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From desert to skyscrapers: the history of radical change in UAE told by a local

United Arab Emirates… Does anyone have any other idea in mind that Arab sheikhs swimming in oil and bills? Well, although today the description is pretty accurate, we should not forget where this country comes from and how much it has changed in the last decades. This I could see thanks to Abdullah, a 62-year-old local who lived all the change and I was lucky enough to meet a few hours before I left the country.

Having spent a couple of weeks there, I was in Dubai Mall spending the last hours with the friends that I was visiting there, when we met this man. As if it was seduction, it all started with a smile, we exchanged a few words and since he saw me interested he invited me for coffee. I accepted.

    Life in the desert

Abdullah was born in a tent in the desert that today is Abu Dhabi. His family, like many others at the time, was nomadic but had settled decades ago in that area.

Life then, and in these conditions, was quite precarious and life expectancy was less than 50 years. Having then no more than sea and desert, they lived mainly from fishing. In their case, they had a cow at home which was better treated than any of the children, because it gave them milk. But even better treated was the camel, because thanks to it they could go to see the part of family that lived in Al Ain, taking “only” seven days. A distance that nowadays is a little more than an hour in a highway through the desert.


    The oil’s discovery

Although for decades it was a protectorate of United Kingdom, the British were not around so much, until the sixties arrived and large oil reserves were discovered in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The British, who had the right to exploit the natural resources of the area, soon brought all kinds of machines to do it. With it came a big boost to development by creating infrastructures such as roads, port and telecommunications, and also came the massive construction of housing blocks.

But oil exploitation wouldn’t last long… The sheikhs of the seven emirates met and did what they should have done centuries ago: Leave dynastic differences aside and walk together towards self-determination.


    ‘Living the dream’

Nowadays, and after 43 years of independence, everything has changed. To say that where there were four tents or a block of apartments, now there are skyscrapers, it would make a too simple reading, because it goes far beyond.

The locals, who do not reach 20% of the current population of the Emirates, have the right to have totally free education. Not only that, but if they decide to pursue their studies or part of them abroad, the government will bear the cost if requested by the family to the emirate Sheikh. After finishing the studies, if they get married, they will have the expenses paid. And if they want to build a house, they will have a credit without interest.

They also have a fully free medical insurance covering even when they should be operated away from the Emirates. Abdullah tells me he cannot forget how the government behaved with him three years ago, sending him two months to treat his knee to London, with all expenses paid for him and his wife. On the other hand, during his working years he never got withheld part of the salary in taxes (like any UAE resident, whether local or not) and he can now enjoy a more than generous pension until the end of his days.

To my question about if he doesn’t mind being governed by seven families and an absolute monarchy government he convincing answered: “Why should I care? Jordi, we are living the dream“. Left me speechless.

And finally he dropped a very interesting reflection: Abdullah considered himself to be so lucky to have lived everything he had lived, not only for how he lives now, but for coming practically from nothing. Thanks to that he appreciates all that he now has, which we Westerners do not. “You were born having roof, electricity, water, computer, television, telephone… I was born in the desert, I had a hard time to eat and drink everyday and I even saw my uncle die because of non-healed flu… Now I appreciate everything around me, even this simple coffee that we are having right now”.

2 Responses

  1. Pingback : Where you now, Jordi? UAE facts - Where you now, Jordi?

  2. Ok so you mean I was brought up in the wrong country? Meaning the Netherlands and a on a little island called Curacao?!! Oh Man..what an experience. Free education and expenses paid would be a dream indeed. but hey..it’s like you said at the end grew up with all that luxury of food, water etc. and we really need to appreciate that all. Thanks for sharing this. Great one!

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