This week marks my second visit to Dubai following an initial visit two years ago. Susan is traveling with me this time. We are being hosted in Dubai by my dear friend, Dubai resident Lajo Gupta, who is originally from India, and is the daughter of the great Indian music master, Ali Akbar Khan.
Our five-day visit has been focused on creating an opening for The C.A.R.E. Channel within the United Arab Emirates healthcare system. Progress was made in these efforts, but I won’t report on them until our initial efforts are realized in some measurable fashion.
Dubai is a very unusual country, home to the world’s tallest building. It is a booming financial and tourist center that, unlike its oil-revenue-dependent neighbors, derives only five percent of its income from its relatively small offshore oil reserves. How to describe or explain Dubai? In a nutshell: Dubai is the Arab Las Vegas, a city of gleaming high-rise architectural wonders located in a barren desert landscape that would otherwise seem unsuitable to building a major city.
Dubai’s economy doesn’t depend on casinos like Las Vegas does, though I’m told that its first major casino is under construction on an island just off the coast. Located on the Southeastern edge of the Saudi Arabian peninsula on the Persian Gulf (also know by its competing name, the Arabian Gulf), Dubai has a long history as a commercial trading center. It is one of seven Arab sheikdoms comprising the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the largest of which, besides Dubai, are Qatar and Abu Dhabi. Dubai’s ruling sheik is a benevolent dictator. There are no elections. His ruling position is hereditary. Just as in the other Arab Emirates and their giant neighbor Saudi Arabia, the ruling royal families in all these countries control their economies and military power. The region’s collective security is insured by the presence of several American military bases, which are intended to project American power and counter any threat from Iran, their powerful neighbor located just across the gulf.
I was told that ISIS infiltrators have been discovered who were plotting to disrupt the booming Western-oriented economy of Dubai. However, they were quickly identified and neutralized by the Dubai secret police, who are tasked with protecting the Sheik and the Dubai economy. The would-be terrorists “disappeared” and were never heard from again. Also, unlike in the West, there was no mention in the government-controlled Dubai press of the presence or capture of the ISIS terrorists. Bad press would be bad for business.
I was told several times that Dubai is quite free compared with other Arab countries, as long as one doesn’t oppose the government or disturb the smooth-running economy. Arab Dubai natives comprise only 20% of the total population! (Similar small native-born Arab populations are found in Qatar and Abu Dhabi as well.) Sixty percent of Dubai’s population consists of immigrants from India and Pakistan. Our hostess, Lajo, has lived with her husband in Dubai for over thirty years. Her husband owns and runs a prosperous paper goods factory with makes cardboard boxes and related paper products for sale around the Middle East.
Because of its tax-free relatively liberal environment, Dubai is a magnet for the royal families and the rich and famous from surrounding Arab countries. I was told that many members of the ultra-rich Saudi royal family have homes in Dubai. Big musical acts regularly perform in Dubai. And in the gallery of the 148-floor Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, there is currently an exhibition of Picasso and Miro art. Dubai is also home to the world’s only indoor ski resort, which is amazing when considering that outdoor temperatures are very high for much of the year.
There are many Western residents living in Dubai, especially Americans and Brits. The construction boom necessitated bringing in cheap laborers from poorer countries, including workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangla Desh, etc. For Western businessmen, Dubai is a gold-rush boomtown, promising quick riches. There is no personal income tax. And businesses are taxed at a very low rate, if at all. The government is supported by taxes on the tourist industry, real estate, imports, and certain business transactions. One result is that Dubai has the second most expensive hotels in the world (after the number one most expensive city for hotels, Geneva, Switzerland).
Halliburton, the huge American defense contractor formerly led by Dick Cheney, has its world headquarters located in Dubai. Its high-rise buildings are impressive. I can only assume that the company made its decision to locate its headquarters in Dubai in order to escape American taxes.
I was struck by the cosmopolitan and culturally diverse atmosphere in Dubai. One section of the city that Lajo took us to (to visit her tailor) had an amazing variety of ethnic restaurants all on one street, including Lebanese, Egyptian, Indian, Indonesian, Nepali, Philippine, Chinese, and probably more that I didn’t see. Sometimes, several different cuisines were offered in a single restaurant.
Prior to visiting the tailor, we had visited the oldest part of Dubai, the garment district, where Susan had purchased cloth to be sewed into Indian-style outfits. Though the cloth merchants were all Indian-born, this neighborhood of Dubai was dominated by Arabs, with many women fully veiled in traditional black garb. A large mosque loomed over this neighborhood. It felt quite different from the more tourist-friendly parts of the city. It felt more like being in a more typical Arab city, like Amman, Jordan, which I’ve visited several times.
The bottom line of this visit is: we would not choose Dubai as a tourist or business destination without the presence of our friend Lajo, who has provided us with accommodations, transportation around town, and introduction to her large network of interesting friends. Through her efforts, we were able to present our healthcare work and our music in an evening party at her lavish mansion attended by about forty of her specially invited friends. With Lajo’s help and guidance, we hope to visit Dubai again and perhaps be able to perform in concert as well as promote The C.A.R.E. Channel.
Lajo reminded me that we had first met in 1975, when I first moved from Georgia to California to study traditional North Indian classical music at her father’s school, Ali Akbar College of Music in Marin County, California. In the late seventies, I had played in a band with her brother, Aashish Khan, who now is on the faculty of the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. That was around the time that Lajo got married and relocated from India to Dubai. We lost touch with each other for over three decades. Then, through the miracle of Facebook, we reconnected. This led to my meeting her again several years ago while on tour with Mynta in Mumbai (Bombay), India. That led to my visiting Dubai for the first time two years ago. And now, here we are, exploring potential future adventures in Dubai.