(This turned out kinda long. Forgive.)
I was teaching a couple of basic courses for mechanics, for one of the American big three. It wasn’t my usual job, I mostly did instructional design back then: Needs analyses and training development and that sort of thing. Most of the off-the-shelf courses weren’t really suitable for illiterate audiences, and UAE companies mostly imported their mechanics from places that didn’t produce the kind of guy you really want working on your brand-new Caddy.
But we’d just got this contract and weren’t staffed up for it yet, and the default strategy for such things back then was put Joel on a plane and let him muddle through. Except when it screwed up my own project schedule, which was frequently, I didn’t really mind and Dubai wasn’t quite the hole I usually ended up in. It was an interesting time in my career, but I digress.
There was this office manager, a really pleasant and almost supernaturally competent Indian lady. I remember her because she was just about the only competent person I’d met in the whole place, including the company rep who was as gringo as I was. Kinda stuck in my mind. He was in Bahrain at the time as I recall. It was just the OM and me.
Anyway, it’s mid-morning and I’m doing my thing and everything’s going fine. Then the OM comes into the classroom and tries to get my attention without saying anything, and that surprised me because she’d never done that before. Don’t disturb the class was pretty clearly a local rule, and she was pretty clearly breaking it.
So I excuse myself, walk over to see what’s going on, and this lady seems pretty upset. “There are going to be riots,” she says. “The least that will happen is that the taxis will stop running.”
We’d all gotten there by taxi. Without taxis we were all in for a helluva walk, because this place wasn’t exactly downtown. I didn’t have a canned plan for this sort of thing, so I went to the local expert. “What do you think we ought to do?”
“I don’t have authority to tell you what you should do.”
Oh. Sure. Throw it to the new guy. “But you don’t think we should stay here, do you?”
She was actually wringing her hands. She wasn’t trying to be difficult, and it suddenly occurred to me that she had a particular reason for concern.
A little background here: There was this big old mosque in India, and earlier in the month a whole bunch of Hindus tore it down. I really hadn’t paid any attention, which was stupid of me. In India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims were always climbing up each others’ asses and who cared, right? Didn’t have anything to do with me, and India was far away. That’s how much I knew.
But before the day was over it might have quite a lot to do with this OM, who was as Hindu as you can get without immolating yourself on your husband’s pyre. No, I was pretty sure she’d been out of town when the mosque got torn down, but that wouldn’t make any difference to an angry mob. You think I’m kidding? I’m not.
This lady wanted to go home, right frickin’ now. But she didn’t want to lose her good job at this gringo company, which meant a gringo had to tell her to go home and I was the only one there. I was a contract teacher. I had as much authority to command the birds of heaven as I did to tell her what to do, and we both knew it.
The Yemeni students weren’t in any danger, they’d probably join the riots. I probably wasn’t in any danger: This was the UAE in 1992 and Americans were still the good guys. But this lady felt herself in danger and she might not be overreacting. At a minimum we were in some danger of getting stranded. I made a command decision for which I had zero authority:
“Call us some taxis.” She vanished like a soap bubble, and when the vans showed up we bugged out.
Now, by local standards Dubai was a pretty civilized place back then. That’s the way the Emir liked it and the Emir got what he liked. I wasn’t expecting flames on the horizon, but I’d been around the Gulf enough to know I wasn’t always going to get what I expected. So I saw the OM and the students back to their respective apartments in our crowded vans, and then I hot-footed it back to my unusually fancy hotel and declared this a good day to stay there.
The Dubai riots started out as unabashedly state-sponsored demonstrations against the vile Indians, just showing solidarity with their oppressed brothers. When the demonstrations got a little out of hand, the local cops let a few Indian shops get trashed just for laughs and then broke it up with AK47s before anything expensive got broken. It was all over before nightfall except for sweeping up the glass.
That business with the Babri Mosque was a much bigger deal than some bad movie, and most of the Muslims I met frankly didn’t seem very worked up about it. But there’s something about Islam that doesn’t like to be dissed. It’s really a remarkably dissable religion in many ways unfortunately, and that lends itself to angry mobs. People who do business in the region should be aware of that. The mobs don’t confine themselves to the actual culprits. That’s not a good thing, in fact it’s a contemptibly stupid thing. But it’s a fact, and nobody’s gonna change it.
Tear down a 500-year-old Mosque, shoot a movie ridiculing Mohammed, spend decades occupying Muslim countries and blowing up the people there: It’s all pretty much the same thing. There may not be sensible repercussions but there will be repercussions. I used to spend a lot of time in various places around the Gulf and to tell the truth I used to enjoy it quite a lot. But you couldn’t coerce me to go there now.