The BBC Urdu service's
Masud Alam returns to live in Pakistan after 15
years abroad. A holiday on the way gives food for
Departing London was easier than I imagined.
Partly because I was
too groggy leaving home at 6.30 am to entertain
any kind of emotions.
And also, since friends, acquaintances and near-strangers
had said their farewells with such fervor and persistence,
staying back any longer was out of the question.
At the entrance to Gatwick airport, there was nothing
and no one to look back on except the taxi driver
who dropped us there, and nothing to look forward
to except the clichéd promise of airline
hospitality and the vague hope of finding a couch
in the departure lounge to catch a wink.
Wife counted the luggage
pieces every 10 steps or so, each time asking me
to check if I still had the passports and tickets
in the maroon wallet I was holding in my left hand.
Kids, too, walked in a dazed state and followed
her various instructions without complaining, which
was remarkable because they are neither used to
listening - owing to the earpieces filling their
young heads with pop music nearly all the time -
nor complying with parental advice without a moan.
Hideous and expensive
I had obviously over-estimated the tantrums of the
daughter, the apparent introspective state of the
son and the increasingly unstable mood of the wife
during the last few weeks in London.
Otherwise I would not have booked a short holiday
in Dubai on our way to Islamabad.
It was meant to cheer us up and to ease our descent
back into the womb of the motherland. It turned
out to be anything but....
I have lived in Dubai before but now it seems like
it was ages ago.
Then, it used to be a small, clean, quiet and prosperous
It is now as hideous, noisy, crowded and obscenely
expensive as so many other cities.
Dubai has always wanted to be something different
from what it is.
It metamorphosed from a tiny fishing village to
a modern city, then a shoppers' paradise, a playground
for the rich, a tourist's haven and a lot more in
just over half a century.
But in the process, the place is beginning to look
more like a huge exhibition of assorted real estate
development than a place to live and grow in.
Dubai was under construction 15 ago. It is even
more so now.
The city's skyline is made up of cranes.
Hundreds, possibly thousands of these monster machines
are working day and night every which way you look.
And for every crane there is a brigade of trucks,
earthmoving equipment and mobile electricity generators,
clogging up the already crowded streets.
There is an excellent network of roads and bridges,
but the fancy cars capable of doing 300km an hour
can merely crawl at 3km an hour for most of the
The traffic issue is so bad it has not avoided the
notice of the authorities.
Dubai is now building a network of underground railways
which may eventually ease the congestion on the
But for the moment it has meant more disruptions
and detours, resulting in nightmarish delays to
One aspect that hasn't changed in all these years
is Dubai's fixation on 'quality expatriates' - a
euphemism for White Europeans, or the rich and famous,
or, in particular, the rich and famous White Europeans.
I used to work for a newspaper here that paid different
salaries to employees of similar qualifications
and work experience, based on their ethnic origin.
Whites topped the list, followed by Arabs, Indians
and Pakistanis, the Filipinos, the Bangladeshis...
This bias seems to be more institutionalized now.
Visa restrictions continue to be relaxed for westerners
and keep getting tougher for the nationals of the
All the new urban developments are aimed at White
executives (there's hardly any other kind of Whites
here) and moneyed Arabs.
The Asians, who make up the entire labor force that
builds these fancy structures, are still the worst-paid
workers, forced to live in out-of-town labor camps,
away from their loved ones for years at a stretch
because they cannot afford to travel back home or
bring their families to live in Dubai.
A recent newspaper survey found that the laborers'
pay and benefits packages have not been revised
in more than a decade whereas the cost of living
has doubled or trebled in sectors like housing,
healthcare and utilities.
The middle income group is doing only slightly better.
The city is generous enough to allow property ownership
rights (on leasehold) to people with money, but
chooses not to notice the white collar workers who
are being evicted from low-cost public sector housing
estates to make room for more upmarket developments.
They are also being squeezed out of the rental market
in the private sector faster than they can send
their families back to their home countries.
It is probably just me, but I found it dispiriting
to be holidaying in a place where the people who
feed, drive, and generally look after me don't even
earn enough to maintain their dignity as a human
But apparently they get enough dirhams to feed their
families back home, and that is what makes them
go on living a life of exploitation, servitude,
despair and hope.
I would rather holiday in South Africa. I hear apartheid
is a thing of the past there. Courtesy BBC