ABU DHABI // Amani al Amri's 2003 Toyota Corolla appears to be a taxi. But in the eyes of the law, it is now simply a car with a gold-and-white paint job. Her taxi, which is driven by a Pakistani man, is one of 8,000 that has or soon will be taken off the road by TransAD, the taxi regulator that is phasing out the older cabs and overseeing the introduction of a new silver fleet of franchise-owned vehicles.
But losing her taxi will be a financial blow to Ms al Amri, 29, a widowed mother of three from Baniyas, who had to borrow to buy the permit and car for Dh210,000 (US$57,000) in 2003. She lives with her parents and says the Dh2,200 a month her cabbie paid to drive the vehicle was a vital source of income that cannot be matched by the Government. Although the cab's driver has kept her car off the road since her permit expired in December, Ms al Amri said she had not yet gone to TransAD to cancel her permit, even though when she does she will receive a certificate that will guarantee her Dh1,000 a month for at least another five years.
"I didn't deliver the car yet because it is not just me who is suffering," she said. "Nobody is benefiting from this. The [silver cab] companies take the money and we get only Dh1,000 a month. Now it is a company that is benefiting and the nationals that are suffering." So far, 4,410 permits have been cancelled to make way for the modern taxi service. Meanwhile more than 5,000 silver taxis have come on the road out of a planned 7,147.
Last year TransAD renewed Ms al Amri's permit until December, and she has twice gone to request the regulator renew it again, without any luck. Cases such as Ms al Amri's deeply affect Jameela al Hameli, who, as director of the regulator's customer service division, oversees the cancelling of permits for the older cars. Since TransAD started the phase out in late 2007, she has heard many similar stories. In rare cases, TransAD has renewed permits for a limited time on compassionate grounds.
"There were a few people who depend on [their taxis]," she said. "They were exempted for a year or a year and a half. Mostly it is widows or divorced women who are in need. We have a committee and whoever applies to be exempted we try to help." But no matter what, all the old permits will be cancelled and the gold-and-white taxis cleared from the streets by May 2012, in accordance with a decree issued by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi.
Taxi services were launched in Abu Dhabi in the 1970s, Ms al Hameli said, as a source of extra income for Emiratis. As the population boomed, taxis became a vital industry that was difficult to regulate, partly because of the old system in which the taxi driver would pay a portion of his income to his Emirati sponsor and keep the rest. He did not have to stop for passengers if he was not in the mood, a requirement under the new regime. Some drivers also did not use the meter and tried illegally to negotiate higher fares with passengers. The meters in the new cabs start automatically when a passenger enters.
The plan is to compensate cab owners with Dh1,000 a month over the next 25 years. But TransAD can, every five years, offer to buy back a taxi's certificate for Dh100,000. "This was our main set-up, to phase out old taxis and establish a fund for the [car owners] where we can pay them," Ms al Hameli said. The responsibility of paying the owners of the gold-and-white cars falls to the seven franchisees that will operate the new, silver cabs. They will pay the remuneration into a fund managed by National Bank of Abu Dhabi.
"If they want sole ownership of the streets, they have to pay to the owners that are being phased out," Ms al Hameli said. But the payment is not adequate for Mohammed al Sabt, 50, who has cancelled three of his five permits. Mr al Sabt, a retired Emirati from Shahama, who worked in the oil and gas industry and bought his first taxi permit in 1973, said he now depended on a pension of Dh15,000 a month and the income from the cabs - about Dh2,500 a vehicle - to pay off car loans and support 10 family members, including two children in university.
"The salary is not enough," he said. "The cars used to be good income for me to help me with my expenses." He said he sold the three cabs as private cars for about Dh5,000. "I don't understand this law because my cars are 2003 and 2005 models and there is no problem with them. As UAE nationals we are very harmed by this law." However, some taxi owners, such as Ahmed al Kathreei, 55, are content to be rid of their vehicles. Mr al Kathreei, from Baniyas, is cancelling the last of three taxi permits he said he paid Dh80,000 each for about 10 years ago.
Mr al Kathreei, a retired former director of medical services with the Civil Defence, said he would have preferred Dh1,500 a month, but he understood the Government's intent. "Now they want to change," he said. "When I change this taxi, I will leave the headache, the daily headache from the driver because sometimes they had accidents."
Mr al Kathreei can turn the cab back into a private car if he chooses, so long as he changes the colour scheme, Ms al Hameli said. Ghafar Ali, 35, from Pakistan, said he had been driving a gold-and-white taxi since 1999, but stopped when the licence on his cab was cancelled two years ago. For him and many other drivers, the challenge now is to find alternative work or return to their homeland. Few have gone on to drive in the new fleet, either because they had no interest in the more rigid system or could not pass TransAD's requirements of speaking both Arabic and English and providing good customer service, Ms al Hameli said.
Mr Ali, a contract worker who now often drives minivans for private companies, said he preferred being a taxi driver. "I would often feel tired and my back and feet would ache but the earnings I made validated the effort I had to put in," he said. "I at least had a reliable source of income, which is more than I can say at present." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Samihah Zaman and Haneen Dajani