In July 2003 I had occasion to visit both Dubai and Tehran in the middle east on a working holiday. This article is a commentary on my observations and experiences on what turned out to be an amazing adventure. I am looking forward to returning to the region in the near future.
Experience in the Middle East
I became fascinated at the stark contrast between the two cities. Dubai is a dynamic ultra-modern liberal Islamic city; Tehran is an economically stagnant, polluted place governed by stern and conservative Islamic clerics.
Dubai is one of those new places of intrigue that we have started to hear about more and more in recent years.
Dubai sits on the horn of the Gulf of Arabia, the northwest region of the United Arab Emirates. The city is thecapital of the Emirate of the same name, the second-largest of the seven Emirates that comprise the UAE.
The Emirate of Dubai is only 3,884 square kilometres.
Dubai is a dynamic ultramodern liberal Islamic city; Tehran is an economically stagnant, polluted place governed by stern and conservative Islamic clerics.
Forty years ago this city state was essentially a sand pile. Visitors today are struck by its staggering architecture. Dubai boasts the only seven-star hotel in the world. Dubai is the financial centre of the Arab world, having replaced Beirut in that regard. It is a mix of recent wealth and ancient commerce, an oasis of “sin” (alcohol and prostitution are seemingly tolerated) amidst a vast expanse of puritanical Islam.
Dubai is owned by approximately 20 percent of its inhabitants, namely the nomadic Arabs that have lived there for generations. The remaining 80 percent are non-citizens, basically there to provide the services and labour. The current population is approximately 1 million; about 22 percent are Emiratis. Dubai had 5 million visitors this year. Many millions more are projected to visit in the coming years as Dubai markets itself as an International holiday destination.
The amount of ongoing construction is simply unbelievable. Much of the construction seemed to be contracted to the notorious Bin Laden family. The world’s tallest building is currently under construction. Fifty billion US dollars have been budgeted for further construction over the next 10 years. The amount of wealth and construction is virtually overwhelming.
Several years ago, Dubai realized that its enormous oil-based wealth would run out. To achieve its goal of becoming an international destination, one of the problems Dubai had to overcome was a lack of useable beachfront for tourists.
Accordingly, the most ambitious land reclamation project in the history of man was undertaken. It is known as the Palm Islands and when it is complete in approximately 2005, it will add an additional 120 kilometres of beachfront to two palm-leaf-shaped islands.
I arrived to a daytime temperature hovering between 45 and 50 degrees Celsius, known locally as “the sauna.” In summer months, life consists of dashing from air-conditioning to airconditioning. It does not cool off at night and in fact, it is almost labourious to go for an evening walk.
While Dubai is Islamic, it is a much more relaxed state than most of its surrounding neighbours. Women are not required to cover up, but many do. Some women who cover up wear a long black cloak called an abeyya, which covers everything from head to foot. Otherwomen may instead wear a black headscarf.
One of the most interesting sights I saw in Dubai was a family where the wife was dressed totally in black; she somehow managed to eat her brunch food by pulling her veil out from her body with one hand, while slipping the food up underneath the veil and into her mouth.
The Iranian influence in Dubai cannot be understated. I learned that upward of 500,000 Iranians settled in Dubai after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. They brought a great deal of wealth, knowledge, and business acumen with them. Dubai has prospered unbelievably since the arrival of this major impetuous.
Dubai is a remarkable place well on its way to becoming a major international destination. In September 2003, it was announced that a Disneyland theme park would be built upon 185 million square metres of desert. “Dubailand” will have a ski slope and an artificial rain forest under an enormous glass dome. The budget is $5 billion.
Travelling from Dubai to Tehran is one of the most startling comparisons that could probably be made on a short flight. You leave a futuristic city of enormous wealth and vitality to arrive in a dreary, grimy, and economically depressed city of 12 million people.
I saw little or no ongoing construction in Tehran and instead saw many abandoned buildings that have obviously been sitting vacant for many years. The cars were old. The women wore only Islamic dress. It was like I had travelled two hours in a plane and gone back 30 years. The cars were old. The women wore only Islamic dress. It was like I had travelled two hours in a plane and gone back 30 years.
When the pilot announced that our arrival was imminent, most of the women got up from their seats and went to the washroom to change from
Western fashion to Islamic dress. The second announcement stated that alcohol is strictly prohibited in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Lonely Planet, the gospel publication for world travellers, describes Tehran as “grim” and cautions visitors to leave as quickly as possible. I stayed in Tehran approximately four days and certainly agree with that advice. The city is huge, chaotic, and extremely polluted. There are virtually no traffic control devices or traffic police.
In its description of night life in Tehran, Lonely Planet states, “Dream on.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran
Whether under its ancient name of Persia or today’s Iran, it is a vast country that sprawls between Turkey and Iraq to the west and Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east. Its population is approximately 70 million. It is rich in resources. Major oil discoveries have recently been found.
During the reign of the Shah, Iran displayed a high standard of living that was Western in its outlook.
In the late 1970s, the Shah’s efforts to save his tottering regime became increasingly desperate and brutal. US support began to falter.
Although in exile in Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini was the leading Shiite cleric; he was immediately acknowledged as the leader of the opposition to the Shah. Khomeini brought with him a fiery brand of nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism that came to symbolize the Iranian revolution. Khomeini set out at once to establish a clergy-dominated Islamic republic. A reign of terror soon ensued. The country came close to civil war, only to be plunged into eight bitter years of war against Iraq.
I consider the Iranian Revolution one of the most significant events of the 20th century. The West witnessed a revolution that swept aside a powerful leader who had linked his country and its prosperity to the industrialized world, in particular to the United States. The Shah was replaced by an Islamic Revolution that came out of nowhere. Suddenly, the Shah was out, the Ayatollah was in, and the American Embassy was being held hostage.
An Islamic constitution was proclaimed. The West soon began to hear things such as the age of marriage for girls was lowered to 9 years.
You cannot visit Tehran without noticing and experiencing the politics. The face of Ayatollah Khomeini dominates the country. His picture is seen in public buildings, offices, and on large murals adorning the sides of tall commercial buildings.
Ayatollah Khomeini was succeeded by Ayatollah Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader. Khamenei and his supporters are the main leaders of power in Iran; they have control over the judiciary, the security apparatus, the armed forces, and most of the media. Just a few weeks prior to my trip, thousands of students had again rioted in Tehran. Thousands were rumoured to have been arrested.
It is apparent that a near-constant struggle is being played out in Iranian society between the conservative ruling clerics who want to maintain the Islamic Revolution and seemingly everyone else—those who are seeking more personal freedoms, more democracy, free speech, and more and better jobs. No one seems happy. Life for most appears to be a struggle.
Just before I arrived, Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death by her interrogators. This was a major news story both in Canada and in Iran. The prosecution of the wrongdoers is being played out as a major political event in Iran—between the conservative clerics who want to cover it up and the reformers who want to prosecute the wrongdoers. Canada recalled its ambassador while I was there; that was a major news event in some papers.
It seems evident that if the government cannot sort out such a simple matter as to whether or not to charge any wrongdoers with the appropriate blame arising from Kazemi’s death, that is indicative of how inefficiently governed the country
Huge political murals dominate downtown Tehran, depicting injured or killed soldiers in the Iran-Iraq war and Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei together. One prominent mural was of a Hamas suicide bomber, with a proclamation that Iran supports the struggles of Hamas. Perhaps the most notable was a 10-storey mural that said “Death to America” with a drawing of a man dropping bombs onto an American flag.
Political rhetoric was everywhere, but I got the impression the populace was largely tired of it all and did not really support the political messages.
The site of the former American Embassy is now known as the “The Den of Spies.” Today, it is an Iranian military base. The outside walls of the compound show murals of Ayatollah Khomenei, US helicopters crashing on the desert, American marines surrendering, and the like—all meant to humiliate the US.
It was clear that the politics of Iran were such that the clerics had a stranglehold on Iranian society that was causing public frustration, particularly among students. There seemed to be a great deal of criticism of the prevailing government, which is led by reformist President Khatami. The dissatisfaction appears due to his seeming inability to push through substantial reforms to moderate the conservative ruling clergy.
Change is very slow but has occurred. For example, I was told that lyrics in music have been allowed again in the last two years.
I describe life in Iran as “Taliban lite.” Iran is certainly an Islamic state in every respect. The ruling clergy are the supreme leaders of the country. The elected parliament has influence but little real power. Women are required to be modest at all times. The sexes are clearly segregated in matters such as swimming or working out, but unlike Saudi Arabia, women are allowed to work with men and are allowed to drive a vehicle.
As much as I admired and enjoyed Dubai and its accomplishments, it is really Iran that has taken hold of my interest and I long to return to Persia—anywhere, that is, except to Tehran itself.