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In Fujairah
In Fujairah
Helge Sobik

FUJAIRAH — Once they’ve finished, the fishermen of Fujairah, in the United Arab Emirates, drag their boats up onto the beach, sit in the shade to mend their nets, and begin to chat: about Allah, about the world, about soccer and bullfights.

But talk also turns to how the pace of life has sped up so much recently, and how nice it would be to turn back the clock.

Early tomorrow morning, it will all begin again. Fishing for marlin and snapper out in the Indian Ocean is as it has always been, but these days, when the boats get back to Fujairah, the fish traders must transport their catch on four-lane highways. There are already a few skyscrapers springing up in the emirate, and mobile phone signals are good even out at sea. Sometimes the traders even call to ask where the boats are. These are people who don’t understand wind and currents, or the fact that fish are not always waiting in the same place to be caught.

In other words, times have changed even here, the most isolated of the seven United Arab Emirates. Because it doesn’t have its own oil reserves, Fujairah has always been dependent on the ocean and oases. Its main exports have traditionally been fish, oranges, lemons, mangoes and watermelons.

Fujairah is home to the oldest and holiest mosque in the Emirates, a simple clay structure built in the 15th century. Until recently, the people here were the last in the UAE who could still be seen wearing traditional daggers on their belts. And they were the last to have their dust paths replaced by a paved road built through the mountains to their sheikhdom, financed by their rich cousins in Abu Dhabi.

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Al Bidya mosque in Fujairah — Photo: Bobak Ha'Eri

Oil tankers in place of mangroves

The first road through the mountains was built in the 1970s, and in 2012 a second route was added to ease congestion. The new motorway from Dubai was necessary because Fujairah is standing on the brink of an economic boom.

Soon the $3 billion oil pipeline from Abu Dhabi will be finished and will bring with it huge tankers lining the coast where mangroves used to stand. The pipeline is the largest construction project the UAE has seen for a long time — larger than the land reclamation in the Gulf, the record-breaking skyscrapers and the golden palaces. When it’s finished, up to 70% of daily oil production will pass through the pipeline and be transported from Fujairah across the world, bypassing the 40-kilometer-wide Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has repeatedly threatened to blockade.

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The road from Dubai to Fujairah — Photo: GeniusDevil

The population of Fujairah has risen from 100,000 to 180,000, and experts estimate that growth will continue at more than 10% a year as engineers, businessmen, masons, estate agents and hoteliers flock in. The number of tourists is also rising, and the newly renovated Hilton, built in the 1970s in a tourist wasteland, will soon face stiff competition.

Traditional bullfights may be dying out

Those who want a taste of traditional Fujairah will have to hurry. Soon the sandpits at the roadside may well become scarce, and visitors won’t be able to see the bullfights that take place in the open air on Fridays. Cars park chaotically around the site and behind the bars, and men in traditional white robes spur on the bulls while a voice over a loudspeaker referees from afar.

Four to six keepers lead the bulls into the middle of the improvised arena, and the animals charge at each other with lowered heads. They brace themselves in the sand, lock horns and try to push one another backwards, grunting. It’s all over in less than a minute — sooner if there’s any sign of blood. The goal is for neither of the animals to get injured, and there is no one brandishing a dagger to spur them on.

Life has sped up

Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi moved to a new palace long ago, finding it more comfortable than the clay fort built by his forefathers on a hill in the center of town. The palace was supposed to be restored and reopened as a museum, but the transformation hasn’t taken place, as the sheikh still sees it as his home.

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Fujairah's Sheikh Zayed mosque — Photo: Steven Straiton

This evening a few locals are having a picnic under a tree across from the fort, looking out over the ocean as the sun slips below the horizon somewhere between Oman and Yemen. A Korean tourist takes a picture of her friend in the fading light, and the lights in the windows of the apartment block start to flicker on.

“Life has become faster. And shorter,” says one fisherman, as others nod in agreement. Because the modern world has finally managed to find its way here.

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