Report — From the December 2017 issue

“I am Here Only for Working”

Conversations with the petroleum brotherhood in the UAE

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The guidebook had said:

If you had any doubt as to the oil wealth of the UAE, it’ll evaporate when you see Ruwais, an industrial town about an hour past Mirfa that exists only to serve the massive refineries set up along there. Needless to say, there’s little reason to stop.

Wishing to interview petroleum workers, I decided to go straight there. Ruwais faces the Persian Gulf not far from the Saudi Arabian border and just off Highway E11. Tourists, not that this was their season, passed by, not through, en route to the expensive nature resort on Sir Bani Yas Island.

As I rode away from Dubai that morning, the furry throbbing of the bus felt almost pleasant. I felt happy to be going out into the world, not knowing what I would find. The hazy skyscrapers, which included the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, were as unreal as the mountains in an ancient Chinese painting. The sun glared on the glass of the New Gold Souk. A number of the skyscrapers were narrow, futuristic, and strange, like angular fountain pens with notches in them. Then came glittering car dealerships paralleling Sheikh Zayed Road for a drearily long time, while the sweaty man beside me, who had ignored my greeting, continued connecting with various distant presences on his laptop.

In time, Sheikh Zayed Road turned into Highway E11, which ran through the flat white-and-tan desert, freckled with scrub and the occasional building. On a large screen behind and above the driver, an English-speaking commentator, her pleasant voice amplified for the greater benefit, discussed Donald Trump. We continued west past Emirates Steel, the National Marine Dredging Company, more auto dealerships, mosques, and malls, then reentered that flat tan desert, following signs for Saudi Arabia.

When my bus pulled in under an awning at Ruwais, dusk was near. I asked the driver if there was a hotel here and he said yes, adding that it would be left at the corner and then five minutes straight ahead. I thanked him, slung on my two backpacks, and descended into what the bus’s thermometer still claimed was 95 degrees, although it felt hotter. Well, that was business as usual for me in the Emirates; I stank of sweat wherever I went.

Construction, Ruwais

Just as I rounded the corner, the bus pulled away, with all the other passengers on it, as if they knew something I didn’t. Now I was alone in Ruwais. Everything looked either new or unfinished. Stretching to the horizon were drums, tanks, and such. But the air was hazy and dusty and my spectacles salted with sweat, and I was preoccupied with settling myself for the night.

I approached a new and somewhat grand complex of apartment towers. It took longer than I had expected to get past all that, perhaps because I was hot and tired, but also because the towers were wider and taller than they had first appeared. I began to lose heart. Then came salvation: a lofty guesthouse called ADNOC. This must be what the bus driver had steered me to; I would do well in Ruwais after all.

Relieved, I turned off the wide street, entered a vast, air-conditioned lobby, and approached the counter, behind which sat a pleasant, bespectacled young Filipina wearing a security badge on her chest. She explained that the guesthouse was for workers only: ADNOC stood for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Furthermore, Ruwais offered no hotels at all, and no cabs. To be nice, and to get rid of me, she led me over to a desk on the other side of that great cave, where a courteous young man called a taxi from out of town.

The taxi driver promised that the hotel in nearby Jebel Dhanna would not be expensive, and maybe he imagined that for a Californian, nothing was. The Dhafra Beach Hotel turned out to be the cheaper of two adjacent properties, which jointly offered the traveler a private beach whose fine sand had been thoughtfully decorated with bottles and broken plastic, and whose ocean view included, among other petrochemical structures, the first refinery that I had seen in this emirate.

I took my dusk there on the Gulf shore, which barely smelled of the sea, and which the breeze had cooled to a temperate 80.6 degrees. The sea came in with an almost steady hiss of long and even waves; it had not yet given up being blue, and the sky was a dark dusty purple with two meager wings of cloud across it. To my right, a wall of lights, long and low, went far into the water: a spectacular docking facility for oil tankers. I walked east, until I could see over the low dune at the edge of the Dhafra property to the gruesome fairy-tale lights of the refinery, whose high plumes of peach-colored fire spread out widely while a long trail of smoke blew parallel to the ground. The full moon was a grimy red ball, as well it should have been to preside over such wonders.

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’s most recent book is The Dying Grass (Viking). His article “Invisible and Insidious” appeared in the March 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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