A day in the Emirates

When I decided to embark on a year-long journey through the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia, the most economical way to get there from Cluj turned out to be hitchhiking to Istanbul and then flying to Colombo, Sri Lanka with Air Arabia. This offered the nice bonus of a day-long layover in the airline’s hub, the Emirate of Sharjah, from which I could easily visit Dubai as well.

I began by taking the bus from the airport to the centre of Sharjah. This trip of only 15 kilometres took nearly two hours, as we were soon stuck in one of the UAE’s notorious traffic jams. Evidently, while more prosperous residents drive their own cars or take taxis, Sharjah’s public transit system is relegated to foreign labourers. The bus was soon packed completely full of people from seemingly every part of the India, as well as a few Arabs from elsewhere. I saw very few native Emiratis during this day.

From the airport, we passed mansions built on the desert sands, many completed but without surrounding infrastructure, while others were still in the stage of construction. Our arrival in the centre of Sharjah was signalled by cut-rate auto parts stores, attracting traders from all over, and scattered highrise buildings where most of this emirate’s ever-expanding population is settling.

In Sharjah’s centre, I changed to another bus to Dubai, a rather quicker journey. Any border between the two emirates is unnoticeable, as throughout there is a growing forest of skyscrapers and shopping malls. None of this urban landscape was entirely new to me, for I had seen this construction boom in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and mall-based Arab society in Amman. However, the combination of the two in one place is remarkable, especially considering how isolated this part of the Arabian peninsula seems.

As much as I admire Dubai’s can-do spirit and futuristic thinking, this entire phenomenon seems completely unsustainable. My first stop in Dubai was its Marina, where dozens and dozens of five-star hotels and expensive residencies host a population of Western expats served by blatantly exploited foreign labourers. Though this all sits in the middle of pure desert, the amount of water consumed, often for frivolous purposes, is unbelievable. Furthermore, think of the amount of energy consumed in air-conditioning this sweltering environment (even in October I could not stand much more than 10 minutes outside), and importing US and European-brand everything to preserve the illusion that these expats are still at home.

That’s not to mention the energy demands and pollution of the thousands of cars. After previous experiments in forward-thinking urban planning like Brasilia were criticized for requiring long car journeys to get around, Dubai’s failure to discourage car use from the start is hubristic.

After the Marina I walked around Bur Dubai for a while, a neighbourhood dominated by the Asian population. As nearly everyone around me was from India, an Indian restaurant seemed the best choice for something authentically local (otherwise I could have only gone with American fast-food chains). In terms of dining this way, Dubai proved surprisingly affordable. A delicious South Indian-style meal with generous portions cost only 13 dirham (little more than 2€). Transportation is cheap as well; none of the bus journeys, no matter how long, cost more than 5 dirham (less than 1€)

As appalled as I am by the unsustainability of this experiment, I really wish I could have spent more time in these two emirates to study them in more depth. As it was, I had to head back to the airport fairly early because of the evening traffic jams. Indeed, of the 12 hours I had free on this day, six were spent sitting in buses.