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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 October, 2004, 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK
Fast change in the UAE

By Jonathan Fryer
BBC, United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) may only have a population of three million, but it is becoming a pace-setter for economic and social development in the region.

Arab woman in traditional dress
The new female taxi service has been welcomed by Emirati women
The man walking down the coastal road in Fujairah, along the Gulf of Oman, lets his jaw drop, and he stops in his tracks.

Yes, he realises, that really was a woman driving the taxi that just went past.

In nearby Saudi Arabia, women are not even allowed to drive.

But now, in this most remote and relatively undeveloped corner of the Arab Emirates - which does not have big oil reserves to rely on - six brave ladies have become cabbies.

This has happened with the full support of the local authorities, including the Fujairah Welfare Association, which develops work opportunities for cash-strapped locals.

Loans from the association made it possible for the women to buy their cars, on easy terms. And once behind the wheel, they have been able to become breadwinners, often for the first time in their lives.

Independence and revolution

Haleemah, aged 40, is separated from her husband, and has nine children to look after.

Map of United Arab Emirates
UAE is made up of seven emirates

The eldest son is 26, and he is the most expensive of the lot: "Like any other man his age, he requires money for his personal needs," she sighs.

At least one of those personal needs will be raising the bride-price that will eventually enable him to marry. Haleemah is proud now to be able to help him out.

Like the other lady taxi drivers, she only takes women passengers, and she is only available on call. Any hopeful man who tries to flag her down in the street will be frostily ignored.

But she is starting to build up a solid client base of girl students who must be ferried to and from school or college, as well as women who have got appointments.

The idea that these women can get out and about on their own - without a husband or brother or other close relative to chaperone them - is in itself revolutionary in this part of the world.

But for Haleemah, the greatest thing of all is that now she has the dignity to earn money by herself, without relying on state handouts.

High unemployment

A taxi in Abu Dhabi
Women drivers must pay regular instalments to buy their taxis

Taxi driving has become a lifeline for some of the poorer local Emirati men as well.

This is a country where most basic tasks are carried out by foreign workers from countries such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

A high percentage of local men with only modest levels of education are unemployed, which is something that worries the government greatly.

Businesses are often loath to offer them jobs, because they say locals do not work as hard as the immigrants do, yet expect to be paid a lot more.

That is a claim most Emiratis angrily reject.

And one group of them who are keen to prove they are not work-shy are the legions of local male taxi drivers, who cruise the streets of the cities such as Abu Dhabi.

Many of them are middle-aged, and have moved into the city, proud that they now have something useful to do.

Not that they always know where they are going. And this is really not their fault.

Bold development

The face of Abu Dhabi - like flashy Dubai along the coast - is changing so fast that whole areas become unfamiliar in a matter of months.

A man walks past billboard images of tower development Burj Dubai
In Dubai the foundations are being laid for the world's tallest tower

When I returned to Abu Dhabi recently after a prolonged absence, I did not recognise a single street.

I went looking for the most famous landmark of all, the long seafront corniche. But even that had disappeared, hidden by a vast metal sheet fence, behind which the whole beach area is being transformed.

I flagged down a cab to take me back home - and had to direct the driver all the way.

He had a long grey beard, was wearing a crocheted skull-cap, and looked as if he had just stepped out of a village mosque.

When we passed the huge Abu Dhabi Mall shopping complex, next door to where I've been staying, he astounded me by asking somewhat plaintively, "What's that?"

This was particularly surprising because the big shopping malls are the centre of Emirati social life.

Indeed, they seem to be about the only place where locals outnumber foreigners.

Fifty years ago, this place was little more than an encampment in the sand

Whole families flit from one designer clothes outlet to the next.

Groups of teenage boys, in their long white robes, keep one eye focused on what's going on around, and one ear firmly glued to their mobile phone.

On Thursday evenings, the height of the Muslim weekend, the Abu Dhabi Mall is packed, and the noise from the food-court, with its McDonald's and Burger King, resembles a flock of starlings settling down for the night.

It is hard to believe that just 50 years ago, this place was little more than an encampment in the sand.

But most of the population is far too young to remember that.

And probably their children will be puzzled to be told one day that the sight of a woman driving a taxi was once enough to bring a man to a halt in the street.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 9 October, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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