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Dubai: First impressions of the city and film festival

The first thing that strikes a visitor as he drives out of the Dubai international airport is the greenery all around. I am told that a concerted effort was made some 10 years ago to green what was once a virtual desert. It is amazing to see flowering trees and bushes by just about every road, which appears to have broken right into sheer conservatism.

If modern shopping malls -- Dubai's attempt to beat Singapore as the world's best commercial hub -- belie deep rooted Islamic tradition, which looks upon every form of pleasure as cardinal sin, there is more to surprise a traveller. With liquor flowing free and night life swinging, Dubai undoubtedly shocks those who
go there with pre-judged notions of Islamic austerity.

What is more, there appears to be even a liberal degree of religious tolerance: there are Hindu temples in Dubai, and at least one of them rubs shoulders with a big mosque. There may not be any conflict here. But elsewhere there can be.

Like, for instance, the beautiful Arab women who have no qualms about walking with their faces exposed. What is more, they may wear the traditional veil that cover their bodies, but beneath it lies a fascinating lesson in fashion, a sure indication of a splendid butterfly trying to wriggle out of the ugly pupa.

It is in this context that the recent Dubai International Film Festival was a first and novel attempt at giving cinema more respectability than what Islam would want to. An Egyptian movie, part of the Arab cinema that the Festival showcased, "I Love Cinema", deals with this conflict, told through a father and his little son. In an endless debate of right and wrong, the father admonishes his child, who is crazy about watching motion pictures. His wife has a different passion: painting nudes, and the man of the house is shown fighting a losing battle.In some ways, the Arabs in Dubai probably face such dilemma: the moment a strikingly good looking woman in a dull black veil begins talking into a fancy mobile phone in a clipped British accent, there is no mistaking the fact that here is a race that is struggling to emerge out of the shadows of religious autocracy.

In fact, the world watches Dubai and the conglomerate that it is part of, the United Arab Emirates, with almost a sense of awe. When the UAE came into being some 33 years ago, most observers felt that it will not survive beyond five years. Some said that the "UAE was an artificial creation that could not weather the political and the regional currents that engulfed the Gulf at that time". They were all wrong.

Since 1971, the UAE has not only weathered the vagaries of regional politics and conflict, but also the impact of many internal developments. The union acted as an umbrella that protected the seven emirates and gave them a remarkable and independent entity.

Dubai has been a leader of the UAE emulating the radical social and economic changes that have occurred in other parts of the world. It has been able to a good degree of globalization and the open market economy.

The UAE, more so Dubai, has achieved this through professionalism. The Arabs have taken the back seat, allowing experts to drive the vehicle of progress. The region's work force is largely the expatriate community, and 75 per cent of them in Dubai are from Asia, with Indians leading here. The Arabs who have to partner any economic venture as per the law of the land have wisely decided to be sleeping entities, allowing experts to run the show.

However, this has produced some problems in demography and employment among the locals in the entire UAE. Demographic imbalance is certainly an issue: the UAE has been asking its citizens to produce more children. As far as employment is concerned, there are over 7000 nationals seeking jobs, and such large unemployment can affect social fabric and well being.

Yet, despite the present climate of hostility and violence and war in the Middle East, the UAE and Dubai in particular stand like an oasis in the desert. When the Film Festival held a closing night dinner gala in the midst of a desert outside Dubai, I could not help noticing the effort that the Emirate had made to dispel darkness and pessimism: the entire highway to the desert was fully lit with high powered lamps that seemed to give a different hue to the sands.

To me this appeared like the UAE's attempts at driving away the Middle East's period of political uncertainty and antagonism with outside powers. UAE's political stability and Dubai's healthy economic stand, coupled with social liberalism which even allows women to go out unescorted by men, shield them from the furies of the desert storms raging close by .

(Posted on this website on December 15 2004)

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