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The Middle East @ Work

Old and New Dubai

Richard Core Mar 10, 2008

After a few days I finally made it down to Dubai Creek. Most of the Dubai I’d seen thus far was still under construction and almost wholly unwalkable. But Deira, sometimes called “the heart of the city,” is a much more lived-in area by the water – boats packed with tourists slipping past the skyscrapers. A boat pilot came up to me and tried to hand me a brochure. He was speaking English but I couldn’t make out any of the words except “boat,” “go” and “okay.” He wanted to take me on the water but I had to interview Tamsin Sherifa Madgwick at the Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding. . . .

Sherifa’s wonderful. She’s 39, English , been in Dubai for 17 years, divorced from an Emirati man, has at least one kid. She’s also a convert to Islam, wears a hijab and is aware that a lot of people think Islamic women are very reserved and closed. But they aren’t, she says, and she’s proof, a wonderfully talkative open book. First, she showed me around the center which is this ancient looking mosque-like place with high ceilings and low door-jambs. And then we sat on a cushiony bench which happened to be at floor level and chatted for about an hour.

Sherifa loves Dubai but misses the old Dubai. The more rural, deserted place it was where you got somewhere by off-roading in a jeep because there weren’t many roads to begin with. I asked her about health care here and she said it’s been relatively good as
long as she can remember. She gave birth at the American hospital. Her mom had a tumor out here and everything went smoothly. Some people will still want to go elsewhere for heath care, she says, either because they have a relationship with their doctors back home or because they’re terminally ill and want to go home to die. But one day, she says, there will be no reason to leave Dubai. You’ll be able to get absolutely anything you could ask for here: quality care, quality education, a building that doesn’t leak. It’s a city that’s still becoming a city, so there are teething problems. But it’s working itself out and, anyway, there are problems everywhere.

I also finally experienced my first Dubai interview cancellation. (I guess this is something that happens a lot here.) My cell phone rang during the Sherifa interview so I switched it off quickly without answering it. Sadly it was Mona Sayed at Shuaa Capital trying to postpone my meeting with Walid Shihabi. Apparently, he’d been up working until 8:00 in the morning and was totally exhausted. But, since I missed the call, I didn’t know any of this. So I went to the office anyway. It’s the massive blocky archway of the Financial Centre. Two digital stock tickers greet you as you walk up the path to the revolving door. I traded in my license for a digital keycard that gave me access to the pristine steel elevators. I sat in the waiting room for twenty minutes until a very nice man with an untucked shirt and suit jacket on came out and introduced himself as the chief economist. (Surprisingly, everyone seems to dress down in these big financial centers here. I was in a tie and blazer with slacks and a nice shirt and I was way over-dressed.) He explained the situation and apologized, said Mona wouldn’t be back until after lunch and to call her then.

Crossed the road to Emirates Towers. Had a Starbucks. Tasted just like it always does.

A very sweet Egyptian cab driver drove me back to my hotel. He was in a through lane outside Emirates Towers so he actually didn’t stop, just slowed down enough for me to jump in. In broken English he asked how long I’ve been here and what I think of Dubai, was surprised that I’d only been here a week. Too little time, he said, for so much to see. We ran out of things to talk about pretty quickly and rode the rest of the way listening to the Muslim prayers on his radio. But every now and then, out of nowhere, he’d pipe up and say “Welcome, boss!”

— Sean Cole

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