Camping tradition protected, not lost

The demolition of camps in Dubai is not a ban on the practice, it is part of an attempt to preserve the culture and the desert wilderness.

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The action taken by Dubai Municipality workers was swift and clinical. At dawn on Wednesday, heavy machinery moved in to demolish more than 80 camps, and there were warnings that all illegal tents in the emirate would be torn down before the weekend. Nothing would be spared.

At first impression, this might seem like a harsh overreaction by the authorities to a situation that could have been handled in a more measured way. However, there was plenty of notice. Tent owners had already been given a one-week extension of the original two-week grace period allocated for them to register or remove their tents and other belongings.

As the head of the Municipality's building inspection unit, Eng Jaber Al Ali, told The National: "We've given them more than enough time to comply. Today we are showing them that it was not all a bluff, and that we mean business." And by that he means ensuring the use of natural resources is as equitable as possible.

The cost of registration is reasonable - 22 fils per week for every square metre, up to a maximum of 300 square metres. And even on the day the bulldozers moved in, those owners who undertook to register their sites were given a further reprieve if they were willing to do so immediately.

This is a charged issue, because winter camps are a tradition in the UAE. For many people, setting up camp in the desert is not just a way to escape the more hectic aspects of life in the thriving metropolis Dubai has become, but a means of reconnecting with the ways of their forefathers.

While the arguments evoking tradition and heritage are valid, the move to regulate camping followed complaints of noise and littering. It also addresses the fact that some camps have developed a bad reputation as places where a small minority indulge in antisocial activity away from public gaze. Those people who are prepared to set up camp in the authorised areas of Al Warqa, Al Mushrif, Wadi Al Amerdi, Wadi Al Shabak and Al Khawaneej 2, to pay the modest fee for registration, and to abide by the rules, retain the right to camp out.

What the municipality has done is create an orderly framework that not only respects national customs but protects the desert wilderness that is also an essential part of Emiratis' shared heritage.