Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The United Arab Emirates, a Nation of Superlatives

As I was planning my itinerary between Los Angeles and Manama, Bahrain, I  asked how much money it would cost to extend my layover in Dubai.  As I have with other fellowship programs, I knew that it would cost a bit extra, but it was definitely worth it. For $150, I spent an additional four days touring the United Arab Emirates. 

The UAE is located just east of Saudi Arabia and north of Oman. For reference, Bahrain is located in the top left of the photo, a short two hour flight away. 

After checking into my hotel, I took off on foot to explore the neighborhood. I stayed in Old Dubai, one of the most historic and "authentic" neighborhoods in the entire country.

Portraits of the ruling family must be featured in every public building. 

As is common in many Arab countries, the ruling family and national flag are featured prominently throughout the country.  

A typical street in Old Dubai. Note the minaret in the background, where the Imam will call to prayer over the loudspeaker.

Once the Imam calls to prayer, the pious will stop what they are doing to pray on the street. In Islam, it is customary to pray five times a day. 

One of the most interesting places in Old Dubai is the Dubai Museum. Located in the Al Fahidi Fort, the museum features artifacts and displays from the Emirates past as well as exhibitions on traditional Emirati culture. 

The Dubai Museum welcomes more than 600,000 visitors every year from around the world. 

An original wall from the Al Fahidi Fort. Built in 1787, it is the oldest building in Dubai.
The outside of Al Fahidi Fort with the UAE flag in the foreground. Before 1971, there were 7 independent Emirates. In 1971, Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan united the Emirates to create a new country, the United Arab Emirates

A mannequin reading a papyrus manuscript. I'm reading my iPhone.  

A short walk from the Dubai museum is the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, which dates back to the 1890s. Walkable streets are punctuated with hip coffee shops, restaurants and fascinating street art: 
Public art can be found at every turn in Al Fahidi 
The Al Fahidi Neighborhood was saved from demolition by a conservation group in the 1980s, and has since been designated a historical site.

The XVA Art Hotel in Al Fahidi.

One art gallery featured a humorous take on daily life in Dubai. Given the extreme heat in the summer, this artist suggests that playing golf in the summer is a bad idea.

A unique take on Russian nesting dolls, with an Emirati twist.
The next day, I ventured into "new" Dubai to experience a number of extraordinary superlatives the country proudly claims-the largest indoor mall in the world, the (3rd) largest indoor ski slope in the world, the tallest tower in the world, the highest observation deck in the world, the largest fountain show in the world, and the largest man-made island in the world: 

With more than 1200 shops in 13 million square feet of retail space, the Dubai Mall is bigger than 50 football fields! 
The waterfalls at the Dubai Mall are more than three stories high
The fountains featured right outside the mall in Burj Khalifa Lake. Below is a video of the fountain show:

At 160 stories tall, the Burj Khalifa is not only the tallest structure in the world, but it it also holds the record for the highest observation deck in the world, elevator with the longest travel distance in the world, and the highest occupied floor in the world. 
View from the Burj Khalifa. Most of the skyline was built within the last 15 years

SkiDubai is the worlds third largest indoor ski slope, and is kept at a chilly 28 degrees year round. With highs in the summer reaching 120 degrees, Ski Dubai is a shocking 92 degrees cooler!

I also visited Palm Jumeirah, an artificial archipelago constructed in the shape of a palm frond. As the ultimate example of land reclamation, Palm Jumeirah has increased Dubai's coastline by 320 miles and holds the record as the world's largest man-made island. Unfortunately, recent geologic surveys suggest that it is actually sinking at a rate of 5 millimeters a year:

Approximately 10,000 people call Palm Jumeirah home. 

A screen capture of my cell phone to prove I actually visited! The Palm Jumeirah monorail runs along the spine of the island, and takes 10 minutes to reach end to end.

The following day, I ventured south to visit the Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Without a doubt, the highlight of the city is the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque. Named after Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyen, the ruler who united the Emirates in 1971, this mosque can hold up to 40,000 worshippers:

The outer dome is 279 feet high

The courtyard measures 180,000 square feet and is considered to be the largest example of marble mosaic in the world 

The Sheikh Zayed Grad Mosque has seven imported chandeliers from the Faustig Company in Munich, Germany. Each chandelier incorporates millions of Swarovski crystals. The largest chandelier measures 33 feet in diameter and is 49 feet high. 

During my tour to Abu Dhabi, I befriended two women from Atlanta and one woman from Perth, Australia. Since each lady had a son around my age, and I mentioned that I was looking to buy a present for my mom, they enthusiastically offered to help. After the tour ended, we ventured to the Gold Souk in Dubai in search of a gift for my mom. Little did I know, these ladies ran a hard bargain. Not only did they help me score a great deal on a 18 karat gold chain and pendant, but they also got the merchant to buy us dinner and beverages in the process! Thank you very much for the help-my mom loved her present! 

An example of the goods available in the Gold Souk. 

The next day, I went on a desert safari. We rode in a 1950 Series 1 Land Rover deep into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve to try our luck and see Arabian oryxes: 

The 1950 Land Rover Series 1 was revolutionary for the Middle East because it was the first all terrain vehicle that could successfully navigate the difficult desert landscape. 

The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is the UAE's first national park. Arabian Oryx, desert monitors, gazelles, and Gordons Wildcats live within it's boundaries. 

A sunset over the sand dunes

Overall, Dubai was a stimulating, albeit perplexing experience. I found the UAE to be an unintentionally fascinating country due to it's immigration laws and demographics of it's 9 million inhabitants. It is clearly a country of immigrants, with most people coming from the Phillipines and South Asia. Anecdotally, of the 700,000 Filipinos in the UAE, it appeared that they dominated the service industry while the construction industry employed a majority of people from South Asia. From my experience, it seemed that of the 240,000 UK expats in the country, most worked in managerial roles in either the oil and gas industry or in finance and banking.

 Below is a demographic breakdown of the UAE from 2015:

50% of the population, (roughly 4 million people) are from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India. Most Indians, from my time there, seem to come from the Muslim state of Kerla in the south of the country. 
Interestingly, although Emiratis only compose 20% (other sources claim as low as 10%) of the population,  they receive tremendous benefits from the government: They do not pay taxes, and the government subsidizes their college education, pays their rent, and all of their utilities. As a result, it is extremely difficult to become a naturalized citizen. One of my tour guides said that if two Emiratis  marry, the government will not only pay for their wedding, but give them a $30,000 gift as well! Needless to say, many folks try and become citizens, but the vast majority live as permanent residents their entire lives.

A Pakistani restaurant proudly displaying the UAE flag, a perfect representation of the cultural melting pot that is Dubai. 

If you have an opportunity to make it to the Middle East, make sure to visit the UAE. It's definitely worth the visit!

Until next time... 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Teachers Educating Across Cultures in Harmony (TEACH) Fellowship, Bahrain

Over Thanksgiving Break, I was fortunate enough to participate on a Teachers Educating Across Cultures in Harmony (TEACH) Fellowship to the Kingdom of Bahrain. The fellowship was financed,  organized, and administered by the Bilateral U.S. Arab Chamber of Commerce, an organization whose aim is to foster strategic connections, economic growth, and educational advancement with key decision-makers in the United States and the Middle East/North Africa. In order to realize this goal, the Chamber has developed the TEACH Fellowship to the Kingdom of Bahrain to help strengthen ties between the two nations.  The program's mission is to develop mutual understanding and respect between both countries with the hopes that educators will then return to their classrooms and communities to spread goodwill. 

Interestingly, upon telling folks about my trip, I was usually met with confusion. "Where is Bahrain?" they would ask.  This small island country is situated in the Persian Gulf, just east of Saudi Arabia and north of Qatar: 

This tiny but fascinating country is home to approximately 1.5 million people in 295 square miles. For reference, LA County is home to 10 million people in 502 square miles!

Bahrain is a small but charming country that is definitely worth the visit!

Over four jam-packed days, myself and  seven educators from around the country toured cultural and historical sites, met with prominent non profits and companies, and visited schools. I was flattered to be part of such an accomplished group of teachers-One lady was named 2015 Wisconsin State Teacher of the Year, and another was awarded a $175,000 grant from the state of North Carolina to overhaul math education in her school district! We were an exceptionally well-travelled group as well, with every member participating on multiple teacher travel fellowships. It was a truly phenomenal group of people. 

Our first site visit was the to the Shaik Ebrahim Bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa Center for Culture, a series of exhibits and galleries situated in turn-of the century antique buildings. The center was established in 2002 as a gathering point for intellectual thought, intercultural exchange, and research. Since it's inception, it has hosted more than 200 speakers, philosophers poets and thinkers on a variety of topics related to the Arab World. The physical spaces were a stunning display of antiquity and modernity: 

An example of the narrow alleyways that criss-cross the neighborhood. 

One of the many rooms for study. Note the pictures of the royal family on the back wall. 

Books written in Arabic. Like other Semitic languages such as Hebrew, books are read from right to left. 

A date palm in a traditional turn of the century building. Date palms are an integral part of Arabic culture because of the wood and (delicious) dates they provide. 

One of the most impressive sites we visited was the Qal'at al-Bahrain (قلعة البحرين‎)  Bahrain Fort. Given it's strategic position on the coastline of a heavily travelled trade route, the Bahrain Fort has been occupied by various peoples for the last 5,000 years, including the Dilmun Civilization and the Portuguese: 

The entrance to the Bahrain Fort. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005

The Flag of Bahrain. The triangles on the white represent the 5 pillars of Islam and the white represents mother of pearl, a valuable natural resource indigenous to the area. 


One of the most prominent themes we encountered on our trip is the controversial process of "reclaiming" land in Bahrain. For a small country with a booming economy, real estate is at a premium. In order for the economy grow, the government literally fills in the sea, creating new landforms:

The left image shows Bahrain in 2002, and the right image shows Bahrain in 2014. Note the tremendous addition of new land in the northern part  of the country. 

Environmentalists say that land reclamation is harming the delicate ecosystem along Bahrain's coasts, but development agencies and the government argue that more space is needed to grow the economy. 

This impressive skyline was built entirely on reclaimed land. The Bahrain World Trade Center on the left has won numerous awards for its creative architecture. 

After our visit to the Bahrain Fort, we went to the Bahrain National Museum, which sits on a piece of reclaimed land. Established in 1988, the museum was constructed at a cost of $30 million, and houses treasures and antiquities from the island's past: 

A recreation of a pearling vessel. Before modern technology, divers would hold their breath for up to 3 minutes as they collected mollusks. 

A Qu'ran made of Mother of Pearl. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the museum was the history of pearling in the region. I had noticed that pearls play a prominent part of the Gulf region's culture: 

By 1928, revenues from the pearl trade accounted for approximately 90% of the country's revenue!

The Great Depression led to a precipitous decline in the demand for pearls, and fake pearls from Japan and China decimated the Gulf region's pearl industry. By 1954, there were only 11 pearling boats. Fortunately, oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1932, and has become the country's leading export. 

Interestingly,  the only available wood in the region are palms. Since summers reach a stifling 120 degrees,  homes were built of porous palm fronds. In addition to palm dates, the fronds were a crucial part of Arabic culture and civilization. 

The next day,  we visited the Al Fateh Grand Mosque. Built in 1987 and covering a whopping 6,500 square meters, this mosque can hold over 7,000 worshippers at a time! It was a sight to behold: 

Not surprisingly, the Al Fateh Grand Mosque is the premier tourist destination in Bahrain. This place is stunning!

A hallway made of imported Italian  marble 

This chandelier was constructed and imported from Austria. The dome in the background is the largest fiberglass dome in the world. 

During our visit, the Mosque was hosting a world qualifying competition. Men from around the Arab World gathered to compete to see who could recite the longest memorized passage from the Qur'an. Judges marked them for errors and omissions. 

That night, we ventured to the Bab Al-Bahrain Souk. This tightly packed commercial zone featured competing merchants gesturing for our business. It reminded me very much of Santee Alley in Los Angeles. 

A spice vendor selling food stuffs from the Near East and South Asia. 

A typical street scene at the Souk. Interestingly enough, most of the goods sold were not from the region, but rather from India! Approximately 50% of Bahrain's residents are immigrants from India.

A merchant decided to dress me in a Keffiyah, the traditional headwear for Arab men. 

Bahrain is clearly unaffected by globalization. 

In addition to cultural and religious site visits, we also had the opportunity to visit two different schools in Bahrain. The first school we visited, Bahrain Bayan, opened in 1982. This private, K-12 school serves mostly Bahraini and Saudi Arabian children, but all classes are taught in English. High School students use the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

The Bahrain Bayan School is the premier private school in the country. Almost every student graduates bilingual in English and Arabic, and many gain admission to top universities in the UK and the US. 

Faculty and Staff of Bahrain Bayan with TEACH Fellows. Funny enough, Mr. Hamoud, the gentleman next to me in the front, used to be a Corrections Officer in LA for the California Youth Authority! Needless to say, as Dean of Students at Bahrain's top private school, he doesn't have the same disciplinary problems he had back in Southern California. 

We also had the opportunity to visit St. Christopher's School, one of the oldest and most prestigious British private schools in the Middle East. This school mostly serves British expatriate children whose parents are working in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia in the oil and gas or international finance industry. According to the headmaster, most companies will subsidize tuition for up to 3 children to attend private school while abroad. Although classes are taught exclusively in English, the student body is exceptionally diverse, with over 60 different countries represented.

Our student tour guides told us that most students stay for approximately 2-4 years before relocating to another country due to their parents jobs.  Most also go on to top universities in Europe and the UK.

We also visited with a few non-profit education organizations working to close the achievement gap in Bahrain. The first non profit we visited was INJAZ Bahrain, an organization whose aim is to inspire and prepare young Bahrainis to succeed in the global economy. INJAZ brokers relationships between  Bahraini professionals in a variety  of fields and students in order to help youth grow their skills in the areas of entrepreneurship, personal finance, and public speaking.

Like other nonprofits around the world, INJAZ Bahrain struggles for funding, and due to low salaries in the non profit world, struggles to find and retain good talent. Nonetheless, their impact is tremendous: 32,000 students have been connected with 1,200 professionals.

We met with the Bahrain Economic Development Board, whose mission is to promote economic development in the country. They also release an annual report on the state of Bahraini education and offer solutions on ways to strengthen the education infrastructure  of the country. Their annual report, which documents everything from enrollment to college graduation rates, offered a unique glimpse into the country's education system:
Boys and girls are segregated by gender after the age of 10, but boys schools vastly underperform girls schools. Boys also graduate from college and university at disproportionally lower rates than girls. 

Men are disproportionally under-represented in the teaching field in Bahrain, a similar problem in the US.  

In addition to cultural, educational, and non-profit organization visits, we also met with the Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company. Along with being the largest ammonia and methanol company in the country, they are also a leading member of the US Bilateral Chamber of Commerce and a large funder of the TEACH Program. The next time I use cleaning solutions, I'll thank GPIC!

Even though the Gulf region hosts a number of expatriates working in the oil and gas industry, GPIC proudly boasts that 90% of it's employees are Bahraini.

One of the most impressive aspects of GPIC was it's commitment to environmental sustainability, corporate responsibility, and employee development. In addition to hosting a women's empowerment Day each year, GPIC encourages employees to volunteer, (and many choose to volunteer with INJAZ Bahrain!) and has won a number corporate environmental sustainability awards as well.

Our last stop of the trip was to Peninsula Farms, one of the largest greenhouse farms in the region. They produce a variety of products including vegetables , goat milk, goat cheese, and goat milk. Given the harsh weather conditions during the summer, (with averages over 100 degrees!) it was an impressive facility:

Peninsula Farms founder Grahame Dunling and his farm's products. The son of the Bahraini Ambassador to the US, Dunling grew up in Washington DC and is a die-hard Redskins fan and organic farmer in the desert.  
Peninsula farms have 45,000 sq/ft of growing area and is operational year-round and is one of the largest sustainable, all natural greenhouse farms in the Middle East!

Overall, our 4 day excursion to the Kingdom of Bahrain was an enlightening, educational experience. Bahrain is a country that delicately balances antiquity and modernity, where tradition and globalization meet. Thank you to the US Bilateral Chamber of Commerce and the other Fellows for an unforgettable experience!

I also published an op-ed about our trip in the Huffington Post. Check it out:

And fellow Matt Cottone made a short video documenting our trip:

Until next time...