The Middle East @ Work

First Days

Richard Core Mar 10, 2008

I landed in Dubai on a Saturday, which is the new Sunday. That is, the work week here begins on Sunday, which makes it the new Monday. Thursday is the new Friday. It’s hard to get used to.

The problem with foreign reporting trips is that you only have a limited window of time to get everything you need. So if something unforeseen happens that limits your time even more, you start to panic a little. (Of course, I tend to panic a lot over everything. Enough said.) …

My first full day here went well – had lunch with a former Marketplace “fixer” who gave me some good advice – met with the key person in my “Disappointed Expats” story who drove me around the city some. He even took me onto Palm Jumeirah, the island shaped like a palm frond, one of three that will eventually pave the shallow waters here. And that night, Matthias Letson, from the “American Expats” story, took me out to Johnny Rockets. “They have a Johnny Rockets here?” I asked incredulously. “They have four,” he said. Men in dishdasha tore into their Smoke House barbecue-burgers. A fleet of South Asian waiters smiled so broadly at us you thought their jaws would unhinge.

My second full day here however did not go so well. This was the day that President Bush visited Dubai. Now, I don’t know which government, ours or there’s, thought it would be a good idea to close every major road in the city to allow Bush unheard-of traffic-free egress. All I know is that at about 9:30 Sunday night, while I was interviewing Matthias at the hotel, a Holiday Inn Express employee handed me this letter:

“Dear Guest,

Please be advised that due to the State Visit of US President George W Bush, there will be major road closures on Monday January 14th 2008and the day has been declared a Public holiday.

The following roads will be closed to traffic from 6am to 5pm:

  1. Al Khail Road – Closed

  2. Sheikh Zayed Road – Closed from Salik point to Salik point (Gharhoud Bridge to Mall of the Emriates)

  3. Jumeirah Beach Road – Closed from Al Thanya to Jumeirah Corporate office (far side of Madinat)

  4. Al Wasl closed from Al Thanya to Dubai Police Office

These closures will caused severe delays and traffic congestions, so please allow plenty of extra time for all trips, especially to the airport.”

A public holiday. No work. No work means no one going to his and her offices which means no one would be interviewable by me until the following day. One less day, in an already limited number of days, to get what I need.

My “fixer” Tamara called me and said I shouldn’t even try getting anywhere until 6:00 PM, that I wouldn’t make it. But a lot of people tried to get to work anyway. And according to Tuesday’s Gulf News, the gridlock was epic. Some people were stuck sitting in their cars for six and seven hours. The police were apparently very nice but not very competent. One guy had been planning for months to drive his girlfriend down this lovely sandy road in Dubai on January 14th and propose to her. The result was a perfect nightmare, not only because of the traffic snarls but because she was allergic to sand. The article didn’t say whether she accepted.

Then the rains came. The following two days reportedly pushed Dubai into the wettest January it had seen in twenty years. A moment to explain this: everyone I talked to – whether they’ve been here three years or thirty – tells me that they’d never seen weather this bad for this long. All the roads flooded. All the schools closed for the rest of the week because people simply could not get to them. A breakfast meeting I’d been planning to attend since before I left was cancelled. In one day, 584 traffic accidents were reported in Dubai alone. Gulf News ran articles with headlines like “How to stay safe while driving in the rain” and “‘999 is for emergencies only’ warn Dubai Police.” Photographs of people kayaking down the street, of writing melting off of signs, were splashed across a special section devoted to the weather. At one point, over breakfast, I peered through the gauzy curtain at a wide expanse of twinkling water. I had no idea that the hotel was on a pond. It wasn’t. When I pulled the curtain aside, there was just a construction ditch filled with rain.

So I went from day in which it was impossible to get anywhere, to several days in which it was impossible to get anywhere. Even catching a cab was an exercise in hip-waders. After interviewing a business manager at MBC in Media City I ran up and down the parking lot, stepping in and out of kiddie-pools before I waved this one taxi down. We passed a crash site en route to the Hotel Ibis. The driver said he didn’t understand why people speed in this weather. “More fast more killing,” he said shaking his head. He then proceeded to race forward whenever he could. The road to the hotel was blocked. So we did a U-turn to get there from another direction. That road was blocked too. I had to get out and find my way on foot.

— Sean Cole

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