Saturday, August 29, 2009

Stop your excuses, 40 years is plenty of time to build a country

Abu Dhabi can be a frustrating place. As non-Emiratis, we sometimes feel like second-class citizens, there are no street addresses (everyone uses PO boxes and you must use landmarks when attempting to tell a cabbie where to take you), and our internet connection frequently goes down. Moreover, some things here are also just really different.

Shannon and I drove with some friends to a mall just outside Dubai the other night (yes, another mall), and upon arrival Shannon went to use the public restrooms. She walked into a beautifully ornate bathroom with marble floors and gold detailing, bathroom attendants and all, but when she opened the door to an empty stall at the end of the row, she was startled to find that the toilet basin was little more than a hole in the ground. Thinking this a bit strange, she promptly backed out and found another, more properly equipped, stall. At the end of the night she found herself in need of a restroom again, and she entered one at a different end of the mall. Once again, she saw an empty stall at the end of the row, and once again she found herself staring at a hole in the ground! While I can't say I know for sure why the hole is there, I suspect it's for those generations who have not completely acclimated to the luxuries of indoor plumbing.

It's important to remember that the UAE first began to see the benefits of the extraction and production of oil from within their borders in 1966 when Sheik Zayed took the throne, and what's more, the UAE didn't even come into existence until 1971. Up until this time, the largest cities in what's now the UAE, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Al Ain, were sparsely populated villages with a few thousand inhabitants.

Here are a few images showing Abu Dhabi's drastic development:

Abu Dhabi from the air in 1965
(Source: George Bell -

The main street (yes, there was only one) in Abu Dhabi in 1966

(Source: George Bell -

Abu Dhabi today...notice any change?

And this brings me back to where I began. I have to remind myself that many of the frustrations and differences which we have experienced come from the fact that the UAE has had to develop its infrastructure and national identity over a span of about 43 years. By contrast, the United States has had roughly 400 years to do so. It truly staggers my imagination to think that as recently as the mid-1960s, the Emiratis were still living as their ancestors had lived for thousands of years, and virtually overnight, they had to leave tribal loyalties behind and learn to manage billions of dollars of oil revenue as well as all the trappings which come along with a nation-state. I think I'll be a little more patient the next time my internet connection encounters some glitches.

1 comment:

  1. It's 10:32 PM here as I respond to your latest message, Sam. You and Shannon are probably just arising tomorrow, Sunday, unless you've been up since 4:30 am your time because of the call to prayer from across the street.

    I find your description of where the UAE has come from very fascinating. What a contrast between 1966, a year I remember well, and today as far as development of Abu Dhabi.

    I read that it reached 110 degrees in Baghdad this week. I imagine that is reflected where you are. I remember Shannon telling me that prior to your flight, she checked online to see what the temperature there was - it was 105 degrees, but felt like 130, according to that website. So with the "Richter Scale" of degrees, 110 must feel like 150 degrees or more! Having been in the Middle East in 1965, specifically Egypt, as well as India that same trip, I have experienced actual temperatures of 129 degrees. I cannot imagine what it is like adapting to those temperatures for a sustained period over months. Hopefully your A/C keeps going without problems!!

    Thanks for the ongoing description of your lives each day as you adapt to life in Abu Dhabi. What an adventure. Rebecca