While working as a reporter and news anchor at a two English-language radio stations in Dubai there were a few moments when it felt like a solid news station, writes Kimberly Gale. But there were still too many stories they couldn’t touch.
I had been out of journalism school for about six months and was frustrated by the lack of job openings in broadcast in Toronto.
During school I had been working for a private radio station but the hours didn’t pick up after graduation, nor did the meagre wage — and my student loan payments were looming.
Working in the foreign press was something that had always appealed to me. There was also the allure of travel and perhaps gaining an edge over other fledgling journalists. The search became my full-time job: scouring foreign websites, emailing news directors from the RTNDA directory and contacting friends abroad.
I was first offered a position with a government-run radio station in Beijing called China Radio International (CRI). I imagined arriving in January of 2008 would allow me early access to Olympic stories and I’d freelance them back home. The first contract arrived, but then came a second and a third; each one with alterations to salary, vacation days and rules. Aside from the fact I’d be forbidden to freelance, it all felt wrong and so I turned it down.
I then focused on cities in which I was interested and ones in which I thought I could live. Dubai was an easy choice, as my brother had been living there for 14 years and I’d visited him. I emailed English-language radio stations there and, within 10 days, I had signed a contract and sublet my Toronto apartment.
I had been hired as a news anchor, reporter and producer at two English-language radio stations run by a company called the Arab Media Group.They paid for my flight, my health insurance and my visas. They promised to pay for one visit home per year of service, as well as my return flight at the termination of my contract. I also had 25 days of vacation, plus the Muslim holy days.
The salary wasn’t as hefty as I had been hoping (after all, Dubai was a booming oil town) but it would allow me to live, travel and start paying off six years of university. And it was all tax-free.
My partner, who is also a journalist, landed a job at a business and politics magazine in the same city. His arrival date was one month after mine. It all seemed to be working in our favour.
For the first four months we stayed with my brother and his wife and children in a secure compound built for expats. It had high walls, a restaurant, a pool and park where Sri Lankan nannies gathered with towheaded children. It was a very soft landing pad.
I had been an expat before — teaching English in Japan — so I knew there would be a honeymoon phase with Dubai. It came and went pretty quickly. Once I got used to swimming in the sea in February, watching camels wander in the desert on the drive to work and awakening to 5 a.m. prayer call, it became life.
My first impression of my workplace was utter shock at how run-down the building was. It seemed more like an office from a Third World country than a glimmering petrostate. Weren’t the streets of Dubai supposed to be paved with gold? What of the seven-star hotels, yacht-filled marinas and the soon-to-be tallest building in the world? Wasn’t it all for me?
I quickly learned that the English news team hadn’t been given priority in terms of resources or staffing. There had been a walkout of most of the staff one month before my arrival and, since then, a news team of four women had been running two stations, 12 hours a day.
I also learned that the women’s toilets had recently been equipped with seats, thanks to the efforts of a feisty New Zealand business reporter. There was the promise of a move to a new state-of-the-art building — but my Kenyan colleague, who had been there a year longer than I — told me not to hold my breath.
We wrote stories in Microsoft Word on rundown PCs and prerecorded all of our newscasts.We had one recording booth and one telephone line. Some casts played for two hours, allowing us to be on two and sometimes three stations simultaneously. We had Reuters and a newswire from the UK called IRN. Most international news was retrieved from the BBC and CNN websites.
If something happened locally, we learned about it from newspapers. Original, local reporting was a fledgling concept in my company, partly because of the small staff and lack of resources and partly because of the lack of government transparency. Government decisions were made behind closed doors and it was the media’s job to simply act as a mouthpiece for the ruling sheikh.
Within my company, employees who stayed longer than a couple of years were usually promoted into management positions without being given any additional skills training. The head of English news was an interior designer from South Africa. The head of the Asian news team was a man younger than me who had been a baker in Mumbai. But both news teams under them were made up of journalists. The higher-ups had promoted those with fewer skills, it seemed to me, in order to keep the newsroom from rocking the boat.
I wasn’t the only new hire and soon we were a team of 10 — a fearless bunch from places as far and wide as London, Detroit, Nairobi and Belfast. We had all studied journalism and had worked around the world. We bonded quickly as Westerners living under the strict laws of sharia and as we tried to mitigate our newsroom’s deficiencies.
We sat in a cramped room with the Asian team — there were six of them, mostly from India. The Arab news team was in a different part of the building. We didn’t share stories or ideas with them and didn’t even have a translator for occasions when the government made announcements in Arabic.
Breaking news only happened outside of the United Arab Emirates. If we caught wind of something local and urgent, it went through a government official, the police and then the CEO of our station before the watered-down version reached us. Tremors once shook the building and, although the U.S. Geological Survey’s website confirmed an earthquake off the coast of Iran, Dubai police had to confirm it six hours later.
The list of forbidden words was lengthy. We couldn’t refer to anything to do with pigs (bacon, ham, pork), presumably because eating them is prohibited by Islamic law. When swine flu first made its appearance and before it was labeled H1N1, we were told not to talk about it. Then we referred to it as the flu and finally we were able to say “swine.” It was a big step.
We forged ahead and managed to make contacts with local government officials who spoke English and convinced them to give us phone interviews. We started getting press releases in English. And there were a few moments when it really felt like we were running a solid news station.
But there were still a million stories we heard about or witnessed that we couldn’t touch. Many had to do with the emirate’s lack of labour laws. The majority of construction workers is hired from the Indian subcontinent and live in labour camps, often packed in like sardines. They can share bunk beds between the night shift and day shift. Their water isn’t properly desalinated in some cases, and so they get sick. Sometimes new workers arrive for jobs as cleaners or maintenance men, but they get dumped at a construction site instead. Being unskilled amplifies the dangers they face at work.
The government also lied about the weather during summer to keep construction from halting. By law, if the temperature rises to 45 degrees Celsius or higher, outdoor workers are told to stop working for safety reasons. But when the temperature gauge in my car read 55 degrees Celsius, the government website said it was 44 degrees – and so the weather report in my newscast said 44 degrees. And construction continued.
Outside of my office, life was comfortable most of the time. The expat community was vast and welcoming. The grocery stores, pharmacies and malls were packed with familiar brands. The old city had Indian and Lebanese restaurants where we could stuff ourselves with authentic food for less than $10. Discount airlines took us to Addis Ababa, Istanbul and even Moscow cheaply.
My partner and I eventually rented an apartment (posing as a married couple) and bought a car. Rent was high. We looked at a 500-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in the central marina area for the equivalent of $2,200 a month. But gas was cheap (around 30 cents a litre) and so we looked a little farther away and found 980-square-feet for about $1,800 a month. It was the cheapest apartment we could find.
After a year and a half in the desert, we decided it was time to come home. The life of a Western expat in Dubai was expensive, the censorship rules were wearing and, after a point, I didn’t feel I was growing as a journalist. Leaving was a lengthy and arduous process. I had to put in my resignation three months in advance, at which time I had to hand over my passport so my visa could be cancelled. I didn’t get it back until the morning of my flight. I needed bank statements proving I didn’t owe any money and the owner of our apartment flew in from Saudi Arabia to inspect it and give us a clearance letter.
I have no regrets about living and working in Dubai, but I do wish I had done more research on the company, the costs of living and media restrictions before jumping in. These are things I will do more thoroughly before taking my next job abroad — to which I very much look forward.
Kimberly Gale is a reporter with CBC Radio.