April 5th, 2009

jamie stewart

You talkin' to me?


I ran a little experiment just now, about two minutes ago, in which I was the yardstick, the judge, the petri dish, and the audience, all rolled into one.

I logged into Desert Blogger without the faintest idea what to write about ('tis been a long day, compounded by the fact that Man U snatched a 3-2 win against Villa in the dying seconds of the game) and thought, "well, I'll open a couple of news stories from the region, pass judgement - as is the blogger's self-satisfying right - and post something witty and clever."

The first article I happened across concerned taxi drivers in Dubai, and the Dubai Road and Transport Authority's (RTA) decision to impose a minimum fare, as of five days ago. The minimum fare is not huge - equivalent to £2.50, less than the starting price of the meter in London - but the comments at the foot of the story told more of a Dubai story than the story did. So what is the story, morning glory?

In a nutshell: 
One person disagreed with the policy;
Another spat blood at the flagrant disregard for their human rights displayed by the RTA;
Another thought it wise to point out that the policy was merely under consideration, and yet to be instigated, which was at odds with the report itself; 
A fourth hit out at imposed targets for taxi drivers, and the chunk of the drivers rightly-earned wage that the RTA takes as a matter of course;
Somebody else said "this is completely preposterous";
Somebody else said it was "very reasonable";
Another said "great job";
Somebody else posted an ill-educated comment concerning the positive environmental impact;
And me?

I see the driver's point. They don't wish to be subjected to an hour-long trafic jam for the sake of a few dirhams. The public, on the other hand, don't wish to pay more than they feel they should for a drive to the shops.

Let me add, in the summer here in Dubai, last summer in fact, at 2pm one late July afternoon, the temperature reached 51 degrees c. It's fair enough to play upon the environmental cost of multiple short-distance taxi rides, but at 51 degrees? I consider myself a good, global warming-fearing man, with absolute faith in science. To use the term "god fearing" would be an insult to the IPCC. And to add, I can walk a long, long way. But 51 degrees? The way it stings the roof of your mouth when you breath, and the literal wall of heat that you casually stroll into upon exiting an air-conditioned space, that threatens you with a blunt, wooden club of stolid humidity, has to be felt to be believed.

This is ONE HOT COUNTRY. One with no public transport beyond a scant bus network (although the under-construction Metro system is due to open on 9th September), and the subject of the article, the taxi service.

Now we all know that to build a city in the desert in unsustainable. Say what you will, blow the horn of green construction and sustainable development, life on a city-wide scale, in a place with barely any fresh water, that cannot support the growth of crops without expending copious amounts of energy, is, as we all know, unsustainable. And this, to my best guess, is the source of the complaints and counter-complaints featured in the report in question.

It's hot, so you need a cab.
Everybody drives, because there's no public transport.
Hence, you struggle to find a cab. So many people live here, almost 2 million in a state barely the size of central London. The frustrations of life in Dubai, beyond the tourist existence and glossy brochures, are tolerable, but they exist. And occasionally, they boil, and burn.

The problem is awareness. The line between governance and the subjects of governance, in a state that contains no check or balance mechanisms, is a chasm at best; an utter black hole at worst. One in which your most effective means of exercising any semblance of democratic rights, is to comment on an online story. As Robert De Nero's (my hero!) Taxi Driver said: "You talking to me?"

No. I'm talking to anyone who will listen.

Get that, if you will. Your most effective means of exercising any semblance of democratic rights, is to comment on an online story. As opposed to protesting (illegal), or writing to your representative (without opposition to government, there is no need for representation), or associating with a group (there is no freedom of association), or lobbying (there is no freedom of expression).
And what do the comments on the report tell us..? That nobody has any idea what is going on. Has the law been imposed? Will it be imposed? Is there any way of finding out if this law is law, or merely lore? With no one waiting to take your place, why should you, the man in charge, care about doing an effective job? Does anyone care what I say? Is anyone listening? Or are you all enjoying a cosy siesta? (It is rather hot outside, after all.)

I'm reading a book by Noam Chomsky at the moment. It's a good 'un. While discussing manufactured consent, he picks up on another author's past reference to the masses as "the beast". A beast which leaders have recognised for centuries must be kept in line.

If we're talking human nature, I fail to see the distinction between "the beast", and the wilful voice of a peaceful majority, just trying to get by. Sometimes, if you feel like you're being kept in line, it's easy to wonder just which side of the line this so-called "beast" resides upon.

email: desert_blogger@hotmail.com