Taxi Drivers Keep Their Ears to the Ground

People in Dubai complain about the traffic – with some justification. Driving in Dubai, or anywhere else in the UAE for that matter, is a frustrating, not to mention risky, business.

Why is that so? Three main reasons: the sheer volume of vehicles, the drivers themselves and the weather.

With the exception of the last couple of months, when the global economic downturn finally reached Dubai’s sandy shoreline (the length of which has been extended many fold by the famous Palm Islands), the emirate has been exploding with growth.

Over the last five years or so, this tiny place in the Arabian Gulf has become a Mecca for bankers, investors, real estate developers and tourists from just about everywhere. Many people think that’s a good thing. I don’t necessarily share their view, but that’s a topic for another day.

Galloping Growth

One of the downsides of Dubai’s climb to the top of the international destination of choice list, is that the pace of infrastructure development, despite the government’s best efforts, has simply not kept up with the Ruler’s vision of galloping growth.

I use the word ‘galloping’ deliberately. Besides being a visionary of astonishing proportion, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, and the Ruler of Dubai (see www.sheikhmohammed.ae) , is also an accomplished equestrian, competitive endurance rider and owner of some of the world’s winning-est thoroughbred racehorses.

Anyway, to make a long story short, there are too many vehicles on too few roads in Dubai (that’s my opinion, I hasten to add, it’s not something I’ve researched), although the gap between volume and capacity may narrow as a result of the economic downturn.

Whoa !?

The Abu-Dhabi-based National newspaper reported last week that the number of cars abandoned by owners in Dubai to escape loan payments doubled to more than 3,000 in 2008 compared with 2007.

Interestingly, the story headline “Park and fly takes on a new meaning,”  combined with the figure of 3,000 in the story’s first paragraph, fueled the online and offline rumour mills at lightening speed.

A plethora of blogs gleefully trumpeted (with ironic abandon lol), Dubai’s demise based on the “fact” that 3,000 cars had been left at the airport by financially strapped owners as they fled the country. I personally had at least three people tell me the shocking news of multi-level lots littered with everything from BMWs to Ferraris.

Word for word, what the National article ACTUALLY said was:

Police recently removed 22 cars dumped at Dubai International Airport after owners fled the country leaving a trail of debt behind. Cars have also been abandoned at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

Ah. But that was in paragraph three. Oh dear. If people only took the time to READ, and understand what they read, before going off half-cocked and passing on information the veracity of which they have failed to check. (If you find any such inaccuracies or misinformation in this blog or website, please let me know.)

Oops. I started out talking about traffic, but seem to have taken a wrong turn down Recession Road.

On the traffic congestion issue, I can’t say with certainty that there are fewer cars on the road in Dubai or not, although it feels as if there could be.

Likewise, I don’t know if the recession is sapping horsepower and slowing down Dubai’s drive to even more growth, but it feels as if it might be.

Taxi Drivers Tell it Like It Is

But, as Oprah says, there’s one thing I know “for sure.” I know for sure that I went to a party last night, and I took a taxi there and back.  When I asked the drivers “How’s business?” both told me it’s down.

On the return trip, my chauffeur offered concrete evidence. He said that during 2007 on a normal Thursday or Friday night (our weekends in the UAE), his average “take” totaled somewhere in the neighbourhood of AED 900 (EUR 190; USD 245). Over the last few weeks, he says, his gross returns have averaged less than half that.

He told me he used to refuse trips to neighbouring Sharjah, because he was so busy in Dubai that it wasn’t in his best interests to go so far. Now, he gratefully accepts those fares because he has fewer customers.

And while his partly commissioned-based salary has fallen by 25% due to the decline in business, yesterday his employers increased by 60% the amount they deduct from his salary for rent.

I take what I read, see, and hear in the mainstream media (and online), with a grain of salt – justifiably so I think. But I tend to believe what taxi drivers tell me.

True, they must keep their eyes on the road, and their hands on the wheel, especially when driving in Dubai. But somehow they also manage to keep their their ears to the ground, and then, when asked, they tell it like it is…