June 8, 2012: Abu Dhabi, UAE and Dubai, UAE

Hello again from Dubai, UAE! Although we started and finished the day here at our beautiful day, we didn’t spend very much time in Dubai at all today. Instead, we spent the day in Abu Dhabi, UAE, the country’s capital and second largest city, which is a little under two hours away from Dubai, the country’s largest city. But before we embarked on our day trip to the country’s capital, we spent a few hours in the hotel this morning having breakfast, debriefing a little about our time in Oman, and discussing a familiar topic more in depth that we’ll be focusing on for the next couple of days – the Arab Spring/Awakening.

At 10:00 AM, we all gathered in Mark’s room for our first major lecture from him since we left DC. Since we’re at about the midpoint in the experience, it was as good a time as any to change gears a little bit and get some more background about what we’d be talking about for the next few days. As I mentioned last night, we decided to make a concentrated effort to avoid talking about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for now in an effort to broaden our scope of discussion to the larger Arab world. Especially because these are our last few days in the “Arab world” rather than Israel, now seemed like a perfect time to start taking apart the sociopolitical challenges that comprise the Arab Spring, or (as it might be more appropriate to call) the Arab Awakening.

But before we delved into any of that, Mark opened his talk with some closing comments on Oman. After sharing with us today’s headlines from the Oman Observer, which concerned allegations of rumors against the Sultan (“His Majesty is the Pride of the Nation, Rumors Deplored”), he talked about his opinions of the media in Oman. This is already something I’ve mentioned a bit earlier in talking about our lunch with HE Sheikh Abdulla and Jihad, the woman who works in Omani news as an anchor and journalist, but essentially there is a feeling that Omani media is self-censored by its media outlets in order to respect the sacredness of the Sultan and the country. This leads to what some might argue is a non-independent media. This, in combination with the lack of a party system based on values and commonality in Oman, could be problematic.  Oman’s lack of a “completely free media” seems surprising when one notes that countries like Israel and Egypt have free press, but I also think that self-censorship in Omani media is very reflective of the anti-inflammatory culture and society in Oman, which I do appreciate greatly. As for the free media question, I’m unsure whether or not self-censorship to protect the Sultan can constitute completely as “restrictive press,” but I don’t really know enough about it to make a definite comment. I guess I’ll have to keep looking into it. Oman also has complete suffrage, where the UAE most certainly does not. And here’s where we started to shift gears away from Oman and toward the rest of the Arab world. In the UAE, the incredible amount of oil money has created this image of the country as being extremely modernized, but it too has its fair share of sociopolitical issues.

It is not a surprise to anyone that the UAE has an enormous foreign national population. In fact, only 15% of the population is actually Emirati. So what happens with the other 85% of the population that is not Emirati and composed of other foreign nationals? Here in UAE, this question of demography vs. geography is extremely important as different nationalities compete with each other to gain status within the social and economic framework of the developing country. So the question is, in this trade-off between demography and geography, how do the Emiratis feel about their place in society? How do the foreign nationals feel? I was able to get a bit of a better sense of the foreign national point of view today (more a little later on that), but with the small size of the Emirati population, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a firm grasp on their understanding of life in the UAE.

For a really great explanation and analysis of the developmental trajectory of the UAE (i.e. its history, politics, and government), please check out the United States Department of State Background Notes on the UAE at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5444.htm. Unfortunately, because we don’t have as much time here as we did in Oman, I’m not going to be able to completely analyze the political construct of the country for you like I did previously. But I’ll do my best to tell you what I do know!

After our brief introduction to the UAE, we shifted to a discussion about the Arab Spring/Awakening. I’m going to preface this with the following: I’m still trying to understand the many events, people, places, interactions, and conflicts that form what people are referring to as the “Arab Spring,” and might better be referred to as an Arab Awakening. I am not an expert on this in any way shape or form. In fact, I can say with confidence that I came into this very aware of the fact that I did not know as much as I want to about the Arab Spring, and so this will be a learning experience for all of us. I left today with a resolve to start reading and researching more about the many political episodes and interactions that characterize this period in Middle Eastern history, and I as soon as I can actually form an educated summary of everything that I understand to be happening, I will share it with you. But for now, I’ll share some of what we discussed today and what I’m still grappling with.

American interest is currently shifting from Israel/Palestine to the Gulf. As we start to examine the political happenings and interests in the Gulf and throughout the region (aside from Israel and Palestine) more closely, we must keep in mind a few critical ideas. First, the roles of God and religion, oil, water, and weapons of mass destructions must be part of the discourse about the Gulf and the Middle East in general. Second, there is an overarching theme of the “clash of civilizations,” be that between the West and Islam, Christianity and Islam, or Judaism and Islam, among others, of course.

What we are looking at could be the start of an Arab Muslim “cold war” of sorts in the Middle East that is directly linked to America. Some of the major authoritarian regimes that were brought down in the recent revolutions throughout the region, including Egypt, Tunisian, Yemen, and others, were tied to the United States by America’s interest in things such as oil. However, as these Sunni regimes fell and America began supporting the people of the countries rather than the overthrown regimes, other countries with authoritarian Sunni leadership in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain became wary of Washington as a reliable partner. Not to mention all of this is occurring while the United States is embroiled in a heated election cycle itself, which is perpetuating the idea that Washington is distracted and can’t be relied upon.

Saudis are now looking for possible ways that a new Sunni movement can exist independent of Washington in an effort to protect themselves. In theory, they are looking to loosen ties with American without being anti-American. As part of a new Sunni movement, Egypt, under the possible leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, could play an important part (although there has historically been tension between the Saudis and the Brotherhood as well). However, Egypt has its own issues with a run-off election coming up between candidates representing the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and the autocratic military power that characterized the Mubarak regime, but without Mubarak of course, on the other.

So where does that leave all of this? In extremely oversimplified terms, there’s a two-sided struggle emerging with the remaining autocratic Sunni leaders, Egypt under the Brotherhood (possibly), Hamas, Jordan, and the Gulf (all moving away from America toward other rising powers) on one side, against Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, and Lebanon (sort of) on the other. Again, this is totally oversimplified and my very basic understanding of this issue from our lecture today that I’m still trying to piece together. But from what I understand, the next big battle to be played out is over Syria in trying to determine who will replace the minority Assad regime and where the country is headed. This is especially of interest in light of the current political climate in Syria and the massacres occurring there. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are forming a sort of Sunni coalition to keep Iran in check throughout all of this as well.

I guess what I’m getting at is that this entire thing is one big mess and that everybody is kind of unsure about how to explain the different relationships and conflicts, and how to track the trajectory of this revolutionary period. I can tell you that I am top of the list of people who are unsure about how to process and understand all of this information, and I expressed that to Mark who assured me that this was complicated and would take time. Jake has been amazing too in helping me to understand this (as Israel and Palestine are really where my strengths and knowledge lie). And so I will keep moving forward with my commitment to read and research more about the Arab Spring to become less ignorant and more informed. And as soon as I can understand it, I will provide you with a summary of these understandings in a more coherent manner.

Anyway, after our lecture, we hopped on the bus to Abu Dhabi at a little after 11:00 AM. At first, Mark, Jake, and I were still talking about the Arab Spring and the many complicated pieces within it, but after about 45 minutes my head felt like it was going to spin off its axis, and so I decided to let it rest for the day, come back to it a little later for reflection and discussion, and take a nap for the rest of the ride. When I woke up, we were just pulling into Masdar City in Abu Dhabi where we met with Gian Vergnetti, an independent researcher with the Fulbright Program who is studying the sustainable technology initiative at the Masdar Institute. Gian is a friend of Rahilla Zafar’s (remember Rahilla from Washington, DC?), and so we were all looking forward to meeting up with him for lunch at Sumo Sushi!

Immediately upon pulling into Masdar City, I knew that this was no ordinary city neighborhood. On the contrary, it looked like something out of Star Wars. Everything was futuristic and high tech with crazy but beautiful architecture, a giant wind tower/tunnel in the middle of the entire complex, and directional signs pointing to buildings like “Institute Laboratories” and “Knowledge Center.” It also sort of popped up out of nowhere – a high tech hub in the middle of the desert.

Gian couldn’t have been nicer and we had a fantastic afternoon with him. Specifically, Gian is looking into water management in the UAE and examining different desalinization methods in an effort to make the country more sustainable. He shared some information with us about Masdar (the parent company of all the many component pieces I’m about to introduce) and the Masdar Institute, which is a fascinating project. The Institute invites people from all over the world to work and research for the company while simultaneously earning their Masters or PhD on a full scholarship. The academics are run under the guidance and support of MIT. Essentially, according to Gian, Masdar had created a “nucleus for study in advanced energy science and sustainable technology.”

Aside from talking to us about Masdar and his research there, Gian answered some of our questions about the sociopolitical development of the UAE. We talked about the place that Emiratis hold in society and, despite their comparatively small number, they represent an extremely important and influential part of the population. They way I understand it, the statistics that place foreign nationals in such high numbers over the Emirati population are simply circumstances of the developing nature of the country as it continues to become a major player in global economics and business. As Gian shared with us, every Emirati he has met has shared the same basic appreciation for their background and where they came from as Emiratis. They are proud people with an air of kindness and tolerance about them that is reflected in the developmental miracle of their country and the amazing boom that it has experienced over the past few years. Again, this view is from somebody who is part of the foreign national population and not Emirati, so I don’t know exactly what an Emirati point of view on their place in society when compared with foreign nationals might be. But it’s certainly interesting to consider in a country with a demographic make-up as interesting as the UAE’s.

After lunch (Mark and I shared the Chef’s Special sushi combo – yum!), we headed into the Masdar complex to check out all of the incredible things that they were doing. And that’s really the only way I can describe it – incredible. It’s hard to believe that the entire Masdar project was only started in 2006. In six years, Masdar has created a new world in Masdar City surrounding sustainable living and energy research with academic, commercial, and residential interests. The idea behind the entire project was to make a destination that people want to experience and live in. And that’s exactly what Masdar has accomplished, in my opinion, because it is easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Gian showed us all around the campus and we were all wowed by the brand new classrooms and laboratories (in which Mark felt the need to pull every single lever – I swear he almost activated the emergency shower on himself). We got a chance to see all of the amazing research projects they’re working on for sustainable energy in a variety of fields from mechanical engineering to economic and business development. They are clearly doing important, impactful research at Masdar, and it was absolutely fantastic to get to experience first hand the things that they were working on. Not to mention the physical sight of the whole campus. If the exterior architecture of all the buildings wasn’t interesting enough, the amazing, futuristic interior of the building was awesome. The Knowledge Center (a fancy way for saying the “library”) has a double helix shaped spiral staircase; it was like a science nerd’s dream come true!

But by far the coolest part of our visit to the Masdar was getting a chance to ride in their Personal Rapid Transit system. Imagine a small pod with nothing but four seats and a computer screen that at the touch of the button will drive you to the destination of your choice. The PRT system at Masdar City currently only runs between two spots: one of the main parking lots and the main building at the institute. These driverless cars follow magnetic paint in the ground and so do not need a driver to direct them. They just take you to your destination, giving you time to relax a long the way with some friends. The idea behind the PRT is that it eventually will be a sustainable (and frankly, more enjoyable) alternative to public transportation. The pods get recharged at their home stations and don’t require any gas. They were also just SO much fun to ride around in. I felt like I was in the middle of some futuristic society or Star Wars again, but this is just one example of the amazing things that make up life at Masdar. It was absolutely fantastic.

We said goodbye to Gian and Masdar after our ride to our bus in the PRT and headed off to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Named after the first President of the UAE (who served from the country’s founding in 1971 to his death in 2004) and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi, the Grand Mosque is an impressive, colossal sight that is completely different from the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque that we visited in Oman. The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi was significantly larger and more ornate than in Oman. There’s no denying that it was spectacular and breathtaking. From the Moroccan-style interior and Indian-style exterior architecture to the in-laid colored stones from around the world, stunning Greek marble, gold-capped columns in the shape of palm fronds, and the unbelievable German chandeliers, every single detail was clearly taken into account when building this Mosque to make it as grand, impressive, and beautiful as possible. And those are exactly the traits that I would use to describe it – grand, impressive, and beautiful.

There’s something kind of fitting about the fact that the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi was built from pieces and inspiration that come from cultures and places other than the Emirates. After all, the country’s Emirati population only makes up a small minority of the country’s entire population. But at the same time, I almost felt that there were too many foreign pieces in the Mosque, and not enough Emirati influence on its own. Of course, the grounds were absolutely stunning. And I think that the Mosque is a very appropriate representation of the relationship between Islam and the UAE. (By that I mean that as the UAE develops more and becomes a wealthier nation, its relationship with Islam needs to adjust accordingly. The physical beauty of the Mosque, a key feature and symbol of Islam, and the many foreign components that comprise it reflect the growing wealth of the nation and a possible need to display that wealth.) However, to me at least, it did not feel as personal or as intimate as the Grand Mosque in Oman. Perhaps that’s because it was filled with tourists, unlike the one in Oman. Perhaps it’s because we didn’t have as in depth a conversation about Islam and the country with our tour guide in Abu Dhabi like we did in Oman. While it was absolutely beautiful, and I love that we got the chance to see such an amazing sight, I just felt that it was more of a tourist destination than a place of worship. Of course, both of those things are true: it is both a tourist’s destination and a place of worship. But it definitely was a different and interesting experience.

We left the Grand Mosque at around 5:45 PM to head back to Dubai. I was absolutely exhausted by the time we got to the bus, but some of the other people in the group were full of energy. That’s pretty typical for us: we all hit various high-points and low-points in our energy that don’t necessarily match up with each other, but that’s totally okay. I listened to some music on the way back before we stopped at a gas station along the road to pick up some water and change some money over to UAE Dirhams. We got a really great exchange rate again at 1 USD to 3.65 Dirhams, and I was even able to turn over a little extra money from Oman that I had (but of course, I kept an Omani Rial for myself!). This wasn’t an ordinary gas station – they had every fast food joint that you could imagine from Domino’s to Popeye’s. I didn’t even know they had Popeye’s in the UAE, but apparently they do! We stopped in the small store at the station to pick up a few things. I love visiting gas stations and their stores in other countries because I think it’s a really interesting window into foreign cultures and their purchasing habits. After the gas station, we got back on the bus and drove straight to Dubai, where we finally arrived back at the hotel at around 8:15 PM.

We had already decided by the time we got back that we were going to have dinner at the award-winning Indian restaurant in the hotel. I enjoy Indian food, but I don’t really know how to order and what to get as I don’t have it frequently. Luckily, Shareen made some recommendation and Aaron ordered appetizers, and it was a really fun evening. We were laughing the whole night with Mark cracking jokes and finally singing happy birthday to Dillon (who has earned the new name “Phil” from the group), whose birthday was the day before. Despite the fact that we were all exhausted, the food was yummy, the company was great, and it was a nice evening.

After dinner was said and done, I came back to the room and, per usual, started writing and relaxing with the guys. I’ll be uploading pictures from the Mosque soon, too! Well, that’s all for now. We have a busy day of shopping in Dubai ahead of us and you know I’m always down for a trip to one of the largest malls in the world. It’s sure to be a sight unlike any other we’ve seen in the Middle East so far, and I promise to keep you posted!

Safe Travels! – Jake

NOTE: This entry was posted on the evening of June 9, 2012 but recounts the events of June 8, 2012. The delayed posting is due to me needing to add in a few more portions of the entry and review it before I posted it, and I was just way too tired last night to finish it. I hope you enjoyed it anyway!

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