2016年3月30日 星期三

Trip to Oman, Dubai and Abu Dhabi

Fawzia was excited when I told her I was going to Oman . " I taught there in the '80s , beautiful country ! " she exclaimed " Do tell me how it is now after you get back ! " I was impressed because everybody else I told had never even heard of Oman, they all thought I was going to Amman in Jordan - unsurprising perhaps as Oman was closed to visitors until the 1970s, and only officially started tourism in 2004. 
Oman is in fact the oldest independent state in the Arab world. Settlement in Oman was mainly from East Yemen and central Arabia centuries ago ; the name Oman is believed to originate from a tribe from Uman of Yemen. From the 6th century BC Oman was ruled by three Persian dynasties, but with the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD power was transferred to the Arab ruling families. The Portuguese occupied Muscat from 1507 to 1650 and left many historic forts which have become the country's most notable cultural landmarks. Later it fell briefly to the Ottoman Turks, who were forced out by Ahmad ibn Sa'id in 1741; the descendants of Sultan Ahmad rule Oman to this day - a 400 year reign of incessant internecine family intrigue, fratricide, and usurpation that would challenge the best script writer. 
Britain's finger prints were all over Oman for the past 2- 3 hundred years. Oman profited hugely from the slave trade until the British declared slavery illegal in the mid-19th century, and seized most of its overseas possessions. In 1861 it was Britain which mediated the division of the empire into Zanzibar, and Muscat and Oman between the 2 sons of Sa'id bin Sultan when they quarreled over the inheritance ; and in 1871 Britain squashed the attempt of imam Azzan to restore imamate legitimacy by providing financial and political support to his opponents. During the 19th century Britain and Oman concluded multiple treaties of friendship and commerce, and in 1951 Britain recognizes Oman as a fully independent state. When territorial dispute broke out with the Imam in Nizwa after oil was discovered in 1954 , the Sultan won the day with the aid of British forces . In late 1960s a popular leftist uprising from the province of Dhofar ( backed by the Russians ) was put down by a counter-insurgency war coordinated by the British and the Americans . In 1970 Britain orchestrated a coup to put the present Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said in power because he was perceived to serve British interests better than his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, who was spirited away into luxurious exile at the Dorchester Hotel in London. 
To Sultan Qaboos' credit he has transformed a country plagued by endemic diseases, illiteracy, poverty and backwardness into one of the most modern and prosperous Arab states in just 3 decades, by building the country's infrastructure, encouraged education, free enterprise, health facilities and the rule of law. According to a United Nations Development Program report in 2010, Oman ranked first in over all progress in health, education and income over the past 40 years among 135 countries (Saudi Arabia came fifth). Oman is remarkably peaceful compared with other Arab countries. This is achieved by the set up of the Majilis Al-Shura (Consultative Council) in which all tribes are equally represented, thus keep in balance the deep rooted and complex tribal, regional, and ethnic interests. In November 1996, Sultan Qaboos published Oman's first written constitution, the " Basic Statues of the State". In 1997 he decreed that women could vote, plus the right to be elected to the Majilis Al-Shura. In 2002 voting rights were extended to all citizens over the age of 21. Nevertheless in spite of all apparent progress Qaboos remains an absolute monarch, rules by decree, tolerates zero dissent, and the system of law is based firmly on Islamic sharia. 
My first impression of Muscat was it's clinically neat, clean and orderly. Our guide was Badar, 25 years of age, and anxiously awaiting an arranged marriage which was in the pipeline. " Is it expensive to get married here ?" Yes, dowry was US 60,000. Badar has 11 brothers and sisters, ah no, he's never heard of family planning himself and he's the first generation to have received schooling in Oman . 
Before 1970 only 3 formal schools existed in the whole country, today there're over 1,000 state schools. In 1986, Oman opened it's first university, Sultan Qaboos University. Almost all the teachers were foreign employ, of whom my friend Fawzia was one. Approximately 1.6 million expatriates work in this country of fewer than 3 million people. " What does it take to become a citizen ?" Well, first you have to have worked here for 23 years....... In 1998 the Sultan started the process of Omanization in preparation of a post-oil economy, by which Omanis must produce their own workforce of well-educated , motivated individuals who could take over the jobs now held by foreign professionals . In March 2014 more stringent rules were put in to further cut down on the number of foreign workers. How well the Omanis will take to work when they already enjoy such a good life from their generous government remains to be seen. 
The Muscat must sees are : Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque ; Museum of Bait Assayed ( National Museum) ; Al Alam Palace ; The Royal Opera House Muscat and the Muttrah Souq 
Construction on the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque began in 1995 and it was inaugurated by the Sultan on May 4, 2001. It's a colossal Indian sandstone building , the main musalla (prayer hall) can hold 6,500 worshipers, together with the women's musalla, the outer paved ground, the interior courtyard and the passageways, the total capacity is up to 20,000 people. The splendid prayer hall has the world's second largest single piece hand-woven carpet, and a 14 meters tall chandelier. 
The National Museum of Oman was established in 1978, and contains silverware, jewelry, pendants, copper crafts and a 8th century letter by the Prophet Mohammed to the rulers of Oman preaching the Islamic faith. There's also a section dedicated to the Al Busaidi dynasty .
The Al Alam (means the flag in Arabic ) Palace is over 200 years old and was built by Imam Sultan bin Ahmed, the 7th direct grandfather of the current Sultan. It's a ceremonial palace and is used for official functions and receiving distinguished visitors e.g. Queen of England during her state visit to Oman in 2010. The palace and area around is a popular photo site for tourists and locals. I even found a TV crew making a video to promote Oman using a group of children as subjects.
Sultan Qaboos is a cultured man, an avid fan of arts and classical music. In 2001 he started the building of the Royal Opera House Muscat, which officially opened on Oct 12, 2011. The Opera House can hold 1,100 people and the Sultan's 120-member orchestra is unusual in that male and female musicians perform together on stage. He is particularly fond of pipe organ and is the only Sultan in the world to own a camel-mounted bagpipers band. 
Sultan Qaboos is an odd ball among  Arab leaders. The only son of Sultan Said bin Taimur, he had his primary and secondary schooling in India. At 16 he was sent to England to continue his studies. He entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst , and upon graduation served several years as an officer in a British infantry regiment, during which time he was posted to Germany for a year. After the army he furthered his studies in local politics in England, then after a world tour returned home to study Islam and the history of Oman, before overthrowing his father. He is a die-hard Anglophile, adores the Queen, enjoys playing polo with Prince Charles and showers the British Royal Family with expensive gifts during state visits. Interestingly he's the only Arab leader who demands to be called" His Majesty". He has also donated sports pavilions bearing his name to Sandhurst, and the RAF officers' college, Cranwell. Needless to say Oman has always maintained close military ties with Britain.
Oman is also a staunch US ally. Trade relationship between the 2 countries dates back to 1790, and Oman was the first Arab nation to recognize American independence - the first treaty of friendship and navigation was made in 1833. Since 1980 Oman has gladly granted US military access to its air bases and ports, and assisted the US to build a defense shield designed to counter perceived threat from Iran. Notwithstanding a high degree of internal stability, regional tension in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf wars necessitated Oman spending one third of its GDP on defense, mainly buying from Britain, the US and France.
Sino- Omani trading also dates back to ancient times, but only in 1978 that the two countries established official diplomatic ties. In 1983 Oman was the first Arab nation to export oil to China, and China has remained Omani's biggest customer in the world for its oil. Beyond oil politics, the Omani-Chinese Friendship Association was formed in 2010 to facilitate cultural exchange. A chair of Arabic Studies was established at the Peking University, and Chinese artists had been invited to participate in the annual Muscat Arts festival. The Omani Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo was visited by more than 3 million Chinese. After the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Oman donated 350 units of residential housing complete with medical and school facilities for the affected. Oman fully supports Beijing's 2014-2017 China-GCC Strategic Action Plan; in 2014 Oman is China's fourth largest trading partner in the Middle East, with bilateral trade volume reaching $23 billion. Maintaining strong economic ties with China not only offers Oman access to foreign investment capital and technology, China being a major power also gives Oman a useful offset to Western pressure. Due to Oman's strategic location, the 2 countries are cooperating in a joint military effort to combat piracy at the Gulf of Aden and Somalia.
" Do the Omanis like the Sultan ?" All Omanis I asked responded with a resounding " Of course !" By all accounts the Sultan is popular and respected : his birthday,18 November, is a national holiday in Oman, and 23 July, the first day of his reign, is celebrated as Renaissance Day, and his picture adorns every official wall. This in spite of the widespread rumor that he's gay, a crime that can lead to 3 years imprisonment in progressive Oman ( the same crime is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia ). The Sultan married his cousin Kamila in 1976, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1979 on account of his " failure to do his manly duty ". He has remained single since while Kamila left to live and later marry in the UK . The king is well known to have a cadre of very handsome, well build bodyguards and a harem of over 100 men ; he's also known to dispense special gratuity for good services rendered - a car, a house, according to the grade of performance. Another hushed whisper circulating is that he's also a pedophile, so much so people are reluctant to introduce their sons to him. That his homosexuality is tolerated by even the very conservative religious leaders of Oman is a measure of his success as a personality cult, for them his homosexuality is played down to be a mere "hobby" or personal preference, so does not threaten his manliness or his status as a national leader. The Sultan is a notorious spendthrift who appropriates 40% of Oman's revenue for himself, has eight extravagant estates both in Oman and Europe, yet the only worry the country has is that the Sultan is now in his 70s and without any heir , which might lead to "succession" problem after his death. The sultan is reportedly suffering  from colon cancer and being treated by German specialists. 
Muttrah Souq is a traditional bazaar and one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world. Its proximity to the harbor makes it the center of trade to India and China for the past 3000 years. The old buildings of mud and palm leaves had been modernized to turn the Souq into a tourist attraction, but Omanis from all over the country still flock there for their shopping particularly during Eid seasons. A word of warning, the many side streets and alleyways requires a little skill to navigate.
Outside of Muscat our new guide was Masoud, a tall Nigerian, and we toured the Nakhal Fort , Rustak Castle, Jabrin Castle , Bahla Fort, Nizwa Fort .To the uninitiated ( i.e. me),visiting one or two forts is enough as they all seem to be fairly similareven though they're some of the main tourist attractions in Oman .Of the 5 we visited, Nizwa Fort and nearby Jabrin Castle are convenient and reasonably interesting.
Nizwa, a popular tourist attractions in Oman, is about 1.5 hours drive from Muscat. Nizwa fort was constructed by Imam Sultan bin Saif  bin Malik Al Ya'arubi ( the very guy who drove the Portuguese away from Oman) in 1660 AD, to protect Nizwa's abundant natural wealth and its strategic location at the crossroads of vital caravan routes. Nizwa fort is Oman's most visited national monument. The most striking feature of the fort is the large circular central tower, which is not just a unique architectural design in Oman, but a formidable bastion of might against enemy mortar attacks. Two canons guard the entrance to the fort which opens into a veritable maze of rooms, high- ceilinged halls, terraces, narrow corridors and staircases, battlements, turrets , secret shafts and false doors. Besides pouring boiling oil or water through the shafts to deter the enemies, the Sultan also used date syrup extracted from bags of dates stored in special date cellars. The fort was built above a subterranean stream, this and the presence of seven wells ensured a permanent supply of water when subjected to a prolonged siege, while underground cellars stockpiled food and munitions. Nowadays the rooms hold a permanent exhibit that illustrate the history of Oman and how life was lived in the bygone days.
The three-storied Jabrin Castle was built in 1675 by the Yaruba Dynasty Imam Bil'arab bin Sultan. It was an important center of learning for astrology, medicine and Islamic law. Jabrin Castle is a fine example of Islamic architecture and famous for the elaborately painted ceilings with original floral motifs and Islamic inscriptions. Among the many rooms are fruit storage room, dungeons, burial chambers,and even a room for the sultan’s favorite horse. Remarkably, the falaj was not used for water but as an early air-con system. 

Bahla Fort, standing a few miles outside Nizwa, is the oldest fort in Oman. It was built in the 13th and 14th centuries, when the Bahla oasis was under the control of the Banu Nebhan tribe. The Fort became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, but went straight onto the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1988. The Fort had fallen into a parlous state, the mud brick walls are vulnerable to decay and inadequate drainage, collapsing rapidly after each rainy season. Restoration works began in the 1990s at a cost of $9m to the Omani government before it was taken off the endangered list in 2004. Since 2005 a Management Plan was instituted for the long term maintenance of the architectural integrity of the assemblage which is invariably affected by community development and tourism requirements. Still, to my untrained eye everything looks to be newly rebuilt and a bit fake. Worth mentioning is the Citadel, the oldest part of the fort which is said to have been built in the year 500 BC, part of its wall remains un-repaired. The locals believe a ghost in the Fort has stopped the UNESCO restoration there. Adjacent to the Fort is the Friday Mosque, noted for its 14th century sculpted niche ( mihrab), and the thriving oasis settlement. The whole complex is enclosed by a 12 Km ( seven miles) wall which was said to have been designed by a woman 600 years ago. Bahla pottery is famous throughout Oman but its souq is famous for a magic tree which the locals believe anyone who touches it will eventually die of a painful death. 
Nakhl Fort is 120Km from Muscat, and dates back to pre-Islamic times. It was built on a rocky prominence at the foot of Jebel Nakhl, unique in that the irregularly-shaped rock it was built around had bits of the rock jutting into the interiors. It was intended as a protective measure for an oasis covered by orchards of palm trees and nearby trade routes . Over the centuries, it had undergone many renovations. Today the Fort houses a museum, operated by the Ministry of Tourism, which has exhibits of historic guns, and some rooms have been fitted with traditional furniture, handicrafts and historic artifact. The Fort also hosts a weekly goat auction market. Prince Charles visited the Fort during an official visit to Oman in 2003. 

While we were in Nizwa we visited the Al Hoota caves , the first and only show cave in Oman. Estimated to be over 2 million years old, it's more than 5 Km long and is one of the largest cave systems in the world . It used to be part of an ancient coral reef on the sea floor. Only 840 m is fitted with walkways, stairs and a light system and was first opened to tourists in 2006, though it was first discovered by a shepherd in the 1960s. Al Hoota Cave contains a rich ecosystem that includes two lakes, one is a small northern lake and the other is the main lake around 800 meters long and 10 meters wide, with a maximum depth of 15 meters. It's home to the rare blind “garra barreimiae” , a pale pink fish that have lived underground for so many generations that their eyes are covered by skin. The cave also boasts of its own species of spider, Spariolenus secundus; and over 100 animal species including bats (Rhinopoma Muscatellum), arthropods, mollusks, snails, water beetles (Aglymbus gestroi), and other endemic species. 
Al Hoota has another claim to fame - Oman’s first train. 
Al Hoota is a good example of eco-tourism in Oman. To preserve the cave, bulbs that produce minimum heat were chosen for the lighting system, which is entirely under remote control, allowing the guides to turn it off whenever they complete their tour at any specific point, so as to keep the cave in darkness as far as possible to minimize disturbing the cave creatures and to avoid the growth of algae. Only 750 people are allowed into the cave each day, and all tours are guided. Eating, drinking, smoking are not allowed inside the cave, neither is photography. The caves provide direct employment to local communities and all construction has been designed to be environmentally sustainable.
The Wahiba Sands is a vast desert region named after the Bani Wahiba tribe just south of Sur. Dune bashing in 4x4 vehicles is the obligatory activity, which our drivers appeared to enjoy even more than we did. My driver was Hamei who happened to speak the best English. Our friendly chats inevitably touched on Islam and terrorism. " We're totally against terrorism" Hamei said seriously. He's correct, the majority of Omanis are Ibadi Muslims and followers of Abd Allah ibn Ibad. Ibadism predates both the Sunni and Shia denominations and Ibadis are realists who believe reason and political expediency must temper the ideal Islamic state, and conflicts are best resolved through negotiation rather than confrontation. They're also remarkably tolerant to other religious practices within their community, and Christian churches, synagogues and Hindu temples are all present in Oman . 
X'mas in Oman
Snooping around I was amused to come across two bars, one exclusively for Indians and the other for Arabs. 
Unfortunately it was early afternoon and there was not much action.
One way to experience the sands and Bedouin culture is staying in one of the desert camps. We stayed in the 1000 Nights Camp which is the oldest at 15 years of operation. In 2009 a swimming pool was put in and air conditioning fitted. Our rooms were Bedouin goat hair tents fitted with beds and lights. Drinking water is extracted from wells 500 meters deep, and all camps need to apply for the sewage permit.
At dinner, we were treated to a song and dance performance by the Harasis tribe of Oman. Different tribes are identified by the different costumes, types of jewelry and the masks the women wear. The Harasis mask is traditionally made from cotton impregnated with indigo, when new the material has a beaten finish which gives it a coppery look, but appears dark blue when worn. Contrary to Western thinking, Bedouin girls look forward to wearing the masks when they're of age, as their kohl ( a black powder made from lustrous antimony ) lined eyes look more alluring peering through the holes of the mask than if they were bare faced. Both sexes use kohl as it reduces glare from the harsh desert sun and repel flies. 

In bygone days the legendary Bedouin hospitality assured anybody who wandered into a tent of food and shelter for 31/3 days and then protection for a further 3 days after leaving the tent, 3 days being the length of time reckoned for the host's food to completely pass through the guest's body. Camels were the life blood of the Bedouins until the advent of motor vehicles and the change of nomadic to a settled life style, but most still retain a deep love of these animals and no Bedouin camp is complete without them. Getting up early has its reward, and one morning I was tickled pink by 2 camels doing a silly workout by the camp site in perfect synchrony . 
Leaving the desert we proceeded to one of Oman's most beautiful wadis (dry river bed that contains water only in heavy rains ), Wadi Bani Khalid, famous for its lush green oases, water pools and deep canyons. All year round, water flows from a natural spring in the upper reaches of the wadi supports the abundant vegetation and the pools. Swimming is possible here but out of respect to local custom, it's recommended to wear shorts and T-shirt over a swimming costume. 

The Jebel Akhdar (meaning "the Green Mountain"), is the highest point in Oman and the whole of eastern Arabia. In 2011 Sultan Qaboos decreed Jebel Akhdar a Sanctuary for Natural Sceneries in a bid to conserve its unique yet fragile biodiversity. It's also famous for cottage industry in herbal medicine and traditional cosmetics like rose water, and agricultural products including pomegranate, apricot, peach and walnut. 
The Omanis excelled in ship building. Sur, overlooking the Indian Ocean, is the trade as well as ship manufacturing center.The Sur Maritime Museum shows a range of Omani vessels that were used to trade with countries as far as China and India two centuries previously.
By the time we got to the Bimmah Sinkhole it was dusk, but because entry is free we decided to take a look anyway. The Bimmah Sinkhole is a massive hollow on the limestone, 40 meters wide and 20 meters from the surface and the water is a pretty emerald color. It's located in the Hawiyat Najm Park which has toilet facilities, another reason why we made the stop.
Oman might look to be the liberal, stable, peaceful Middle Eastern country, but scratch the surface and a different picture emerges. Cyber censorship is severe, as is journalism. The press generally have to be content with news compiled by the official news agency on some issues, self-censorship is a constant factor or the journalist permit would be scrapped. Reporters without borders recorded dozens of arrests of bloggers , inspired by the Arab Spring, who demanded political reform. The law prohibits criticism of the Sultan in any form or medium, and writings deemed disrespectful to senior officials, or perceived to undermine the reputation of the state or security forces would also be prosecuted. Oman does not allow political parties, and the law does not allow citizens the right to change their government. Public officials are above financial disclosure laws, and police do not need search warrants to enter people's homes. Publication of books is limited and under government supervision. Irrespective of the authoritarian nature of the state, or the records of foreign worker abuse and human trafficking held by the US State Department, the Congress nevertheless still approved free trade agreement with Oman in 2006, which hugely boost the fortune of the sweatshop owners. Oman managed to side-step the Arab Spring Revolution by further clamping down on dissent.
Of all the Arab countries that I've been to Dubai has to be the one I like the least. The name "Dubai" itself says it all : it could mean either a local "locus" which consumes everything before it ; or simply "money", which came from an Arabic proverb "Daba Dubai" meaning " They came with a lot of money to the market". Today Dubai is called An Adult Disneyland, or the Sin City of the Middle East (according to the type of customer) , an opulent never never land that's been built purely to serve and pamper the wealthy. Dubai is all about greed and hypocrisy - Consumerism on Steroid and everything there is fake.
Dubai lies directly within the Arabian Desert, its geographical proximity to Iran and the coast made it an important trading town.  As well as being a fishing village, it also had a small pearling industry since 1580. The Pearl trade collapsed in the 1930s under the double whammy of the Great Depression and the innovation of Japanese cultured pearls. It became a British protectorate in 1853 after an encounter with the gunships of the British Empire, who held it by the throat until 1970. The Al Maktoum family has ruled Dubai since 1833. The illiterate Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum started to use trade revenue to build infrastructure since 1948, but only after oil was discovered in 1966 that his son Sheikh Rashid  (credited as Father of Dubai ) had the means to turn a primitive desert settlement into a global city in less than 40 years. In 1971 Dubai, together with Abu Dhabi, Shajiah, Ajman, Umm Al Qawain, and Fujairah formed the United Arab Emirates.
Nevertheless Sheikh Rashid retained a special relationship with Britain, he was said to be a close personal friend of Queen Elizabeth II, and all his sons went to Sandhurst. English is the second spoken language after Arabic, and there're over 100,000 British expatriates in Dubai, by far the largest group of Western expatriates. The current ruler is Sheikh Mohammed, grandson of Sheikh Rashid, a charismatic personality who loves horse racing as much as the British Royal Family.
Dubai has been a Duty Free Port since 1892. In the 1970s Sheikh Rashid saw the accelerating re-export business opportunity and developed the Jebel Ali Port, it is today the largest deep-water port in the world and was ranked seventh globally for the volume of container traffic. Until the 1990s Dubai was the hub of a brisk gold ingot smuggling business to India, earning it the name City of Gold. Dubai owes much to the Indians, not because India is Dubai's largest trade partner, or that Indians are among the top foreign investors, but because of the cheap Indian labor that literally raised the metropolis from nothingness.
The flush of oil money ignited a massive influx of foreign workers. Of the estimated population of 2.1 million people in Dubai, more than 85 % are foreign born, half of them from India. Migrant workers account for 90% of Dubai's workforce, Southeast Asians make up most of the manual workers. Dubai is the epitome of Capitalism - everything has a price and a dark side. During the construction hay days, Human Rights Watch and similar NGOs have repeatedly reported endemic abuse of workers who're no better than indentured corporate slaves : delayed or no payment of wages, substitution of employment contracts to a lower than promised wages, excessive working hours, atrocious working and living conditions ( 8-10 to a room in labor camps), withholding of passport and premature termination of services, all undertaken with the complicity of the Dubai authorities. Most companies in Dubai are owned by the government, so human rights laws are shunned because they cut profit margins. While tourists are advised not to stay outdoors for even 5 minutes in the 55 degree summer heat, construction workers were expected to work 14 hour days. Laborers got US$4 a day. Dubai Emergency rooms were filled with men collapsed from heat exhaustion and there's a huge number of suicides ( some masqueraded as accidents) in the camp. When the Indian Consulate registered 971 deaths in 2005 they were simply told to stop counting, though by law the Dubai  government is required to track job-related injuries and deaths. The mistreatment of foreign workers was recorded in the disputed 2009 documentary " Slaves in Dubai ". Then there were cases of Indian peasants who threw themselves in front of vehicles for the "blood money" so they could pay back the debts their family took out to get them employment abroad. This is classic exploitation at play - taking advantage of someone's desperation. 
The hadith in the Qur'an says this about the end of days " There will be no Judgment until very tall buildings are constructed "  Burj Khalifah is the world's tallest building, designed after an abstract version of the native desert flower hymenocallis. The observation deck at the 124 floor is the 2nd highest in the world after the Shanghai World Financial Center, but it does boast to have the fastest elevator in the world. Movie lovers remember Burj Khalifah as the building Tom Cruise repel down the outer wall in "Mission Impossible". It is the most visited building in Dubai, but few of the 2 million visitors that grace the building a year know that this was the  site of a one day riot  in 2006, as frustration boiled over over low wages and poor working conditions. Cars, offices, computers and construction tools were damaged at a cost of US$ 1 million. Workers building the new terminal of Dubai International Airport went on strike in solidarity. Subsequently 4000 strikers were arrested then deported. Foreign workers, Western or otherwise, have no rights in the Dubai court. 
Dubai has a heavily stratified and racist social structure. Locals are favored over Westerners, but South Asians are on the lowest rung. They're the laborers, cooks, maids, gardeners, taxi drivers who have the harshest life in this land of luxury, many live in over crowded substandard housing. Dubai, like much of the Middle east, has no statutory minimum wage or work hour limits for domestic helpers. It was only in June 2014 that the UAE legislated helpers get one day off a week. 
Johau our guide, was born in Dubai 26 years ago but of Pakistanis parentage, which means he can never obtain Dubai citizenship and all the perks that come with it. Dubai is known as Santa Claus State or Nanny State for a reason. Emiratis get free education up to PhD level; a free house when they marry; free healthcare, and if it's not good enough the government pay for them to go abroad; even phone calls are free ; almost everyone has a maid, a nanny and a driver. And no taxes. Most Emiratis, if they work at all, work for the government, where employment is cushy and secure. Johau on the other hand has to fend for himself ; like young people everywhere he grumbles over the high rental - one room flat with a bathroom costs US$1500 a month, while average monthly salary is US$ 2-3000, so 2-3 people share one residence. Water cost is another headache. He loves American TV and is very attentive to his appearance, which cannot be cheap in Dubai. " How do you reconcile being a Muslim and grappling with this insatiable Materialism ?" He doesn't and doesn't want to know. He's in boom town and wants to collect his pot of gold.
Dubai is a city of superlatives : always striving to break new records, to be the fastest, biggest, tallest, largest , highest ..... The Dubai Fountain is the world's largest dancing fountain and one with a very impressive display. Burj Al Arab is the world's first seven star hotel, it stands on an artificial island and shaped to mimic the sail of a boat. Palm Islands are 3 largest artificial islands in the world, each island is shaped like a palm leak, with a trunk connecting it to the mainland.
Dubai's propaganda motto is " Open doors, open minds" and Dubai is synonymous with "do-buy". Dubai is the shopping capital of the Middle East and since 1996 Dubai Shopping Festival ensures every shop has a 2 month sale from January to February. Dubai has more than 70 shopping centers, including the world's largest - Dubai Mall. The Cathedrals of Consumerism have no end of worshipers, as of April 2014, Dubai International Airport passed London's Heathrow as the world's busiest gateway for international travelers.
Jumeirah Mosque is a sentry from the mad mad world. The wonderful architecture was built in the medieval Fatimid tradition, the interior's decorated with elaborate Arabic calligraphy. It's one of the few mosques open to non Muslims.
Dubai maybe a desert but Dubai Aquarium in Dubai Mall is one of the world's largest suspended aquarium with a 10 million liter tank that carry life size sharks, and in the Mall of the Emirates is the Ski Center, where people bundle up to ski in artificial cold. Dubai shocks by going against nature at every turn, unsurprisingly Dubai is the most un-ecological and water stressed place on earth. A case in point are the golf courses, the Tiger Woods Golf Course alone requires 4 million gallons of water to be pumped onto its grounds every single day ! Just to stand still, the average Dubai resident needs 3 times more water than the average person living else where. There're regular dust-storms that cover the whole city attempting to revert it back to desert, alternating with the heat that cooks anything that's not artificially kept wet. But Dubai has no surface water, little aquifer, and the lowest rainfall in the world. So Dubai drinks the sea. Water from the huge desalination plants costs more than petrol to produce, and belches vast quantities of carbon dioxide. Little wonder Emirati has the biggest average carbon footprint of any human - more than double that of an American. Dubai has expanded so fast its sewage treatment facilities can't keep up, so untreated sewage and hazardous waste is simply dumped into the sea, causing much environmental degradation. 

Dubai is an illusion kept alive solely by money. The only thing real in Dubai is the beach, all crushed shell and coral making it the finest, whitest and sandiest beach in the world. 
Schizophrenic Dubai wishes to be seen as liberal, cosmopolitan and westernized, so much so since 2006 it has designated the weekend as Friday-Saturday as a compromise between Friday's holiness to Muslims and the Western weekend of Saturday-Sunday. Alas this is mere cosmetic, in reality it's still a medieval conservative country. Outsiders mesmerized by the superficial glitter would be shocked by the UAE Code of Conduct which stipulates : 
Modest dress code is part of Dubai's criminal law. Sleeveless tops and short dresses are not allowed at Dubai's malls, and clothes must be of appropriate lengths. No public display of affection e.g. hugging, kissing, cuddling, is allowed. Dancing and playing loud music at public places ( park, residential areas or beach ) are forbidden. All residents and tourists must show respect to UAE symbols (flag, national emblem) and religion. Taking photos without permission is prohibited, particularly of women and families. Sexual harassment or randomly addressing women, swearing or offensive hand signals are public offences. Passengers travelling through Dubai International Airport can carry into the country a maximum of 3 months supply of medicine for their personal use, which should be in original packaging and not expired, stamped and signed by official embassy of UAE in the country of origin, with details of the patient and description of disease. No psychiatric medicines are allowed in without prior approval from the Ministry of Health even for personal use.  Alcohol is not allowed anywhere besides licensed venues, and never in public places. Alcohol is not sold on religious holidays, nor during daylight hours in Ramadan (even to non-Muslims) . Supermarkets do not stock alcohol, not even food items containing alcohol.  Smoking is not allowed in malls, shops or offices. During the month of Ramadan, it's illegal to publicly eat, drink or smoke between sunrise and sunset. The law applies to all Muslims and non-Muslims. Failure to comply with all the above rules are punishable by either payment of fines, imprisonment or deportation. Ignorance is not a defense.
It's worth noting drug laws are very strictly enforced. Even trace amounts of illegal drug, e.g. a speck of cannabis stuck to the sole of a shoe, adhering to clothing or pocket lining, or in the dirt on luggage, once detected by the Dubai Authority's extremely sensitive electronic equipment, could result in lengthy prison sentences for foreigners on layovers at the airport. Drugs found in urine or blood testing count as "possession" under UAE law. Tourists have been sentenced to execution for selling cannabis, though smoking it only leads to rehabilitation in prison. A couple of horror stories to all unfortunates needing medication : a British tourist was incarcerated for 2 months in 2005 after codeine was found in her blood, unsurprising as she's had a jab of codeine for back pain at a Dubai hospital earlier. Then in 2008 a German TV producer was arrested for possessing a bottle of over-the-counter Melatonin !
UAE has evaded signing most international human/labor-rights treaties, and its human rights records are appalling . Under Sharia law, flogging and stoning are legal judicial punishment, e.g. 80 lashes for alcohol consumption, 100 for premarital sex, and death for apostasy. Dubai, like most of the Gulf states is a Police State, the Dubai Police Force and Secret Service is under direct order of the Sheikh, and can stop anything within 24 hours. Every bar and hotel has CCTV cameras that the Police has access to. The press is controlled by media laws - Freedom House has this to say :" Extreme forms of self-censorship are widely practiced, particularly regarding issues such as local politics, culture, religion, or any other subject the government deems politically or culturally sensitive". Likewise the internet is severely censored, homosexuality, drugs, pornography, theory of evolution, sites originating from Israel are all taboo, criticism on Facebook or parody video on YouTube of the government or Islam will land the author in jail. Freedom of association and freedom of religion are also curtailed. Islam is the official state religion and 95% of the mosques are subsidized by the government, which also appoints every imam and tightly controls every sermon preached to keep it moderate. 
Although UAE has signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Human Rights Watch is concerned about the continuous criminalization of rape victims, plus there are no independent women's rights organizations. Though women are given the right to education and driving, less than 20% of Emirati women work. The Sharia law which has been written into the Federal Law since 2005 stipulates that as men know better and guardian system is in the best interest of women, women are not allowed to remarry without a male guardian's permission. Under the same interpretation a man can physically chastise his wife and divorce her for non-obedience, and it's a crime for a woman to work without her husband's permission. Little wonder UAE has the highest divorce rate in the region, with Dubai taking first place. While a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim, it's illegal for a Muslim woman to marry non-Muslim, as it is considered a form of "fornication". Attitude to sex is patriarchal but full of hypocrisy. Homosexuality is punishable by 10 years in prison,but as the women are shut away everyone either have gay sex or illicit sex. Dubai is well known throughout the Middle East for prostitution and money laundering. The sex industry enjoys marked tolerance from the authorities as everyone profits : the government, night clubs, pimps, sex workers. A 2007 PBS documentary entitled "Dubai: Night Secrets" revealed while some of the sex workers are victims of human trafficking, many are there by choice; most of them're from Russia, Ethiopia and India. Word had it the Sheikh was persuaded to go easy on prostitution to protect Emirati women from sexual harassment from the men. 
The world was scandalized in 1992 when Ron Gluckman, an American reporter based in Hing Kong, broke the story of kidnapped South Asian children being used as jockeys in camel races. The kids were sold for as little as US $3, and some were toddlers as young as 2. The child jockeys were often deprived of food to keep their weight light, many were maimed or killed in accidents during the races (medical treatment was generally denied to injured children). Aside from racing, the children worked from day to night cleaning the camels and the farms, and were subjected to physical as well as sexual abuse by the owners and trainers. There're 15 racetracks throughout the UAE, the biggest being in Dubai. The report was soundly criticized by Arab officials who maintained camel racing was their Bedouin birthright. A BBC documentary was released shortly afterwards, followed by a HBO documentary in 2004, both accused the UAE of the same crime. Finally, under intense international pressure, child jockeys are banned in 2007 in most Middle East countries, replaced by robots from Japan. But reports from UNICEF in 2010 suggested the use of child jockeys had not entirely gone, and indeed foreign journalists were still picking up cases in 2013.
Dubai has been dubbed "the diamond in the desert", but underneath the sparkle it's a Creditopolis, a city built on debt. As oil is expected to run out in 20 years, Dubai has switched to trade, tourism, aviation, real estate and financial services for its up keeping, but in the process became so bloated on rapid growth it created a huge bubble that finally burst following the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Hundreds of construction projects grounded to a halt and there was a tumbling of property prices. When the external debts of a range of Dubai companies were unveiled ( some $80 billion), it sent the world into a panic. Dubai was rescued by its deep-pocketed neighbor Abu Dhabi, with cartloads of loans - Dubai now owes 107% of its entire GDP. Ironically, the CIA sponsored Arab Spring Revolution which has destroyed so many countries around Dubai turns out to be its life saver, as foreign investors scrambled to relocate their businesses there, attracted by its political stability.

Dubai is strategically located at the junction between Europe, Africa and the Far East, and its free zones status makes it a logical re-export port for Chinese imports to Africa, Europe and even India. Since the Chinese Government launched the "Go Out" policy in the early 1990s, Dubai has been one of the favorites for Chinese foreign investments. This is further boosted by China's revised Silk Road Initiative, and by 2013 there're 4,200 Chinese companies, 356 Chinese trading agencies and 2,500 registered Chinese trademarks in UAE. Chinese individuals have bought $350 million worth of villas and homes in Dubai, and Dubai houses the largest Chinese trading center outside the mainland - Dragon Mart. Chinese expats now numbers more than 200,000 in Dubai.
In 2009 UAE and China eased their bilateral visa policies, and in 2011 UAE witnessed a 30% increase of Chinese tourists to 250,000, who spent a whopping $55 billion - and this has continued to increase annually since. In 2013 Dubai International Airport outlet hired 573 Chinese employees ( from zero 5 years ago), and put up signage in Chinese in Terminal 1 and 3. Likewise high-end stores and hotels now also have information signs and brochures in Chinese, Chinese speaking staff and some already accept Chinese Union Pay Card and renminbi.
The UAE is the only country in the Middle East that has a currency swap agreement with the Chinese, and aspires to become the next offshore trading center for renminbi. This is not implausible as an increasing number of UAE businesses are already trading with renmibi instead of US dollar, and in 2013 the Bank of China Middle East ( Dubai) Limited opened in Dubai. Hong Kong was the first and so far the only place granted this increasingly desirable status.  
Tourist sights we visited in Abu Dhabi were the Sheikh Zayed Mosque ( the 6th largest in the world) and the Heritage Village. Abu Dhabi is the capital of UAE, and home to 95% of the oil and gas reserves of UAE, the fifth largest in the world. It has a population of just under 1.5 million, but only 420,000 are citizens, so each has an average net worth of $17 million. Abu Dhabi plans to reduce its oil earnings from 55% of GDP to 35% by 2030 through diversification of economy, and change from a resource-based to a knowledge-based economy. In 2004 Sheikh Khalifa, in a bid to attract tourism and investment, allowed land sales to foreigners and loosened restriction on alcohol. In spite of the global economic downturn, Abu Dhabi has the far sight to attract higher end tourists by building venues for fine art, music, sporting extravaganzas and global meetings, besides developing zero-carbon, zero waste city, nuclear power plant and the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. It has also set itself up as an automotive re-export trade center to make up for the lack of car manufacturing in the region. 
The success of UAE is partly due to economic diversification which has dampened the shock of oil price fluctuations, but more importantly because just like Oman, it managed to bypass the turmoil of the Arab Spring revolts (even benefited from them), by clamping down hard on dissent. Drastic Internet restrictions were introduced in 2012 to stop the use of social media to organize protests, and a large number of dissidents were imprisoned in 2013 on charges to plot a coup. Yet there was scant criticism of UAE's authoritarian rule or human rights violation from the West, particularly the US. The reason is both simple and disgusting : like Oman, UAE is an US ally in its fight against militants, and has intervened militarily in Libya and Iraq. But if China or Russia has done even one tenth of what these countries have done ..............

Let that be your thought of the month !

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