Sunday, 10 February 2008


So the Dubai Lands Department is slowly rolling up all the available real estate in Dubai’s delightfully eclectic and rather human Satwa area, making compulsory purchases that are causing howls of pain from landlords who believe (not unnaturally given the current trend in prices and the likely land use) they are entitled to a great deal more.

The tenants, a rather quieter voice, are being slowly ushered out – in cases this is happening before the rent cycle has finished and cheques are still being presented for rents on houses that people are being evicted from. Of course, in this instance, the tenant has no rights at all in terms of stopping these cheques: the landlords often ‘discount’ the post-dated cheques that tenants have to give for the coming year’s rental period, which means the landlords sell them to a bank in return for a percentage of their value in order to get cash up front. A cheque’s as good as cash in the UAE, so you can’t stop a cheque and if you fail to meet it, you’re immediately in the ‘wrong’ in the eyes of a legal system that likes to deal with simplicities to a degree of absoluteness that often descends into black farce. So if you default on a cheque, the beneficiary has the right to go to the police and have you arrested. The police won’t be interested in why you defaulted: the fact of the matter is that you did. So the tenants have to choice but to pay and then try to get their money back from the landlords. And, as anyone who’s had more than 10 minutes experience of living out here, that’s harder than getting your kid back from the Social Services.

I was down in Satwa Friday morning: I had to pop by the office. It’s wonderful to see the place waking up (which it does a great deal later on a Friday than on a weekday): the smells of cooking from the various restaurants and the garish shopfronts of the Dhs10 shops; the car accessory places already hurriedly slapping sheets of tinting on impatient customers’ Patrols and Altimas; the growing bustle in the supermarkets as an often bewildering array of people from all over the world wander along the sunny streets past the hanging displays of plastic toys, saris, second hand televisions and cooking pans. It’s a marvellous place, a real place: one of the few areas of Dubai that is truly organic.

And they’re going to replace it with yet another copy of Milton Keynes in the sun, another soulless slab of projects with a Prozac-induced strapline tacked onto its beige faux-adobe walls and smoked glass windows. Apparently even Safa Park’s going to go. And apparently Saudi super-investor HH Prince Walid Bin Talal’s the man behind the project. That’ll cheer up the landlords!

What the people doing this fail to realise is that Satwa is part of what makes Dubai interesting and unique: it’s like a rainforest – you might not think it’s terribly relevant, but this is where the oxygen and the material of life and biodiversity comes from. Pretty much every Filipina shop assistant in Dubai lives in Satwa – it’s cheap enough. If Karama is a little India, Satwa is a little Manila. You need places like Satwa for ordinary people to live, work and shop: for people to enjoy restaurants like Ravi’s, still the best Indian restaurant in Dubai, or Pars (Iranian), Al Mallah and Beirut (Lebanese). Satwa is the place where you’ll still find ‘poor’ stores selling cooking pots and charcoal; where cobblers will mend shoes for a few Dirhams and tailors knock up shirts for a few Dirhams more. This is the place where the plant souk rubs shoulders with the pet souk - a confluence that occasionally makes you think you ARE in a rainforest!

Cities need this: they need layers. What makes Cairo or Beirut great cities is that they are like great oak trees: they have the triumphs and scars of the ages written on them like the rings of a tree’s trunk: their walls and roofs reflecting the accretion of years of ordinary human beings living their lives, creating a diversity and tale of the passing years that makes the city so human and real. Even Amman, mostly settled since the 1920s, has layers of history from the past 2,000 years to the present day. So what if Satwa’s only a little piece of the past - it’s Dubai’s past. Which make it a little piece of something that is, in itself, small and rare enough to be treasured.

Dubai, so focused on its future that it has no time for the past, is slowly killing the things that originally made it a city worth visiting. The great Hatta track, like so many of the other tracks through the mountains that used to delight friends and family when they came visiting, is now black top. The beaches are so crammed with hotels that you can’t go camping or have a beach-side barbeque any more. The projects are tens of acres of soulless, squashed-together housing overshadowed by apartment blocks designed by architects from Toy Town. Thousands of hotel rooms and huge swathes of pleasure parks, stadia and artificial tourist attractions are going to stretch out into the desert from the beaches. And anything that isn’t regulated, new and air-conditioned is going to get steamrollered. So they’re going to tear down the Indian cantonment of Karama. And they’re going to rip the soul of of Satwa to give us an air-conditioned luxury shopping lifestyle megalopolis.

And not one solitary person who lives, works, shops or owns property in Satwa today wants this for its future.


Keefieboy said...

What a disgrace.

Seabee said...

Yes, we have so few places that have soul it's a tragedy to destroy them. Renovation to improve the standard of the buildings is the answer - they've done it with the souks around the Creek so the example of how well it can work is right here.

Anonymous said...

And that's (one of the many reasons) why I left Dubai...

Anonymous said...

Satwa is about the only place I can stand living in in Dubai. Most other places are unbearably soul-less.

When they redevelop Satwa, I'll be off.

Anonymous said...

Is it worth creating an email petition? I used to live in Dubai and always try to stop over if poss and Satwa is the first place I head to. Do you think it would make a difference?

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