Monday, 3 March 2008

Dubai: The pain and the glory

Today, I'm yielding my spot to Boo Chanco, my former boss at the Manila Chronicle, who was in Dubai last week as one of the media observers in Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap's entourage. Sir Boo writes a business-oriented column in the Philippine Star.

Dubai: The pain and the glory

By Boo Chanco
Monday, March 3, 2008

Thursday afternoon in the Middle East is like a Saturday afternoon back home. As we walked into the villa that houses the Philippine consulate, Consul General Benito Valeriano explained that Thursday is a busy day for the Consulate... marrying lovestruck OFWs. Photos of those intending to get married fill up the bulletin board in the public area of the consulate.

I spent a few days last week in Dubai to check out our efforts to tap the very promising export market in agricultural products there and incidentally came across the pain and the glory that describes the OFW experience in this gateway to the riches of the Middle East. There were outstanding stories of success... of ordinary refugees from our country’s economic hardships finding their big pot of gold. There were also heartbreaking stories of abuses and bad luck that make your heart cry out.

Dubai is a city of many faces in the heart of the oil rich Arabian peninsula. Dubai is Arabic, yet multinational and very cosmopolitan. It is ruled by an emir and is part of a federation of seven small states or emirates. An unofficial study commissioned by a federal body which advises the government revealed just last week that the population of the United Arab Emirates is now 5.6 million as of the end of 2006, up from 4.1 million, the last official figure at the end of 2005.

The strange thing about Dubai is that foreigners outnumber natives. The study, showed there were only 866,779 Emirati citizens among the population of over 5.6 million, the daily Al-Bayan said. Foreigners numbered 4,764,356, or 84.6 percent of the total population.

The last official figures showed 825,000 Emirati citizens, or just 21.9 percent. The study revealed the natives are now just 15.4 percent of the population. The latest study clearly showed that the native population of the oil-rich Gulf Arab country is steadily dwindling as more foreigners flock to the UAE, amid a spectacular economic boom and what is euphemistically known as the “demographic imbalance.”

The large foreign population gives it the feel of a melting pot of nationalities and cultures that explains its very international feel. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Dubai in particular is very tolerant of religions other than Islam. Catholic churches are allowed, which is one reason our Pinoy community feels more at home there than elsewhere in the region.

There are officially 250,000 Filipinos in the emirates but I am told the number is more likely at least a hundred thousand more and rising. Many Pinoys go to Dubai ostensibly as tourists and just change status after they are able to get a job.

While the booming economy creates a lot of jobs, Ares Gutierrez, a journalist I used to work with at the defunct Manila Chronicle, warns that life there is no cakewalk.

If I had my rathers, Ares declared, I’d rather be home.

With inflation in the teens, the cost of living is high and can pose quite a challenge for the Pinoy fresh off the early morning Emirates direct flight from Manila.

Ares told a group of visiting journalists that renting a bed space can set an immigrant back at least 700 dirhams a month, which at P11 to a dirham is equivalent to P7,700. Ares explains that to save money, bed sharing has been devised, which is exactly what it suggests... two unrelated people sleeping on the same bed.

But there are spectacular success stories that encourage the ordinary OFW to hope and persevere.

One such success story is Rowena “Weng” Jamaji, originally from Olongapo. She was one such OFW in Dubai some years ago until she and her Iranian husband started a construction company. She told me that initially, her husband continued working as an executive in a construction company so they could cover the bills. Then Weng’s Midas touch started to work and they are now rich beyond any ordinary Pinoy’s dream, myself included.

Weng and husband Minoo and their three children live in a palatial home in Dubai’s most exclusive district. I saw in their garage a Rolls Royce, a Hummer, three or four Benzes of various types and I understand they have other cars I didn’t see. Given the construction boom in Dubai, Minoo told me they have clients begging them to accept their projects. He and Weng employ some 6,000 workers and are in the market for at least a thousand more.

Then, there is Vivian Economides, a Pinay married to a Greek, and she owns the Majestic Hotel where our group of journalists stayed. And, there’s Isabelita Sabado Warren who runs a trading company with her husband Glen. In fact, in a party Weng hosted for us in her home, we met more Filipinas who did extremely well in the Middle East and one thing they had in common was sheer determination to succeed and a firm control of finances. Those tough Pinays control the purse strings of their businesses.

But then, there are the heartbreaking stories of those who not only failed to meet their Arabian lamp genie but whose lives turned for the worse.

A local paper carried the story of a Pinay who was sideswiped by a speeding car while she was waiting for her ride to work. She suffered broken bones and some bleeding in her brain and is now undergoing therapy. She is worried about how to support the education of her children back home in the meantime. She is hoping to collect damages from the car owner.

The afternoon we were at the consulate, Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap listened to the sad stories of four more OFWs and I am told they were typical of the difficulties our people suffer in search of a better life for their families. Hearing their stories puts a human face on the cold remittance figures that our officials routinely tout as their economic achievements.

Indeed, to the visiting Pinoy journalist, Dubai could well be an overseas colony of Imperial Manila.

Tagalog is widely spoken anywhere you go. Jollibee and Chowking are there. And Dindo Amparo, ABS-CBN News bureau chief is a local celebrity because they see him covering the local community’s activities and airing them on Balitang Middle East on ANC and The Filipino Channel (TFC).

Dubai’s key role as gateway to the Middle East market makes it an important place for Filipino business groups to show their wares.

That’s exactly what a few brave souls did last week at the GulFood Exhibition where 2,500 companies participated. Our Philippine exhibit area was pathetic compared to those of Thailand and Malaysia but that is also a reflection of how things are back home.

One gets an impression of how far Thailand and Malaysia have gone in terms of food manufacturing. Even their packaging is generally better looking than ours.

We can’t even completely blame government for our less than competitive appearance at GulFood because I understand in the case of Thailand and Malaysia, the driving force is really the private sector. I would have expected San Miguel to have a big presence in this exhibit as our largest food processor but they were hardly there... not even for the country’s sake.

Among our private sector participants, one has to give credit to the daring entrepreneurship of Mega sardines and Fortress Food. Michelle Tiu Lim Chua of Mega Sardines was particularly upbeat about the export prospects of this local brand.

What struck me with Fortress food, on the other hand, is the sheer bravado of seeking the export market for their canned Kaldereta Mechado and Kare Kare even before they really gain headway in the Philippine market. Fortress Food was also trying to sell Kalderetang Kambing, Sinampalukang Kambing and Papaitang Kambing under the Golden Farm brand.

Given the large Pinoy community not just in Dubai but in the whole region, it seems the Pinoys alone can support the popular Pinoy brands. At least one Arab is betting on Pinoys... Abu Nader employs an almost all Pinoy team of workers in his Philippine supermarket which looks like a grocery store in a provincial capital. His shelves carry familiar brands from Universal Robina, Oishi, Sunflower biscuits, Purefoods, among many others. Even the Nestle and Del Monte products there are Philippine made.

But the biggest opportunities are in the export of fresh fruits, particularly bananas.

From what I heard during meetings with traders, they can take any quantity we can produce and we already supply 99 per cent of all bananas sold at the UAE. But they urged Agriculture Secretary Yap to make sure we maintain the quality of our banana exports. Some less than desirable stock has reached the Middle East and is starting to harm our reputation.

Three days were just too short to get a good grip of what Dubai is in the context of our country and our people. But it was enough for me to know first hand that this is one major world capital that should have our attention. Dubai is indeed, our gate city to the riches and promises of the Middle East.

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