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Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Dutch in Dubai

by Zac Sharpe

Michael Ooink of Halton Middle East
Arthur De Snoo, General Manager of the Metropolitan Resort and Beach Club

Dubai is host to an amazing mix of nationalities and in the third of a series on the communities of Dubai Al Shindagah profiles the Dutch and their history of trade with Arabs.

The Gulf is a thriving commercial hub, linking the West and the Orient. Despite the hardy environment, the Gulf States thrive on their endowments of natural resources and a tradition of merchant shrewdness.

One nationality exerting a major international presence in the Gulf is the Dutch, with their penchant for shipping and technology complementing an astute business acumen.

This is the Arabian Gulf of the 1600s.

More than 400 years later and the picture is much the same. Piracy now refers to illegal copying of a video tape and pearls have given way to petrol. But the same vigorous interaction between Dutch and Arab traders continues to shape the region and, more specifically, the United Arab Emirates.

Corporations from the Netherlands such as electronics giant Phillips, oil company Shell, shipping multinational P & O and a host of other Dutch industries in areas ranging from food distribution to harbour dredging have helped to shape the modern UAE.

Unlike the modern day businessman who shore up in Dubai's luxury hotels, the original traders from the Dutch East India Company plied their trade with bedouin tribesmen along the arid shores between Bahrain and Ras Al Khaimah.

As the merchants haggled over pearls, food and handicrafts, Dutch diplomacy was the preserve of the upper echelons of the world's largest global trading company.

Dignitaries of the Dutch East India company, en-route to the spice islands of South-east Asia, signed treatises with leaders along the present emirates coastline as well as in Basra, Muscat and other Gulf population centres.

More interested in trading than tyranny, the Dutch kept out of internal Arabic politics but nonetheless exercised their military might around the Straits of Hormuz.

From 1625 to 1740 the Dutch had the strongest maritime force in the Gulf and by the 1800s had co-operated with the English to free Muscat of Portuguese occupation and open the Gulf's waters for free international trade.

Throughout this century the tradition of Dutch and Arab trade continued to flourish, especially with the growing reputation of the sheikhdoms along the present UAE coast as purveyors of pearls.

A generation after the last viable pearl diving operations have ceased, scores of Dutch companies and an estimated 2,000 Netherlands expatriates continue to live and work in the UAE.

While the English came to be the dominant European influence in the emirates and American and German manufacturers and financiers exert greater commercial muscle, the Dutch community maintains a profile exceeding its size.

As intrepid as their 17th century forebears, today's Dutch business leaders make an impact in most fields of commercial endeavour in the emirates.

Like the other emigres from Holland who spoke to Al Shindagah, Titus Van Der Werff travelled extensively before settling in the emirates.

Dubai's evolution as a tourist and business hub first lured Van Der Werff (50) to the Middle East. But the cosmopolitan lifestyle which combines Arab, Asian and Western influences is what has kept him here. As a regional manager with hotel refurbishers and interior designers Leonard Parker, the opportunity to work on projects of a grand and unique scale was irresistible.

"The work of local developers is top standard and reflects the regional images which makes it very fascinating to be involved in such projects," explained Van Der Werff.

Unlike many expatriates, money is not the motivating factor behind the decision to move to Dubai. While acknowledging the financial rewards exist, the the decision was largely made by his company. "I came here after spending two years in the United States where I was involved in procurements for hotels in Miami. The opportunity came to work here on a four year contract basically because my company saw the opportunity to open a gateway to the Middle East in our specialised area," he explained.

If there was any reluctance on his part to head to the Middle East from the US it is consigned to history.

"If my contract was extended for another four years neither myself nor my wife would have any problem with that."

The father of two college age children studying in Holland, Van Der Werff is in a position most Gulf expatriates would envy.

Unlike the majority of employment visa dependents, Van Der Werff returns home every six to eight weeks on short business trips. But even this, when added to his extended annual holiday at home, is not enough to alleviate some pining for things uniquely Dutch.

"What do I miss - not the weather."

"Most of all I think you miss the typical family get -togethers. My family are also active sailors and in Holland the conditions at sea are much more challenging than here," he said, revealing the Dutch weather may have had its advantages.

"In the Gulf the conditions are so predictable you can set your watch by them. At home you are not quite sure what to expect, with strong winds picking up in minutes and conditions variable in an instant.

"I guess I miss the sports of the Dutch - I'm not going to go skating outdoors in the Middle East very often," he mused.

It was the sporting arena which brought home to the Dutch fan just prolific his countrymen were in the emirates.

"During the World Cup you would have thought we made enough noise for 20,000 instead of 2,000," he said of Holland's ultimately doomed but entertaining run in the world's most watched spectacle.

Aside from meeting vocal soccer supporters, Van Der Werff said his social activities revolved largely around the expatriate community, if not Dutch people in particular.

"We are among the minority it seems as most people here either have young families or are single," he said.

"Every location has its challenges and opportunities. We have had to put in extra effort to befriend the locals because of the differences in culture and the fact expatriates make up such a large portion of the population here. But it is effort worthwhile because it makes life much more interesting," he said. Relocating from one of the most liberal countries in the world to a country which lives according to the stricter doctrines of Islam could be seen as a radical change of lifestyle.

Holland is as famous among travellers for its windmills and bicycles as it is for its hash cafes and red light districts. This is in stark contrast to the UAE where possession of the smallest amount of illicit drugs results in a hefty gaol sentence and a liquor license is required to purchase alcohol.

But the social freedoms afforded the Dutch citizens come at a price, according to expatriate of seven years, Michael Oink. The cost to the Netherlands is paid in safety and crime.

For the manager with air conditioning company Halton Middle East, Dubai is possibly the final destination on a journey which has taken him around the world after leaving his small village of Heemstede.

"I am not a political person but I believe the UAE has the most effective system. For example I am all for the death penalty. If people know where they stand in regard to strong laws than they can not complain about the penalties," Oink said.

"Maybe it has something to do with the fact I don't drink or smoke," he laughed, "But I am a guest in this country and believe people must accept the laws or not come here," he added.

As itinerant as the rest of his native Dutchmen, Oink was speaking from his wife's homeland of Wales when he described Dubai's lifestyle as "as close to paradise as any city I've been to".

"There is an openness which comes with living in such a cosmopolitan city. In Holland there is often resentment towards the minority of foreigners who come in, claim social welfare benefits and having more rights than the locals," he said.

"In Dubai people work hard and receiving good rewards for their effort. Some people say here is not the real world but me, I think Europe is crazy."

Dubai and Abu Dhabi are acknowledged as being among the safest cities in the world, a quality revered by a man accompanied by his wife and two primary school-age daughters.

"My daughters love the elegant way the local girls dress here and are very happy here. I hope one day they will be able to go to university here."

Although the Dutch are well organised as a nationality, with associations and social groups throughout the emirates, Oink said he was more likely to be found a local wedding than mixing with fellow expatriates.

The family orientated businessman has found the Western stereotypes of the Middle East have little in common with life in the UAE.

"My father is my best friend and he thought I was crazy when I said I was moving here. But as far as lifestyle and friendly service goes, you wouldn't find anything like this in France or Italy or anywhere.

"I could earn twice as much in Saudi Arabia but that is not for me either. I think Dubai has just the right balance," he said.

Another Dutchman to revel in the safe environment of the emirates is Metropolitan Beach Club general manager Arthur De Snoo.

His peripatetic lifestyle has him well placed the evaluate the livability of any city. Like the guests he caters for as a living, he has travelled widely both as a tourist and resident.

Belgium, Australia and Morocco are just some of the countries lived in by this successful 32-year-old. His two and a half years in the Gulf have provided enough of an insight to convince him of the merits of living and working in Dubai.

"The industry I am in is very competitive which provides a constant challenge."

While the hotel market in Dubai, especially at the leisure end of the spectrum, is competitive within its own city limits, the pressure is also brought to bare from afar.

"The city hotels have business clients who are loyal and are here to do business. But we are competing for travellers looking for the best deal on a world scale, so we are up against Thailand, the rest of Asia and anywhere else attracting tourists," he explained.

While the principles of business rarely differ between countries, the mentality of the consumer can vary greatly, he discovered.

"There is a sense of loyalty between Arab consumers and business. This works for and against you in that you have a rapport with your present customers but must work harder to attract new custom."

"It takes longer to get to know people and I find it is personality as much as price which is important - something not always evident in other cultures or markets," he said.

On a personal level, De Snoo has been richly rewarded during his professional career at the Metropolitan. "I interviewed an English woman for a job and decided to marry her," said the proud father of a two week old child.

Having a new born baby has also had an affect on the composition of his social circle.

"We don't have a great many local friends because the Arabs tend to go out late at night," he said.

Despite the absence of Dutch delicacies as fresh, raw herring (maatjes), a salty sweet called Drop and "really, really old" cheese, De Snoo believes the quality of life in the UAE is difficult to rival.

"The emirates are a welcoming place to a mix of nationalities. Business is conducted with confidence and the people, whether Dutch or Arab or Asian, work and live together with respect and understanding."

Much as they did in the 1600s.

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