I was a stranger, migrant, pilgrim and guest worker in an abundant desert land
(I wrote this in part in my quarantine room, after a 10-hour flight from Dubai to Cebu-Clark)
ON BOARD FLIGHT EK338: Can’t stop thinking about my Mama dear. Her ashes just came out of the crematorium. My brother sent photos of the marble urn that now bears her remains. She died exactly on the day I flew home. It was my fervent wish to be at her bedside, after she had recovered from COVID. It was not meant to be.
My mum, Teresita, was a few months shy of 80 years old when she passed away. She had been bed ridden, had COVID. She and her caregiver both recovered. Eight days after her hospital discharge, my mum died in her sleep. My father, Francisco, died five years ago. Both were diabetic.
The moment our plane landed in Clark, 1 hour north of Manila, our batch of passengers was immediately taken for a 7-day mandatory quarantine. So much for long goodbyes.
Back in 95, it’s Mama’s great idea that I leave…to become a migrant worker (her two uncles were among the early batches of Filipino merchant mariners). Both my parents left this world while I lived and worked in the UAE. Now, they’re gone, and I’m coming home for good. Despite the personal loss, comforting words from colleagues and friends did help dull the pain.
Then it hit me — this flight marks the end of my life in Dubai, where countless dreams, including mine, came to be. I replayed the past in my head. Here’s one: during our family gatherings, while she was still alive, my mum would always mention in her petitions that God may give her and loved ones a “happy death”.
I thought: “How can death be a happy occasion?”
I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. Before I left the Philippines in August 1995, it was the power of her suggestion that egged me on, first to Saudi Arabia, where I worked for five years, before I moved to Dubai. A total of 25 years just came to a close. While our flight was about halfway through, cruising at 896 km/hr eastward over the Indian subcontinent, I started counting. Counting my blessings.
What those wonderful decades gave me:
In the process, I met numerous characters. Made bad decisions, too, which helped trim excesses. There were many down moments — missing important family occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, and now, even funerals.
My journey home had already been postponed at least twice earlier, thanks to the pandemic restrictions. On board Flight EK 338, those years of conscious adulthood finally came to a close. Looking back, I can’t help but be grateful: The UAE’s welcome for the millions of migrant workers like me led to countless dreams fulfilled. In my case, they went beyond even my own wild imaginings.
The country, set on the edge of the Empty Quarter, certainly one of the most arid corners of the planet, miraculously overflows with generosity — the fruits of which flow down to me and my family (I shall explain this, below) to this day. Yes, I am (or was) a stranger, migrant worker, traveler in a desert land. It defines a big part of who I am today, perhaps a mark I’d always carry with me till the end of my days.
The UAE is a land of abundance. That is, abundance of ambition, grit, tolerance, progress, goodwill.
Let me break it down:
The Emirates, as a country, knows how to dream. This trait is etched into its DNA. Abundance and generosity go together, as seen in the millions of migrant workers it embraces.
The bedrock of its great ambition: humility. It takes good advice. It welcomes talent. It has an enviable tradition of redress and suggestion. For example, we were among the first-movers to Al Khail Gate, a new community then, which had no public bus transport service initially. I suggested to the Roads and Transport Authority online to open a new bus route linking the community to the Metro. The suggestion was logged, the bus service came in no time, and feedback with a ‘thank you’ note came via SMS. “Have Your Say”, a unified system for suggestions and complaints, is where suggestions are considered, acted upon and even celebrated in Dubai.
The UAE’s ambitions are boundless. With the Mars Hope probe, for example, a pioneering spacecraft loaded with scientific instruments that map the Martian atmosphere, the UAE has become the first Middle Eastern country to ever explore the Red Planet in that sphere. Hope fills an important knowledge gap in interplanetary science.
In the Emirates, I saw an almost unmatched sort of grit. You see it in the numerous economic “freezones”, like Jebel Ali and Kizad, engines of growth in their own right. Economic freedom, like a chain reaction, unleashes energy, imagination and competition. Dubai has at least 30 such freezones. Every emirate (state) has its own. They give the country a commanding global presence in trade, commerce. We see the spirit of innovation in its unicorns like Careem (bought by Uber for $3.1 billion), and souq.com. We see it in its ambitious goals.
In terms of land area, Dubai (4,114 km²) is actually smaller than Camarines Sur (5,496 km²), one of the six constituent provinces of my home Bicol region. Mainland China may be huge; its rise didn’t come overnight. It started in the 80s with first four free trade zones: Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Guangdong and Xiamen (it now has 18). My region (one of Bicol’s island provinces, Masbate, is actually 5x bigger than Singapore) has zero free zone, zero functioning international airport.
That’s thanks to the primacy-of-Manila-at-all-costs narrative, a mindset that has crushed the energy of people in the peripheries and dominated our institutions for more than a century. It doesn’t work. I come from a small town, but several of my townmates have flown more than 7,000 km to the UAE, where they found abundance in the desert. I wonder how many Emiratis have been attracted to see, let alone live in, my own home region. Would love to welcome them, too, with whatever good things we have.
It’s patronising for some to call the Emirates a “sudden city”, or a “desert mirage”. It’s not. That epithet ignores the hard work put in day after day by the people, citizens and residents who make progress — on the ground, in the skies and in the regulations — possible.
Today, those putdowns fail miserably because of the UAE’s magnetic presence among the nations. Its remarkable skyscrapers and iconic buildings reach the heavens; its signature man-made islands can be seen from the heavens.
Its humanitarian work and aviation industry are tops, collaborating to salve the world from the pandemic through its unmatched logistics capacity: 1 in 20 of the world’s COVID vaccines has flown Emirates via Dubai.
I still remember, as a reporter, talking to builders at the foot of the then-under-construction Burj Khalifa (initially called Burj Dubai), the world’s tallest man-made structure since 2010, for an article. The thrust of the story: How to evacuate workers in case of emergency during the construction phase.
That fascinating package highlighted textbook forward planning. It’s default practice adhered to across the UAE, whether it’s building pumped hydro power plant in Hatta (Dubai), mega solar parks in Abu Dhabi, or aircraft parts for Boeing and Airbus in Al Ain. The country aspires to be at the top, and performs like an orchestra towards that big goal.
As for me, I didn’t have much to offer, in terms of skills or ideas or even my music. Yet, the UAE welcomed me. I’m all the better because of it. The country made me see the unmatched power of thinking, and doing, big.
While in the UAE, there was never a time when I didn’t see an abundance of goodwill. I frequently witnessed how the community came to each other’s aid. By “community”, I mean the eclectic mix of more than 200 nationalities who have come to call the UAE home. (I remember, early in my Gulf News career, when 12 nationalities formed part of the reporting team).
Whether someone is out of job, out of luck, or confronts a debilitating medical condition, a helping hand is there, and that too, often given anonymously. That’s not to say social protections are not in place. They are, and continuously being tweaked and improved.
Before COVID, the UAE events calendar was among the world’s most enviable — whether it’s sports, music or entertainment. In the short span of 20 years, I saw how the country’s leaders, technocrats and industry captains move in something akin to a symphony.
The events the country hosts build its credentials and contributes to its deposit of goodwill. Every sort of industry has a conference or exhibit organised in the UAE. The UAE gathers and connects the world’s best minds.
That’s the battlecry, too, of the soon-to-start Dubai Expo 2020 (which kicks off from October 1, 2021). Though the pandemic has delayed this mega-event by a year, preparations were done in earnest. It’s bound to be an event like no other.
Goodwill is a simple, yet big, word. The country and its leaders are bearers of quiet humanitarian action, whose effect permeates the farthest corners of the globe. Whether it’s welcoming foreign workers, fighting polio or the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE has become a global hub of work that helps salve the wounds of a weary world.
In sum, the UAE is a land of peace, opportunity and solidarity with the world’s neediest. It takes a heavier load, from whence arises its influence and magnetism.
Tolerance means appreciating what is meaningful to others, even if you cannot understand it. The UAE actively promotes its ethos. It has a dedicated Ministry of Tolerance. Where else can you find that?
Every year, on November 16, the country observes the International Day of Tolerance. One example of UAE’s religious tolerance: the country is home to over 200 nationalities and more than 40 churches of different Christian denominations, and a number of Hindu temples. A new Hindu temple is also now under construction in Abu Dhabi. I once visited a beautiful Sikh temple in Jebel Ali, south of Dubai, for this story, and realised: co-existence, moderation are values that endure.
At the institutional level, the country has adopted a National Tolerance Programme, with anti-discrimination and anti-hate laws. Centres to counter extremism had been set up.
The country does not shy away from these values; rather, it takes it to a higher pitch. These are all deliberate actions. The UAE promotes and spreads tolerance, moderation and respect for others as practised by the country’s founding father, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
In 2019, when Pope Francis visited the UAE, an estimated 135,000 Catholics attended the mass at the Zayed Sports City. It marked the first time a Roman pontiff visited the Arabian peninsula. It was a visit of a lifetime; I was privileged to witness it first hand, upfront on a reporting assignment that started at 4am. In Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, signed the Document on Human Fraternity, also known as the Abu Dhabi Declaration, for world peace and living together. These key moments preceded the subsequent signing of another important document, the Abraham Accords inked in September 2020.
I was born, raised Catholic in one of the Philippine islands. At about the age of 7, I had befriended a Moro, a Muslim Filipino, on a ship that took our family to Mindanao from the island of Luzon. He was a kind man. That encounter taught me early in life: We, the people who share Abraham’s faith, could share the same boat and arrive safely at our chosen destination.
As a Christian (that’s my first name, too) living in the UAE, a Muslim country, I encountered the same quiet acts of kindness on a daily basis. I knew first hand some of the traits of my Emirati hosts: polite, driven, hardworking. Their sense of positivity, their ability to dream big, the welcome given to millions of expats who live and work in the country — are providential.
I considered myself a pilgrim in the UAE. My wife Tweet and I met in Dubai’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church, built more than 50 years ago on land donated by the Ruler, the late Shaikh Rashid. We got married in 2007. It’s from the UAE where we got to visit both the Vatican and Holy Land. Between 2008 and 2013, we were blessed in the UAE with three boys — all born and raised in Dubai.
The country’s institutions, its courage and moral leadership in confronting the voices of division and destruction have always fascinated me.
UAE’s public security, infrastructure, healthcare and financial services (available on mobile phones) are among the world’s best. When you do visit the UAE, just do a quick speed test on Ookla on your mobile phone.
Yet, it continues to aspire to be the best. It celebrates its young people. Its public security are among the friendliest, but also the most competent. I don’t remember a time when I was gripped by fear walking its well-paved roads at night. There’s the one-off experience of my laptop being stolen by small-time crooks who broke into my car — the police responded with speed, professionalism. And what about the bright-coloured flowers on roadsides in a desert city? Any visitor can’t help but notice.
The UAE is a land highly intolerant of drugs, terror, crime — incompetence, too. Criminal offenders, even after conviction, are rarely named in the media though. This gives them chance to reform. The regular rhythm of pardons given by UAE rulers to prisoners, usually announced prior to major holiday celebrations, offer an abundance of second chances.
That’s justice — and mercy — institutionalised, which offers hope even for serious offenders. The same thing in the professional setting. You are given much leeway to prove your worth. If you had been promoted to, or reached your level of incompetence, you will be quietly dismissed with your full rights, and without losing your honour.
The UAE allows great ideas to have a good run. No country is perfect. But, in my mind, these are some of hard-to-miss bits: though rich with oil, the UAE made a massive push towards renewables. This push happens at every level. It has set up the world’s biggest solar farms in the desert, recently switched on a nuclear power plant and has welcomed the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), now headquartered in Abu Dhabi. There are 300 EV charging stations in Dubai alone, and juice for your electric car is free.
The UAE welcomes different tribes and tongues to its shores, where various nationalities live in harmony. A friend of mine from South Asia once quipped: “The people here (in the UAE) are kinder; I can’t say that about the people in my own country”.
Leaving the UAE is like jumping into a once-familiar territory. The Philippines, my country of birth, had for years become a distant land. I thought 20 years of welcome the UAE gave me as a guest worker was more than enough. Many expats plan to stay only for a few years; but many end up spending a lifetime. I don’t blame them.
For me, those years were thoroughly enriching. Having 3 children (all boys) born, raised and educated (in part) in the UAE, bears witness to this. The flip side was this: I’ve been longing to be with my mother at her deathbed. To care for her, not just via video. Then an opportunity came, with a work-from-home scheme my boss offered. I quickly latched on to it.
“For everything,” Ecclesiastes states, “there is a season”. “A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.” I may have left the UAE. It feels good to be home…you’re never alone, except that my mum is gone. What hasn’t left me is the memory of her love, the realisation of the power of a mother’s suggestion. And because of that, I’m truly grateful. It’s because of her that today, I discovered and hold in high regard the ambitious, tolerant, progressive, generous, kind world I saw in my second home, the UAE.
Is it too much to dream the same for my country of birth? It may happen, perhaps in another lifetime. I considered myself one of the unremarkable stones that opted to be scattered. Now is a time to gather.
The pandemic has wrought havoc for untold millions. It prevented me from being with my mum in her dying moments. But it has brought something good, quite unexpected. Providence moves in mysterious ways. Lesson learnt: do your best, even when no one is looking. Let your work do the talking. But this one, too: accept certain facts of life with equanimity.
I learnt to respect people who are courageous and ambitious yet have an abundance mindset. That’s what the UAE taught me. We still hope to visit one day. To marvel at the microcosm of a wonderful world, of impossible dreams made possible — in this blessed land. Inshallah.
Get Breaking News Alerts From Gulf News
We’ll send you latest news updates through the day. You can manage them any time by clicking on the notification icon.
This section is about Living in UAE and essential information you cannot live without.
Register to read and get full access to gulfnews.com