Saturday, March 20, 2010

Al Fujayrah

Map picture

United Arab Emirates – Al Fujairah

Let me start where I left off yesterday by discussing the situation regarding the Somali pirates. Our trip several months ago around the Seychelles did offer some risk of pirate attacks, and at the time much was being written in the press about the pirates having reached out as far as the Seychelles. In truth however the greatest threat from the pirates takes place in the Gulf of Aden, which is bordered on one side by Yemen and by Somalia on the other. This evening our ship will begin its transit of the Gulf, which is the entrance into the Red Sea and from there the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean.

So, it was no surprise that our ship would be taking extra precautions for this portion of the voyage. Today, for the first time in my experience, the entire ship’s company, both passengers and crew, were called to muster. I had never seen the entire crew complement gathered at one time, and frankly it was impressive just to see how many people are involved in providing for our welfare. Indeed, it seemed to both Lisa and I that there were at least as many crew on the ship as passengers, which is quite possible since at this time the ship is travelling with just a little over half it’s maximum passenger load.

The short version of our meeting was that special precautions are being taken for our transit of the Gulf. Beginning at 5pm this afternoon all of the outside of deck 7 and the aft section of deck 8 will be closed to passengers until 6pm tomorrow. I know that the fire hoses have already been rigged and are at full pressure, but I gather that some other activities will be taking place. There is a special watch being maintained on the bridge at all times, and the ship is now, and will continue to move forward at maximum speed. During this transit the ship will operate in what is called the “Maritime Safety and Protection Area,” and we have been advised that there will be much traffic in the area including war ships and aircraft. If nothing else, this promises to provide some excitement to our trip, but who knows, I might yet have to stand on the deck and throw pasta at the bastards.

Our stop yesterday was at the Emirate of Al Fujairah, one of the seven Emirates which comprise the United Arab Emirates. The best known of the Emirates is Dubai, along with the capital of Abu Dhabi. The other members all have names that I did not recognize, including the Emirate of Sharjah, which we visited today as part of our drive. Sadly our tour today was marginal. I term what we experienced as the “spam in a can” tour. We sat in a bus for five hours with very few stops. Our guide did not seem to appreciate the fact that people like to not only see things, but to take photographs. We could see other buses stopping for people to take pictures, but she would always come up with some excuse why we should just drive by slowly – very disappointing, to say the least.

For me, anyway several things begin to drop into place during this visit regarding what we were really seeing, and while I am certainly no expert, I would like to share my thoughts. Even though I have been to Dubai and Oman on several occasions, it was not until today that I begin to really see my surroundings in a different light.

First off, if you remove oil from the equation, this is an extremely poor region of the world. The terrain is mostly sandstone and sand with virtually no rainfall. We were told that the region receives perhaps five days of rain per year, but that when it does rain it is torrential which causes huge mudslides in the otherwise dry “wadis.” So it is a dry, arid, mountainous landscape that is devoid of almost all vegetation. Secondly, if you go just 50 years back in time, before oil was discovered, the people of this region were mostly fisherman and goat herders who wandered the arid wasteland. Roads were almost non-existent, and contact with the outside world was limited. Education was even more limited.

The discovery of oil in the 1960’s changed all that almost overnight. Suddenly these Emirates were awash in money, and to their credit, the leaders have wisely elected to spend this new found wealth to improve the lives of their people. They are rapidly working to build infrastructure, such as roads, electricity and water treatment. People, who just a generation ago either lived in tents or adobe huts now are housed in modern villas and have two cars in the driveway. Education is not only free but mandatory and opportunities are abundant for higher education all at government expense. Indeed if you are a native Emirate, the government provides for almost all your needs. Free housing, free gasoline, free education, free health care – free, free, free; but, I think there is a dark side to all of this.

The people are fiercely traditional, conservative and private. Since they lack many of the skills yet to build a modern society, they bring in outside workers, but the presence of these workers is only barely tolerated. It is the goal of the government to slowly transition from outside skilled workers to native manpower when that can be achieved. Today 90% of the population of the Emirates is “ex-patriot.” Indeed as we drove around Lisa and I saw very, very few natives, and then only men – I do not believe that we saw a single woman. Most of the natives feel that work is beneath them, and so they hire others to work for them, at their pleasure. In some cases, I got the sense these outside workers are almost treated as slaves.

Our guide shared some very interesting insights. She and the entire crew of drivers and guides, who herded us around Al Fujairah, actually lived in Dubai and had driven here for our ship. In fact they were the same guides and drivers who had met us the day before in Khasab. Our driver was from India and our guide was Italian. People come to the Emirates for one reason – money. The pay is good and best of all there are no taxes, but they live on a very short leash. Each alien must have a resident permit that can be revoked at any time and for almost any reason. Since the leadership of the country is composed of a very small group, laws can and are changed almost overnight. She was explaining how she and her husband had five year permits; however their best friend had gone the week before to renew his permit and found new rules – one of which required that he have three months’ salary in his bank account. Even then his permit was renewed for only one year and it was implied that it might not be renewed next time.

The daily slights are constant. When shopping for example, the stores offer one price for natives and a much higher price for foreigners. Foreign women, even professionals have a difficult time conducting any financial transaction without their husbands present. If a foreigner wishes to start a business in the Emirates, he can do so only with a native “partner” who is then given 51% ownership for the use of his signature. Our guide was explaining how they are excluded from interacting with the natives. Her daughter for example went to local schools for 8 years and during that entire time was never invited into an Emirate household or party. Foreigners can only rent, they cannot own property – and on and on it goes.

Anyway, these are my impressions from my short visits, for what they are worth. Let me get on with our 5 hour “tour.” Since we stopped rarely, there is not much to share – it is all a blur of rapidly passing landscape. We did make our first stop at the Fujairah Fort which was built in 1670 and has been restored. We continued on to the Bithna Oasis, where we stopped briefly on a hillside for a picture of the valley and the old fort on the adjacent hillside protecting the nearby mountain pass. During our drive we left Fujairah and entered the Emirate of Sharjah. That was nothing more than passing from Kansas to Colorado – there was an arch over the road that basically said you are leaving Fujairah. Nearby was the town of Dibba which is divided into three parts, one belonging to Fujairah, one to Sharjah and one to Oman. Why they drove right by that is a mystery to me. Anyway, they finally made a stop at what they called the “Friday Market.” Sounds exciting – right! Wrong. We pulled onto the side of the road where a line of small shops lined both sides of the road. In Fujairah it is illegal to cross the road, so we were confined to just one side. The shops looked to me is if they had come right out of India, and I later learned that was for good reason. All the merchants were Indian or Pakistani, and all the goods they had for sale were imported and overpriced. There were no local souvenirs that I could see. Again, the Emirates do not mingle with tourists or run shops.

That was our day at Fajairah. We are now cruising at full speed in the Gulf of Aden along the coast of Oman. Our next stop will be Jeddah in Saudi Arabia where we should arrive on Tuesday March 23rd. I hope to work on our pictures later today or tomorrow and post them on the web, and when I do so, I will send out a notice.


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