Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sojourn in the Persian Gulf

In a period of about six weeks I travelled to the Gulf three separate times, specifically Dubai once on the way back from Nepal and Abu Dhabi twice for work.  All trips involved the usual visits to extravagant hotels and pricey restaurants and some obligatory sightseeing, none of which was very interesting in comparison to some of the other gems on offer across the Middle East.  Paling in comparison to places like Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, and Turkey, the Arab Gulf lacks any sense of history and it is difficult to nail down a genuine cultural identity here.  The landscape is comprised of flat deserts, massive highways, and over-engineered skyscrapers. 

The major exception I can think of and one of the only cultural attractions worth a visit is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.  During the first work trip to Abu Dhabi we stayed in the RItz Carlton which was directly across from the mosque so I had the opportunity to visit and was pleasantly surprised.  Although not as old and historic as some other amazing mosques I've seen in North Africa, the Middle East, and India, the mosque impressive in its own right and worth a visit if you're in Abu Dhabi. 

Aside from the mosque, there is not much in the way of sightseeing.  Although I expected this going into it (this was not my first time to the Gulf as we had been stranded in Bahrain on way to Sri Lanka a couple of years ago), the tedium of the place got to me as three visits in a period of a month and a half is more than enough.  Dependent on cars and taxis for transport and mostly confined to your hotel or another hotel for dinner options, this can get very old quickly.

The UAE is very good for certain things.  The shopping malls are an impressive mix of the best of British and American retail, the hotels rival the magnitude and bling of the Vegas strip, and the restaurants do offer high quality fare, albeit at a steep premium.  The meals we had ranged from Thai, Pan-Asian, steak, seafood houses, and Nobu at the Atlantis Palm, all of which are well worth the time and money.  The restaurant choices in the St. Regis Abu Dhabi were a bit more atmospheric than the ones in the Ritz Carlton as they are located on the water.  Overall, when it comes to dining, you won't be disappointed. 

If you are an expat from the West you can have a pretty comfortable life.  Local skills and talent are on short supply as the number of Emiratis who actually work is low and they need educated foreigners to help run the economy of the country.  From a family life perspective you probably couldn't find a better place to live with great schools and affordable full time childcare, virtually no crime, big modern homes, and efficient roadways.  As a business traveller, you can have even more fun with the corporate credit card and expense account and enjoy some of the finest hotels in the world, boozy dinners, night caps, and all. 

However there is another side of the Gulf that is far more dark and not everyone who lives in this region enjoys the blessings and trappings I refer to above. 

The plight of the migrant worker in the Gulf states continues to be a source of frustration for me when thinking about my experiences here.  Despite all the luxury and convenience bestowed upon the foreign skilled foreigner, most of who come from the west, the migrant workers from Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia face working conditions and violations against their freedoms which should not be legal or accepted in the twenty-first century.  Aside from having no political representation, most passports are confiscated for the contracted period of work, meaning these workers are not able to leave the country even if they desired to.  Most workers live in squalid barrack conditions on the outskirts of town and are transported to construction sites where they are expected to work through 40C heat building these grand hotels and high rises.

All in and all, the Gulf is dull as ditchwater and my least favorite region I have ever visited.  A weird mix of wealth and luxury juxtaposed against an underlying feeling of despair and injustice, it is a region in which I would happily not return.  - KV