Sunday, February 3, 2008

Abu Dhabi, a hospitable open city

The popularity of the emirate of Dubai in the international scene is immense. But there is another fast-growing city in the United Arab Emirates that cannot simply be ignored. It is no less than the emirate of Abu Dhabi--the UAE bustling capital and permanent residence of the country's ruling family of the al Nahyans.

Currently, UAE's president is His Highness Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, one of the sons of the former President His Highness Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan. Sheik Khalifa used to be the crown prince of Abu Dhabi until he was succeeded by H.H. Sheik Mohammed, a younger brother.

The royal family lives in big palaces and posh villas that are comparable to five-star hotels around the world. And they are maintained by a polyglot of workers, mostly coming from all over the world. For example, in the sprawling Al Butin Palace where chandeliers glitter in gold, which is the crown prince's permanent residence, maintenance workers are grouped into the administration, telecommunications, security personnel, housekeeping, engineering, laundry, kitchen staff and gardening personnel, among others. This is not to mention the British personnel who keep and train falcon birds for hunting purposes, a favorite pasttime of the ruling family.

Of the following services groups, the housekeeping and engineering departments are staffed mostly by former hotel workers from the Philippines, who are known for their versatility and extensive training when it comes to cleaning and engineering maintenance services. Although, they are equally supported by several workers from Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. The engineering department is headed by a Pakistani engineer, who used to come from the Hilton International Hotel, and so with the overall superintendent of the royal the royal palace, who recruited these workers from the Philippines in 1984.

At first, any worker who is a first timer in a Middle Eastern culture would be surprised to find the big difference in the manner by which people are treated. This is not to mention the strange foods that one has to encounter when he hits the cafeteria the first time. But the workers had adjusted themselves to the rigors of daily living in that royal enclave. The only advantage is that everything is free--food, quarters, laundry and transportation service. That means that all the workers' salaries are tax-free. Likewise, shuttle service is provided to and from the place of work. When one fails to catch up with the shuttle, he has no choice but to hail a taxi cab at his own expense.

Foremost among the services provided to the royal palace is the security in and outside the gate. Most of the sentinels are Arab-speaking nationals from Sudan, Morroco, Oman, Egypt, Nepal and others. A gurkha friend of mine is a martial arts expert from Nepal, who felt in love with a Filipina. He, along with a couple of other gurkhas secure the inside perimeter of the royal palace. Some of the service personnel are provided free quarters inside the palace. While others are housed a few minutes drive away in Khalidia.

Rest days, in accordance with the Islamic tradition, fall on Thursdays and Fridays. On Thursday evenings, workers have to gear up to enjoy their time at posh hotels along Sheik Hamdan Blvd. all the way to Meridien Hotel near the beach, where the Wakataua Restaurant awaits patrons to experience and savor the scenic and pristine beauty of sea where a concret barrier is constructed to serve as berthing place for expensive yatch and ships. And workers are instructed to always bring with them their proper identification cards or else face investigation by the local police.

But the souk (market) is veritable point of interest for most of the workers and visitors. It is here where bargain hunters looking for cheap gold prices and tax-free appliances, abound. When tired and hungry is not a problem considering that it offers a wide array of affordable food stuffs easy for the ordinary pockets. One of the popular is the shawarma of chicken and beef, which is heavy for the stomach.

In the heart of the souk, you may not notice that time flies so fast. And when tired, you can just try walking a little farther to scout for a nice place to pass the time away. And normally, this takes place at the posh hotels nearby, where live western musicians play as you sip a few bottles of beer, along with free popcorn and olive fruits. When everything else is done, transportation is not a problem as most taxies carry passengers to and from the point of origin, provided the passengers are not dead drunk to go home because most Patani cab drivers hate the smell of liquor inside the cabs. When this problem occurs, misunderstanding arises and be on the look out for police mobile patrols circling by.

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