In the mid 1980s, the 10-kilometer stretch linking Sharjah with Dubai was billed as one of the most dangerous sections of tarmac in the world. Then—like now—there was new money aplenty with which young Emiratis bought fast cars and tested them on the brand new network of open roads fanning out into the desert. There were so many accidents on a daily basis that the authorities would simply leave the wrecks by the side of the road as a warning to other motorists. Then there were the sheik’s camels, who like the sacred cows of India, could go and do as they pleased even if it meant strolling down the center of the highway on a moonless night. Hitting one would cost you dearly, if indeed you survived being crushed.
That said, you didn’t really have to drive that far if you didn’t want to. If you worked in Dubai, you lived there. There was none of this mad morning commuting between the various Emirates that one encounters today, a phenomenon created by the economic success of the 1990s and the influx of more migrant workers, which in turn has seen an increase in demand for affordable housing.
Not an El Dorado for all
The idea of Dubai as a money-making El Dorado, where nest eggs and retirement funds could be fuelled, has stopped ringing true for many. Yes, there was a time in the ’70s and ’80s when salaries were high, rents were low and a good standard of life was well within in everyone’s grasps. With time, salaries began to dwindle and the money that was once saved is now used to keep up with the spiraling cost of living as Dubai morphs at a dizzy rate.
So much has changed over the past 20 years that I find myself getting increasingly lost. Small roads that I remember driving on that wound through Sharjah and Dubai have turned into eight lane thoroughfares comparable to those in Los Angeles, while the small town feel that originally attracted me to this corner of the globe is replaced with bumper to bumper traffic, pollution, over crowding and a high cost of living.
Ten years ago, as a way to cut down on living costs, many people, including my Lebanese friend Rabih, decided to leave Dubai and relocate to Sharjah. He was, if you will, a pioneer of sorts and at first the move made good economic sense in the commute-to-save-money rationale. The trouble was that the idea made such good sense, it caught on.
Only 10 kilometers away, the small emirate has worked overtime to accommodate this new labor surge. Land reclamation projects along the coastline made way for a new corniche with parks, mosques, shopping areas and of course more high-rise apartment buildings. But Sharjah, the once-affordable alternative, has seen rents double in less than ten years, despite plenty of new housing on offer. A decent family apartment now costs Dh80,000 ($22,000) per year.
And then there is the traffic. The commute into Dubai, which use to take 15 minutes, now can take two hours on a good day. The stretch of road linking the two emirates is so jammed with cars at all times of the day and night that it is impossible to predict when is the best time to drive. And to add insult to injury, the government of Dubai is going to introduce a road tax, similar to London’s congestion charge, for those driving into Dubai. It is expected that this will cost the commuter an extra Dh240 ($60) per month. Not only do you have to sit behind the wheel for hours at a time, now you have to pay for the privilege.
Traffic now a real problem
Funnily enough, according to a recent study, traffic fatalities are also on the rise; but how, one wonders, when commuters are forced to drive at a snail’s pace? Are they simply bored to death?
Recently, I had to meet up with a colleague at Dubai International Airport to catch a 12:30 flight. I live in Sharjah and, even factoring in the legendary traffic, I thought I had figured out how long I needed for the 10-kilometer drive: I gave myself three hours. One hour later, I was still in Sharjah while my colleague, on the other hand, traveling from Jumairah, on the other side of the Dubai, had already arrived, checked in and was calling me to ask questions about a duty-free camera purchase.
So, gone are the days of open roads and jaywalking camels. Which brings us to the obvious question, why are so many Lebanese—and other nationalities—still heading to the Emirates in search of work and a better life, when it is in fact one big bundle of financial and mental stress?
If you ask Lebanese working in Dubai where they would prefer to live and work, almost all will say they would prefer to return home. But with political and economic uncertainty gripping Lebanon, many are grateful just to be able to live in a place that is stable, knowing that tomorrow will be just like today.
And that apparently is worth any stress.