TODAY is the national day of the United Arab Emirates. But I guess the sheikhs in Dubai won’t be breaking out the champagne or even having a feast. There’s a big shadow hanging over that emirate.
But much as Dubai is painted as the bad boy of the seven emirates that make up the country, there is no great virtue in any of the others.
Each and every emirate has been built on the back of cheap labour from the Indian subcontinent, workers who pay hefty bribes to agents in Bombay and Karachi to get jobs that promise much in terms of pay and deliver very little.
These workers are treated like indentured slaves – anyone who works in the UAE (and indeed anywhere in the Persian Gulf) has to give his passport to his employer; if a worker goes missing, the employer is held responsible and this is used as logic to retain the passport.
But in reality, this is a way of ensuring that employees cannot flee if they feel that conditions are getting too much for them to bear. During the decade I spent in Dubai, I have seen building site labourers stagger into air-conditioned supermarkets, their eyes bloodshot after a day of working outdoors in 36-degree heat, so that they could pick up a cool can of Pepsi (which at that time cost one dirham; 3.65 dirhams buys one US dollar) and a plastic pack of cheap unleavened bread (quboos) for their dinner.
These are the same people who try to spot a literate person on the plane home in order to get their immigration forms filled. I have spent the entire 2½ hours from Dubai to Bombay filling in forms more than once.
Abu Dhabi may have more stately buildings than Dubai but they were built in the same way as those in Dubai. And the same goes for Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Umm Al Quwain and Ajman.
The last-named emirate, incidentally, has a thriving business importing liquor and bottling it there. I once visited a man who is a major importer of rum which he then bottles and passes off as Old Monk rum, a well-known brand from India. Being a regular rum drinker, I was able to spot the difference, but my host smiled and said that only one in a thousand was a devoted rum drinker to the extent that I was at the time. Most people in Ajman buy liquor just to get drunk and forget the drudgery of their existence – they are not bothered about the brand, merely that it should be fermented enough to enable them to forget their misery.
My host told me that he had no visa to stay there and did not need one – he merely presented a new model Mercedes to the director of the municipality every year. At that time, he had been there for 28 years.
But it’s not only fake liquor that you can buy in Ajman. You can buy the real thing too and openly on the beach. One Friday, back in April 1995, during a picnic on the beach in Ajman, I remember putting down a few cans of Foster’s beer, an Australian brand. Not far from me and my friends and family on the beach, there were citizens of many different countries, all paying homage to the same brand. There were plenty of good Muslims among them as evidenced by their attire.
Sharjah, for all its cultural preenings (the ruler, Shaikh Sultan, has allegedly obtained a doctorate by writing a thesis claiming that there was never any piracy in the Gulf!), is also driven by the one god to whom all of us pay homage – money. If liquor is not served in Sharjah hotels, it is only because of the donations made to the emirate by the Saudi rulers, money that has enabled Sharjah to build a very nice old-style souk.
(But then Saudi Arabia’s ban on liquor has nothing to do with religion. Back in the 1950s, one of the royal family members shot and killed the British ambassador after getting intoxicated. King Ibn Saud offered blood money and the prince’s head to the envoy’s widow. After that, liquor was banned in the country – but every good Saudi has a decent bar, with the liquor mostly coming into the country in crates of furniture. Plenty of Saudis are summoned to the airport to be told that their furniture is leaking.)
For quite a few years after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of the flights coming into Sharjah from the central Asian republics were full of beautiful women – who then promptly headed to Dubai for a spot of “work”. I had a glimpse of the fashion parade when my family returned to the UAE via Sharjah in 1996.
Dubai is more open about things like liquor and makes money off it too – every bottle or can or cask sold at either Maritime Mercantile Inc or African & Eastern, the two liquor agents, had a 30 percent mark-up during my time there. This tax goes to the government.
Those who are castigating Dubai, get a grip on the facts. The tales told about Dubai may be more lurid and licentious, but the rest of the UAE is in the game too. It is done in quieter fashion, though. Perhaps that is more acceptable to the Western eye.