Weekend shifted in Dubai to be like international markets
by Maurizio dOrlando

The decision, which came into force on 1 September, could also be motivated by the fact that the majority of residents are non Muslim. But official data is lacking about this country with a frenetic growth pace, which is fast becoming the commercial hub of the entire Arab world.

Dubai (AsiaNews) – The weekend has shifted in Dubai since the beginning of September. It is no longer Thursday and Friday, as it is in all Muslim countries, but Friday and Saturday. The decision, taken at the end of May, was motivated by the usefulness of being in line, as much as possible, with international markets, which are closed on Saturdays. But the new weekend could also be a confirmation that the majority of residents of the Emirates are now foreigners, perhaps even non Muslims. There must be room for doubt, however, given that recent population data has not been released by the government.

The novelty seems to have been well met by residents overall, at least to judge by the reactions of Gulfnews readers: "I already have Saturday off, but now my nieces and nephews will have the same weekend off as me and I will have more time to spend with them," wrote Sami Al Saqqaf, a worker.

Whatever the main reason for shifting the weekend was, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is increasingly taking on the role of commercial hub of the Arab world, a position formerly occupied by Lebanon. This is especially true of Dubai, the largest in terms of population of the seven States that have made up the Emirates since 1971, and the most thriving in economic terms, even if it has practically no oil at all.

The growth rate of Dubai's GDP last year exceeded 16% in nominal terms, around nine per cent in real terms, after inflation, and that of the Emirates was around 8.5%, also in real terms. This year, growth is expected to be even more than the already sidereal growth of China. The global GDP was 88.5 billion dollars in 2003, 133.8 billion in 2005 and it is predicted to be 153 billion in 2006. In the area of 32 countries described by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as "Middle East and Central Asia", the Emirates occupied the third place in terms of size in 2005 after Saudi Arabia – 314 billion dollars – and after Iran – 203 billion. Only 20 years ago, the UAE came somewhere at the bottom of this table, both because of the low income per capita and because the population was much smaller than it is now. 

However, calculating the exact value of the GDP per capita is problematic because indications in the (1997) census are now obsolete and superceded by the current reality, gripped by tumultuous change. Due to this factor, according to government data, the GDP per capita, the purchasing power parity (PPP), was around 29,100 dollars in 2005; according to the World Bank (WB), it was 24,090, and according to the CIA (The World Factbook) it was 43,400 (on the market exchange). The differences are mainly due to population estimates: around 2,600,000 residents (July 2006 estimates) according to the World Factbook and the government, while the WB already in 2005 put the population at 4,533,000. Other estimates pointed to 4,700,000 in 2006. The incongruence in data is probably more than just the outcome of different political demands and therefore of different calculation methods used. Most likely the differences also arise from the real difficulties in conducting surveys. Much of the population growth is in fact due to the continued arrival of immigrants: in 1971, the population of the UAE was just over 200,000.

The distribution by nationality of today's resident population is one of the most anomalous in the world, with the possible exception of the Principality of Monaco. According to the official data available, UAE citizens account for little more than 20% of the population. The latest available data is, however, from 1982, that is, nearly a quarter of a century old. The anomalous disproportion between citizens and residents has most likely increased. According to off-the-record estimates, only 11% of the population currently has citizenship. Twenty-one per cent are citizens of other Arab nations, 57% come from southern Asia (India, Pakistan , Sri Lanka) while the remaining 11% is composed of people from the west (Europeans, Americans and so on) and citizens of other Asian countries. The only certain information seems to pertain to citizens of the Emirates, around 495,000 both according to official estimates – and they would represent 19% of 2.6 million residents – as well as the WB, and off-the-record estimates, which would make them 11% of 4.6 million residents. This data seems to be plausible enough, not only in terms of empirical evidence but also in terms of demographic development rates of the population originally from the Emirates in comparison to 1971 data.

All the Emirates are experiencing an amazing upsurge in real estate that continues unabated. In places that until a few months before were just desert, agglomerates of skyscrapers, trade centres and areas equipped and specialized in diverse economic sectors have sprung up. In short, entire cities have been born. So far, the demand for real estate, both residential and for office use, has been higher than supply. Nearly always, consequently, construction enterprises have been able to start building works having already sold most of the planned building beforehand. Dubai is in the news because the tallest skyscraper in the world is being built, the Burj Dubai, which should be completed in 2008 to exceed 800 metres. Dubai is in the news because of the futuristic project of a skyscraper about 250 metres high, with rotating floors detached one from the other, so they will be able to move independently. Dubai is in the news because of its artificial archipelagos, that is, villas, residential complexes and still more skyscrapers for offices built on the sea: archipelagos that seen from the sky, are shaped like palms or globes. Dubai is in the news because of its trade centre where a ski slope is available, complete with artificial snow, when outside the temperature could reach 50 degrees.

Thanks to the absence of tax on income and to free tariff areas, Dubai is one of the most important centres in the world for transit trade and for the buying and selling of raw materials, from oil to metals, from gold to plastics to construction materials and chemical products. It is also one of the most important markets for clothes, both designer labels and otherwise, for electronic consumer goods, for cars and many other commodities. It is a global financial centre and it hosts the headquarters or regional bases of many multi-nationals. A vast area is reserved for computer enterprises and another for information and media in general.

Dubai is also an important tourist destination: this year, 28 million passengers will pass through the airport and a second airport is under construction – costing 33 billion dollars – for the transport of merchandise and passengers. It is set to open in 2008. The new airport will increase capacity to 70 million passengers per year, including 50 million tourists.

Dubai is also the place where aircraft carriers of the American Navy in the Persian Gulf (called Arab in the Emirates) have their base and where Iranians deposit their money and come to spend and buy houses, to the point that the government has limited to 30% the quota of real estate that can be sold to them in new property projects. In the event of a clash involving Americans and Iranians, Dubai, that could potentially appear to be caught in the eye of the storm, would actually be a relatively safe place: one would not bomb the place where one's own navy is, or where one keeps his money and house.

Among so many bright lights, however, there are also shadows. Around 90% of the workers are migrants and they often live in precarious conditions. There are no credible statistics about accidents at work but until recently, workers employed to construct skyscrapers were forced to work in temperatures of over 50 degrees and without security measures. So it was not uncommon for them to fall off the scaffolding. The government recently imposed respect for some norms, although they are not always applied. Employers, in fact, confiscate workers' passports to stop them from changing jobs. This practice is not legal, a point upheld by several court rulings, but it remains a general habit, to the point of being common even in ministries and state entities. When work contracts expire, most categories of workers cannot get a six-month renewal of their visa and an entry visa is not stamped on their passports. Prolonging their stay thus becomes a penal violation that could lead to imprisonment and deportation. This situation of inferiority is reflected in the enormous disparity in salaries and wages. At the top of the pyramid are citizens of the Emirates and other Gulf countries, followed by Europeans and other Arabs. All the rest come below, with a difference between Muslims and otherwise. In prisons, usually only Arabs and Europeans are not flogged. And flogging is normal practice with Asians, not only for violating rules but also for refusals to follow orders of the prison guards. In isolated desert areas, there are also "secret" prisons where detainees are taken and forgotten. Any visits from outside are impossible. It is only on rare occasions that workers are taken for repairs. Blindfolded, they are taken to the destination on a journey of twists and turns, so they will be unable to grasp the route, and they are warned when the work is over not to speak to anyone about what they saw.

Even after a long period of stay in the Emirates, immigrants cannot get citizenship unless through marriage, which implies conversion to Islam. According to official statistics in the Emirates, Muslims account for 96% of the population, including Shiites who make up 16%. This information, however, dates back to 1975, reported in the Demographic Yearbook of the United Nations of 1983. Since then, it has not been updated. This helps to understand the anomalous discrepancy in data on the resident population. Updating data could lead to the discovery that Muslims are now a minority, in an Islamic country with Koranic traditions and habits. Hence the evidence mounts of a society made up of various castes in which a restricted dominant caste does not want or cannot allow itself to open up or to discuss.

In Dubai, the main Catholic church is dedicated to Mary and masses are held there in English, Arabic, French, Konkami, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Tamil, Tagalog and Urdu. The church, set up in 1967, stands on land donated in 1966 by the now defunct Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, of the reigning dynasty in Dubai, at the time Prime Minister of the UAE. The church is very modern with a holding capacity of nearly 2,000 people and it is very popular. The parish priest is at pains to point out that every year 4,000 people attend catechism courses, both children and adults, and more than 300 baptisms are celebrated, more than 600 children receive their first Holy Communion and more than 300 marriages are celebrated. The parish priest, Fr P.M. Peter, told AsiaNews that there is much commitment, discipline, seriousness and correctness of conduct among the faithful. The priest said many parish activities were entrusted to lay people. They are several prayer groups, including the Legion of Mary and other groups that say the Rosary or Novenas. The faithful come from many countries but most of all from India and the Philippines. There are also many Arabs from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and there are Iranians, Sinhalese, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Ethiopians and other Africans. According to the parish priest, pastoral activities enjoy full freedom within the precincts of the land hosting them. Outside, one must not cause any disturbance (by ringing bells, for example), not show external signs of religious belief (like crosses, even stylized ones, outside the precincts), not have relationships with Muslims, and not work towards or accept conversions. In Jumeirah, in Dubai's residential area, there is another, much smaller Catholic church where a satellite city called "Dubai Marina" is emerging, not far from the free zone of Jebel Ali. In this church, mass is held in English and Asian languages and every two weeks, mass is said in Italian too. The parish priest in fact is an elderly Italian Capuchin monk.

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