This article first appeared in one of our newsletters. The need for public transport gets greater as the taxi drivers struggle
Why are taxis so important in the UAE at present? In Dubai, the drivers are fighting back, so that they no longer live on the poverty line, and in Abu Dhabi, the private cabbies are being replaced by companies, essentially leading to an increase to the ever growing cost of living. In a country where the real inner city public transport is still just a master plan, we look at the taxi landscape and how the taxi drivers are the forgotten infrastructure of growthsville.
"You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?" Sometimes you get the impression that your local taxi driver has similar tendencies to those of Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro's psychopathic character in the film classic "Taxi Driver". But however much you may hate the flocks of taxis that swarm the cities, they are a dependency that the UAE relies on, and there is a reason why these drivers are so grumpy. It's a similar story to other workers in the UAE - long hours and low wages.
Dubai's taxis are all new, clean, have advertising in them and give a front that all is hunky dory. The Abu Dhabi cabs are slightly different. You could probably say that they are a visual shrine to 70's tackiness with plastic flower dashboards, gaudy seat covers and, from the smell, the feeling that someone has slept there for a week. In fact seat covers can range from an old t-shirt to obviously fake Louis Vuitton material, to sweaty plastic coverings that help you slide out on hot summer's day. Nice. And, on occasion, the back seat just falls straight through. This is less to do with overindulgent Eid feasting and more to do with the fact that driving here can be equated to Wacky Races. The UAE is one of the worst places in the world for deaths due to car accidents, so the left passenger seat is always locked and hence the dodgey right seat.
So, who makes the most money - the Abu Dhabi cabbies with their dated Nissan Sunny's or the Dubai cabs in their pristinely clean 406s? Shockingly, the Abu Dhabians - let's break it down for you. Abu Dhabi taxi drivers will spend between 14 and 17 hours a day in the grueling heat, trying to earn 200 Dirhams which will be just about enough to keep them going day to day. You can almost understand their grunts and lack of manners. Most taxi drivers need to make between 3000 and 5000 to keep them on the road. Of this, a large amount must be paid to their sponsor - which can be anything from 1500 to 3000 Dirhams monthly depending on the age of the car. And that's not all - there's the petrol to think about, and the maintenance in case anything goes wrong with the car. Throw in rent and living expenses and the money sent home to family diminishes significantly. With hot months slow on business, many must make enough to get by when they can, and sometimes through underhand methods.
Now the Dubai taxi drivers could essentially make a lot more money due to the distances travelled across the length of Dubai, despite the spiraling cost of living increases. However, what has recently come to light is that the drivers constantly incur penalties because they don't take on ‘jobs' radioed out to them. And why would they - with traffic in Dubai veering towards the extremes of Bangkok on a bad day, it simply isn't feasible to cross the whole of the city. Unfortunately it is not seen that way and they are at the mercy of the company and the fines that come with their ‘insubordination'. So, a Dubai taxi driver could work as hard as an Abu Dhabi driver and in effect end up with nothing. You can understand, in such troubling times, why the Dubai drivers have opted to take the decision to illegally strike to make their point.
While the life of the taxi driver could appear easy, you now realise that it is not as easy as it might seem. If you consider, like most expats who are here, that the original plan was to make a little cash, their predicament seems appalling. Many send money home to their families, who, granted, lead a better life than if they were fending back in their home countries. However, from speaking to a number of taxi drivers, the amount that they are able to send back to their family has reduced so much due to the increased costs of living that it no longer warrants the sacrifice of being away from their families. Lyakat, a Pakistani and a veteran driver of 20 years, used to be able to send up to Dhs 1000 to his family a few years ago, but recently has struggled to send Dhs 200 back, and this only because he has sacrificed his 4 to a room luxury for bed space with 8 others. Lyakat won't have to make that decision of staying away from his family any more. With Abu Dhabi getting rid of all the old taxis, he will no longer have a visa as new blood come to operate the new stream of taxis that will now swarm the city.
Let's look at it from the other perspective: Nima, a Filipino beautician, relies on taxis for her Dhs 4 transport to and from work. If that price was to double and without an alternative, she would have to walk for an hour in the grueling heat to maintain her savings that keeps her three children in school. The inherent problem is more widespread and affects more of the lower income workers, many of whom are veering towards the ‘hand to mouth' category in order to survive. And without this backbone in Abu Dhabi, the people infrastructure would struggle. In Dubai, the problem is many years in the making, and with the option of living in Dubai without a car being unthinkable, the number of cars on the road is at bursting point, as flyovers and interchanges are constructed almost endlessly.
The cost structure of a taxi fare has not been workable for some time. The taxi rates in Abu Dhabi are only just about to increase for the first time in more than 15 years and Dubai's rates don't really consider the traffic. Petrol prices have increased over this time towards the 6 dirham a gallon mark, and there is constant inflationary pressure. Realistically, taxi prices in Abu Dhabi are probably one of the lowest in the world and Dubai is quite reasonable. The whole problem is that the need for public transport is right now. If the restrictions in place on the petrol pump operators were lifted and they were actually able to charge a price that was actually above their cost of production, the whole taxi business would deteriorate out of control. What will happen over the coming year is a restructuring of the way that taxis operate with price increases. While this might seem an obvious move, those on a lower income bracket will be seriously disadvantaged, since taxis are used more by those who cant afford their own car than those who rev their Cayenne ego.
Not condoning the illegality of some of the techniques used by the taxi drivers, you can sometimes empathise with their plight. The three most cited overcharging techniques are: the late night pick up; the airport run; and the short distance surcharge. If you have ever tried to take to take a taxi in the early hours, you will be hit with the words, "50 Dirhams ok?" which can usually be negotiated down, but even though this is relatively cheap by Western standards, this is how much the fare should actually be. The airport run sometimes involves the non-metered negotiation and a short trip will infuriate your driver no end with a demand for more for their troubles before letting you out. On top of some of the cabs it says in Arabic "ujrah", which, literally translated, means ‘you have to pay'. And so you do - most people resign and pull out the extra change.
The taxi situation spells it out loud and clear. There is a severe need for a modern public transport system that is both affordable and practical, both in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. While this is on plan in Dubai, Abu Dhabi still ponders as it enters the high end tourism landscape. With 6000 taxi drivers about to move on in Abu Dhabi, I am sure that Travis Bickle would not be too pleased.
Finally, if you are ever in the UAE, we give you the ‘taxi speak' to help you with the lingo. Since some speak Farsi, some Urdu, some Arabic, some English, there is a common underground code to getting where you need to get. Bear in mind that everything is landmark driven. To get the taxi to go straight, use "sidheh". Please take a left at the traffic lights will not work - "signal left" works better. "Backside market" is not where you can find a replacement rear end, and "Buss" or ""Khallas" works well to tell them to stop.