ABU DHABI // Gul Mohammed has not been behind the wheel of his taxi for almost a year. He has lived in the capital for more than two decades, moving from one job to another before finally settling on driving a cab. He drove one car for more than 15 years but as the old white-and-gold models were phased out, Mr Mohammed was left with no vehicle, just a licence and mounting debts. "No English, no work," said Gul Rahood, who shares a room with Mr Mohammed in a dilapidated villa on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.
"Now, they want men who can read English, write English. But we don't have that kind of education." Mr Mohammed, 50, lives with 15 men, all from the same village north of Peshawar in Pakistan. Most are commercial vehicle drivers. While Mr Mohammed is the eldest in the group, many of the youngest, who have been in the country for up to two years, are also without work. Only five in the group are working. They pool their money to support each other, paying Dh5,000 a month for their crumbling two-room villa.
"This used to be a residential area," said Jamal Khan, who shares a nearby villa with six other men. "But the families have moved to the big buildings and for us bachelors, no one will rent their places to us. So we live here." Their homes near Mohammed bin Zayed City could well be razed to the ground any day now. Surrounded by lorries, buses, minivans and taxis, the leafy neighbourhood houses a few hundred men, all from Pakistan.
But in booming Abu Dhabi, with construction projects in full swing all across town, these men have yet to capitalise on the city's prosperity. Mr Khan estimates that at least three men are competing for every driving job. With workers in their thousands losing their jobs across the region, thousands have descended on the city in search of work, seeing Abu Dhabi as relatively unscathed by the crisis.
Mr Khan says a number of his relatives who lost their jobs as lorry drivers in Dubai are now in Abu Dhabi, along with workers from recession-hit Middle Eastern countries such as Yemen and Kuwait. The result has been a glut in the labour market, allowing employers to demand better-educated workers. Indeed, the greater number of workers applying for jobs means employers can now be more selective. Taxi companies, for instance, now have enough applicants to insist that all their drivers speak good English. "We have licences, but no vehicles to drive," said Mr Rahood. "Some have vehicles and licences, but there is no work for them."
On his mobile phone, Mr Rahood carries a picture of the lorry he drives, transporting scaffolding and other heavy-duty construction materials. Sometimes his work takes him as far as Ras al Khaimah, and he can earn up to Dh500 in a week. But the rising cost of living makes it increasingly hard for him to keep his head above water. Some of the men who arrived from Pakistan with promises of work in recent years are instead running up heavy debts, he says.
"Nowadays, in our country there is no justice and no law. The big people make money, " said Mr Rahood. "We can make a hundred rupees in a day, but what is that when your expenses are double? Where even two pieces of bread are promised, men will go there for work." The average price these men pay for a work visa to the UAE is Dh14,000. On top of that, they have to take driving lessons costing Dh100 an hour, and pay up to Dh2,000 for a licence. Then there is rent, food and living costs. The men pool their money to help each other to meet these costs, and to cover each other's driving lessons.
But with costs mounting, they struggle to send the anxiously awaited funds to their families back home. "Just because I am here and not working does not mean a roof does not exist over my children's heads," said Mr Khan. His brothers in Pakistan are looking after his family until he can start sending money home again. Bonds of loyalty mean all can count on one another in times of crisis. At weekends, they spend time receiving relatives from elsewhere in the UAE. In the meantime, they are reluctant to move, and abandon a support system built up over decades. But more and more, a move is seeming inevitable.
"It is kismet [fate]," said Mr Khan. "Some will stay together, some won't." @Email:email@example.com