Back in the UAE

We are a strange family when it comes to travel. My husband and I were almost deported from England years ago. We once hired a taxi to get us out of Albania. And we rarely make plans or hotel reservations. We like to think we’re serendipitous.

So none of us was surprised when our daughter decided to go to Dubai for a summer internship. She told us that much of what she had read about the city and the United Arab Emirates reminded her of her grandfather’s settling in the West Texas oil boomtown of Midland in the 1940s. Like that earlier time, something new was being built on a stark, desert landscape where great riches rested underground. Restless, ambitious men and women were moving there, eager to make fortunes and new lives.

Dubai also promised something more and better, our daughter felt. With their immense wealth, the native Emiratis were forging a new kind of city in the troubled Middle East. Here, they hoped, Muslims and others of different religions could work and live together. They could prosper and build a city of towering skyscrapers and idealistic capitalism. In the midst of a region of ancient strife and bloodshed, Dubai would be a city that looked to a new and better future.

Since our daughter is working on a master’s degree in public policy, the internship would offer her an intriguing glimpse of a newly international city that aspires to the best in commerce, mass transit, and government.

Dubai would represent a new model for the 21st century. It would learn from earlier experiences, earlier mistakes made by other countries and other visionaries. Or would it?

“It sounds great,” I told her. “Just promise me one thing. You won’t date anybody from Halliburton, will you?”

Construction site of the 7-star hotelBurj Al Arab

Where are you going?” the man in the Chicago airport lounge asked me. It was July, and I was going to visit our daughter midway through her internship. The man was from Dallas. He and his wife were coming back from a trip to Italy, where the dollar’s continued plummet had pained them.

“I’m on my way to Dubai,” I said.

“Saudi Arabia?” he asked.

“United Arab Emirates,” I said. “It’s more liberal than Saudi Arabia. Very different.”

We talked for a few minutes, and he introduced me to his wife. As I was leaving for my flight, I heard him tell her, “That girl’s going to Saudi Arabia.”

Hours and hours later, as we descended into Dubai, my seatmate talked animatedly about his adopted country. Of Indian descent, he had been born in Kenya, but was spending his adult years in Dubai.

“So much opportunity in Dubai,” he said. “So much excitement. You’ll see. Your daughter will never want to leave. Young people love Dubai.”

I stayed in a hotel close to the looming cranes and construction skeleton of the Burj Dubai, which will be the world’s tallest building when it is completed in 2008. Throughout the hot, windy nights, hammers rattled, chain saws whined, and thick, white dust clouds filled the air around the site. When the daily temperature hovers at 110 degrees Fahrenheit, the still-simmering nights were better for manual labor.

“This is almost the first time I’ve been outside,” our daughter said the next day as we stepped outside the museum in the city’s old section. Featuring photographs and a few exhibits, the museum traces the history of this desert world and its nomadic residents. For centuries, they pursued sparse livelihoods like pearl-diving on the coast, wearing tight-fitting clothing on their trunks, arms, and legs to protect them from jellyfish. Today their Emirati descendants no longer have to work for a living because of their massive oil wealth.

Around us, the streets were almost empty. Most people are smart enough to visit Dubai during the temperate months, when you can see camel races and ride in desert caravans. The heat shrouded us like a suffocating blanket. Jet-lagged and staggering from the heat, I could tell I was about to pass out and make an international spectacle of myself. Finally, we found an open-and air-conditioned-restaurant. It was, of all things, Tex-Mex.

We ate surprisingly good chips and salsa. A few yards away, a loud drunk regaled the bartender with endless, incoherent stories. He shouted and swayed. I listened to him-what choice was there?-and became uncomfortably aware of his American accent. A few more, even louder minutes passed. It got worse.

“He’s a Texan,” I whispered to our daughter.

She rolled her eyes. “Great.”

Our waiter approached us. “Where are you from?” he asked.

“Canada,” our daughter said.

He grinned alarmingly. “Canada? Where in Canada?”

“I’m from Texas,” I said quickly, too exhausted to lie. I nodded at my daughter. “She’s from Canada.”

“Texas!” the waiter said even more excitedly. He ran to the bar, motioning wildly.

This is how my daughter and I ended up chatting with the restaurant owner, who was from Montreal. Complimented about his salsa, he beamed and announced, “I opened the best Tex-Mex restaurant in all of Moscow!”

By this time, all pretenses of our being from Canada had fled. The drunk Texan stood, unsteadily, moving from foot to foot.

“Texas!” He kept saying. “Goddamn! Texas!”

When we left, I flashed him the Hook ‘Em Horns sign. He gave it his best shot, but was too intoxicated to deliver. Somehow he managed to include his thumb in the salute.

I know what I am supposed to say about Dubai. The superlatives are supposed to fly. Biggest, tallest, best, astonishing, miraculous-and on and on. The indoor ski slopes, the fabulous malls full of Cartier and Gucci and Ferragamo, the swanky foreign cars that line the streets.

Maybe, as my daughter hypothesized, it really was like West Texas in the 1940s, full of ambition, spirit, entrepreneurship, and future U.S. presidents. I’m sure that was all there.

That wasn’t what impressed me. In the few days I was there, I met only a smattering of people-the taxi drivers, usually Indians and Pakistanis; the waiters and waitresses from Eastern Europe and India; the attendants at the spa we went to, who were from the Philippines.

All told, these and other foreigners comprise 85 percent of Dubai’s population. They built it, they drove it, they sweated in the hot sun, they made it work. When their long days were over, they were bused to the edge of the city, where they lived in small camps and apartments. They would never be eligible for citizenship. They were in Dubai to send money to their families thousands of miles away.

Like the young Filipina who brought us towels at the spa. She stayed to talk a little, and her eyes filled with tears when she spoke about the two young sons she had left behind two weeks earlier. And the middle-aged manicurist, also from the Philippines, who had spent the years of her children’s youth in Dubai. The oldest son, she said proudly, might be going to medical school. If not for her work in Dubai, none of this would have been possible. Otherwise, they might have starved.

I never talked to an Emirati-all noticeable in any crowd, the men in their white robes, the women in their black. One night in an Indian restaurant, I stood next to a young Emirati woman bent over the restroom sink. After a few seconds, I realized she wasn’t merely splashing her face with water; she was crying. I stood there, helpless. We were only a few inches apart, but it didn’t matter. We were from different worlds.

So as far as I was concerned, Dubai was disturbingly different from my country, my state, my hometown of Midland. Fascinating and glitzy, but ultimately depressing. People couldn’t come there to build futures for themselves; they built futures for other people. In their own lives, they only got by.

“All these buildings, all these accomplishments,” I said to a friend after I returned to Austin, with its own cranes, looming new buildings, and construction dust. “And underneath-they were all built on the backs of the poor.”

He looked at me as if I were a child, and not an especially smart one. He shook his head.

“Isn’t that the way it always is?” he asked.

Ruth Pennebaker is an Austin writer, young-adult author and KUT commentator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST