed was 28 his brother appointed him ruler of Al Ain and his political life was born.  He started travelling extensively, particularly throughout the Middle East, Europe and the USA and it was on these travels that he noticed the high standard of education and health care available in the more developed countries.  He saw how large the divide was between the Trucial States and the rest of the world, and he believed that it was imperative to bridge that gap.  Unfortunately, as long as his brother Shakhbut was in charge, Zayed’s hands were tied and he was unable to effect any change.


When oil was discovered in 1958 things started to look up economically.  Sheikh Shakhbut, however, was a frugal and cautious leader accustomed to a more austere lifestyle in keeping with Abu Dhabi’s historically hard times.  Members of the ruling family became unhappy with how slowly he was progressing with oil exploration and development and in 1966, with Britain’s backing, they decided to oust him and appoint Sheikh Zayed as new ruler of Abu Dhabi.  Zayed took to the role as though born to it.  Using his own funds, he immediately set about making many changes and improving the emirate – developing housing, schools, hospitals.  Later on when the oil money started pouring in he spent it on ports, roads, an airport and other infrastructure.  He also began a lifelong project of conservation, responsible for the planting of millions of trees throughout Abu Dhabi (becoming known in the process as “The Man Who Turned The Desert Green”).


After taking power, he also realised that for Abu Dhabi to truly prosper it would need to co-operate and join forces with its neighbours.  And when Britain declared its withdrawal from the area his vision for the UAE was ignited.  At a time when the Sheikhs of the other emirates were looking at how they could gain advantage over each other, Zayed was looking at a bigger picture.  He saw that if they got together they could achieve much more than if they remained separate entities and just a few short years later, his vision became a reality and the country experienced unbelievable growth (bolstered of course by the discovery that Abu Dhabi sat atop nearly 11% of the world’s natural oil reserves).


When the UAE came into existence in 1971, Sheikh Zayed was naturally elected President.  He continued to be re-elected, and serve as ruler of the country, until his death in 2004.


Sheikh Zayed in the desert wearing traditional Bedouin clothing


When he died at the age of 86, the entire nation went into deep mourning.  They were shattered.  They had lost not just their leader but their father.  And Zayed loved his people in the same way.  He was once asked in an interview why he donated land and housing to his people, why he gave them free utilities, education, health care and many other advantages.  To paraphrase, his response was, “Don’t you feed your children?  Don’t you put a roof over their heads, put them in school and take care of them when they’re sick?  That’s all I’m doing too – I’m taking care of my children.”  His vision of the UAE as a powerful force in the world wasn’t restricted to economics, or finance, or oil.  He wanted his people to be educated and healthy so that they could in turn contribute to their country, and to the world.  Idealistic?  Perhaps.  But it was these ideals that made him one of the most adored rulers in history.


Why was he so loved?  The basic answer is that he took care of his people.  But it goes much deeper than that.  He actually loved them, and no matter how powerful he became he never presented himself as being better than anyone else.  He remained accessible.  He prayed in the mosques with the common men, he sat and drank tea with the Bedouin, and if someone approached him in the street with a gripe he would listen.  And yes, he would walk the streets.  The idea of locking himself up in a palace didn’t appeal to him.  Even after he’d amassed a personal fortune of over USD20 billion it wasn’t in his nature to act the privileged Sheikh.  To the end he remained within reach and open to his people.


Perhaps what made Sheikh Zayed different was that he understood he was lucky, and he generously shared his wealth, not just with the citizens of the UAE, but with other countries in need.  He donated fantastic sums of money to charities and causes around the world.  He was also famously moderate in his views, believing in and encouraging women’s rights in the workforce.  And even though he was devoutly Muslim, he was open-minded enough to allow the building of temples and churches in the UAE.  This was something that more conservative Muslim countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia thought was outrageous.  But Sheikh Zayed firmly believed that tolerance, not tyranny was the right way to govern.  His intelligence and perspicacity made him a visionary leader.  His warmth and wisdom and approachability made him a loved one.  Sheikh Zayed was considered the country’s national treasure, and today the UAE is a living memorial to his greatness.


The friendly and wise Sheikh Zayed


I have developed a deep respect and love for the father of my adopted home.  Every day when I drive past his enormous memorial poster on Sheikh Zayed Road, I look up and think about what kind of man he was, I think about everything that he achieved, and how to this day I have not heard one bad word said about him.  There seems to be something almost magical about Sheikh Zayed.  And every day, his warm eyes and wise countenance look down upon me and it feels as though, even though he’s now long gone, somehow he’s still watching and looking over all his children.

Ejo #5 – Alcohol Restrictions (and Loopholes) in Dubai

Quite a few people have asked how David and I are coping in an Islamic country without alcohol.  Fear not dear friends for there is a plentiful supply to be had, you just have to be in the know about how and where to get it.  Of course there are restaurants, hotels and bars that serve outrageously marked up drinks at all hours of the day and night.  Usually the mark up is in the order of x6 and that includes tax.  Alcohol in fact is about the only thing in the UAE to be subject to tax (that’s such a dirty word to me now – not that it wasn’t before).  30% tax.  Blech!!!!  But if you want to buy alcohol to drink at home there are only two “official” suppliers in Dubai – MMI (Maritime & Mercantile International) and A&E (African & Eastern).  They sound like fun, right??!!

Actually we are very lucky in Dubai.  Some of the emirates, like Sharjah, are dry emirates where drinking or even posession of alcohol is illegal.  The rulers of Dubai probably realised that in order to attract people here (at least the big drinking Brits and Aussies) they had to be a little more lax, and thus alcohol IS sold in Dubai.  But (of course there’s a but), in order to buy it you need to get a liquor permit.  In order to be eligible for a liquor permit you have to earn a certain amount per month and go through quite a lot of red tape to apply.  You need to provide them with a letter from your employer stating your monthly salary and that you are contracted to work for a certain period of time, AND that they have no objection to you buying alcohol.  Then you have to give them copies of your passport and copies of your residency visa.  Good lord!!  And then on top of that you are only allowed to buy a certain amount of alcohol per month.  They impose a booze quota!!  This amount is dependent on how much you earn (as obviously the more money you make, the more you deserve to drink it away)!!.  And the cherry on top is that 30% tax they lug you with.

Let’s just say that the whole process is so drawn out and convoluted that we are yet to complete it.  We have actually submitted the application but because of Xmas, Eid, New Year, Chinese New Year etc, it might be another four weeks before we have our permit.  So where are we getting our booze????  I’m glad you asked.  We get it from a place called Barracuda.  Ooooh, that sounds ferocious!!  But it isn’t.  Barracuda is a little seaside resort two emirates away in Umm Al Quwain (about 55 minutes drive from our place).  It is also home to what is known as a “hole in the wall”, a hidden and quite illegal trove of liquid treasures (don’t tell anyone I told you).  A funny little fact about Barracuda is that it even exists at all in an Islamic emirate where alcohol is considered haram (bad, evil).  This question was answered recently when someone told me that the Sheikh of Umm Al Quwain actually owns it.  SHOCK AND HORROR!!!!  A Muslim making money from alcohol goes against the Quran’s teachings, but I’m not going to be complaining to anyone.  More of it, I say!!  And anyway, as far as I’m concerned that could just be a rumour.  But it’s a juicy one.

We’d been told about Barracuda and were quite keen to go as our duty-free stash was running out fast.  But David had also heard stories about “bandits” laying in wait for all the expats driving out of Barracuda and then involving them in minor car accidents.  Then, while the police are being called (because in the UAE if you have even the most minor bingle, the cops are required to attend in order to apportion blame) they would proceed to blackmail you: Give us money or we’ll tell the cops about your illegal stash.  These horror stories put us off for a little while but when our reserves were getting dangerously low we built up the courage and made a plan to head out!!

The day of the Booze Run dawned bright and clear.  What am I talking about?  I have no idea how the day of the Booze Run dawned.  I was asleep.  But at 9.30am when I did get up, it was bright and clear.  By the time we’d set out an hour later though, a big sand storm was blowing in from across the Gulf (damn Iran and all it’s infernal sand!!).  But we resolved to continue (after all, we’d had our last G&T the night before – we were out of options).  Unfortunately, the further we got out of Dubai, the worse it got.  Visibility was reduced, the car was being buffeted by strong winds and tumbleweeds were drifting across the freeway – with the attendant manic swerving of all the cars trying to avoid them (yes, avoid the tumbleweed, smash into the Yaris – sound decision).  It was almost as if Allah was trying to tell us something, trying to warn us to give it up. 

But we courageously persisted and as we drove past Sharjah and into Ras Al Khaimah, the storm abated and the blue skies once again shone upon us.  The aftermath of the sandstorm though was pretty spectacular to behold.  The roads where covered in drifting sand.  We were pretty well out in the desert by now so it was like the dunes were reclaiming the roads.  We took the exit to Barracuda and eventually made our way to the resort.  Now, when something is described to me as a “hole in the wall” I tend to process the image rather literally and so I imagined that it would be a little hut, hidden behind some palm fronds where you’d have to do a secret knock on the door to gain access to a dusty little shop full of crates of old bottles of Mateusz and kegs of home made moonshine.  Oh glory days, how wrong I was!!!!


The first clue that made me realise that this place was a serious operation was the full car park – spaces for more than a hundred cars.  The second sign was the supermarket sized shopping trolleys.  And the final sign was seeing it all with my own eyes.  This place is booze heaven.  For those of you from Australia, think Dan Murphy’s but with a bigger selection of vodka.  There is Australian beer cheaper than in Australia, and beer and wines from all over the world.  They had everything.  French champagne, even Grange Hermitage (under lock and key).  To say that David and I were like kids in a candy store would be incorrect.  We were like alcoholics in a liquor wonderland.  My eyes were popping out of my head – it was just the complete opposite of what I’d imagined.  It was magnificent.


And so we filled up a trolley, and with our car laden with clinking bottles, we took off for home.  Now, neither of us said anything but I know that I, for one, was a bit nervous about these so-called ‘bandits’ that were supposed to ambush us in a fender-bender.  Every car that approached us was full of malicious intent.  Every car that we overtook was skulkily suspicous.  I was so nervous that I (yes, I was driving!!) missed a turn at a roundabout and only realised it ten minutes later when we passed a rather large statue that we had definitely not seen on the way in.  We were lost!!!!  With 30 litres of illegal alcohol in the boot.  Oh well, I thought, it’s the beginning of yet another Arabian adventure. 


We followed some signs pointing to Dubai that disappeared once we entered an industrial zone, to be replaced by signs proclaiming that we were in fact in Sharjah!!  And we got stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for over an hour.  Every time we moved an inch forward, and someone changed lanes behind or in front of us, I was horrified that the car would get clipped and the police would have to be called.  Because to get caught with illegal alcohol in Umm Al Quwain is one thing.  To get caught with it in a place where alcohol itself is illegal is entirely another thing.  An undesirable thing.  But somehow we managed to avoid an international scandal the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the ‘sex on the beach’ incident and managed to return home during an agonisingly slow 2.5 hour drive.  And thus ended our first Booze Run. 


But a few days before the end of 2008 David put a bottle of white wine in the fridge and said the ugly words, ‘That’s the last one”.  Plus New Year’s Eve was approaching.  Say no more!!  And so another journey was undertaken.  This time it went without a hitch.  We’re old pros by now!!  We bought some champagne (amongst several other things!!) as we had a grand plan all laid out for New Year’s Eve.  I was going to pick David up from work at 9pm and we’d go home to where I’d prepared a special dinner.  We’d kick back and relax, drink some French champagne (thank you Barracuda) and watch the amazing fireworks display from our 32nd floor balcony.  Perfect!!


Alas alack, does anything ever go according to plan??  Would it be as much fun if it did??  Two forces conspired to foil our perfect evening.  The first force was our beloved Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.  At noon on the 31st December, he decreed that all NYE celebrations were off.  Cancelled.  No bands, no concerts, no public parties, no public countdown and no fireworks.  It was an act of support for the Palestinians who are under attack from Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip.  A noble act.


But as powerful as the Sheikh is, the second force to toy with us was more powerful still – and even if the fireworks had gone ahead we would not have been able to see them anyway, for the entire city was blanketed in a thick, and rather spooky layer of fog.  Let’s just say that from our balcony we couldn’t see a single other building, or even a light (below is a photo of the night in question, and another taken on a regular evening).  And so, the evening was spent eating delicious food (if I do say so myself), drinking delectable bubbles and gazing onto a soupy whiteout.  And we still managed to have fun!!


Normal View from Living Room

NYE 2008

PS The Sheikh of Umm Al Quwain died in early January (RIP), so I wonder what will happen to Barracuda.  Perhaps we should do another run sometime soon!!??

Ejo #4 – Geography of The United Arab Emirates Plus The Dubai Stone

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the geography of the United Arab Emirates (and I was one until I moved here), it is a country in the Middle East which is comprised of seven emirates.  They are Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah and Ajman.  Even though Abu Dhabi is the capital and the largest (and richest) emirate, Dubai is the most populated with over 5 million people living here.  Most of Abu Dhabi’s immense wealth comes from oil but Dubai gets only about 13% GDP from oil and about 70% from tourism – and so that’s why it has the most developed infrastructure (and the most malls!!).  Each emirate is ruled by it’s own sheikh (always pronounced ‘shake’ and never ‘chic’), and Dubai’s is the beloved Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.  He’s a very forward thinking dude – when presented with the problem that Dubai had only 70km of coastline one of his advisors said they could probably add another 60km by building an island offshore;  the Sheikh said (possibly with his pinky finger poised elegantly at the corner of his mouth), “Why does it have to be round??!!”.  And thus was born Palm Jumeirah, and an extra 520km of coastline.

When we first got here I came with the best intentions of making a pretty big effort to learn the language of the country I was planning on living in for the next few years.  I bought a book/CD lesson plan in basic Arabic and started to teach myself.  I must confess that my efforts have waned as time has passed, simply because in the eight weeks that we’ve been here I have not had a conversation with a single Emirati.  I could learn the language to my heart’s content, become conversationally proficient, nay fluent, and it still wouldn’t do me any good because I wouldn’t have the opportunity to use it.  I suppose I could walk to up to any old National on the street and strike up a conversation, but frankly I can’t see that happening.  I still intend to go ahead with my lessons though, just in case.

If I actually wanted to learn a language I could use I’d be better off learning an Indian dialect or Filipino for the people that speak these two languages make up about 70% of the entire population of Dubai.  Emiratis make up close to 10%, nationals from other Arab countries make up 10% and western expats (eg. UK, USA, South Africa and Australia) make up the remaining 10%.  But everyone here speaks English (to some degree) so the motivation factor is pretty low.  Why bother with a new language if it’s not necessary??  Indeed.  I’m thinking of learning Italian.
The Dubai Stone.  No, this is not a geographical landmark in the vein of the Rock of Gibraltar.  Neither is it a linguistic artefact a la The Rosettta Stone.  Nope, the infamous Dubai Stone is a measure of how friggin’ easy it is to pile on the pounds here with the proliferation of amazing restaurants, brunch deals, “all you can eat” specials, and yummy cocktails on offer.  I didn’t in fact quite put on a stone (for my US friends a stone = about 14 lbs), but I was well on the way.  And I had to take some pretty drastic action to halt the weight gain (after all, I still have the Melbourne Stone to contend with).  Yes, I did a brown rice detox!!  Mmmmm mmmmm!!  Of course there couldn’t be a worse time of year for this self imposed torture – the amount of food, drink and merriment being bandied about the city is incredible.  Let’s just say I planned it to end the day of the office Xmas party (all brown rice and no cocktails makes Chryss an irritable girl).  And since then we’ve been able to moderate our diets more as we’ve settled into our apartment and started cooking healthy, home-cooked meals instead of going out twice a day, every day.  Of course we did decide to move into an area described as “the most exclusive square kilometre on earth” (let me assure you, it might be considered that one day but right now it’s the most exclusive construction site on earth. 

What it means though is that there is a multitude of eateries – high end, mid-range, fast food, all types of cuisine, pubs, bars, wine and champagne lounges – all on our doorstep (within 1000m in fact) so the temptation to indulge will always be great.  Insha’allah the temptation to fit into my bikini will be greater.

Merry Xmas all.
Talk to you soon

PS.  I was driving around the other day and was extremely amused to see a milk truck beside me.  Naturally this was no ordinary milk truck but a “Camelicious” milk truck.  Oh yes, Camel Milk Goodness!!  I was very sad to have not taken a photo of it to share the joy with all of you but as funny as it seemed, my life felt more important at the time.  But if I’m ever in the car with David and we see it, I’ll get him to take a photo of it for sure!!!!