Thursday, November 24, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXXII (Dubai, the failed Eldorado-II)

My first visit to Dubai took place in early nineties. My cousin from Bahrain, Khurshid, had come to Delhi and asked me to come for a short visit to Bahrain and Dubai. My younger brother Hamid had left Kashmir in 1990 and set up a store in collaboration with Khurshid. I was keen to see Dubai as I had heard a lot about it, mostly in regard to duty free shopping! However, we first went straight to Bahrain with only an hour's stopover at Dubai airport. Thos days the airport was quite small with just one business lounge. After staying for few days in Bahrain, we returned to Dubai. I found it quite modern even in those days. The roads were good. There were a number of shopping malls. My brother's store was in one of these malls. I saw mostly Europeans visiting these malls. A large portion of the foreigners came from Britain. In fact, the majority of advisors and consultants in Dubai were from UK.
This being an exploratory visit, I mostly concentrated on sight seeing. However, I did meet people from the travel trade and paid a visit to the Indian Tourist Office. While entering Dubai, my two video cassettes about skiing in Kashmir and Ladakh had been taken by custom authorities at the airport. No outside video cassettes were allowed in to discourage pornography. I was told that these would be delivered to me after checking. I was keen to show these to the local travel trade for promoting Kashmir. However, for almost a week there was no trace of these cassettes. I contacted the Indian Tourist Office but they were unable to help. I enquired about Dubai Tourism and found out the name of its Chief Executive. It was one Khaled, a local Arab. I sought an appointment with him giving my background as the Director of Kashmir Tourism. I was given appointment for next day. However, on reaching his office, I was told that Khaled was not available but his deputy, a British national would see me. The deputy chief executive, an elderly British consultant was very friendly. In fact, he told me that Khaled was only a titular head and everything was done by him. He offered me a cup of coffee. I told him about my missing cassettes. He called one of his officers and asked him to accompany me to the customs house to get these. The officer took me in his own car and we retrieved the cassettes.
During my entire contact with Dubai, I found that the top positions were held by Arabs, mostly from the ruling family but actual work was done by foreigners and in case of Dubai, by the British Advisors and Consultants. These people were getting hefty salaries which they could not imagine back home. They were also getting top class residential and other facilities. In fact, in the plane I had met a British Consultant who told me that he was coming to Dubai to make a fast buck in four to five years and then go home to enjoy life. To me with all the modern facilities, the life in the desert did not seem so tough! These people were driving all sorts of petrol guzzlers, Land Cruisers, Pajeros and so on which they could not afford back home. I also found a bias among local Arab administration towards the Asian people. There were two different standards for people working in Dubai. The Europeans or for that matter all white skinned people were treated differently than the Asians.
The lowest were perhaps the Filipinos because they could come very cheap! There were a lot of people from Kerala popularly known as "Malbaris". There was also large number of people from Pakistan. A majority of these were doing manual jobs. Another field in which Indians were fully involved was the shopping outlets.
There are many supermarket chains in Dubai owned and operated by Indians. In fact, one area of Dubai called "Bur Dubai" is totally dominated by Indians. If one walks along various markets in this area, one gets the feeling of being in some market of Mumbai or Delhi! There are shops selling all sorts of Indian goods. The shoppers too are Indian. In fact, one rarely sees an Arab in these parts! Similarly, another area called "Satwa" was dominated by Pakistanis. Both Indians and Pakistanis felt completely at home in their respective areas. One could buy clothing, food, condiments almost everything from back home in these areas. It must have been because of this atmosphere that there was such a rush of Indians and Pakistanis to Dubai for all sorts of jobs!
Hamid lived in a villa in Al Ghurair compound near Satwa. Just opposite to the compound across the expressway was the Dubai trade centre. This was supposed to be the tallest building in Dubai those days. Khurshid wanted me to see it. The tall building had some residential rooms like a hotel and the offices of the centre. There were a number of connected halls for exhibitions. We saw an exhibition which was on those days. It was quite impressive. Subsequently, the Dubai trade centre was completely redone and became one of the best exhibition centres in the Middle East. However, the tallest building became a miniscule affair after the Sheikh Zayed road was virtually converted into Manhattan of Dubai by construction of dozens of sky scrappers!
My exploratory visit was quite an experience. I found the place as an important business and tourist hub. It could be a very good selling point for Kashmir tourism. Somehow, I got hooked to the positive atmosphere of Dubai and made over a dozen visits in later years. I felt the same attraction which Hemingway had felt for Paris that he describes in his novel, the "Moveable Feast"! An important event was the Arab Travel Mart, usually held in the first week of May. I must have attended more than half a dozen times this tourism exhibition which I utilised for promoting Kashmir, Ladakh, and Jammu not only among the Dubai residents of Asian origin but also among a large number of foreigners both resident in Dubai and from other countries putting up their stalls in the travel exhibition.
(To be continued….)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXXI (Dubai, the failed Eldorado-I)

According to Wikipedia, Eldorado is the name of a legendary "Lost City of Gold" that has fascinated – and so far eluded – explorers since the days of the Spanish Conquistadors. Though many have searched for years on end to find this city of gold, no evidence of such a place has been found. Dubai had started becoming an Eldorado in the deserts of Arabia for the people from all over the world but unfortunately, the bubble burst few years back! For the sub-continent, Dubai held out a promise of riches and prosperity. Mueen Akhtar's skit "Dubai Chalo" was very popular on Pak TV. Some years back I had the opportunity of meeting Ram Buxani, the Chairman of Cosmos Group, and the head of Indian Association in Dubai. He described to me Dubai more than 35 years back when he had landed there. It was a fishing village where they used lanterns and mosquito nets and lived in mud huts and tents! The Indians worked very hard to transform it into the modern hub of tourism and commerce. The present ruler Sheikh Mohammad has been the most enterprising head of the emirate. He has British Advisors who helped him in realising the dream of modern Dubai which could be termed as the Hong Kong of the Middle East!
The main reason for the failure of the "Eldorado" is the illusory economy on which it was based. Dubai has no basic resource like other Arab lands such as the oil. There are seven Emirates in the United Arab Emirates. The richest and the most dependable is Abu Dhabi which has oil. It is also the capital of UAE. There are economy based on oil is quite strong. In fact, it was Abu Dhabi which tried to bail out Dubai from its over $ 80 billion debt! Sheikh Mohammad tried to base his economy on outside investments in a construction boom. There was a mad rush for construction of real estate. In addition, he had a fancy for Golf Courses and all the big things in the world. The biggest shopping mall, the mall of emirates; the highest tower, the Burj Dubai and so on. He constructed islands like Palm Jumeira visible from outer space. The real estate became a money minting machine where the properties even before completion changed hands dozens of times. People made good money before the crash which came due to over all recession and in fact due to problems with American and European economies. There were massive lay offs. People ran away leaving thousands of vehicles at the airports! The real estate crash left dozens of incomplete sky scrappers.
Dubai has now lost that initial attraction and the economy here is trying to find a foot-hold. Apart from investors, Dubai had become a safe haven for politicians, fugitives and so on. Somehow the local authorities seemed to give out signals that if all these people did not use Dubai for their activities, they could stay there! There seemed to be some tacit understanding between the local authorities and the asylum seekers. In fact, Dubai also acted as a conduit for goods from USA to Iran and even between India and Pakistan. Hawala networks also function unscathed in Dubai, probably with local (invisible) approval.
One interesting fact about Dubai is the composition of its population. The local inhabitants must be around three hundred thousand or so. However, the expatriates, the Indians, the Pakistanis, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, and Europeans number more than a million and a half! It is not easy to maintain control over such a large expatriate population. This is being done by a strict regime of visa and immigration rules. Violations are dealt with severely with fines and even deportation. For controlling the expatriate population almost all Arab Kingdoms or Sheikhdoms function like Police States!
The phenomenal growth of Dubai is attributed to its rulers and among them the present ruler Sheikh Mohammad is supposed to be a modern visionary. No doubt he has ushered in an era of massive expansion and development, yet he seems to have been rather too fast and ambitious. Probably, he did not have some good advisors regarding his economic development or he did not listen to their advice? It was very appropriate to make Dubai a Tourism hub especially during the winter when entire north is shivering. On an average 6 to 8 million tourists especially from Europe and Central Asia have been visiting every year. Dubai is one of the rare sunny spots in winter with its beaches and deserts. Plane loads of Russians and Uzbeks have been coming every week to enjoy warm sun and cheap hospitality compared to Spain or other such spots. Moreover, Dubai is quite short haul for these countries. There also have been plane loads of Indians coming for shopping. While as development was needed but basing it entirely on outside investment was not a right decision. Instead of real estate, there could have been many other economic activities apart from tourism which could have given some solid base to the oil-less economy. If they had taken a cue from Israelis who turned vast deserts into fertile land, Dubai may have been much better off! Somehow, the glamour of Golf, Car and Motor Boat racing and Horse Racing seem to have fancied the ruler more than anything else.
Over last couple of years, Dubai seems to have gone out of fashion. However, the situation appears to be stabilising. Real estate is nose diving. There are umpteen half-complete buildings all over. The race to have the best of the world seems to have lost steam! Compared to Dubai, Abu Dhabi appears more stable. One wonders what Sheikh Mohammad is thinking? Has the debt crash humbled him or he is still the same glamour loving person? Only someone closely associated with him can tell. In the meantime, flocks of "western birds" that had come to make a fast buck and enjoy best of everything have migrated back to their homelands! In next episodes, I will describe my own experiences in Dubai!

(To be continued….)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXX (Journey to Bahrain)

My first travel to the Island of Bahrain took place in 1986. My cousin from Pakistan late Khurshid Elahi had a couple of handicraft stores under the name of Khazana in Manama, the capital city of Bahrain. He had a very good relationship with the Sheikh of the Kingdom. He was always persuading me to pay a visit there. I got the opportunity during my trip to France. In March, 1986, I went to France on the invitation of French Government to study the working of French ski resorts. It was a three week trip in which experts from eight countries participated. I was given a full fare return ticket on Delhi-Paris-Delhi routing. In Paris, I asked the official travel agent if I could re-route my return. She said yes it was possible by paying a couple of thousand rupees. I did the same and got the ticket re-routed Paris-London-Bahrain-Riyadh-Delhi. Once I got the re-routed ticket, I spoke to my cousin and asked him to get a visa on arrival.
I had expected the Arab countries to be the Kingdoms of old sheikhs with camels moving around. To my surprise, the Bahrain airport was quite modern like any European airport. I had a quick exit as my cousin had good contacts and I was rushed through immediately on arrival. While driving to his home, I noticed that everything was most modern except for the sand and date palms! Most of the local houses were white and single storey. Probably because of the bright hot sun? We had some breakfast and I went to sleep as I could not get even a wink of sleep in the flight from London. I must have slept three to four hours. In the afternoon, after a shower we had some lunch and Khurshid took me to his main store near Hilton Hotel.
Khurshid's store was quite big, on two floors. We stayed there for an hour or so and went to Hilton Hotel for a coffee. I also had to give some clothes to the laundry there. Next morning I woke up late. Khurshid had already left for work. He returned around lunchtime and brought my clothes from the laundry. I was surprised to see these. The clothes were so neat and clean that it was difficult for me to believe that these were mine! The laundry had done a real good job! In the afternoon, Khurshid took me to his friends in the American base. Bahrain has a huge American presence. The US Navy has an important base here. Khurshid's clients were mostly Arab Sheikhs and Americans staying in the base.
Next day Khurshid and his Arab friends took me to an Island resort for a daylong picnic. It was quite enjoyable to have a motorboat ride on the sea. Many people were water skiing and jet skiing there. We just went round and had lunch in one of the sea side restaurants. In the evening an Arab friend of Khurshid had invited us for dinner in Arabic style. We had barbecue and mutton and rice. There were many Arabic dishes. I enjoyed the Arab meal. Bahrain seemed to me quite a prosperous place. There were no poor around, not even the beggars and so on. There were many Indians and Pakistanis here. Most were doing good jobs and earning lots of money. However, I found Bahrain to be a drab country. I would not like to live here. A short visit of few days was ok!
I visited Bahrain again in mid nineties. Khurshid had come to Delhi and he again invited me to Bahrain for few days. He wanted me to see a miracle of engineering, the Bahrain-Saudi causeway. A road across the sea! We flew through Dubai where we had a two hour stopover at the airport. While sitting in the business class lounge we were having some tea and snacks and speaking in Kashmiri. Suddenly a man came and asked us if we were from Kashmir. When I told him that I was the Director of Tourism in Kashmir, he was very happy. His name was Bhan and he too had some hotels. It was a chance meeting. I was in touch with him for quite some time and he also visited me at Jammu later on.
Since my last visit, the famous Pearl Square had come up in a big way. Bahrain had become quite modern. They now had many tall buildings. The greatest wonder was the causeway which was thrown open in 1986 but I could not see it on my first visit. Khurshid took me to the start of the road over the sea. There is a huge complex with a tower restaurant. We had lunch in the restaurant and enjoyed panoramic views of the sea. This road connection between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is a real technical marvel. The causeway is known as King Fahd Causeway and is also called the Bahrain Bridge. The project cost a total of US$1.2 billion. The four-lane road is 25 km long and approximately 23 m wide, and was built using 350,000 m2 of concrete along with 47,000 metric tonnes of reinforced steel. The causeway is constructed in three segments starting from Saudi Arabia. From Al-Aziziyyah, south of Khobar, to the Border Station. From the Border Station to Nasan Island in Bahrain. From Nasan island to the Al-Jasra, west of Manama, on the main island of Bahrain. In 2010, plans for massive expansion of the causeway were announced. I do not know whether the same have been taken up?
The recent upheaval in Bahrain especially the clashes in the Pearl Square made me nostalgic about my visits there. My cousin Khurshid passed away few years back. I wonder what he would have thought of the upheaval. Bahrain seems to be in for a long turmoil! However, the importance of the American Naval Base there makes one wonder whether the Bahraini people will ever see the real Arab Spring?