Saturday, 1 September 2007

en route to milder climes

I'm going back – and am looking forward to it: friends, free speech & democracy, theatre & concerts & arts, green countryside.
I'm going back – but I don't regret coming here: arabia, insights & broader horizon, challenge, people, desert & sea, light.

I'll be back in Berlin September 16th. Thanks for tuning in. Wuestenprinz is logging off.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

“It is nice to be rich.”

That’s the opening of an article on Abu Dhabi in the Economist. What follows is, unfortunately, the more or less usual description of the Emirate: While Dubai is the glitz, Abu Dhabi is the connoisseur’s choice.

When talking about Abu Dhabi, people inevitably contrast it to Dubai, since the latter attracts far more attention around the world. Dubai is known for the artificial islands (the two or three Palms, who’s counting?, The World), the Burj al Arab with it’s emblematic architecture (despite a hideous interior) and the soon-to-come worlds largest tower, the Burj Dubai*. Dubai also hosts one of the world’s top ten airlines, Emirates Airlines, quite an accomplishment since the airline was established only in May 1985. As a result, Dubai will soon also be home to the world largest airport. As Leo Hickman in the Guardian put it: “Dubai is unchallenged, it seems, in claiming the world record for the largest number of “world’s largest” building projects.” But, it needs to be noted, that Dubai is a lot about what it will become, not what it is: the different islands** are still under construction, as is Burj Arab, as are numerous other buildings and a widely overstretched infrastructure: traffic jams are an integral part of living in Dubai. Dubailand is still in the planning stages, as is Al Burj (which is set to be even taller than Burj Arab). The entire city is a huge construction site.
In short: with all this development and the existing and pending world records, it’s no surprise that Dubai gets all the attention.

Abu Dhabi, in contrast, seems to be the sea of tranquillity and confidence. When talking about Abu Dhabi, people are quick to note that Abu Dhabi, not Dubai, is the capital of the UAE. And that Abu Dhabi, not Dubai, is the largest of all the Emirates, occupying over 86% of the total area of the UAE. Abu Dhabi also is by far richer: With only 250,000 citizens it sits on a tenth of the worlds’ oil, easily lasting for another 100 years. (Dubais’ oil will run out soon.) Most importantly though, Abu Dhabi has already made its mark in history: It is not by chance that Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates. It was the late Sheikh Zayed who, with great diplomatic skills, managed to orchestrate the creation of the United Arab Emirates when the British left what then was known as the Trucial States. Without him, there would be no UAE, just seven separate Emirates, along with Bahrain and Qatar, which back then in 1971 chose not to join. (Part of the strategy to reinforce the unity of the emirates was to marry a daughter of each of the other Sheikh families and to father, among uncounted daughters, nineteen sons.)
With all the accomplishments, the political status and the enormous wealth, Abu Dhabi is sitting comfortably. And has been doing so for quite a while. So much, that when driving to the city of Abu Dhabi from Dubai, it’s like driving back into the 80ies. At least that when the vast majority of the buildings seem to have been built. Abu Dhabi has its share of glitz, no doubt about it, just go to the enormous Emirates Palace, but most buildings effuse the charm of an era slightly passé. This also comes along with hardly any heavy traffic and just overall less stress.
But Abu Dhabi has recently stepped up its pace and has its share of projects-to-be as well. In the news around the world you could read about the new cultural district with the Abu Dhabi Louvre by Jean Nouvel, the Guggenheim by the inevitable Frank Gehry and other edifices by Zaha Hadid and other renowned architects, due for completion by 2018. Or the massively funded Masdar Initiative to research, develop and implement sustainable energy sources – assuring Abu Dhabis’ future role in the global energy sector, even in a hundred years’ time. Other projects include the new airport terminal, new districts and a number signature towers and the development of entire new islands – natural islands, of which Abu Dhabi in contrast to Dubai has plenty.

The overall flair of this place was captured by Rem Koolhaas in the Gulf exhibition of Mostra di Architettura di Venizia by the words “Abu Dhabi has nothing to prove.”

If Abu Dhabi is the older, self-confident brother, Dubai is the younger brother showing off. When comparing to Dubai with its hunger for ever more world records, Abu Dhabis’ choice of projects seem to be a bit more substantiated, more “real”. Building the worlds’ largest tower (and the one after that) is all good and well. But isn’t investing in the future of global energy just a bit more noteworthy? And even though building entire new islands surely is a proof for both wealth as well as technical mastery – investing in an array of world-renowned museums surely seems the more lasting, sustainable investment.
Dubai may be more glitzy and hold more records to its name. But Abu Dhabi, the more balanced, sustainable and thought-through of the two emirates, is the real model for the future development of the Gulf.

All that is true. And this is where the narrative usually ends. But it paints a distorted picture.

Doing business in Arabia calls for some adaptations: the role of what westerners would describe as small talk in meetings as well as the importance of hospitality or how to the need to stand on the left when letting someone through the door. But the biggest challenge for me has been timing. Not only the habit of frequently rescheduling meetings, but also reply times: A proposal, which had absolutely to be prepared within a ridiculously short time, could be sitting on the desk of a potential client way past the deadline originally set for completion if the project. And it would still be perfectly normal for the client to ask for a meeting to go over the proposal again. This go-and-stop-and-go-timing has been likened to the style of driving so common in the Emirates: breaking and accelerating at about the same time.

In fact, the automotive parallel goes further than just stop and go: business in Abu Dhabi is like flooring the gas paddle in neutral: lots of smoke and noise, but little progress.

A client once cried out in frustration: “Where are the cranes?” And it’s true: the biggest perceivable difference between the two cities is the lack of cranes in Abu Dhabi. This might be partly because Abu Dhabis’ building projects are younger than the ones in Dubai. But that story is running a little old by now. Abu Dhabi has “just begun to catch up with Dubai” for quite some time now. It seems like Abu Dhabi is stepping on the gas paddle, but forgot to put the car into gear. A maze of bureaucracy, endless consultations and indefinite postponement creates a lot of work, but gets very little work done. In its quest to prove the difference to Dubai and not to copy the mistakes of the neighbouring emirate, it seems to stop doing much of anything. Dubai might be looking to be speeding at some times. But Abu Dhabi today inherently is lacking the sense of urgency to actually get to decisions – and to put them into action.

But then again: it’s so nice to be rich. So why bother?

*Burj, by the way, is Arabic for tower and stems from the German “Burg”, a result of the German crusades in the Middle Ages to the Holy Land.
**It is also worth noting that the islands along with the desalination plants and the underwater infrastructure have created an environmental disaster: the coral reefs are gone, so are most of the turtles, that often, along with other wildlife, get sucked into the desalination plant ducts. But Dubai is not alone: even green Abu Dhabi is conserving mangroves on one side, and wiping them out on the other.

Monday, 13 August 2007

when you're stuck in the desert and have nothing to do

this is what you might end up doing. apart from the sex change: me in a time w/o internet? pas croyable.

You Belong in 1959

You're fun loving, romantic, and more than a little innocent. See you at the drive in!

Thursday, 9 August 2007

still here...

…but just returned from a wonderful golf vacation at picturesque lago di como.

Monday, 16 July 2007

My days are numbered

The days in the UAE are numbered

After a few days in Berlin, the return to Abu Dhabi is a allegory for both countries: Due to some bureaucratic technicalities in my booking, both Lufthansa as well as the travel agent have to reflect and mull over and discuss my ticket, resulting in debates without action. I almost expect to be grounded for the day when I finally do hold my boarding pass in my hands. It’s all about process, not about results. Operation gelungen, Patient tot.
Then, on the plane to Abu Dhabi, I find an Muslim in jeans and T-shirt in my seat, arguing that he would hope to find me another place since his wife in black hijab may not sit next to an unrelated (and obvioulsy non-muslim) man. Could I muster the wit as well as the language skills, I would have liked to share some more un-muslim information about me with him – in Hebrew. (Especially about him sitting in first while his wife had to do in the back of the bus.)

I only allow myself to feel like this since I know that my days in the UAE are numbered: my employer will not continue his local endeavour, mostly due to domestic reasons back at headquarters, but also because the business plan has proven too ambitious (as many including myself had pointed out before). So, after closing shop and handing over clients to other agencies, I will return to Germany. The company has asked me to stay on board, but frankly the positions offered are not worth staying for. But I appreciate the gesture.
Independently of those latest developments, two job opportunities have presented themselves. Both are in Germany. And both of them I would have probably pursued regardless of the current developments. So until I have to leave Arabia and before I close shop and return to a new job in Germany, I’ll try to make use of the weekends and travel in the region: Beirut is supposed to be hot these days…

Monday, 25 June 2007

one of the many, many accidents in the UAE

right below my apartment. please observe the general direction of traffic as opposed to the direction of the passenger car…

Monday, 18 June 2007

also ich würde mich momentan ja wahnsinnig über ein wenig deutsche prozess- und briefingtreue freuen... diese araber werden nur noch von den anderen expats hier übertroffen, die noch erratischer durch die gegend springen. jetzt mal schnell ein schnellfeuergewehr zur hand und nachher ganz unschuldig back to my loving place...