Feature Article from the April 2008 AIRblast   

Fear and Self-Loathing in Dubai

by Sean Cole


Is aggressiveness in pursuing a story a necessary trait in a journalist? Sean Cole recently found out that sometimes an instinct for self-preservation can work just as well. Cole's feature stories for public radio's Marketplace tend to lean toward the lighter side - from men who sell Tupperware to singing cashiers. In January of this year, the show sent him to Dubai as part of a series on business in the Middle East. He was far from home and even farther from his comfort zone.  

Before I left for Dubai, my greatest fear was that all of my recordings would be erased in the airport X-ray machine on the way back. I needn't have worried. Dubai International Airport is just as technologically advanced as any airport in the West (pause for derisive laughter). In fact, the whole place feels more like Las Vegas or Los Angeles than a desert city on the Persian Gulf. More than 80 percent of the population is expatriate. English is the lingua franca. My assignments were far from the hardest-hitting stories to come out of that region. And yet, a few mornings into my two-week stay back in January, I woke up in my hotel room, alone, and said the following words out loud: "Oh God, I'm out of my depth."

Two of my assignments in Dubai were simple and not worth mentioning here. The other two played on every fear I've had since I got into this business a decade ago. Both required a confidence and aggressiveness that I have never possessed. My dirty secret is that I have every wrong instinct for my chosen profession. I don't like to impose, don't like to disquiet people. Calling strangers on the phone makes me shake. Approaching them on the street is worse. I have a pathological desire to be on everybody's good side. Confrontation renders me weak and feeble-minded. My career thus far has been a constant battle against these instincts. 

The first assignment was a complicated story on the real (read surreal) estate market in Dubai. In a nutshell, residential development there is exploding. Cranes loom everywhere. People buy into apartment buildings before they're built and that money is what pays for construction. But 80 percent of these construction projects were delayed last year, partly because of scarce building materials and labor. Buyers, mostly foreigners and expatriates, are pissed off. Some are demanding compensation from the developers.

By the time, I had that little panic attack in the hotel room, I had already interviewed my angry buyer, an Iranian entrepreneur living in Dubai. But the company that developed his building was putting me off. And it's not like I could just pop back over to Dubai any time I wanted. This was an actual race against time. In order to win, I was going to have to become someone I have never been: aggressive, resourceful, and refusing to take no for an answer.

After several fruitless phone calls (placed by my fixer/friend Tamara), the developer finally called back and asked us to send our questions. I e-mailed a general outline and wrote that I didn't want my listeners to make any assumptions about the company simply because it wasn't well represented in the story. It was my hope, I said, that someone at the company could find time within the next 10 days to talk to me on the record. Thousands of journalists send e-mails like this every day. But, more or less, I have made my way in this business by tactically employing the word "boobs" on the radio. This level of assertiveness was new to me. In any case, it worked. The marketing director set up a meeting for Monday at 2:00 p.m.

Tamara picked me up that afternoon and drove us to an area called Jumeirah Lakes Towers where a PR person showed us into a tiny conference room. We sat down with the Director of Projects who told me that the company had done everything right. The delay wasn't his fault. Pre-Dubai me might have nodded and stuttered out a counter argument. Suddenly, though, I had a "C" on my chest. Armed with all of the knowledge I had accidentally amassed via panic, I was Confrontation Man. 

"So in your opinion," I asked, "I know you're not the sales dude, but in your opinion, do you think that they should be compensated in some way?"

"Well, uh," he chuckled a bit, "don't try to get me on that."

"I'm not trying to get you," I insisted. "I'm just saying ... you're a fair man."

"In all honesty, if they are going to get compensated we should also get compensated."

"But do you really think you suffered as much as they did?" I asked.

"Can I tell you one thing, Sean?" he said. "Their suffering is negligible to what ..."

"But you're a company," I demanded, "they're a people."

"I'm a company, no, true. But I have also suffered."

This is the cut we used in the story. He laid out his side of the story with the kind of passion you pray for in these interviews. Confrontation didn't just serve the story well. It served him well too. By the end of the interview, we were both sweating.

The problem with the second story was a little different. It was supposed to be a profile of a Muslim scholar who makes sure financial instruments are sharia compliant. (Sharia refers to Islamic tenets.) The scholar, though, was MIA. But I happened across an article in the Gulf Daily News Bahrain about a new sharia-compliant hotel in Dubai that was alcohol-free and offered different swimming times for men and women. More and more of these hotels were cropping up around the city, and the region, and this was a tidy way into that larger story.

After a few tries, I got a hold of Manish Singh, the Assistant Director of Sales and Marketing for the hotel. He was warm and effusive and said I was more than welcome to come by for a tour and an interview. As he spoke, I actually started to lean back in my hotel desk chair and cuddle up to the idea of a nice easy story. There was only one little condition, he said. He didn't want me to mention that the hotel was sharia compliant.

Then my brain exploded.

"But I saw it in the paper," I probably said, or something equally pathetic. Manish said that story was an accident. He didn't want the hotel pegged as sharia anything. It wasn't the sort of publicity he was looking for. But he reiterated his invitation, said he'd be happy to show me around. I felt like I was in crazy land. So I said what might have been the craziest thing I've ever said in my radio career: I told him I'd come by that afternoon.

Manish was at some off-site meeting when I arrived. I sat in the lobby, all marble and polished wood with drawings of current and former UAE leaders hanging behind the front desk. I passed about a half an hour sipping excellent coffee and writing down the names of all the Muzak songs wafting from the ceiling speakers.

"You Are the Sunshine of My Life."

"What a Wonderful World."

"You Are So Beautiful to Me."

Finally, Manish marched up to me with his hand outstretched. He apologized. No need, I said, and we walked into the hotel café together. The bar was lined with bottles of flavored syrup for the coffee drinks. I pulled out my tape recorder and Manish said, "Ohhhhh, no!" He had no intention of talking about anything on the record, especially not sharia. 

I don't know what I was thinking. There was no hope of an interview with this man. But I just sat there, drinking coffee with him and asking him every banal question I could think up about the hotel. I needed the answers for the script - if there was, indeed, to be a script - but they weren't the real reason I was there. In any case, I took notes.

"163 units ... 16 rooms on each floor ... duplex penthouse ... 10th floor and above, club lounge."

Manish zipped off at one point to grab me a press release, and excused himself one or two other times to deal with this and that. Each time he was gone, I tried to restrategize but came up empty. Finally I asked him if there was anyone whom I could interview on the record. He said no. It was the hotel's first day of operation. Everyone was busy. So I said, "Well, this is a radio story. So I need to record someone."

"Need to record someone," he repeated quietly. I could tell he was genuinely trying to think of who that might be. After a bit, he jerked up and muscled himself into a chair closer to mine.

"Okay," he said. "Let's do it. But don't even mention sharia." He was smiling. "You mention sharia, I'll kill you." 

I turned on the tape recorder anyway and started re-asking him all the rudimentary questions I had just asked him: How many rooms? How many stars? What's going to distinguish it from other hotels in the area? All the while I was trying to think of how I could bring up sharia without bringing up sharia. After almost 10 minutes of questions, I said, "So ... can you talk about why you don't want to talk about it being sharia compliant?"

"Well, as I said," he said, "it is something for us internally. We just want to show everybody we are a hotel, we are a product, for services. We don't want them to buy us because we are sharia or not to buy us because of sharia."

"Would it not though be a great selling point?"

"We don't want to be stereotyped. We want to be open for all."

This is the cut we used in the story. It was the perfect answer, really, and everything I needed from him. We talked for a few more minutes and then he gave me a tour of the hotel, on tape.

There were other moments like this: talking my way into a building that was still under construction, disarming more than one person who was squirrelly about being interviewed. Dubai was a crash course in something that I should have learned years ago: convincing people to talk to me and asking them challenging questions when I got the chance. Those two weeks in Dubai have informed my other reporting too. Recently I've found myself trawling the streets of Montreal looking for panhandlers; I've asked men and women about their arguments with significant others over money. Again, a thousand journalists do this kind of thing every day, every hour, on much harder assignments. And I'm still not a greatest persuader. But I'm trying, and trying to remember what it was like to wake up in that hotel room, and what happened next.

Sean Cole is a regular contributor to public radio's Marketplace. He's been working in radio since 1997 when he took an internship at the Boston NPR station WBUR. He thought nothing would come of it.

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