By Alex Klein
The EVA Air jumbo left Amsterdam Schiphol one hour late due to ‘Air Traffic Control-problems.’ The plane landed 45 minutes late though and was still loading cargo at departure time. Anyway it gave the group more time to get to know eachother. At 12.45 the 747-400 Combi took off, on board 15 Aerius members and a few other passengers for a 6,5 hour flight to Dubai International Airport (DXB). The plane was half-empty and that gave us enough opportunity to wander around. The in-flight entertainment was OK, getting better depending on the class. The meals tasted good, although the amount was fitted more to the size of our fellow passengers, almost all being from Taiwan and thereabout. We Europeans were still hungry. Service on board was great, the cabin crew being all Taiwanese and very kind and helpful. The captain was a genuine Englishman.
At 08.50 PM local time (the difference with Holland is 2 hours), we landed at DXB and after entering the airport terminal we were immediately confronted with the Arabian culture. Men walking around in their white ‘gowns,’ women dressed in black from head to toe, leaving only a small window for them to see the world. The Arab national dresses are adapted to the high temperatures and religious beliefs in the region. Men wear an ankle-length, loose fitting garment known as a kandoura or dishdasha. This is usually made of white cotton. On the head men wear a small white crocheted cap, the gahfia or tagia. This is covered by the gutra, a long cloth of white cotton, which is kept in place by the igal, a double black woollen braid around the top of the head. Women usually wear a long sleeved, full-length dress which is also called a kandoura. This is often elaborately embroidered in gold, silver or coloured threads. The hair must be covered and the face may also be covered by a thin veil, gishwa.
Robert-Paul had instructed us to go to the passport control to announce our arrival. ‘They’ would know we were coming. Except that the person we encountered didn’t know. And with his posture and formal clothing arguing probably wouldn’t help. We had to fill in the necessary immigration forms first. For people living in a borderless Europe this had slipped our minds. With 15 passports and 15 immigration forms Ronald, our chairman, left the group. We sure hoped he would come back to preside the Aerius meetings… There were no problems, so after going through customs we entered the Arabian night, and a warm one it was. Robert-Paul was awaiting us with his video camera. He had travelled to Dubai before us to make the last arrangements. As he had been in Dubai more often, even passing a longer period of time on an internship with KLM, he knew his way around and had met plenty of interesting people on these previous visits.
Outside the airport terminal we found ourselves in the middle of a 24-hour transport market. Our hotel bus hadn’t arrived yet, but the representative was already there. This was quickly detected and Arabians, Pakistanis and Indians flocked around us offering taxis, buses and even limousines. This appealed to us so we gave our representative a hard time bargaining low prices. Of course he never gave in.
At about ten PM we arrived at The Imperial Suites, our hotel for the next ten days. The rooms were large although we somewhat missed the luxury of the four stars they had. The airco worked fine though, keeping the place at about fifteen degrees Celsius. The large temperature changes between inside and outside was something we had to get used to. It left a few people with a cold. We divided ourselves in groups of three and looked for our rooms. Since the last meal we had was in the plane we decided to get something to eat. Turning fifteen noses in the same direction, as the Dutch saying goes, is hard and cheap local meals are not available at every streetcorner so we ended up at the end of our own street in a genuine McDonalds restaurant; the burgers tasted as we knew they would. Local food would have to wait until the next day.
Shopping malls and souks
The next day, Saturday, was reserved for a day in town. ‘Culturewise’ there is plenty to see in the city and Robert-Paul had prepared an excursion, so he showed us around. We took the hotel bus to the City Centre Shopping Mall, a huge construction, beautifully built two stories high packed with shops. Going up the escalator we were awing at the luxury around us, passing by jewellery, leather and clothing shops, IKEA, a hypermarket and a foodcourt, a large space with small take-away restaurants at the sides and tables in the centre, all of it in the surroundings of a small amusement park. We walked back to a smaller mall just for a second impression and then started our actual city-tour. It also started to get hot at that point, this being about eleven AM. We would have to get used to that as well.
Our first visit was to the souks. The souks are marketplaces situated on both sides of the Dubai Creek and attractive for their bargains and sightseeing. Walking through a huddle of narrow alleys one can find attractive traditional Middle Eastern gifts such as coffeepots, rugs, silverware, jewellery, brass, inlaid rosewood, furniture, etc. In the textile souk with its narrow streets and small shops with the merchandise stacked into it one can find shops selling veils with decorated edges made from silk in a variety of designs, patterns and sizes, pantalons with embroided anklets, kandouras and dishdashas.
We followed our way to the Dubai Creek, the historic focal pont of Dubai life, a natural sea-water inlet which cuts through the centre of the city. We had to cross the Creek to get to the other side. Since there are only two bridges, most people cross the Creek by small wooden boats, abra’s. So did we, ‘saving’ us taxi costs…, the whole ride not costing us more than 25 ct. This price, of course, is negotiable. It is a most beautiful way of crossing the water bringing back the charm of the old days. One is captivated by the colour and bustle of the loading and unloading of dhows which still ply ancient trade routes to places as distant as India and East Africa. The surroundings are state-of-the-art skyscrapers, hiding what is left of the old city, which isn’t that much.
Walking along the other side, we first passed the spice souk. Entering these tiny alleys the thick scent and atmosphere of the past can be savoured. Street after street you will find bags of all kinds of spices, ginger, incense, rose petals and traditional medicinal products stacked outside each stall.
The gold souk is made up of larger streets, with shop windows sparkling towards you as you pass by the windows crammed with gold necklaces, rings, bangels, earrings and brooches made from 18 carat fine gold to 21 carat red gold. If you want to take a more detailed look at the masterful craftsmanship of some of the jewels it is advisable to go into the shops. A large amount of the sparkles is due to the large lamps lighting the windows, making you end up sweating, even during the evenings.
When buying at the souks it is considered normal to bargain. The vendors will attack you with fairly high prices, typing them viciously on their calculators. Just take your time and don’t pay much attention to them. Besides, there is a fixed gold price at the airports, if you find those out you will have a clue what is reasonable.
Even taxi fares are negotiable in certain taxis. It’s great fun to do. Same goes for the boats crossing the Creek. Although the fares are humiliating in our eyes, I guess it’s the principle that counts; it is never nice to get the feeling you are cheated, so don’t pay that much attention to sad faces when you pay the actual price. Beware of language tricks when negotiating prices like thirteen or fifteen dirhams. They can easily be mistaken for thirty or fifty…
Hospitality is among the most highly prized virtues of the Arab world. The kindness of the people is real. It is a genuine friendliness and much appreciated. Sometimes though it can go too far. When relying on a taxi driver, of all people, to know his way around town, one may end up completely wrong. They have a tendency to say: “yes, I know where that is”, and afterwards drive in the opposite direction. It probably never occurred to them that we wouldn’t mind if they didn’t know.
Dubai Cargo Village
Whereas it is weekend on Sundays in Europe, it is a labour day in the Emirates and our first day of a series of visits to interesting aviation related companies. We started the day with a visit to the Dubai Cargo Village, which is the cargo terminal of Dubai International Airport, where we were addressed by the Assistant Director. DCV was opened midst of 1991 and emerged as the cargo hub of the Middle East, not only serving the traditional Arab world, but also Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and increasing new markets further away. Europe is usually a final destination.
Located adjacent to the international airport the Cargo Village comprises a gigantic purpose-built complex, thanking its success to a perfect co-ordination with other cargo related institutions such as Customs, DNATA (the local handling agent) and the Dubai Ports Authority. The international airport serves over 80 airlines, flying in passengers and cargo from every corner of the world. In addition Dubai harbours two large ports, Port Rashid and Jebel Ali, which are regular ports of call for the world’s major shipping lines. Thus, the Cargo Village is the place where East meets West. As such its motto goes: ‘from dhows to 747 freighters.’
We were led around by the Customer Service Assistant, who, being new at his job, had a good opportunity to practice. He showed us the import/export side of the building telling us about the logistics and showing us some smart technical equipment to move the goods around. We walked through the guarded safehouses for (semi-) valuable and dangerous goods and, since the hot outside air could enter the building freely, he even showed us the freezing cells for perishable goods, a kind gesture which we welcomed with open arms and … suit-jackets.
Emirates flying school
The afternoon was spent visiting the Emirates flying school, a remarkable building housing the training centre for cabin crew and pilots of Emirates, Dubai’s national carrier. Entering through the rear one can walk through the ‘wings’, housing the technical/ engineering workshops and simulators and through the ‘fuselage’, where the offices are located, to the ‘cockpit’, the General Manager’s office.
A humorous Englishman looking like Sean Connery led us around. We started out with a session on the simulator, a part of a fuselage used for cabin crew and pilot training. There is a swimming pool on one side of the simulator to practice ‘wet landings’; the other side is plain concrete, obviously used for hard surface landings. It is a masterpiece of technique capable of doing almost anything from simulating bad weather conditions, turbulence and technical faults to the reproduction of real accidents. These programmes are used to find out the cause of accidents and training pilots for the worst.
We boarded the simulator, sat down, buckled up and awaited our fate. The simulator started to taxi on different runways, smooth examples and rough ones, before taking off. Outside it turned night with the change of a switch and not very long after one of the engines caught fire, the windows turning orange. This was followed by turbulence and cabin decompression due to a door being blown out. The cabin filled with smoke and a roaring sound followed, accompanied by the taped screams of people in distress. The fuselage creaked frightfully. Bouncing around in our chairs we chose the emergency position and got ready for the finale, a crash landing on a hard surface. In reality it all happened at approximately six metres above the ground. Not surprisingly we all left the plane alive. We were assured though that the experience could be much worse with the example of an Airbus employee who came out deathly pale and hoped never to experience this in real life. Emirates’ philosophy is that experience is the best way to learn…
A less thrilling part followed. Next was a visit to the engineering department, a series of workshops teaching the ins and outs of aircraft engineering, from securing nuts and bolts to overhauling complete engines. Seeing all these parts (totalling over a million) leaves quite a good impression of the magnitude of an aeroplane and the sensitivity with which it works.
The group had planned spending the rest of the evening at the beach club connected to the hotel, though we never reached it. The reception had sent us to a club with a similar name where we found out this happened more often. Unluckily admittance was for members only. So we had to spend the rest of the time at the beach next door. The sand and the sea were the same so we didn’t end up that bad; the surroundings though were less luxurious. We had a great time and ended the day with a good local meal (mostly Lebanese) at a nice restaurant.
Free Zones and other local incentives
The next morning we departed early to Jebel Ali Free Zone, the first of a visit to three Free Zones in the Emirates. The half thirty minute drive took us through the Dubai suburbs and along the Jumeira Beach hotel, a 25-story building, built in the shape of a dhows’ sail, triangular and slightly curved. This beautiful building looks like a midget though compared to its neighbour, the half finished Chicago Beach hotel, a building about four times as high and peeking into the sky with its futuristic skittle shape. It is named to be one of the world’s highest hotels and you can see its shape along the coastline going North or South.
At Jebel Ali we were invited into a large conference room and received a large amount of information and a general story on their activities. The Free Zone is part of the Jebel Ali port complex, which sprung out of the visionary mind of the sheikhs, and was set up in 1985 to encourage investment in industry. The zone is also ideally situated for trading and warehousing. Investors are offered a host of incentives such as a tax-free regime, full foreign ownership, and full rights to repatriate capital and profit and a superb infrastructure.
This information was followed by a tour over the quays looking at rows of high stapled containers (not leaving much sightseeing) ready to be shipped, and the occasional large cargo freighter. We could ask our questions at the Marketing Department. We were introduced to a man in his late twenties. He turned out to be of great help and was very much interested in our activities in Dubai. He himself had studied in San Francisco and had been abroad elsewhere on several occasions promoting the Jebel Ali Free Zone activities. During our stay we met him more often and he was pleased to lead us around Dubai on several occasions.
These same Free Zone activities are conducted at Sharjah Free Zone, about 30 km South of Dubai in the Emirate of the same name (Sharjah) and the second largest hub of Lufthansa. We went here on Tuesday while visiting Sharjah International Airport, primarily used by the former Russian countries for passengers and cargo. As it happened more often we were not expected, although the arrangements were confirmed the day before. So the programme was made up just there and then. Apart from the building itself we also visited the meteo department, the tower and Air Traffic Control. We were given clear and interesting information on the activities, most of them carried out by foreigners, some living in the Emirates, some only there for a season and coming back each year. Nice summer job!!
On our way to the cargo handling centre and the Free Zone we came along a crossing with an aeroplane coming from the right, so we had to give way. I guess we would have done this all the same if it had come from the left. Besides, our traffic light jumped to red. It was a Lufthansa Cargo B747 Jumbo crossing our path. It was quite an exciting experience letting the plane roll by so close and feeling the heat from the exhaust. We were allowed to take pictures outside the bus, so we didn’t let the opportunity pass.
The Free Zone activities are fairly the same compared to Jebel Ali. There is a certain competition although slight. Jebel Ali emphasises its longer experience and ready to use infrastructure, office buildings and housing facilities whereas Sharjah tries more to give a cheaper service thus attracting interested parties through a cost advantage rather than experience.
Adapting to the Dubai life is rather easy with the slow, heavy evenings. Most shops in the large malls as well as in the sultry warmth of the souks are open till ten PM so the streets are quite full of locals and tourists, giving it an awkward look. These nights are nice for boatrides along the shores of the creek, with its cool breeze.
We were expected at the CAA-offices in the head terminal and led, again, to a beautiful, large conference room. A large part of the story concerned the future plans of the Airport. A major building operation has already started and will completely change the infrastructure, and place the airport well into the next century. Near the end of the presentation the Director General of the CAA entered and gave us the opportunity to ask questions. We followed our indoor tour to ATC and the tower, both staffed once again by many foreigners. At Abu Dhabi Airport one will see the same situation. Since we had had a large explanation at Sharjah, it was even more interesting seeing the tower and ATC again. The sky above Dubai, however, is busier than at Sharjah, especially during nighttime, so we witnessed more approaches and landings. In the daytime hours it can even be boring though… The tower controllers always bring books with them just in case.
The outside part of the tour brought us along the building sites towards the Emirates hangars with… no plane inside, to the recently opened new Terminal 2. On the way we experienced the equivocal problems of the multicultural society. The Vietnamese busdriver apparently didn’t quite understand the direction our Arab escort asked him to go to, shouting over a roaring airconditioner. Finally the driver gave him the thumbs up, but drove completely in the wrong direction though. When we arrived we had a look at the tax-free shops and were allowed to buy goodies. We entered the first class lounge with the smell of leather and fresh paint still hanging inside. The terminal will mainly be used for charter flights and isn’t busy yet. There is still plenty of slot-time available.
Back at the car park we experienced the ever recurring problem of driving away, or not, in a car that had been standing in the sun for a couple of hours. Usually it is the driver who ends up entering the car, turning on the ignition and the airco and making a quick exit to await cooler moments. Awaiting cooler moments under a blistering sun still isn’t relaxing.
Thursday morning we got up early to get ready for a two-hour car ride to Abu Dhabi, the Emirate north of Dubai. The road went along the desert all the way, until a few kilometres before the airport where the dry land was grown over with thick green grass and colourful plants and flowers, all of it artificially cultivated and irrigated.
Abu Dhabi is a more conservative and strict Emirate compared to Dubai and more the oil-exporting centre of the UAE. At the airport we weren’t allowed to take photographs and an armed guard escorted us all the way. Nevertheless, we were shown the whole building, including the very colourful tax-free area and VIP-lounges. A visit to the tower and ATC was also included.
Before going to the city centre we also visited a company named GAMCO (Gulf Air Maintenance COmpany), a company dedicated to the maintenance of aircraft. Many airlines come here for maintenance and they also conduct workshops on engineering and maintenance of new aeroplane types. It is actually a large hangar made to fit several wide-body planes, with large storage facilities, not only for spare parts but also for the extensive literature accompanying those parts. Moreover, it contains several smaller areas for maintenance and testing. This maintenance includes overhauling different parts, extensive cleaning, painting, metalwork and refurbishing of the inside. It was a long tour and although not every item was understandable due to the lack of our technical knowledge, it was interesting to realize the magnitude of the construction of an aeroplane, sometimes with over a million parts, and the sensitiveness with which it must be handled.
Halfway the evening we drove to the city of Abu Dhabi, at least to get an idea of the sights. It probably has more high-rise buildings than Dubai and since they block most of the view we decided to drive into no particular direction and see where it would get us.
Processing information at the poolside
The day before we went to visit FedEx, we remained at the poolside working on our assignments, arranging papers and thoughts, making phonecalls for more information or even taking interviews, processing the information we had already gathered during our previous company visits. During the evenings we went into the city centre to buy souvenirs for home and get some more taste of the local food. It was time well spent.
The last company visit we did as whole group (we also had individual meetings set up that were needed for our individual research papers) was on Saturday, visiting FedEx. This American com-pany, the world’s largest parcel and postal service, has one of its main hubs in Du-bai. During our visit in May, FedEx was still situated in the Dubai Cargo Village in a rather small space, but a new and much larger complex was being built at the other side of the airport (should be ready by now…).
We were greeted by the Vice President Middle East and Indian Subcontinent, Mr Hamdi A. Osman and the hub and ramp manager Mr Vivek Ashoka in the board-room of the Cargo Village, a well-known place to us by now. We were told how FedEx started its business and how it has expanded its activities in a qualitative and quantitative growing global network with several large hubs or distribution points around the world. The story was supported by an all-American sales promotion video. The information though was very clear and complete.
This was followed by a visit to the Cargo Village site. There we were lead around and shown the process of the conveying of packages. Since Dubai is a hub many packages only pass through and have to be routed to their next destination. This re-quires a smart logistics system and that was exactly the shortcoming of this place. The decision was taken to build a new and larger com-plex nearby that could easier cope with the larger supply of packages and at the same time would have a more modern distribution system working faster and more efficiently. To accommodate the people working at FedEx larger offices are built. The design of the new complex was made by the managing director who, having spent quite some time with FedEx in Dubai, had a good idea of how it needed to be. It was an impressive and sophisti-cated building and Mr Os-man was proud to show it to us.
After the ‘tour’ the hub and ramp manager took us to a Mexican restaurant on the tenth floor of a Dubai hotel. There we enjoyed the abundant meal – offered to us by FedEx of genuine Mexican food and we talked about our trip and the acquired impres-sions of the last nine days. We talked with Mr Ashoka about career possibilities in the United Arab Emirates, living abroad in general, life and work in Dubai and the experiences we had during our time there.
We returned to the Nether-lands in a full aeroplane, although most of us didn’t care and slept the larger part of the trip, only to wake up for the meal and movie, and landed safely in the evening. Almost a month later we all gathered at the University and enjoyed the pictures and the video Robert Paul had made. Hopefully Aerius will organize a similar trip next year. It was a great experi-ence, and I can advise it to everyone!