May 292014

So I recently spent ten days in the United Arab Emirates.

Ten very busy days. I left on a Tuesday night, flying through London, only to arrive in Dubai late Wednesday night local time. This allowed me to have a workday, Thursday, before the Muslim weekend (Friday and Saturday) began. Then, a full work week, another weekend, and one more workday (a Sunday) before I headed back home.

I am still digesting the memories. This was my first time ever, anywhere in the Middle East. It was a very busy time, to be sure, and I didn’t take many pictures; some of the most interesting places that I saw, courtesy of my hosts, are not the kind of places where a visitor, especially a foreign national, is supposed to take pictures.

But, I did take a few pictures elsewhere. Not very good ones (taken with my phone), but pictures anyway.

For starters, here is the world’s tallest building:

And here is a view of downtown Dubai, as seen while standing right underneath the world’s tallest building:

At the foot of the world’s tallest building is the world’s largest shopping mall. Inside that shopping mall, if not the world’s largest then one of the world’s largest aquariums, with thousands of fish and other sea creatures. The pictures I took were not very good ones (for starters, there were these reflections of the lights of a shop right behind me) but that giant ray in the upper left was something to behold:

If I wanted to sum up my impressions of the UAE with one picture, it would be this one, the entrance of the “Pork Shop” section inside a supermarket within the Dubai Mall:

This picture captures the essence of the UAE: a (so far remarkably successful) attempt to reconcile deeply conservative Muslim values with a cosmopolitan, multicultural 21st century society. All the more astonishing when one considers that this grand experiment is taking place in a country that is not a representative democracy but a constitutional union of seven absolute monarchies.

Indeed, this newspaper article, though somewhat propagandistic (and lest we forget, the press in the UAE is at best “partially free”), demonstrates just how proud they are of their tolerance:

Of course what I was there about was not to judge the cultural tolerance of the UAE but to work on a specific project that had more to do with this:

More about it later, as things unfold.

I only spent a few days in Dubai; most of the time, I was in the fine capital city of Abu Dhabi:

Inside an Abu Dhabi shopping mall, I found a skating rink. Yes, it was 40 C outside (not too warm, I was told; it was still springtime, it would get a lot warmer in the summer) but people were skating. I am not into skating myself so I don’t know for sure, but I don’t believe you can skate anywhere in Ottawa in May.

Being there on business, however, I spent most of my time in offices. In a specific office, to be precise. So most of what I saw of Abu Dhabi was from the office window. Namely a highway:

and a parking area and some more office buildings:

I arrived in Abu Dhabi after three days in Dubai, and I thought I was done with jet lag. But then… on my first night in Abu Dhabi, I noticed that overnight, they were doing work on a metal roof some four stories below my hotel window. The noise didn’t help as I was struggling to fall asleep, but eventually, I managed. I did not sleep very well. On the second night, there was no noise yet I slept even worse. But it was the third night that was like real hell. I went to sleep at around midnight, only to be woken up some half an hour later by the sound of a buzz saw being used to cut sheets of corrugated metal. I phoned the front desk and complained. The sawing stopped, and I was assured that the maintenance work was finished, but that was not the case: work continued on the roof under a portable light, complete with some yelling and clanging as pieces of corrugated metal were being thrown around. At 4:30 AM, I phoned the front desk again. A few minutes later, as I was struggling to go to sleep, they phoned me back (!), asking if a manager and an engineer could come up to my room. I screamed “NO! It’s four thirty in the morning and I am trying to sleep, not have a conference with a manager and an engineer!”

To their credit though, the next day they gave me another room that did not overlook the aforementioned roof. The room was an upgrade, and by the evening, I found a nice bowl of fruit on my table along with a letter from the hotel manager apologizing for that very bad night. I have to say… this was old school classy. (Arguably, not having such noisy work done during the night would have been even classier but still. This was a classy apology.)

From my new hotel room, I could see the freeway bridge that leads to Dubai:

On my last full day in Abu Dhabi, I managed to catch a beautiful sunset from a hotel window. The picture does not give it justice… the sunset was really spectacular.

Then, it was all over and I was on my way back to Dubai, on a highway complete with roadside signs, strip malls and the like, which (apart from the prevalence of Arabic script) could have been anywhere in North America:

There was one thing I saw along the route that I could not figure out. A giant parabolic antenna. It seemed much too large for communication with Earth-orbiting satellites, but if that’s not what it was, then what was it? Radio astronomy? Didn’t look like the right place for it (much too populated, too much radio noise). Deep space communications? I’m not aware of a deep space station in the UAE. So perhaps it was just a high bandwidth satellite communication station. Still… I am curious.

And then it was all over. I next spent 14 hours inside a 777, flying direct from Dubai to Washington. Something I never experienced before was multiple layers of security, namely an extra screening station at the gate, and a procedure that required all passengers to be screened and the entrance to the gate waiting area closed before the corridor to the airplane was opened. While on board that 777, I thought about the poor souls on an identical plane, MH370, whose fate still remains unknown. I survived the long trip in part because I avoided eating too much. I skipped dinner. After I ate my breakfast with gusto many hours later, a very kind stewardess remarked that she was relieved to see me eat; after I skipped dinner and didn’t eat anything, she was worried about me! It’s rare to see that kind of personal attention on an airplane these days.

Changing planes in Washington was less stressful than I expected (having a Nexus card certainly helped) and I arrived home in due course without trouble. And as I was able to sleep on the flight, although I was  tired for the next few days, jet lag was not bothering me badly.

In all likelihood, I’ll go back to the UAE again soon. Although I hate to be away from home, I found the place fascinating and the people I had the good fortune to work with very pleasant, highly capable professionals, so I have reasons to look forward to another trip.

 Posted by at 11:09 pm