With the Handbrake On

COVID-19: The United Arab Emirates in Times of Crisis

An Interview with Detecon-Partner Christian Dietze in Abu Dhabi

The United Arab Emirates began locking down at the beginning of March. No foreigners have been allowed to enter the country since the middle of March. Air traffic is at a standstill. Dubai has been hit especially hard by the crisis. Although the sale of oil is not one of its main sources of income, tourism, aviation, and trade have ground to a halt. The Expo has been postponed for one year. Dubai also has high levels of debt. In contrast, Abu Dhabi (although the lockdown in this country is almost as dramatic) seems to be coping better with the crisis because of the very high oil revenues. Detecon consultant and Partner Christian Dietze heads the Detecon office in Dubai, lives with his family in Abu Dhabi, and is experiencing first-hand the first hesitant lifting of restrictions at the beginning of May. But the Emirates are by no means out of the woods, either.

Mr. Dietze, how is the situation in Abu Dhabi at present? Would you rather be in Germany?

Christian Dietze: We have been living in Abu Dhabi for eight years now and feel right at home here. Despite the current crisis, we do not sense any cause for concern at all. There have not been any shortages so far. The quality of the health care system is comparable to that of Germany. Our two children have been attending online classes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for several weeks, and this has worked out surprisingly well. An announcement has already been made that schools will not reopen until September. Work on our projects also continues. The children and I are working more than before the crisis. We have not given any thought to returning to Germany during the crisis. 

Ramadan began in the Islamic world on 23 April. How is it different this year?

Ramadan here in Abu Dhabi is always a wonderful time. Tents are set up everywhere, and people gather in them in the evenings to celebrate the breaking of the fast, the iftar. This special atmosphere is missing this year. The faithful may meet only with a maximum of five family members. The mosques are closed. Parks and beaches have been closed for six weeks. We are allowed to leave our homes solely for shopping and doctor’s appointments. Life goes on, but the handbrake is set.

The shopping malls are major points of contact in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Have they been closed, too?

The malls were closed as well. But they have been opening again since the end of April, although subject to strict regulation. For example, the number of shoppers must not exceed a maximum of 30 percent of capacity, and they close at 10 p.m. Nobody is allowed to go out at night anyway, as the national disinfection program with the complete disinfection of all public utilities, streets, and public transportation runs until 6 a.m. In general, a lot of testing is done here. Anyone entering a mall is tested. There are also drive-through tests everywhere, and 50,000 tests are performed daily.

What are Detecon employees doing in the region? Are they normally involved in projects in different countries?

We have projects in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Oman as well as here in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. The first controls and restrictions at airports were imposed at the end of February. Among other information, you had to declare what countries you had visited in the previous 14 days. Then the first flights were cancelled. At that time, we decided to fly all employees from their project countries to the countries they wanted to travel to. Since then, everyone has been working from home. However, there have been some changes since the end of April. Work is now permitted in company offices again, but only 30 percent of the workforce is allowed to be present in the office at any one time.

Are the current projects still running, or have your clients suspended the projects for the time being?

Fortunately, we do not notice any effects of the crisis right now. The ongoing projects of our clients from the telecommunications industry and ministries continue. There have even been new project inquiries and, even more amazingly, inquiries from potential new clients. Our consulting services in the telecommunications industry usually relate to projects for strategic reorientation, the rollout of new network technologies, or regulatory issues. Work of this nature has to continue even during a crisis.

But otherwise, the situation does not look so rosy even in the otherwise stable nations of Arabia, right?

Generalizations are of little value in this regard. Dubai, for example, does not live from oil. The country’s economy has focused on tourism, trade, aviation (serving as a hub between Europe, Asia, and Africa), or real estate for years. Dubai was struggling before the coronavirus crisis began. Business was not running as usual, and the absence of tourists or a postponement of the Expo hits Dubai much harder than the oil price crash. The Expo alone was expected to draw several million additional visitors and, among other measures, hotel capacities had been increased significantly. Tendencies towards overcapacity had become apparent even before then, however, including shopping malls. Where we are here in Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, oil is important. But although oil is no longer generating quite as much revenue, money is still flowing into the country. In this respect, Abu Dhabi has not been hit as hard as Dubai.

What will happen in the coming months?  

Hard to say. We can do our jobs from home or our offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Nevertheless, the lifting of the restrictions on travel will be a critical issue. The Arabs themselves are not so severely handicapped. There is no reason for us expatriates to complain, either. The situation is worse for the many guest workers from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh. They support their families at home with the money they earn here. Some of them also live under very bad conditions. I would really like to see an end to the crisis very soon for these people in particular.       


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