I remember Abu Dhabi as a very quiet capital. The city center felt more carefully assembled, like a finished Rubik’s cube, than Dubai, a chaotic and glorious mess of multicolored Lego blocks strewn about. In the 1980’s, while Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran, and Damascus grabbed headlines, Abu Dhabi trundled along quietly. Abu Dhabi and I grew side by side, and to this day I associate my childhood with the smell of hot tar, heat that softened me like wax, concrete, and steel cranes so large they seemed to make buildings out of Jenga blocks. Friends and family now tell me that many buildings are either sitting unoccupied or unfinished, the construction cranes loitering in the heat.
The economic contraction has affected what used to be taken for granted in the Subcontinent—that the Gulf was the brown man’s El Dorado, a land where, my uncles would joke, you could water a plot of land with oil, and a building would grow with Malayalee residents built-in. Once, it may have been so; but now the Gulf has become very human, fragile. In the 1970’s, families arrived on Emirati shores intending to leave only when they were ready. This doesn’t hold true anymore, particularly for the children of expatriates who call the region home. Friends of mine who decided to remain in the capital complain of rising housing costs, a lack of parking facilities, and little change in discriminatory practices. But most of the frustration that comes from living in a place that doesn’t guarantee the length of your stay. The economic downturn has only helped make them a little bit more paranoid.
My parents are slightly calmer because they know what is going to happen to them. My father will be retiring soon and will leave for Kerala, India with my mother. Approaching 60, he is expected to turn in his company retirement papers any day now, unless he requests and is granted an extension. Growing old and dying in a country that has been their home for over 35 years isn’t an option for my parents. The law is polite yet firm: foreign-born people who are not employed must leave. Valid work or residential permits dictate terms there. Every non-Emirati is legitimized by a piece of paper with an expiration date. No one expects citizenship; it isn’t given. Unlike U.S. law, a baby born on Emirati soil to non-Emirati parents is not Emirati.
When I left Abu Dhabi for the United States as a twenty-year-old student, the Emirati residence permit I’d received as an infant was duly canceled. When I now visit family, my father applies for a visa on my behalf. My sister holds an Indian passport too, even though she kicked and screamed into the world at Abu Dhabi’s Corniche Hospital. As long as she is under my father’s sponsorship, she is welcome to stay. If she doesn’t manage to find a job by the time my parents bid adieu, she will be joining my parents on the flight back to the ancient port city of Kochi, Portuguese India’s one-time capital. Bribery won’t work—rules are rules. People like my father came here to prosper and make money tax-free, aware that they wouldn’t be able to settle in the Emirates indefinitely, regardless of the size of the fortune they managed to make.
The Gulf has become used to money, especially Abu Dhabi. This does not mean everyone has it, but in the Emirates, the signs of prosperity are ubiquitous. You find it in the new roads and the modern machines that ride them, in the availability of foreign labor to transform the arid into the arable. But the country’s machismo, its growth and clout, lies in its architecture. When I was young, driving into Dubai from Abu Dhabi, we knew the emirate wasn’t far off when we could spot the Dubai World Trade Centre, a 30-something-story building in the distance. Now, taller, more ornate buildings stand like a band of giants watching your every step as your vehicle speeds into Dubai. Yet amidst these riches sit stories of desperation, of people struggling to make do, of laborers exploited by contractors, and of buildings empty of tenants. Foreign newspapers report that bankruptcies are forcing people to flee the country. Local papers are beginning to refute the allegations. The truth is somewhere in the middle. But now the grapevine is busier than usual—the number of people fleeing the country for their home out of fear of creditors or loan sharks is increasing steadily. Conditions are more ominous now, unemployment a frightening prospect because of its connection to residency laws. And in a country where bankruptcy laws are almost non-existent, there is no protection. It isn’t enough to be middle class any more.
What isn’t changing, family tells me, is the country’s continuous state of flux. When I visited my parents last year, I wondered whether the country’s expectation of a burgeoning tourist industry was far-fetched and unsustainable, even with attractions such as one of the largest indoor ski slopes in the world. I also noticed a large number of men on the street, fewer women. Unusual—Abu Dhabi isn’t Riyadh. When I spoke to my parents about my observations, they told me that those who couldn’t afford to keep their families by their side had sent them home.
There is concern about de-brownification, as the Emirates is gradually moving towards a model encouraging wealthier “settlers” to move in, which means Europeans and Americans. Qualified and younger Emiratis are also hungry to be put to work; “emiratisation,” the government calls it. The well-heeled brown man will find work. The poorer brown folk will continue to find jobs picking garbage or banging nails into skyscrapers. Many end up in the Gulf only to find themselves shackled to menial labor and miserable pay. This after having paid small fortunes to scheming middle men for the coveted work visas.
Still, for both the wealthy and the poor, the prospect of leaving the Emirates is painful. For those for whom the capital is the only home they have known, leaving involves not only resettling but coming to terms with the reality that the financial effects may be less painful than the trauma of being forced to leave.
For me, as I write from New York, what’s happening in the capital forces me to think back to the place I was raised. I grew up in a city awash with brown faces. In another fifteen years, I am confident, this tint will change. The capital I knew will have been utterly changed. And when this deed is done, I hope traces of people like my father aren’t erased from the country’s history entirely.