Sunday, December 8, 2013

Belated happy "National Expo Day"

I am a little late to the party as the events in this post took place a week ago, but, what with all the jobhunting and foolishly running the Dubai Creek Striders Half Marathon, I have been somewhat preoccupied.

I am now recovered, much quicker than last time, and I can confirm that should you ever feel the urge to undertake such a thing in a desert climate, it is far easier to do so in 20-30degrees than 30-40degrees, so opt for a December half marathon rather than an October half marathon if you feel the need. Our next trick may well be the RAK Half in February.

Anyway. The business of this post is Dubai's winning bid of Expo 2020, which, has probably barely registered elsewhere in the world but has been pretty darned big news here.

The odds on the Emirate winning were so short that there was an inevitability about the proceedings of the day it was announced. Him indoors and I sat down to dinner, listening to a local radio station, and sure enough fireworks started to shoot out of the Burj Khalifa, which was also turned Expo blue for the occasion, the moment it was announced.

Say what you like about Dubai, when it comes to this sort of stuff, we know what we are doing. The fireworks started the instant the announcement was made and motorists in the streets around our building started going happily mental hooting their car horns. Meanwhile, him indoors and and I enjoyed the fireworks but slightly gloomily looked at each other and wondered what it would mean for the cost of living. There is already a school of thought that the Expo means the cost of living will simply rise too high to make it a sustainable economic choice for some ex-pats.

The cynical among you might point out that as I spotted workmen scaling the Burj to fix the fireworks in place days in advance, Dubai was something of a shoe-in and it's true, if you looked at betting websites in the run-up, you would have been daft to bet against it. But, it was actually also rather handy timing, as the announcement was just a few days before UAE National Day, another opportunity for the entire country to go completely pyrotechnic mental, so they could have simply delayed the blasts by 72 hours or so if necessary.

I was not in Dubai before the financial crisis of a few years ago, which resulted in ex-pats deserting the place for fear of being imprisoned for debt, but, I do wonder if the Expo win has brought something of the old swagger back to the Emirate. I spotted a rather boastful billboard on Sheikh Zayed Road, which ended up being featured in 7Days. So far there does not seem to be too much insanity or lunatic financial speculation off the back of the win, but I suppose only time will tell as to whether Expo means a return to what is referred to as "the good times" or "the crazy times", depending on your point of view.

National Day is a funny thing for a Brit as any sense of national pride and flag waving in the UK, apart from during the recent London Olympics, or during other brief moments in history when we demonstrate national sporting success, has rather unfortunate associations with right wing extremism, plus, there is the current debate over whether Scotland should go independent which means that our national identity is at best, "under maintenance" as we like to say in the UAE.

As a young country, the UAE at aged just 42 years, is in something of a honeymoon period and there are plenty of perfectly good reasons why. The standard of living is high for citizens and for many ex-pats, considerably better than they would experience in their home countries.

As is tradition, parades abounded, featuring floats from community groups and businesses and cars festooned with national flag decorations. The noise and festivity involved meant I simply could not ignore the one going on in Downtown and so I popped down to join the fun.

Perhaps because it was so hot on the heels of the Expo win, this year's celebrations did seem particularly festive. Dubai and the UAE have the tendency to get into the international news for the wrong reasons, but seeing the delight people have taken in being recognised with the successful bid, and, seeing a little of what it means for large sections of the population to be able to live here, gave me quite a lot to think about.

Typhoon Haiyan, which I believe has killed more than 6,000 people and counting in the Philippines, has been in the news a lot in the UAE thanks to the fact that there are around 750,000 Filipino nationals living here of a total population of 9.2million.

Although many Filipinos who live here are on low wages, you begin to see why they put up with that when the alternative could be living under threat of natural disasters. Us over-privileged Brits moan about Dubai and the usually quite trivial frustrations you can experience, but, and although I know this is a generalisation, for people from poorer countries, who grow up knowing they will need to move abroad to make a decent living, it is the place to be.

When I went into the Post Office prior to National Day, the Emirati national behind the counter was in an cheerful mood, and the interior of the building was festooned with flags. I wished him Happy National Day, and he replied: "And Expo" which made me think just how big of a deal this really is for the locals, particularly the older ones like that particular gentleman, who were in this country before it was even a country, and have seen it grow from sand to skyscrapers in the space of a few decades.

The visa requirements here are such that unless you are an Emirati national, if you don't have a job here or are married or related to someone who does, you cannot live here, so I suppose the result of that is that many who are here feel privileged to be so, particularly those for whom the alternatives are not at all attractive.

Life is by no means a bed of roses for everyone in Dubai, as links like this will show you, paying no tax means no free health service to speak of, so, if you get sick and your insurance does not cover you, you can run into problems pretty quickly. But it is times like National Day when you can see the genuine love and appreciation people have for the place.

Saying that, I would never ignore the flip side of those who have the experience of feeling privileged to be here, that is those who are here because they feel they have to be, driven here for the sake of  making a better life for the families, and, to an extent, are trapped because their salaries are so low that they can very rarely afford to fly home to see their loved ones. This section of UAE society is explored in Champ of the Camp, which premiered last night at Dubai International Film Festival.

I went to see the film at the open air screening of Burj Park, but it deserves its own post, so I will leave that for a different day. In the mean time, here is the Burj lit red, and then in UAE flag colours, to celebrate National Day.

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