So….to the Gulf again.
I wish I hadn’t bothered. My first trip, in June and July, reported here, was quite enjoyable but a bit too long. This one, so far at least, has been a nightmare.
The journey down was fine. Both flights were half empty so there were no comfort issues to contend with – no sharp elbows in the ribs from the fat smelly guy in the next door seat, no seat back dropping into your face the moment the plane’s wheels leave the tarmac as the guy in front decides his comfort is more important than anyone else’s (and certainly more than that of the bloke in the seat behind). As usual the in-flight entertainment was questionable – this year’s movie offerings somehow don’t seem to be as good as previous years, has anyone else noticed that? –but my trusty iPod has new stuff on it, I had a new book and football magazines to read, so I was fine. Happy as larry, as my mate used to say (whatever that is supposed mean!).
It all changed on arrival. Or, more correctly, on arrival at the hotel. Previously, I had stayed at Le Meridien. Comfortable, good selection of restaurants and bars, beach, pool. This time I was booked in its annex, the Residence. I had been warned about it before I came here in June, by colleagues who had stayed there – former staff quarters, I was told, small rooms, poorly decorated. Make sure you stay in the hotel proper. I challenged it with the site manager, but he insisted it was the Residence or the Sahara (that I had been told was worse, featuring the same complaints as the Residence, plus cockroaches).
So I rolled up, checked in, and collected my keys. First issue: the room rate did not include breakfast or internet connection. Nothing the hotel could do, so check it out with the project manager in the morning. I was very tired by this time, after 17 hours travelling. All I wanted to do was sleep. I was taken to my room: second issue.
Clearly, my colleagues had been generous in their descriptions. The room wasn’t just small, it was more like a prison cell. Perhaps four steps took me from door to window. There was just about room for a double bed. A rickety plywood desk and chair were jammed into a corner beside a cheap and nasty wardrobe, and an old tv balanced precariously on a shelf in the opposite corner. The bathroom was minute, I could spread my arms wide and just about touch opposite walls. There was a shower, with an ill-fitting plastic curtain that guaranteed a flood whenever used, a small sink for shaving in, and a toilet squeezed in a corner in such a way as to prevent you sitting on it properly – you have to sit sideways. Oh, and the toilet seat was broken.
I took photos of it all, to back up a complaint to our Travel and HR people, and sms’d my line manager to let him know I was not happy and wanted a room change or a flight change – not prepared to stay in this place for more than a night.
* * *
So into the office Sunday morning. Things went downhill again. I arrived about 8:45. The place was deserted. I sat in a chair by the lifts and waited patiently. People began arriving about half an hour later. I waited less patiently for another half an hour, then went into the work space and asked for the project manager. I was told he usually arrived late. I was given a seat in his room, connected up my laptop and sent a mail to the Travel people to change my room. The PM finally arrived at 10:30.
I raised my room issue. He insisted I would have to stay there or move to the Sahara. I refused. We talked it over, but without any real solution. He then explained what he wanted me to do – basically agree a whole bunch of data mapping for migrating everything from the legacy system to ours. But since the bank have not even seen my bit of the system, never mind been trained on it or tested it, this is clearly not possible. I told him so. He just shrugged his shoulders in that infuriatingly condescending Greek manner and told me to do what I could.
I moved to another room, met some more people from my company, who told me basically I was there for political reasons – everyone knew it was a waste of time but still….. Now I have no time for office politics in any way shape or form. I was even more angry.
I had a meeting with a guy from the bank for a couple of hours, trying to be professional and make some progress, but didn’t achieve much. He too felt we were approaching this particular subject way too early. I then had a call from the Travel people, who had re-booked me into another room in the Residence, “a bigger and better one”, but it seemed the PM was complaining about the cost. So I ended my meeting, and sent him a mail. Basically, look I’m wasting my time here, I’m not going to be able to achieve anything, I’ll change my flights and go home.
That went down like a pork chop in a synagogue! For the rest of the day, we were swapping increasingly vitriolic mails on the subject and getting nowhere. Eventually he agreed to the room change, with internet but insisted no breakfast, and we would have a meeting with the bank Monday to decide what to do. I had little choice but to accept.
The new room is a marginal improvement, bigger and better appointed, although the tv cannot be watched from the armchair because a massive cupboard housing the kitchenette blocks the view. In any case, there are only about 4 channels clear enough to watch and three of them broadcast in Arabic. I complained (of course) and yesterday they replaced the set but there is still no improvement.
* * *
Being here during Ramadan doesn’t help. I don’t know a huge amount about Islam, but basically for the Holy Month of Ramadan followers must fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset. This means, at least here, a shorter working day as people head off home early to make sure they’re at home for dinner, so to speak. But it also means restrictions at the hotel. None of the bars and restaurants serve food during the day, and when they open in the evening it is not permitted to eat or drink at the tables outside – all food and beverages must be consumed behind closed doors. It spreads to the office too. I was sitting at my desk yesterday, and took a pull from my bottle of water. One of our guys rolled his chair across and admonished me for drinking in public and asked me not to do it: if I want a drink I must go to the pantry or toilet apparently. I refrained from commenting that I wasn’t actually in a public place but a private office manned by mainly (on this floor at least) non-Muslims, and in any case the kitchen or bog were no more private than the office, but said ok. I still drink at my desk, but make sure this particular guy is not around.
But for me this raises questions about Islam as a faith and how despite protestations to the contrary it lacks tolerance. I consider myself to be a very reasonable, and, yes, tolerant individual – with stress on that word individual. I am not a follower of Islam, nor officially at least of any other organized religion (that is not to say I don’t believe in God or an Afterlife – I just haven’t formalized it). I would never dream of forcing my beliefs or values on anyone else – except perhaps my kids, until such time as they are (were) old enough to form their own opinions – and therefore do not like someone trying to force their beliefs and values on me. Now, I would not expect a Muslim visiting or living in my home town of Edenbridge, in the UK, or my current home in Warsaw, to follow local customs if those customs were not acceptable to them. I would not expect them to go to Mass on Christmas morning, for instance. Nor would I expect them to knock back copious amounts of beer and vodka at a summer barbecue. And I would most certainly not cause a fuss if the Muslim guy at the next desk from me wanted to go off and pray somewhere private during office hours, if that is what his religion demands of him. To me, this is simply showing respect for a person’s individuality. Simple politeness.
But here, in an Islamic country, I am expected to accept without question their restrictions. I have no real problem fasting during the day (when I’m travelling I don’t always eat breakfast, and frequently skip lunch too in an effort, vain unfortunately, to keep my weight under some sort of control) but I’m sorry, I need to take liquids on board – especially in this heat, where de-hydration is a very real concern. I don’t expect to be told by someone that I’m not allowed a sip of water because it offends their religious sensibilities. I’ll accept the restaurant closures, I’ll accept having to eat indoors (even though I don’t understand at all the reasoning for it) but I draw the line at dehydrating myself just to avoid offending the locals.
I went across to the Mall this evening, souvenir shopping. The only shops open were being staffed by non-Arab people – places like Virgin Megastore, Promod, Esprit and the odd gift shop. Even the mighty Starbucks was closed – and I was really looking forward to a grande latte. I didn’t find what I was looking for, so headed back to the hotel. The coffee shop there was closed too, but I was directed to the bar, now obscured by floor to ceiling curtains. Inside, people were drinking tea, coffee, beer and water. There were people there, obviously locals in their flowing white robes, with their own drinks. I ordered and enjoyed my latte, and could not stop smiling at the hypocrisy.* * *
Before I left work, we agreed that I can go home tomorrow night (Wednesday)…..I mailed Travel to change my flights before anyone changed their minds. It means sitting around the hotel lobby for about 12 hours after check out, before I can head to the airport (night flights only to Europe it seems) but I can live with that, just to get away. I might even stay in my room and claim the additional cost back somehow as the PM is refusing already to pay it….I’ll figure it out tomorrow.
So, in nutshell, what do I think of Abu Dhabi specifically, and the UAE in general?
Well, it’s been interesting, I’ll say that. Such contrasts between the old and the modern, the incredible construction work going on everywhere, will (when it’s finished) make it an extraordinary place. The weather too has been enjoyable, up to a point. I said in an earlier post that I found it too hot – when I was here previously it was high 30s/low 40s, and a dry heat. This week has been worse – at least middle 40s, and there is now high humidity too. Step out of the door or the cab and my glasses steam up completely and instantly. A walk of 200 metres to the taxi stand leaves me drenched in sweat, the anti-perspirant is useless here.
The people generally have been very friendly and helpful, although in fairness the majority of those I’ve met have been hotel workers or taxi drivers, none of whom are locals. Those Arabs I’ve come across at the client sites have also been friendly and polite, and largely helpful.
So all in all, there is a lot to commend it. But I’m afraid the experiences this week have really put me off returning. It’s not the hotel issue – that can happen anywhere and is solely the result of a company not really caring about the conditions its employees have to put up with when travelling. The weather is certainly a factor – the temperatures and, this week, humidity have just been too much for my northern European sensibilities: I’ve never had so many headaches as I have in Abu Dhabi, both trips, nor have I ever felt so physically drained after relatively little activity as I do right now as I write.
But I’m afraid this Ramadan malarkey has really soured it for me. I respect completely the right of anyone, anywhere, to join the Muslim faith and follow its customs, including the Holy Month Fasting. Just don’t expect me to follow it. And if that means that on other trips here, at the same time, I have to submit to something I do not find compatible with my own beliefs, then thank you very much but I’ll give it a miss.
No offence meant, but the Gulf is not for me.