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….)

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