I recently stepped out of my apartment in Sharjah andabsentmindedly forgot to lock the door behind me. I havealways lived in places where doors lock automatically. Iwasn’t gone for very long, but long enough for someone toenter and rifle through all the drawers and take any moneythat was lying loose. Fortunately, the burglar only got awaya bunch of spare change left on a table and both mychildren’s wallets
We live in a big complex—33 floors with over 100apartments—lived in by relatively well-to-do, conservativeexpatriate families from the Arab world and Indian sub-continent. I thought the building was secure, but whatsurprised me the most was that someone would risk beingcaught in a country that comes down hard on crime. I’m surethat after serving the sentence, the perpetrator (if he werea foreigner) would never be let back into the countryagain—a serious consideration when so many guest workers aredependent on the Emirates for their livelihood.
Twenty years ago, when I lived here before, there wasvirtually no crime. There were times where I would be in arush to get to the bank before it closed and I wouldunconsciously leave the car doors unlocked with thousands ofdollars worth of camera equipment lying on the back seat.Back then, the cops were everywhere. They were bored—it was a time when a small dent on the side of your carwould warrant a fine—and we had to be on the lookout. Now,with so many cars on the roads, police have their hands fullwith real traffic problems. Gone are the days of cruisingfor dents, or burglars for that matter.
Part of the problem is that the UAE, and in particularDubai, is growing at such an alarming rate that the localsrepresent less than 20% of the population. Background checkson cheap immigrant workers—from Pakistan, India, andBangladesh—are not as thorough as before. Once inside, if aperson then wants to quit his job, it’s harder to keep trackof them. They can just disappear, blending into the migrantpopulation. Then there is the criminal element—the pimps, the drug dealers and the human traffickers. Crimebreeds crime.
Near my home, they recently opened a Carrefour mega-market. To get there, I need to cross a few streets, one ofwhich is a busy highway. In order to make it safe forpedestrians, an underpass was built; a very good idea in acountry where so many pedestrians are lost to trafficaccidents each year. However, I was shocked to see womenwith babies at either end of the pedestrian underpass—In theyears before, I had never seen a single beggar. Begging isagainst the law and punishable by prison and deportation.And then if you think about it, why would anyone have a needto beg in a country that is so prosperous with a foolproofsystem? Emiratis are looked after, while foreigners are hereto work and therefore have a sponsor that looks afterthem.
Like Beirut and Cairo, the beggars are not begging fortheir own well-being; rather they are taken advantage of tomake money for small time gangs that protect them in returnfor a cut of the proceeds. It appears the underworld ismoving in.
The bottom line is that as Dubai and all the otherEmirates grow, the small-town feel that once made livinghere so attractive is all but disappearing; now suddenly,the Emirates are beginning to suffer from the big timeproblems that plague large cities around the world. Now thetalk at dinner parties never drifts too far from the subjectof crime—not the lack of it, as was the case in the ’80s.And even though the authorities do not publish figures, itis obvious that crime is on the rise. Everyone seems to havea horror story to tell, from gang rape to petty theft. Eventhe locals have been arrested and convicted of crimes,ranging from theft to murder. Dubai, it seems, offers morethan just tourism and duty free shopping.
Maybe I protest too much. Maybe I’m just getting old. Yes,the UAE is still one of the safest places on earth to live.But my question is—for how much longer?