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21st April 2021

Omar Sabbagh’s Letter from Dubai: ‘As soon as it was safe enough to reopen, that was done’

Academic, poet and essayist Omar Sabbagh airs his worries for the younger generation in Dubai  

Over the course of the last year, I have felt quite fortunate to live and work in Dubai. Whether during the period between spring and summer 2020, when lockdown regulations meant you had to apply for a permit to go from one place to the next (via a user-friendly app), or whether it was the rigors of the rules about numbers permitted in cars, taxis and social gatherings, the high levels of technological efficiency proved to be a blessing here. 

So Dubai has been a comparatively good place to be during lockdown. Malls, for instance, immediately set up mass temperature monitors at their entrances. The university where I teach built a new gate and passageway at its entrance for this purpose. In pandemic times, a highly monitored society, with efficient avenues for top-down governmental action, puts the ‘brotherhood’ into any pat notion of ‘Big Brother.’   

Of course, Dubai – and the UAE more generally – has suffered economically, like anywhere else in the world.  Things have contracted: shops for a long while curtailed their hours of availability; work hours in the second half of 2020 were shortened; and there are fewer jobs.  A close relative spoke of laying-off a third of his staff, and having to halve salaries in Q3 of 2020. Another was forced to take paid leave for a month from his sales job in retail.  

That said, it was announced early on that the government would take keen action to make sure the country would be protected. Tourism – an important aspect of Dubai’s economy – has also suffered, but it was clear to all that as soon as it was safe enough to reopen that was done. I myself have travelled more than three times in the last year, needing only to follow PCR-testing regulations. Returning to Dubai, it usually takes less than 24 hours for your PCR-test at the airport to ping as an SMS on your phone. The services have always been stellar here. 

I have been teaching, too, since spring last year, online and at times via a new ‘Hyflex’ system, whereby students can opt during registration, to attend in person or remotely, online.  For teachers like myself this involved a scramble to learn new technologies in the classroom, by which one would lecture in person but simultaneously with a camera and microphone to engage with those learning remotely. I was anxious of the burden of learning to use the technology, but the inhibition before the event turned soon to enthusiasm on my part. 

Young people’s prospects here are good; this is one of the best places in the Middle East to study alongside Beirut and Cairo. The majority of students will end up in business, media, engineering and perhaps architecture or design. There is absolutely no sense of rebellion in Dubai. 

That said, the students seem to have lost some of their gusto. When I see the odd stray young person on campus, he or she invariably seems to me to look lonely. It’s much easier for an academic like myself – a person who revels in a week spent on the couch reading or thinking, writing or teaching – to deal with these circumstances than for other kinds of people. It’s also much easier for a man nearing forty, too, than for someone half my age to accept the reality of the pandemic.  

I dare not let my wife catch on, but being homebound suits me like pie and goes down like sugar.  Bookworms or not, it’s the young I feel for. Of course, they’re getting on with their lives, and many are learning by other means. But if things are concerning in Dubai, if I look across at my native Lebanon, I am forced to imagine what absolute lockdown would be like. That country is suffering from its infrastructural weaknesses, in a country which was weakened already by internal strife and corruption.  

I remain hopeful. Perhaps when things improve, and our old outdoorsy life recommences, we will have – in a manner of speaking – gone back to the future. It might even be that this hiatus will bring forth new fruits.  To paraphrase that great fabulist Lawrence Durrell: in the midst of winter we can feel the inventions of spring. 

Omar Sabbagh is an Associate Professor at American University in Dubai

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