Nailia, the young Russian travel coordinator at the Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel, stands up, pushes her chair back and walks away from the table to greet the man who just walked in. Wearing a white kandura and a chequered ghutrah, the desert guide, Mustafa, has the body language of someone who’s used to the foreign clientele and joyfully smiles while energetically shaking my hand.
“Pleasure meeting you Mustafa. Nailia told me that you’re usually in charge of the VIPs, I feel privileged. “
„Sire, it is me who feels privileged. I’m honored.”
I thank Nailia with a spasiba bolschoi for having so quickly arranged a desert tour on the day of my departure; she responds with an amused dosvidaniya before Mustafa and I make our way out of the hotel lobby, towards the Toyota Land Cruiser.
“Why is it that Land Cruisers are so popular around here Mustafa?”
“Because they’re relatively affordable and very well built. Perfect for the desert. I tried GM’s Hummer a few years ago but American cars are very heavy and automotive parts for the H2 can be difficult to obtain around here. German cars are also excellent in the desert, parts for them can be obtained very quickly, but overall, German SUVs are much more expensive than Japanese. The Land Cruiser is the best bang for the buck.”
We head out of the city and as we progress on the E66 towards the desert, Mustafa tells me about his life in Dubai since his arrival at the age of 14, fourteen years ago. Back then, Dubai was very different. The now largest city in the UAE developed itself at an impressive pace. And despite the increase in traffic, the rise in housing prices and the scorching heat that falls over the region between June and late August, according to Mustafa, his move to Dubai was an excellent decision.
“I do miss the change of seasons that dictates life in my native Lahore though. Spring, summer, autumn, winter: Dubai doesn’t have that. After seeing the desert every day for years in a row and once you’ve gotten used to the glittering skyline, the shopping malls and the beaches, every now and then, you do miss the turn of seasons.”
During the following thirty minutes, our conversation touches on the topics of religion, education and cultural differences between life in Western Europe and in Mustafa’s home-country: Pakistan.
We pass the Al Minhad Air Base operated by several allies of the UAE and leave the road to advance a few meters through the sand. Mustafa halts the car, steps out and proceeds with lowering the tire pressure in order to increase flotation and improve traction.
What follows is an exhilarating ride through the dunes, leading the caravan up and down in a wave-like motion.
The transition from the hustle and bustle of the city to the quietness of the desert in less than one hour is striking. “I came here with my father once”, says Mustafa. “He didn’t understand why people feel an urge to come to the desert after trying to avoid it as much as possible for centuries. According to him, deserts are places forsaken by Mother Nature. Hopeless. Back when the Sultanate of Oman was a powerful empire, prisoners were sent here.”
Deserts are places without expectations.
The UAE is full of contrasting extremes. Glittering skylines and old houses in and around the souks. Tradition versus modernity. Asians, Africans and Europeans mingling with Americans and local Emiratis.
Although spending far less time in Abu Dhabi than Dubai, the capital of the UAE has a provincial feel to it that somehow appealed to me. And even those with eyes spoiled by stunning architecture in their homeland will have to admit: walking through the inner court yard of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque or looking at the dome above the lobby area of the Emirates Palace hotel is a particular experience.
Life in the Middle East is different from other places, yet it can also feel very similar to life in those exact same places, depending on how much you form a physical and mental bubble around yourself.
Expatriates may find themselves focusing on making business, blocking out seemingly distasteful aspects they can’t relate to, and creating small societies of like-minded folks. Various particularities, such as Islamic banking and finance, may take some getting used to since they are so different from what is common in Europe for example. There is no denying that. But at the same time, a lot of Europeans will tell you that it was here that they managed to reach the kind of financial independence that allowed them to break free of their corporate lives and set up their own businesses.
In times of economic challenges in various parts around the world, marked by political turmoil in the Middle East, the UAE come across as an oasis of stability. Flying over Iraq on the way back to Europe is a powerful reminder of that.
And whoever finds himself, after a long day in the office, sitting on the sands of Dubai’s Kite beach, watching kite surfers glide over the waters of the Persian Gulf and perform jumps while the sun is setting in the distance, will likely come to the conclusion that despite the heat, the widespread consumerism and certain limitations that Westerners will need to adapt to, the UAE is a singular place, such as no other.
إلى اللِقاء (ilá al-liqāʾ).