When I came to Dubai nearly four years ago to write a book, the great financial crisis that was to afflict much of the world had just begun to take shape. In the event, one of its most notable victims was this tiny Emirate, a city-state that had risen out of the Arabian littoral’s unforgiving desert and become a global metropolis in barely two decades. Its economy was hit hard, and it is still recovering.
Now another crisis is in full bloom – the popular revolt in Egypt – in another part of the Middle East. This one has far deeper implications concerning governance for everyday Arabs than anything they’ve experienced. The story of people-driven democracy is still unfolding, I yearn to cover it, but the time has come for me to leave Arabia because a different assignment – in southern Africa -- beckons. I have always felt that it’s best to say farewell while one is still welcome to stay.
I end my four-year tenure in Dubai as I began: with optimism about Emirati society, and with admiration for its tolerance. I end my tenure, however, with the nagging feeling that I may not be the last person of Indian origin to leave this land, which was largely built with the brains, brawn, and banking and bargaining skills of South Asians. Even though India is largest trading partner of the United Arab Emirates – home to Dubai and six other sheikhdoms – it is Pakistan that’s on the ascendancy here. There is, of course, the Islamic connection that binds the two countries, but there’s also the fact that Pakistan has been extraordinarily diligent in cultivating the Emiratis. There are roughly 1.7 million Indians in the UAE – but there are also 1.6 million Pakistanis; the numbers of the former are decreasing, while those of the latter are on the rise.
Indian or Pakistani, the presence of South Asians has been nourishing for the UAE, a country whose own nationals constitute just about 10 percent of the population. It has been a heady experience to observe this, even for a veteran journalist who has reported from more than 150 countries in a career spanning more than four decades.
Here in the UAE, I saw for myself a nation under construction in white speed. I witnessed how city-states such as Dubai showed their resilience during a wrenching financial crisis. I cringed when the international media often misread social clues here. I fulminated at the malevolence of some observers who wrote off Dubai when the real-estate bubble burst. They failed to understand that societies, like people, have their ups and downs, and that the development of Dubai is, simply put, an act of indomitable will. I know that Dubai will never be deterred: it has come too far along the road to development for any catastrophic collapse to occur.
That said, what were the special lessons I learned during my time in this extraordinary country blessed with great reserves of crude oil but not with a significant cohort of homegrown talent?
I learned that as a foreigner, one should never forget that one is a guest here. That means it’s important to be always respectful of Emirati customs and traditions. That also means one must always follow the law – in letter and in spirit. The UAE is arguably the most liberal of the six countries that form the Gulf Cooperation Council. But it is foolhardy to push the envelope too much. I am not a squeamish man – not after having covered coups, earthquakes and wars on many continents – and I do not ride a high moral horse. I am appalled, however, at how indifferent many expats are to local sensitivities.
Local sensitivities to bacchanalian behavior by outsiders may not be reactionary. But that doesn’t matter. The UAE is an Islamic society, with its own canons and customs. The least that we transients can do is to study those principles, and to be mindful of them. The least we transients can do is to accept that all cultures are entitled to celebrate their special histories and practices.
Another lesson: Never say in private what you’d be ashamed to say in public. This is not to suggest self-censorship, or muzzling of one’s opinions. But anyone coming to the UAE is surely aware that the political system here is not akin to the Westminster or Washington or New Delhi models. This is not the place to make radical political statements – because the UAE is not a political society. Its governance is based on tribal traditions of fairness; grievances do get heard and do indeed get resolved, for the most part.
There’s no point in caviling about hereditary rule in the seven emirates: it is what it is, and no amount of snarky commentary is going to change the system. I always say to fellow foreigners: This is a place to come to enjoy your life, ply your trade, become prosperous, and revel in the sheer beauty of the UAE. This is not the place to practice politics. If you want to run for public office, try London, or New York, or New Delhi, or Papua New Guinea. If you want to come to Dubai, leave your political baggage behind. My Egyptian and Palestinian friends find this difficult to accept. But they really have very little choice in a country where the whereabouts and whispers of every person are carefully monitored.
Yet another lesson: Try and circulate beyond your own ethnic communities. People who complain that they have few Emirati friends sometimes ask me how did I manage to have so many. No magic to that: Just reach out. This doesn’t mean that you will always form enduring friendships with nationals. But you will always find warm welcomes. Dubai offers unique opportunities for cultural cross-fertilization. It’s a pity that far too many foreigners seem stuck in the grooves and groves of their own communalism. This especially true of Indians, who often seem daunted by a perception that Arabs are racist and that they favor whites. I can’t speak for Arabs, but I doubt if I’ve been judged by the pigment of my skin. Many Emiratis I know seem puzzled at the trademark servile mannerisms of Indians. I’ve been puzzled, too.
Still another lesson: Trust is hard won here. Your work will be generally recognized. If it isn’t, then just shrug, swallow an aspirin, and slide away. You need to know when to leave, because no one will really ask you to go away. That simply isn’t the Emirati way: Emiratis don’t like to lose well-wishers, but that doesn’t mean they are prepared to tolerate inefficiencies and indifference.
And that brings me to perhaps the single most important lesson that I learned during these last four years: You may choose to leave Dubai, but Dubai never leaves you. Once you get here, Dubai lodges itself in your DNA. And that is not a bad thing at all, no matter where in the world you go next. I leave Dubai with the comforting knowledge that I will always be welcomed back.
(Pranay Gupte’s next book, “Dubai: The Journey,” will be published soon by Penguin-Viking to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates.)