Breaking rank: taxi drivers of the UAE

“Are there many jobs in Australia?”‘

Click – I strapped my seatbelt on and settled in to the soft faux leather seat, the cool breeze from the air conditioning providing welcome relief from the dry Emirati weather.

If fancy sport cars weren’t rushing past you on the streets of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, taxi’s ruled the roads. They were loud, brash and always pressed for time, slicing through lanes at will. Other drivers on the road – to their respect – did not bat their eyelids.

During my stay in the UAE, I met some incredible taxi drivers, from all walks of life. They shared with me their different experiences, and how they ended up in the gulf.

“There’s no culture in Dubai,” Aqeel gestures helplessly, the bottoms of his palms expertly guiding the steering wheel as he explained.

Aqeel from Bangladesh

“Culture is personal, but in Dubai there are so many different people from so many different place, its hard to find a place where you feel at home.”

As we talk, it is hard to miss the wistfulness in his eyes. Leaving Bangladesh to make a living for himself and to send money back to his village, Aqeel left his wife and kids and sought out opportunity for himself in the Middle Eastern gulf region. But upon arriving, it became clear that there was a glass ceiling that would never be broken.

“Higher jobs are for the Emirati natives and White (Western) people. Down (labour) jobs are for people like me.”

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, only because I knew that to be true. Economic disparity through overworked and exploited labour groups is the regions worst kept secret. Deaths in Qatar during stadium construction for the 2022 World Cup to passport confiscation of maids so they cannot leave the country are two examples of the exploitation that has occurred.

Isolated and detached, Aqeel like many other labour workers in the UAE miss home dearly. Many of the cab drivers I interacted with were on their phones, face timing while on the job. Which, yes, doesn’t seem like the safest thing to be doing when operating a motor vehicle, but provides them some quiet relief from the harsh reality of their lives.

Sometimes the heart simply yearns for something familiar.

For a place where you feel at home.

But how can you create some semblance of home when there are so many barriers to doing so?

“There are visa restrictions that exist – expensive visas that mean my family cannot join me here!”

Saif from Pakistan

Originally from the snowy Northern Highlands of Pakistan, Saif has been in the UAE for 15 years.

“You should visit Pakistan,” he exclaims, “the country is beautiful – like nothing you’ve ever seen! My parents will look after you!”

Every two weeks, he sends money back to his parents without fail.

“I really wish my parents could be here with me. But I don’t think I can support them on my wage.”

Saif explains to me that taxi drivers are paid as commission workers; the government paying them 35% of their monthly earnings while pocketing the rest. So if Saif was to earn a 1000 dirhams a month, his monthly wage would amount to 350 dirhams. That, in dollars, is approximately $122.26.

“I pay rent, send some money back home and then have barely anything left for myself.”

He glances at my camera – “that looks expensive.”

I have one of the cheapest cameras on the market, but explaining that to him felt like a moot point. I guess context is everything.

“Are there many jobs in Australia?”

Aqeel, Saif and many other drivers – though their stories differed – all asked this same question. They wanted to know if there was better out there, if there was hope for them, for something more than this.

And I was always struck silent by their question. I’m in no position to promise them that they will find employment in Australia – let alone get visas for entry, which according to Saif are incredibly expensive. Having no answer made me feel sick.

“Thank you for your time Mr. Ryan,” Saif gratefully said to me.

As I paid my fare and exited the cab, the drivers would all shake my hand earnestly, and make an intense form of eye contact; eye contact so honest and true.

It was only at the goodbyes did I understand that it wasn’t a guarantee of hope that they were looking for. They just wanted to be seen and heard. After living in a country that for so long has only viewed you as a resource rather than a human, all you want is to be seen as human once more.

To feel human once more.

Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.

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Instagram: @chinkinthearmour


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