Abu Dhabi is hosting a meeting of Bishops and senior Christian leaders from across the Gulf. They are coming from the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches. They are here to talk about tolerance and building peace in this troubled region. When you arrive into Abu Dhabi you almost immediately notice that it is new and shiny – the sun shines almost constantly and the buildings seem to compete in their desire to draw your attention. The tallest, the one with the most gold leaf, the biggest palace and even the wonkiest all seem to clamour for your attention. No wonder Abu Dhabi is now laying claim to be the new city of gold taking over from its near neighbour Dubai. It is also articulating a form of Islam that is about tolerance, respect and openness.
During a short stay you can experience the paradox that makes the UAE so intriguing. I heard stories of the open-mindedness that the UAE is rightly proud of and that it works hard to show the wider world. Yet here is a world built on some other less positive attributes that are covered behind the veil. Out to sea in the harbour, just out of sight, are nestled dozens of freight ships – according to Mission to Seafarers – many are hosting crews from across Asia, most have not been home for months and many have not seen any pay for just as long. What (or even who!) is moved on these ships is also often hard to determine as many from across the Gulf and Indian ocean look to pan for their own gold in the region – the movement of people into the region by whatever means is becoming more common place..
Just about every apartment in Abu Dhabi is built with an extra small room for the maid. Nothing especially sinister about that. Unless you happen to spend an afternoon with the Philippine Embassy – here the conference room has been turned into a make shift dormitory for the many Philipino maids who have fled the service they readily joined. Stories of confiscated passports, 12 hour days, 6 ½ day weeks and physical and sexual mistreatment are shared openly and routinely by the women. Here they are safe as they await the chance to return home.
Get up early enough in the morning and not only do you see the most amazing sunrise but you will see the huge workforce that has built the amazing city you see glistening before you. As the migrant workforce of men from across South Asia leave the labour camps outside the city and make their way in trucks to the latest building project – hundreds of them, wrapped up against the beating sun, joking and laughing with one another as they go. Hoping, I assume, that as they build the skyscrapers in the Gulf, to be able to complete their own building projects elsewhere like Sadiq, one of my taxi drivers from Afghanistan who I chatted with on my way to the Church compound. Five years of hard work had seen him build a ‘beautiful house’ in his village in Nuristan North East of Kabul, “if I can work for three more then I should have enough to get my children through school and return home to start a business in Afghanistan”. Sadly his story is not the common tale you hear. Many migrant workers quickly become stuck in a spiral of debt and loan repayments, and with no unions permitted there is often no one to speak for them.
Plenty to contemplate as I leave the Bishops to talk and pray and head back home.