United Arab Emirates: Abu Dhabi

– visited July 2015 –

I observe racism even before entering the country. Approaching immigration, a security guard directs people into different lines. So far so good, but the guard does not direct people with the intention that all lines have roughly equal length but separates people like me into the “short line” and people that look like labourers from South Asia into the “long line”. Whereas only a few people are in my line, there are more than 50 in the other line. Who cares if the labourers have to wait? An Indian-looking couple approaches the guard. Despite them carrying a baby, he sends them to the long line. But they obviously have a higher status and they are aware of it. After a brief discussion, they enter the short line. In the baggage reclaim area, the carousel with the bags from the Jet Airways flight from Delhi stands still. All the bags have been delivered but many are still unclaimed. I am fully aware where the owners of these bags are waiting.

I have a long stopover in Abu Dhabi on my return to Germany after a few months in Southeast Asia. I arrive early in the morning and I leave late at night. A day to explore. It is Ramadan and as I realize that even the McDonald’s at the airport is closed, I know it is being handled seriously. It will only open at 6PM and from 6PM to Iftar (the evening meal that ends the fasting) will only offer take-away. McDonalds stays open until Suhoor, the pre-dawn meal. I had travelled to other Muslim countries during Ramadan before. In Iran, it was well known that travellers do not have to fast, restaurants at train and bus stations were discreetly open and on the buses the attendants handed out snacks. That’s why I find it surprising that even at the airport in Abu Dhabi no food is available. At least the shops are open and I buy something to drink and some snacks.

I take a bus into town and on to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The bus stop at the airport is climatized, the buses are not too frequent but information on them is easily available and the system seems well organized. I had bought a guidebook written by some locals before arriving and they advised against taking the buses. Their bottom line was, the buses are used by migrant workers and they smell after a long workday (!). Migrant workers are vital to the economy of the Emirates, in fact, it is them who do most of the work. They compromise 88% of the population but they are generally looked down upon by Emiratis.

Around midday I buy some food at a supermarket. But where to enjoy it? It would be incredibly rude, and possibly illegal, to eat and drink in public. It is not so easy to find secluded places without people. As I stay only the day, I do not have a hotel room to have some privacy. I end up eating some of my food in the well-cleaned toilet of a shopping centre, the only private space I can find. Food is not the main problem; I can do without food quite well but walking around Abu Dhabi in July with the temperature approaching 40°C drains your water resources quickly. For many Muslims their daily routine changes during Ramadan. People rise early to eat before sunrise, life during the day is calmer, some shops are closed, some have shorter opening hours, some people relax, some sleep and society springs back to life with the breaking of the fast after sunset. In late afternoon, I am so dehydrated that I buy 1.5 litres of water and a can of tonic water, find a lonely bench along the Corniche and drink it all within a few minutes. After that, I jump into the Persian Gulf at Abu Dhabi’s Corniche beach.