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1st July 2015




Powerless in Dubai

This short memoir is about the reality of life without electricity, that dream of the Dark

Greens, which I lived in Dubai during the power outage of June 2005. The reports that

followed made light of the reality as just a minor inconvenience. That is not what I experienced.

By 2005 Dubai had undergone a decade-long building frenzy and such an expansion of the population that they had outstripped the infrastructure’s electricity-generating capacity—but nobody stopped the developers.

I had been in Dubai for ten days and was due to fly out on a 2 a.m. flight for London. As I had a lazy day to kill, I woke at about 9 a.m. I had woken up, not because it was time to get up but because my hotel room was uncomfortably hot. My sweat was soaking the bed sheets. (I usually sleep with the air-conditioning set to “Igloo”—13°C—as I find that snuggling under a doona in the cold air leads to a better and deeper sleep, but that’s just me.) Clearly we had a problem, so I called reception and was told that the air-conditioner was off due to an electrical fault, but it should be OK in an hour or so.

As I was sticky with sweat (I am male, so I sweat, and do not genteelly perspire) I had a shower, or at least I began to have a shower. Three minutes into my long refreshing shower, when I was covered in soap and hair conditioner, the water stopped. I considered my options, and in the end selected Option A, which was just to towel the soap off and dry myself as best I could. Option B was to use the water from the toilet bowl to get the soap off. As I was to find out later, the toilet bowl alternative was the far better option.

It was not yet 10 a.m. and the room was stifling. The windows were sealed, so no chance of fresh air. I sat down to check my e-mails. There were plenty, but I found none of my replies were leaving my outbox, as the server was obviously down. I was out of contact with the world.

About thirty minutes later the battery on my laptop expired, so that was that.

QUADRANT Article 1st July 2015 - Powerless in Dubai 2005 1 Although I had plenty of time before I was due to check out of the hotel, I packed and decided to leave my bags with the concierge so I could go to a cool restaurant in a cool mall for a cool drink of cool water. Cool was becoming an obsession.

Once packed, I left the room and dragged my suitcases to the lift, only to find that the lifts were not working. I could not return to my room as the door was electronic and my card no longer worked. Using the emergency telephone, which was still working (don’t ask me why) I asked reception for help. She told me all staff had been allocated to other tasks. She offered no advice.

Oh well, it’s not really that bad, I thought, as I dragged my bags down ten flights of stairs to the ground floor. The stairwells were not air-conditioned so I suspect the temperature in that trapped space was always 40 to 50°C. This attempt at resolving my checkout problem turned out to be a near-fatal move as the ground-floor door was electronically alarmed and when the power failed it sealed. Surely a serious flaw in the event of a fire?

Going back up ten floors, or even a few floors, was not an option as the floor hallways were not accessible from the stairwells without a pass key, as the stairwells were intended for descending escape, not inter-floor movement. I found I was not alone in my escape plan, as some sixty to eighty people had had the same idea and were now jammed into the lower stairwell in the same desperate position. It was obviously not really an option to abandon my possessions, as that would have been a worse disaster than the now likely alternative of dying of heatstroke. The people at the front were now banging stridently on a steel door and the stairwell behind me had already filled with as many people as there were in front of me. I thought I caught a glimpse of Dante and Milton in the crowd as we awaited the fires of Hell, blocked only by a steel security door.

To our great relief, the door eventually opened when a tradesman of sorts smashed the lock.

Two hundred people staggered into a cool 42°C lobby and were each given a bottle of cold water, every one of which was finished in seconds.

I had a late checkout arranged for 8 p.m., but decided that this was no place to be, so I tried to check out now so I could head for a cool coffee shop in a mall. I must have been near-delirious, as I could not stop Frankie Laine’s country pop song “Cool Water” playing in my head. The words fitted my sentiments exactly.

When I got to the counter after another hour’s wait in an ever lengthening queue, I discovered they had a problem. No electricity meant no bill, which meant no checkout and no Visa card payment, and no ATM was working to get more cash. I was luckier than most as I was carrying several thousand US dollars, so I could pay cash—but how much cash? Now I found out what the staff were doing. They had pass keys that bypassed the electronic locks on every floor except for the ground floor, so they were climbing the stairs for up to thirty floors checking mini-bars, laundry, restaurant hard copies, and so on. Nobody was leaving this “Hotel California” without paying. You can see their point.

QUADRANT Article 1st July 2015 - Powerless in Dubai 2005 2 I was asked to take a seat while they compiled my bill manually. My bill had already been collated on the computer, but without power the computer had an angry black screen and it was not telling. I sat on the carpet as there were no seats available, as the whole hotel was now in the lobby. Again I was lucky, as after only another hour they called my name and presented me with the handwritten bill, a (now warm) bottle of water and some sushi they were giving away before it spoiled. We agreed on the bill, I handed over the cash, checked out, gave my bags to the concierge and went out to find a taxi. It was just after 3 p.m., eleven hours before my flight was due to depart.

Once more I was among the more fortunate as I had a taxi within fifteen minutes. There were actually very few taxis around instead of the usual swarm, but I presumed this was because the power outage had made them busier than normal as people followed my example and headed for the malls. Not so, as I soon found out.

I thought of rejecting the cab driver’s demand for five times the usual fare, but as no other taxi was in sight and as more people checked out the queue would only grow, I accepted. However, thinking of causes and consequences I realised the transport situation could only get worse, so I decided to retrieve my bags and go straight to the airport and relax in the business-class lounge.

I could even have a shower there. This was becoming an obsession, as my skin itched and I found it impossible not to scratch like a mangy dog with fleas. There are only so many poses you can adopt before everyone knows your crotch is the worst-affected area in need of serious attention.

I have driven the journey to the Dubai airport dozens of times so I knew it would be only a thirty-minute journey at most, depending on the traffic. Nearly two hours later the airport finally came into sight in the distance … The drive from the hotel to the airport was like a scene from a B-grade mega-disaster movie.

When the power and air-conditioning failed throughout Dubai (not just our hotel, as we had been led to believe) the whole population of the affected areas piled their families into their SUVs, turned on the powerful vehicle air-conditioning and aimlessly drove around—until they got low on fuel. Only then did they find out that petrol and gas pumps need electricity … Most cars were driven until they simply stopped—usually in the middle of the road. The family then piled out and sat under the shade of a nearby tree, or lay down under their car. My taxidriver chased some people out of their shade as he did whatever it took to collect his fare, even aggressively mounting the kerb, or the painstakingly watered and nurtured green verge— massacring the grass—or he squeezed between abandoned cars. No traffic lights were working so each junction was clogged—and they were by far the favourite place to abandon the out-offuel cars. We finally made it to the departure ramp nearly three hours after leaving the hotel. It was now only eight hours until my flight, but at this point things deteriorated.

This world-renowned mega airport had no power either! No flight details, no check-in terminals, no baggage conveyors and, apparently, no flight control radar. Fortunately the control QUADRANT Article 1st July 2015 - Powerless in Dubai 2005 3 tower could still talk to the pilots so they were able to divert 90 per cent of the air traffic to other airports. Again my luck held because they had already printed a hard copy of the manifest for my flight. As the plane was already on the tarmac they would be able to take my bags, write the flight number on them and manually load them onto the aircraft. However, as no intercom was working I had to stay within a designated area from midnight while waiting for my flight to be called. I hoped it was already refuelled or all bets were off and I could consider my luck at an end. I was assured that it was ready to fly.

At the airport nothing worked. No coffee, tea or cooked meals were available and all transactions were cash, but there was nothing for sale, not even water or salty potato chips. As a business-class passenger I staked out a piece of carpet for a rest mat, rather than taking a spot with the commoners on the polished floor. After all, as the passengers on the Titanic demonstrated (almost) to a man, one has to maintain one’s standards to the end.

Although it was still daylight, I rejected the idea of going to the business-class lounge as it was on the upper floors, deep in the bowels of the airport building. I had thought ahead as to what it might be like in the event that there was still no power after dark. Unlike the Greens, I planned ahead and assessed the future consequences of my current actions. One of the considerations I had in not making my way to the business-class lounge was that as soon as it got dark, well, it got really, really dark. There might be no lighting to find my way back from the business-class lounge to the right entrance as (literally) thousands of people were already crowded near the entrances either just inside or just outside the building. Having been told to be in a specific location at midnight I had to be sure that I could find that location, probably in the dark, so I elected to stay where I was. I also had the experience of my hotel room to go by and decided that without any working air-conditioning and with sealed windows, after a few hours my main concern would be lack of oxygen combined with a surfeit of carbon dioxide and heat. The ultimate closed-system greenhouse effect! It was also a long way from the business-class lounge to the rallying point—which I might have to find in the dark.

Darkness fell, but there was no relief from the heat. One serious improvement was that I could now scratch my head, my armpits and my crotch to my heart’s content like a demented chimpanzee, without the disapproving looks of my soap-free non-travelling travelling companions.

At midnight, right on the dot (just as the airline had told us) my flight was called. We gathered in the darkness in anticipation, but the announcement was to tell us that the flight was delayed until sometime the next day as they could not take off in the dark. The air traffic controllers were only able to control traffic on the emergency back-up system as the main system did not have its own generator (something they have since fixed). How quickly the Green Dream had crumbled into the nightmare of reality.

All water from the taps soon stopped and bottled water ran out about 2 a.m.—in 40°C heat.

Surprisingly, there was no riot, no robberies, no bad behaviour and no violence (unlike what happened two months later in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina) just a subdued resignation, QUADRANT Article 1st July 2015 - Powerless in Dubai 2005 4 though the possibility of some people dying of dehydration was probably real. Airline staff with torches did distribute bottled water to women and children, but I did not see any men demanding their place in this Titanic’s lifeboat and I did not ask for anything for myself, though I knew I was dehydrated. One of the advantages of travelling business class is … well, you sometimes get a little class.

Sometime between 4 and 8 a.m. power was partially restored to most of Dubai (including the airport) and civilised life began again. However, the authorities had to manage the load, so the airport air-conditioning was set at 28°C, which is still uncomfortable.

The recovery of power meant they were able to pump water to refill the water tanks. This meant that the taps, toilets and facilities began working again. The toilets were a major problem as nothing had been flushed for the past eighteen hours. The lowest-paid foreign workers entered the toilets and went uncomplainingly to work in appalling conditions. No sooner was this done than the toilets went out of commission again as a backlog of desperate people filled them up faster than the system could cope.

Time passed slowly, but I have to praise the airline staff, as some of the girls still smiled though they had been at their posts for more than twenty-four hours. Finally, at noon the conveyors and terminals sprang to life and real, energy-guzzling civilisation returned. I am sure the FoE (I think it stands for “Foes of Everyhuman”) and the Greens cursed, as it was reported that fewer than a dozen carbon-dioxide-producing humans had expired in the heat, thus returning their carbon to the Earth and ceasing their polluting, breathing ways. Surely a poor result from their perspective.

At 2 p.m. we were bussed to the plane, where I found the smell of my fellow passengers somewhat unpleasant. No doubt the feeling was reciprocated as I had been in the same clothes in 40°C heat for over thirty hours. Our departure then had another two-hour delay as two of the toilets on the plane were blocked to overflowing while we sat on the tarmac; some people have to go when they have to go and just cannot wait.

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