Greetings from the desert! Early morning is still a little cool, but the sun warms the air quickly. Spring passed by quickly as the trees dropped their leaves. Our first summer in Al Ain looms ahead. Stories of blistering heat are shared with us ‘newbies’ — I can hardly wait. I already think it is hot here.
Al Ain and all of the United Arab Emirates are a true international community. You see everyone, from the excessively wealthy to the simple worker just trying to survive. Besides these, all manner of people in between make this country their home. Change has come very rapidly to the UAE, starting first with the discovery of oil in the 60’s to forming the United Arab Emirates 40 years ago, and from there unbelievable growth and development. We have taken visitors to the national museum in Dubai a few times and are still amazed at the documented changes. Dubai has morphed from a few thousands of people huddled along the Gulf to a growing city of millions with skyscrapers, monorails, megamalls (with musical fountains, indoor skiing on manmade snow, and high-end shops), fancy cars, and a frenzied pace of life. Could you imagine living through these changes?
A couple weeks ago I met a man who has. We were invited to an Emirate home for a visit. Jana had met one of the daughters previously; Mother insisted we come to visit at her house. We went with friends to enjoy the afternoon.
I shared my experiences of the meal featuring goat before, but the man of the house was the one who kept my attention. He was an elderly grand leader of his family. His beard was flowing in a light gray. As he walked, I noted his spine was bent to nearly a right angle. His smile lit up the room as he shared stories of the old days before all the change.
He used to make charcoal by finding the right trees, setting them on a fire and then covering them with sand correctly to create a dense charcoal. When he had created enough for market, he would load sacks of charcoal on his camels and trek off to Dubai. Merchants would usually travel in a group for safety. Travel was a harsh four days across the sands to arrive at Dubai. Imagine!
At Dubai he would barter or sell his wares over a couple days, allowing the camels to rest. The camels were once again loaded with needed supplies, water, and items to carry back to Al Ain. Al Ain was a small community clustered around the multiple oasis water sources. His life was difficult, I must imagine. His hands are thick and broad, still carrying the coarse skin of heavy work. Yet, he smiled as he talked of the times in journey. This life has disappeared, never to return here in the UAE. Four lane highways make the trip an easy two-hour drive.
Now he and his family live in a mansion with marble floors, tall ceilings, air conditioning, and fancy furnishings. Mercedes have taken the place of the camels at the home. Al Ain has grown rapidly into a city of 500,000. I must wonder if he doesn’t sometimes just want to wander out to the desert with its peace and solitude to relax away from all the busyness.
I do love to meet different people and learn about their stories. I am never one for the big parties and gatherings for ‘networking.’ I do better and feel more comfortable in smaller groups. I have met many different people of many different backgrounds here in Al Ain. Some of the stories are not as happy.
Prosperity in the UAE also created opportunities around the world. Eight million ex-patriots have come to the UAE, vastly outnumbering the local population. Many come from very poor countries, such as portions of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, and the Philippines.
Some of the less trained recruits take jobs digging, sweeping, pruning, cleaning, and whatever else is needed in manual labor. Labor camps have been built to provide group housing. Most of these men have left families behind. Money is wired to keep their families alive. I see men working in heavy labor way beyond the capabilities of their aging bodies. They all want a quick fix, telling me they will be sent home if they can’t work. My heart goes out to them, thinking that if this work is better than anything back home, how tough is it at home? I am blessed to be an American.
Teachers make up another big group I have met. Many teachers, too, have left families behind but come to the UAE enticed by shiny, big salaries that represent future possibilities. They find school is not exactly what they expected. Life overseas away from family and friends is difficult for most. Maybe there is more to life than a bigger paycheck.
Finally, I have met a group of young people here for the adventure. The largest percentage of employees at Oasis comes from the Philippines. There is a large Filipino population in every major city in the UAE. The men and women of Oasis love to get together to share meals and fun. I have enjoyed being invited. I have learned spaghetti is a staple food. I have tried grilled squid. The squid was definitely better than goat brain, but not likely to make a top ten favorite food list for me. I loved the laughter as they drifted into and out of languages I understood.
So we can see how a country under the guidance of a wise Sheikh can take a national discovery and transform a country. The effects of these decisions spread widely through society and across the globe. Other countries, too, have vast natural resources and potential wealth but cannot make the transition for their people. The hands of few hold too tightly and consider their agenda as primary.
The world is becoming more interlinked. People are becoming more and more aware of the situations of people in other locations. Internet, TV, movies, and mobile phones all crisscross the globe. What we could once easily ignore is now seen on the news, on the net, and in our phones. We face a choice to live in quiet ignorance or to be the person who steps up to say, “This is not right! Someone needs to do something!” and then to become that ‘someone.’ No, you won’t fix the entire world’s problems alone. But you can do ‘something.’ That something may be in your town, in a town or state where you are not comfortable, or it may be in a place truly foreign to your culture, beliefs, and comfort. Wherever you feel called, you face a choice: sit tight and ‘safe’ in your chair or grit your teeth in determination and step out. Know there will be trials, laughter, and tears. Also know you will never go alone; you will travel safely in His grip.