Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Dubai’

Keepers of the Golden Shore

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th February, 2016

Keepers of the Golden ShoreThe transformation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from impoverished sheikhdoms along the Trucial Coast to a dynamic post-modern society with one of the fastest rates of economic and population growths in the world is surely one of the most remarkable development trajectories of the second half of the 20th century. As a country, the UAE has only existed since 1971; previously, the seven emirates had survived with often indistinct borders between them drawn in the sand, all under the tutelage of Great Britain as the protecting power. It was largely thanks to the UK’s cost-cutting decision to withdraw from East of Suez that concentrated the minds of the local rulers that they would do better in an uncertain world as a single identity rather than as seven, though Ras Al Khaimah dragged its heels for a while. Bahrain and Qatar could have been part of the new enterprise but decided to go their own way. Subsequently, oil revenues helped Abu Dhabi become the strongest kid o the block, though Dubai’s embracing of economic diversification and in-your-face self promotion has made it the one emirate of which that everyone has heard.

UAE 1950sIt would be tempting to think that the above is all the really matters when one considers the history of the UAE, but as Michael Quentin Morton’s new book Keepers of the Golden Shore (Reaktion Books, £25) recounts, archaeological findings show significant human activity in this region at a time when the climate was more benign than it is now. Moreover, pearl fishing brought periods of prosperity to Gulf communities, albeit unevenly distributed, for several centuries. But the bottom fell out of the pearl market around 1930 in the face of competition from Japanese cultured pearls and the impact of the Great Depression. The following two decades, including the Second World War, were a period of great hardship for Gulf Arabs, including widespread malnutrition, causing some local people to leave. The subsequent exploitation of oil dramatically changed that situation so that now the UAE’s hunger is for overseas migrant labour and the newest and flashiest of everything.

Sheikh ZayedQuentin Morton, who grew up in the Gulf, writes with calm authority and rational judgment about the often passionate rivalry between the various emirates and their ruling families, several of which engaged in fratricide and other dastardly acts. He rightly underlines the particular significance of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan (1918-2004), ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE, without fully explaining his charisma. I was in Bahrain when Zayed died and the public mourning even there was dramatic and sincerely felt. Perhaps because he does not want to get his book banned in the UAE and neighbouring countries, the author is a little circumspect in his treatment of the bloody suppression of the Pearl roundabout protests in Bahrain in 2011. But for anyone who wants to understand from where what is now the UAE emerged and how that happened this is a most useful and readable account..

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Dubai’s Creek

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th May, 2015

imageDubai has become synonymous with extravagant shopping malls and high-rise buildings, not least the current tallest edifice in the world, the Burj Khalifa. But when I have had free time in the city I have always gravitated towards the Creek, in the old city centre, which is one of the few places that hasn’t changed much in the 30-odd years that I have been coming here. The little passenger boats that shuttle people back and forth across the waterway are still there, and only charge 1 dirham (20p) for the ride — by far the best value attraction for any visitor. The area on the Bur Dubai shoreline has been smartened up, with several of the beautiful nobility’s houses with their wind towers tastefully restored, not least Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum’s house, which also doubles as a museum, with several rooms of fascinating black-and-white photographs of Dubai before modernisation and the oil boom. When I first came to the city, the airport (now very much downtown) was surrounded by desert and development along the Creek petered out very quickly. Lovely wooden dhows from Iran used to moor alongside the Deira waterfront, spilling their cargoes onto the walkway, while their crews, mainly from the Arabic-speaking areas of the Abadan coast, stared in a mixture of wonder and apprehension at the comparative sophistication of Dubai. These days they are fewer and have to tie up further up the Creek, somewhat out of view. I find it extraordinary that most Western tourists and expats working in Dubai prefer the malls and now the new marina to the Creek. It’s their loss, and our gain, for those of us who join the locals and the labourers who keep the area so vibrant.

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Oman’s Quiet Diplomacy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 9th November, 2014

Oman flagOman is probably the most low-key of the Gulf states, certainly when compared with the UAE’s Dubai or Qatar. But it is the one with the greatest sense if history; for centuries, Omani merchants were key players across the Indian Ocean and down the East coast of Africa and its navy was a force to be reckoned with. For the first two decades of my life, it was largely a closed country, as the old Sultan was mistrustful of modernity and the West — understandably if one reads how the Omanis were mistreated by the Portuguese and then outmanoeuvred by the British. All that changed in 1970 when Sultan Qaboos took power, and he started to use the country’s oil-wealth to build up its infrastructure, as well as to raise the living standards of his people. Moreover, while some of the other Gulf States have trumpeted with great fanfares their activities in international diplomacy, Oman has done so quietly. It was one of the first Arab states to accept that someone who had been to Israel should not therefore be a prohibited visitor. And today there are efforts underway to further the Western dialogue with giant neighbour Iran, with the US and the EU represented at the highest diplomatic level at talks in Oman’s capital, Muscat (which I left this morning to fly to Salalah). Sultan Qaboos himself is unfortunately detained by medical treatment in Germany, so unable to greet the participants, as I am sure he would have wished. He will also miss National Day celebrations here on 18 November. But when he went on the radio on Wednesday to say he is doing OK, cars full of flag-waving young men took to the streets of Muscat in celebration. Oman may not pass the Westminster-model democracy test, but on so many levels it is an undoubted success, including in its quiet diplomacy. And many Omanis say they like things the way they are — so long as Sultan Qaboos is in charge.

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A Diamond in the Desert

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th April, 2012

By coincidence, an article in the Guardian appeared raising questions about Abu Dhabi’s ability to complete its Guggenheim Museum on time just as I was finishing reading Jo Tatchell’s book about the city, A Diamond in the Desert. Subtitled “behind the scenes in the world’s richest city”, the book does what it says on the cover, in other words provide an insider-outsider’s view of a rapidly changing city in which she grew up and to which she returned on a prolonged visit years later. It’s sobering to think that when I was born, Abu Dhabi was a very small settlement of predominantly palm-frond huts, clustered round the local sheikh’s modest dwelling, whereas now it is a densely populated city, criss-crossed by 8-lane highways and boasting several mind-blowingly luxurious hotels. But unlike Dubai, just a couple of hours’ drive away, Abu Dhabi has not gone down the route of ultimate flash, what one might call the Beckham lifestyle. Instead, as the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as well as the main city of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, it has chosen in recent years to reinvent itself as a great cultural centre, with an island of different museums which will house some of the creme de la creme of world Art. This could be seen as an idealistic attempt to recreate the spirit of Cordoba, an era of cultural flowering and tolerance that characterised that southern Spanish city under Islamic rule. But as Jo Tatchell makes clear, there is a difficult dynamic in modern Abu Dhabi’s development; while wanting to be seen as a global cultural centre, it nonetheless wishes to remain essentially Emirati, despite the fact that 80 per cent of the population are migrant workers, notably from the Indian sub-continent and the Philippines. Moreover, many of Abu Dhabi’s gilded youth live in a dream world of social privilege and conspicuous consumption that has little connection with such lofty aims. There are many things which disturb Ms Tatchell, including the recognition that tolerance is limited in the Emirates (criticising the Ruling family or indeed the country is a complete no-no) and that expats — especially the Indians — will never be living on an equal footing with the indigenous Arabs. Nonetheless, the author retains a fondness for the place, albeit nostalgic for aspects of the past that have disappeared — a view I whole-heartedly share.

(A Diamond in the Desert is available in paperback in England, published by Sceptre)

 

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Doha: Town Centre Versus City Center

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd April, 2012

Since Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani acceded as Emir of Qatar in 1995 the face of the country’s capital, Doha, has been transformed. Several of the souks around the old town centre have been renovated or reproduced and some traditional streets lined with cafes and restaurants have been pedestrianised, notably around the Souq Waqif. But all the high-rise building has been concentrated much further round the bay at what’s now referred to as the City Center — the suitably Americanised name of a huge shopping mall located there, which houses an ice-skating rink under its tallest atrium. A cluster of tower blocks — some really distinguished architecturally, others less so — have been erected in the area, but not in a depressingly straight line as along Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road. There are curving avenues and short streets running betwen Doha’s skyscrapers, just as the main road along the corniche is an elegant arc. The Corniche used to be quite narrow when I first came to Doha 20-odd years ago, but is now an 8-lane highway. But people still jog or walk along the seaside paths. The Sheraton Hotel, which opened in the 1980s, was the emirate’s only building of real note at the time, but now has been joined by other remarkable edifices, not least the Museum of Islamic Arts, designed by I M Pei. Between the town centre, with its deliberate Old World charm, and the brasher modernity of the City Center lie a series of parks and government buildings, including the massive Emiri Diwan housing the Ruler’s offices. Outside of the unbearably hot summer months, walking around Doha is far more pleasant than in several other Gulf cities and the contrast of its two poles — what one might call a tale of two cities in one — adds to the attraction.

 

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UAE: Will Life Begin at 40?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd December, 2011

To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the United Arab Emirates becoming a unified and independent nation, the London Embassy was bound to put the boat out — and that it well and truly did last night, at a massive reception at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in Bayswater. While an enormous ice sculpture celebrating the anniversary gently melted in the heat of the crush, guests were entertained by a show of traditional dancing by members of the UAE military academy (all men, of course), twirling their sticks and in some cases imitiation Uzis. The Ambassador, Abdulrahman Ghanem Almutaiwee, gave a short speech in which he remarked how far the UAE had come during its short lifetime. Forty years ago, the emirates’ main income was from pearl diving and dried fish, whereas now it has moved beyond the oil boom to becoming a diversified economy with many dynamic businesses, not least the two flagship airlines, Emirates and Etihad, both of which were sponsors of tonight’s event. Emiratis now only make up a small percentage of the population of the UAE — especially in Dubai — and there are approximately 100,000 Brits living there. The question now is: in what direction will the country go? Tourism is still big business and there are hopes that even more visitors will be lured by the creation of new museums and other cultural attractions, as well as the staple winter sun and sea. Compared with its giant neighbour Saudi Arabia, the UAE is quite liberal, but only up to a point. And that is also another big question for the future: to what extent the Emiratis are prepared to turn their country into something not only cosmopolitan but also tolerant of all diversity — a genuinely multicultural state. In the meantime, the UAE has literally billions of petrodollars to invest, as it has been doing in Britain and elsewhere. Moreover, the Ambassador reminded us that it gives one per cent of its GDP as overseas aid to developing countries, well above the UN-recommended target.

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Dubai: City of Life

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th November, 2010

On the plane out to Dubai last night I was able to catch the film that made waves at the Dubai International Film Festival last December, Ali F Mostafa’s City of Life. The core subject is Dubai itself, the multi-cultural, multi-faceted, hectically developing Arabian Gulf hub, which I have been coming to regularly for more than two decades. The movie tracks the lives of three disparate residents: the directionless young son of a pious, wealthy Emirati; a star-struck Indian taxi-driver who dreams of fame himself; and a Romanian air stewardess ready to fall in love. All three pass through the highs and lows of life-changing experiences before the they are thrown together — without realising it — in a spectacular car-crash in the city’s Sheikh Zayed Road. The cast of the film is as international as the city itself, ranging from UK-based Susan George to Egyptian-American comic Ahmed Ahmed and Mumbai-born Jaaved Jaaferi, not forgetting two UAE nationals Saoud Ka’abi and Habib Ghuloom (whose touching, intense friendship is one of the most effective elements of the film). The plot is at times preposterous, but then so too is Dubai, and if occasionally the characters stretch credibility, City of Life is an interesting milestone in the development of local cinema. Ali F Mostafa part financed the film through product placement, though that does not grate. As the self-styled first movie entirely made in the UAE, it is well worth catching, whether in a cinema or on a plane!

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What Does Dubai Have to Celebrate?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 2nd December, 2009

The United Arab Emirates celebrates its National Day today, though Dubai’s financial woes continue to dominate the headlines. As one British Sunday newspaper put it graphically, the World — the over-the-top real estate development on reclaimed land off Dubai’s coast, shaped like a map of the world — is slowly sinking back into the sea, as all work on it has stopped. So does the UAE’s glitziest emirate really have anything to celebrate? I remember several years ago officials in Abu Dhabi — the UAE’s capital and most oil-rich emirate — frowning at tne excesses of their brash little brother along the coast, so one shouldn’t be surprised if there is a little schadenfreude in the air there. And some of the Western media — having lauded Dubai to the skies, thanks to free press trips and a bit of Posh and Becks’ stardust — are now metaphorically trashing the place. Of course, the reality is somewhere in the middle. Dubai did over-extend itself and some of its most materialist edifices are too vulgar for words, but it is nonetheless one of the most significant multicultural cities in the world and displays a degreee of tolerance to other cultures and other faiths which even some countries in Europe would do well to emulate.

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Gloom over Dubai

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 31st July, 2009

Dubai in sandstormI landed in Dubai this evening, to find the whole city shrouded in a murky, yellowish mist. It reminds me a bit of the Lancashire fogs in my childhood, only the temperature outside is 40 degrees centigrade, not 40 degrees fahrenheit,and the reduced visibility is not from smoke pollution but from sandstorms which have been afflicting the region this week. If one ignores the temperature (hard to do, I know, but…) one would think this was mid-winter, not mid-summer. The hotel where I am staying, courtesy of Emirates Airlines, is virtually deserted, which both refelcts the relative unpopularity of Dubai at this time of the year but also the city’s downturn. The credit crunch has bitten hard here and many ambitious building projects have slowed or been put on hold. But for travellers there are bargains galore at the moment and staff in my hotel, at least, are almost falling over each other to be of assistance. The overall atmosphere is all very odd — but maybe things will look brighter in the morning!

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An Unholy End to 2008

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 31st December, 2008

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain have cancelled all New Year celebrations out of solidarity with the Palestinians currently under Israeli onslaught. Certainly, the carnage in Gaza makes the Holy Land a troubled place this year’s end — as indeed it is also for those Israelis living in fear of rocket fire from Gaza. It is essential that hostilities end on both sides, and it is a scandal that the United States essentially gave Tel Aviv the green light to go in with all guns blazing, as if Palestinian civilian casualties are of no consequence.

King Abdullah of Jordan and Queen Rania (herself of Palestinian origin) have symbolically donated blood to help victims of the bombardment. But the outside world needs to do much more, and fast. Everyone’s New Year Resolution (including that of the Israeli governmnt, Hamas and irregular forces in Gaza) should be ‘Peace in the Holy Land, Now!’

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