Why 5,300 former expats want to say...Thank you Dubai

Patrick Michael
Filed on April 12, 2014
Why 5,300 former expats want to say...Thank you Dubai

They are people who left Dubaiís shores many years ago, taking with them fond memories of a life well lived.

Now in their 60s and 70s, these expats want to reunite in Dubai to express their gratitude to the country that welcomed them and allowed them to become part of its development history.

Edward Scalpello is one of them. The Italian, who first came to Dubai in 1982, has written a letter to His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, requesting such an opportunity.

“Many of us have the urge to speak of our wonderful memories to those who are too young to have experienced them and to the world at large,” the letter says. “Most of us are now in our 60s and 70s and we thought what a wonderful public relations excercise it would be for Dubai if you could honour us by inviting a large group of us over to express our great love for the city.”

Why 5,300 former expats want to say...Thank you Dubai (/assets/oldimages/sani_0411.jpg)

THOSE WERE THE DAYS MY FRIEND...” Thank you Dubai “for providing us with such wonderful opportunities and fantastic memories of great times.” Edward Scalpello in an Arab outfit with his children Francesca (now 21) and Paolo born in Dubai and now 16. — Supplied photo

So how did the yearning start? With a Facebook group formed of mostly Brits who moved to other countries. At ‘Dubai — The Good Old Days’ (DTGOD), over 5,300 members regularly chat about Dubai, its incredible new infrastructure and wonder if the new expatriate communities ever think about what the old Dubai had to offer.

“There is, consequently, a common urge amongst us to spread the word of just how wonderful it all was when the only skyscraper in sight was the World Trade Centre,” says Edward.

Recalling those fabulous Fridays on Dubai’s beautiful beaches and the weekend camping trips in the desert, Edward this year formed another FB group — The Golden Oldies — hoping to make the “reunification dream” come true.

“The idea came as a result of a lighthearted comment on the possibility of Shaikh Mohammed chartering an Emirates A380 to fly us all back to Dubai for a reunion and PR exercise,” says Edward, now based in Bedford. “It produced so many responses that after consultation with the DTGOD founders, I formed a splinter group with the sole purpose of maintaining all matters and posts connected with our letter to Shaikh Mohammed in one place.”

Edward returned to Dubai in early 1997. He was the regional managing director of the Italian video-conferencing manufacturer Aethra. After a two-year contract, he returned to Europe but the call of Dubai proved too strong and he came back in 2000 and remained there until 2012.

“During my first visit back in the 80s, Dubai was a city of expats working hard and enjoying life even harder,” he reminisces. “The tallest building was the World Trade Centre, which you could see when returning from Abu Dhabi, signalling you were well on the way home. It was also a good landmark when lost in a Dubai that did not yet have street names or numbers and no maps (apart from the excellent Dubai Creek fun map produced by the well known Russ North) and certainly no GPS. Now you couldn’t see it even if you stand underneath it!”

The Pot & Pan souk shortly before Metropolitan Hotel was where Dubai started back then.

The un-fenced road through the desert that led to Abu Dhabi was long and tiring. The hidden speed breakers along its two-lane length, together with wandering camels, claimed several lives. The two-lane Shaikh Zayed Road had just a sprinkling of cars and no traffic jams. Haggling with a taxi for the Dh2 fare across town was part of the fun.

Edward saw all this change. The speed humps disappeared, all but one, and the desert was largely fenced off, preventing camels from straying on the road. Shaikh Zayed Road turned into a 14-lane highway and there were thousands more cars. The World Trade Centre was buried beneath much taller skyscrapers, beloved roundabouts gave way to under/over passes; free zones, new housing estates, golf courses, shopping malls and parking meters sprang up all over the place.

New bridges supplemented — and in some cases replaced — the three original Creek crossing places, a driver-less Metro line was designed and brought into operation, and the beaches were nearly all closed with hotels, villas and car parks taking their place. Many of the world’s biggest things were built — the tallest building, largest fountain, highest hotel, hottest skiing slope… The list goes on.

“Many of us Golden Oldies admire the Dubai of the 21st century and even have a sense of pride in being a part of its history,” Edward says. “Most of us also mourn the demise of the 20th-century Dubai which we all loved and miss so much!”

Despite the recent financial crisis that hit just about every country in the world and some difficult periods during the Gulf War, Edward believes Dubai has seen mainly ups and very few downs.

“However, speak to the newcomers and they may well paint a different picture because all they see are the massive development programme, the 16-lane highways full of mad drivers, the exorbitant rent, school fees and new hidden taxes such as the salik (road toll),” he says. “They see all this as a ‘down’ because they probably compare it with their home countries which have not (and could never have) experienced such enormous changes in such a short time. You have to be a Golden Oldie to appreciate the real wonder of Dubai past and present!”

Edward attributes the success of the city to “its visionary and supremely well respected leaders — and a few drops of oil!”

He vividly remembers his meeting with Shaikh Mohammed in 1997.

“His Highness’s love of horses is common knowledge,” he says. “He owns horses all around the world with many in the Godolphin stables in the UK and also in France. He would often travel to these locations to check on them and the trainers and keepers. The travels kept him away from state affairs, which often required his timely intervention. I thought video-telephony could be a viable alternative solution for him where he could check the horses and both see and speak to the staff without moving from his office or palace.

“I wrote a letter to His Highness and also spoke of this with a very good local friend of mine whose father worked for the ruling family. To cut a long story short, I was subsequently invited to His Highness’s palace to provide a demonstration of such a video-telephony link.

“The equipment was set up in his majlis in the Zabeel Palace and I awaited my turn among many other visitors and dignitaries to meet him. Two days passed before I was summoned and they were two of the most interesting days of my life. I saw many VIPs arrive and leave and was constantly fed and watered by attentive staff in the purpose-built restaurant facility in the palace. Even the rest room was fascinating and splendorous.

“When I eventually met him I was asked to sit next to him in the majlis which was full of senior locals and officers. He asked me to show him how it worked. It is a source of constant amazement and a story to relate to my grandchildren that I was not only able to meet this famous man but also able to listen and speak to him without any official protocol! I often wonder what my chances would be of meeting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in similar circumstances!

“Due to technical limitations, the demonstration worked but not well. I shall always remember His Highness’s last words to me: Come back when you get the technology right.

“Unfortunately, the technology improved but I never subsequently had the opportunity of taking His Highness up on his kind and generous offer!”

During the global economic crisis, the Dubai bashing in the foreign media reminded him of an old British anecdote about poor communication during World War I: A group of soldiers under heavy attack radioed for help, saying ‘Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance.’ The message received was: Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance.

“Such is the nature of storytelling over distance,” he says. “I doubt that any of the Dubai-bashing reporters had ever been to Dubai. Dubai has risen above it and in its usual grandeur!”

If he were to gaze into a crystal ball and say where Dubai is headed, Edward would find it pretty obvious: To be the commercial and tourist capital of the world, especially with an airport designed to cope with more than 25 million people every year and millions being spent on infrastructure development.

Edward thinks this is the first time expats are getting together to thank a city for changing their life. He knows of no other city in the world where the old expat community shares such a strong love and bond with it.

It’s because Dubai gave them a very safe environment in which to live and work. It combined great tax-free earning potential in a truly cosmopolitan environment with freedom of movement and recognition of individual cultural differences, religions and preferences. Plus there were the great beaches, fantastic climate (at least for nine months) and fabulous cars (people elsewhere only dreamed of) at affordable prices.

“These are the things we all remember,” he says. “These are the things we all miss. These are the things which would make us return at the drop of a hat.”

Why do 5,300 people from across the global want to thank a city?

“We live in difficult and troubled times,” he answers. “As we get older, we reluctantly have to appreciate that deteriorating health and mobility together with lack of opportunity reduces our usefulness. Life is not quite as satisfying and joyous as it once was, so naturally we seek solace in our memories of the good old days. For us Golden Oldies, that was what Dubai offered us. We want to thank the city for providing us with such wonderful opportunities and fantastic memories of great times.”

Why 5,300 former expats want to say...Thank you Dubai (/assets/oldimages/jul_0411.jpg)TRULY COSMOPOLITAN

“I was 23 years old when I first arrived in Dubai in early 1977. I responded to an advertisement in the Times newspaper in London and was successfully recruited for a position with the Government of Dubai.

I was pleasantly surprised how vibrant the town was and how interesting the people were. I lived and worked in Deira as that was the business hub in those days. For entertainment we went to Al Nasr and Rex Drive-in to watch movies. We went to the Ten Tola at the old Bustan Hotel and listened to Sal Davis singing ‘Back in Dubai’ at the Safari Club. The Bon Vivant on the Creek and the Flotel in Sharjah were other venues we visited.

I left Dubai in 2011 after 35 beautiful years. My children grew up in Dubai and are still there today carrying on the legacy of a truly cosmopolitan Emirate.”

Why 5,300 former expats want to say...Thank you Dubai (/assets/oldimages/sue_0411.jpg)FOND MEMORIES

“I arrived in Dubai in 1981 at just 17 years of age for a two week vacation. It was 1987 before I finally got back on the flight to head back to the UK — six years later!

I will always have fond memories of Dubai as I made some of my life-long friends there who I still see now almost 30 years later. To see Dubai develop over the years was an honour. Now 26 years after leaving I will be flying back to the country that holds more memories for me than any other place”

Why 5,300 former expats want to say...Thank you Dubai (/assets/oldimages/bla_0411.jpg)13 WONDERFUL YEARS

“I arrived in Dubai from the UK with my wife, my teenage son and daughter on April 1, 1978 and although it was April Fools day, I was anything but a fool moving there with my family. I had gone there to take up the position of Operations Manager at Dubai Aluminium Smelter DUBAL, which was under construction.

There was very little to do and very few shops at first, getting things such as coffee mugs was not easy, and if the butcher got fresh meat the word went around like wild fire. There was no industry as such, but plans were underway to spend billions of dollars on industrial development in Jebel Ali. The Jebel Ali port was well underway and that brought with it the Jebel Ali Club, where just about every expat in Dubai were members. It was a great place for a meal on Thursday night and to meet people any other night.

Schooling for the kids was a little thin on the ground with only the American School and the Catholic School in operation but Dubai College was opened in a group of villas in 1979 having a Cambridge curriculum, so my children moved there and finished their education there, in fact my daughter was at a Dubai College reunion in the UK four weeks ago.

Within no time the locals with some money in their pockets saw the opportunities and took them firmly with both hands and within two years, there was very little that you could not buy and at very reasonable prices. The availability of housing had increased dramatically and in 1980 we moved into a very nice villa at Chicago Beach Village. There were 256 villas built right on the beach mid-way between Dubai side and Jebel Ali with its own pool, tennis court, coffee shop and grocery store, a great place for the kids.

The plant was scheduled to come into operation at the beginning of November 1979, but Shaikh Rashid wanted to attend the first cell going into operation a week earlier than planned, so everybody got there fingers out and we managed to meet his requirements and brought the first cell into operation on October 29, 1979.

That same year I met with Queen Elizabeth IInd and the Duke of Edinburgh who visited the plant. The following year I gave a plant tour to Princess Anne and her then husband Mark Phillips, and later my wife and I went to the wedding of Shaikh Hamdan.

The moral is, if you want to meet royalty go to Dubai. We had 13 wonderful years in Dubai and would never left if I had not been transferred back to England to work on technology sales.


Ellen Palmer

Brenda G. first arrived in Oman on September 15, 1979 to be with her husband who was working for the MOD in Oman. She was not allowed to live there as her husband was on a single status. They decided to take a trip to Dubai to see if Brenda could live and work there.

Within six hours of arriving in Dubai, Brenda was offered a job at the Red Lion at the Metropolitan Hotel where they went for lunch. There was a piano there so my father persuaded my mum to play it and within seconds the manager (at the time he was known as Bill the Bar) leaped over the bar and offered her a job playing the piano on the spot! This led to her playing there every Friday for years and as live entertainment was scarce in the Gulf in those early days people came over from Qatar and Bahrain just to spend the day listening and singing to her tunes. She also found an apartment on the same day and was one of the first to move into The Al Ghurair Centre.

(A quarter page article along with photo was published by the Khaleej Times of May 23, 1980 about her piano playing and history)

Why 5,300 former expats want to say...Thank you Dubai (/assets/oldimages/ben_0411.jpg)

She also played on her own at Dirty Nellies on a regular basis at the Ramada Hotel and sometimes accompanied Dave Blackely the singer who ran the bar.

Frank Carson (famous Irish 70’s comedian) performed at Dirty Nellies and needed a lady pianist for part of his act... Brenda G was hired for this.

On that same day of her first arrival in Dubai, Brenda was also hired (and sponsored visa wise... unheard of at the time) by an employment agency as a PA and was hired out to various MDs of big companies and was often headhunted as her skills as a PA were top class. She also ran the MEED office (Middle East Economic Digest) for many years as well as constantly being asked to play the piano at various venues throughout Dubai and Oman. Brenda also was hired by local Dubai families to play at weddings and parties.

During the first Gulf War, Brenda G. was PA to the GM at TNT Skypak and at the time many Brits were leaving Dubai as they and their respective companies deemed it unsafe for them to remain. But Brenda G staged a sit in and said “There is no way I am abandoning Dubai at this time as Dubai is my home and I still have two jobs to do. Besides I am not leaving my dog and my children Ellen and Russell who live here.” She was allowed to stay.

When Tommy Cooper came over to Dubai to perform he heard mum play and became a huge fan of hers and made her play his favourite song Smoke get in your eyes six times!!

She has also been on the BBC’s Kenny Everett show winning the fastest pianist against four other pianists playing Rachmaninov.....

Brenda G could play classical and contemporary music as background at VIP events as well as sing songs at local hangouts. She also directed various musicals when they performed in Dubai and Oman.

She will also be remembered for driving her white open top jeep called Delilah, (even in the summer months) whilst holding the lead out the window so her dog could run along beside her on the sand plot outside her building. At the traffic lights once Shaikh Mohammed wound down his window and complemented her on her Jeep (as it was one of a kind).

Brenda reluctantly retired and left Dubai in 1995 having worked for TNT for many years. She returned to the town of Ebbw Vale in Wales where she was born.

In 2005 Brenda lost her eldest son Scott to two brain tumours. Scott was also a talented musician in the famous cabaret band Tomfoolery starring Owen Money and Brian Conely. Brenda has never got over this though she continued to play up until her two heart attacks in 2011 which nearly killed her. The doctors claimed it was a miracle she survived.

She is now in a care home and although mentally still as alert as ever she keeps saying she wants to go home... meaning Dubai... as it was a huge part of her life and she was at her happiest there.

She has three remaining children and six grandchildren.

We celebrated her 80th birthday on March 23, 2014.

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