February 11, 2008

Dubai-speak-Washinton Bureau at McClatchy Newspapers

Dubai In a place as diverse and cosmopolitan as Dubai — home to about 180 nationalities — English is the lingua franca. But it’s not the English you hear on newscasts; this city-state has developed its own Persian Gulf patois that reflects the polyglot communities residing here.

Dubai-speak is sprinkled with corporate jargon, South Asian inflections, guttural Russian, acronyms for everything, cheeky British expressions, and plenty of euphemisms to protect the emirate’s Pleasantville image. Many thanks to Rola, Rima and Katia for schooling me on the local lingo. If readers have other “only in Dubai” expressions, please leave them in the comments section. Thanks!

Locals: Emiratis, the original (and now vastly outnumbered) residents of the United Arab Emirates

Expats: Foreigners, but usually reserved for the more affluent expatriates here to work for huge multinational corporations

Skilled laborers: Quaint term for the other class of expats — the 2 million or more migrant workers who toil in the construction and service industries

Bachelors: A large subset of the skilled laborers, sometimes derogatory term usually referring to the hordes of single men who live here. It’s not uncommon for buildings or districts to ban “bachelors” out of fear that they’ll ogle women or make trouble. A local English-language daily had this description of the word in a 2006 story about “bachelors” being kicked out of one area: “Bachelors include married people living alone or unmarried men or women renting rooms in villas or old houses.”

Emiratization: The government’s nascent program for easing Emiratis into the workforce in hopes of reducing the reliance on foreign labor and weaning locals from federal handouts that provide them with homes and educations. Expats sneer at the program, saying Emiratis are too spoiled to work. Those who do appear behind a mall cash register or in a front office are dismissed as “decor.”

The Vision: A reference to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s 2006 book, “My Vision: Challenges in the Race for Excellence.” Dubai’s ruler details the vision behind the emirate’s stunning construction and tourism booms. In private — and only in private — there are snide references to the book, as in, “Is that rain? What? How can it be? Rain was NOT in The Vision!” 

The World: Emblematic of Dubai’s over-the-top projects, The World is an archipelago of artificial islands, shaped like the continents of the earth, off the coast of Dubai. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Richard Branson, Rod Stewart and other celebs are among those rumored to have sprung for a private island.

The Universe: Yep, it’s the World, only bigger! The same developers are now building on an archipelago of reclaimed islands in a depiction of the sun, planets and moons of the solar system.

Rent-a-Sheikh: When American or British public relations reps for major projects need an Emirati face for major PR events such as development launches or ribbon cuttings, they consult their Rolodexes for an appropriate mid-level royal to invite for the cameras. Privately, they call this the Rent-a-Sheikh route.

Modhesh Modhesh: The yellow, sun-inspired mascot of Dubai. The creature was born as a marketing tool for the Dubai Summer Surprises marketing campaign, then became a local icon. Modhesh, Arabic for “amazing,” is plastered across billboards throughout Dubai. The Modhesh overkill has inspired a backlash. One blog commentator wrote: “Someone should hunt down Modhesh with a large elephant gun and blow that smirking, self satisfied, fake smile off his bloated, cherubic yellow face!”   

Emirates: Not the place, the airline. Emirates is Dubai’s super-luxe carrier where even economy-class passengers get hot hand towels, leg room and personal in-seat TV screens outfitted with video games, several radio stations and blockbuster movies. Passengers on a flight this week could choose from The Darjeeling Limited, Gone Baby Gone, Sicko, Michael Clayton and many other titles.

OTT: Over the top, not exclusive to Dubai, of course, but used by the few commentators here that dare to hold up a mirror to this glitzy, frenetic land of superlatives.

Emaar: Dubai’s public joint-stock company and one of the world’s largest real estate companies. Signs are ubiquitous; Emaar is behind many of the OTT projects under way. It’s part of the Dow Jones Arabia Titans index.

Absconded: Term for domestic laborers, frequently South Asians or Filipinos, who flee their employers/sponsors with no notice. Their photos are sometimes printed in the “absconded workers” section of the newspaper to alert other potential employers that the worker has fled. Many of the workers have fled abuse; critics liken the newspaper ads to the “runaway slave” notices of the slavery-era United States.

Shag pad: A second residence, typically a tony apartment in a sparkling tower, kept by married Emirati or other wealthy businessmen for clandestine meetings with prostitutes or mistresses.

5 khandred: 500, said in a thick, mock-Eastern European accent. This is the reported going rate for the omnipresent Russian prostitutes who frequent hotel bars and shopping malls. Expats have turned the term into slang for any dubious encounter, as in, “Hmm, you’re into work late this morning. What happened last night? Did you have a 5 khandred?”

Cyclone: This massive nightclub-turned-brothel was the stuff of legend — until the government finally closed it in the past year. Once dubbed the “United Nations of Prostitution,” you could find as many 500 working girls from all over the world on any given night. Prices varied according to nationality, with Moroccans at the top and Chinese at the bottom. It was considered corporate etiquette for American and British firms to treat visiting Saudi or other Gulf clients to an evening there. Too stubborn to go away, Cyclone is now used as a generic term for any house of ill repute.

Visa hop: Visas need periodic, largely symbolic renewal, which require leaving the Emirates if only for a day. The most popular places to visa hop are Iran’s nearby Kish Island (where no visas are required) or to Oman.

Entry ban: If you leave a job, your employer has the right to request an entry ban that would prevent you from working in the Emirates for a year. This is to discourage Dubai’s active headhunters from poaching talented professionals in a number of competitive fields. You can’t jump from job to job without running the risk of a ban.

CID: Criminal Investigation Department, a division of the police force. Its officers are sometimes called the secret police, although they are featured on this entertaining official Web site of the Dubai Police. Prostitutes and suspected homosexuals are targeted along with drug traffickers, alcohol vendors, rapists and killers. It should be noted that crime levels are extremely low in the Emirates, though not as nonexistent as Dubai’s publicity machine portrays it.

The Hole: This is an alcohol bootlegger’s shop just over an hour away in the emirate of Ajman. The owners are known to sell to any customer, even those without the coveted — and hard to come by — liquor licenses. (Alcohol is served in Dubai hotels, but buying it for private consumption is trickier.)

DSF: Dubai Shopping Festival, the annual pilgrimage to the altar of consumerism. Held at the beginning of every year, DSF attracts some 3 million visitors with half-off sales, tourism packages and promises of a balmy respite from European winters.

Defense Roundabout Syndrome: Inertia that afflicts residents of the upscale area near the Defense Roundabout, an intersection on the happenin’ main thoroughfare of Sheikh Zayed Road. Everything is so convenient and luxurious that residents often don’t emerge from this bubble for days.

Jumeirah Janes: The ladies-who-lunch set who live in an expensive, bouganvillea-strewn district of Dubai. Poking fun at the stereotype of the pampered Western expat wife, there was a hair salon named Jumeirah Jane and even a book of poetry.

Mirdif Mollys: Like the Jumeirah Janes, but in yet another up-and-coming district.

Deira: The past-its-prime old center of Dubai, marked by the picturesque dhows and small shipping boats at the port along Deira’s shore of Dubai Creek. Not the place to see and be seen.


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