I LEFT my Scottish Sun patch in Edinburgh at the end of November two years ago – bound for Dubai, with 46 kilos of luggage and no idea what to expect.
The News of the World had just been closed down and the journalists from The Sunday Times who shared the picturesque News International office, with its balcony in the Canongate, had already been given their marching orders.
It was one of the gloomiest times I’d experienced during my 30-year career in Scottish journalism and the lure of a tax-free pay rise and life in the sunshine was strong enough to make me head to the sandpit.
With a warning from an executive ringing in my ears – that ‘it would be fine if I could stand covering cheque presentations’ – I landed in Dubai.
To work for the daily newspaper, 7DAYS.
So, how to describe it? Well, as I sit down to write this, it has just dawned that the only way to properly pass on the experience of being a journalist in a Middle Eastern dictatorship, surrounded by a population made up of over 230 nationalities, would be in the book I keep telling people I am not ready to write yet.
Dubai is like no other place on earth.
In the very first days of life in the most modern of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, you learn some clichéd phrases which pretty much sum up how it’s going to be.
The top two have to be ‘only in Dubai,’ and ‘inshallah’, Arabic for ‘God willing’.
My very first job was to cover the UAE’s 40th anniversary celebrations at one of the more obscure government ministries.
Challenge number one: getting there. Dubai has very few street names or numbers and navigation is via landmarks like Metro stations or hotels. Taxi drivers who recognise newcomers may well pretend to get lost to boost their coffers.
Challenge number two: getting a PR to actually tell you what the event they are promoting is all about. An average 50 per cent of them genuinely know nothing.
So, I sit down at the outdoor Press table, with its white damask table cloth and chairs decorated with big bows, the way we’d do at a wedding. Women in their elaborate abayas and shaylas arrive (at least an hour late, which is normal) with their maids in tow and air kiss each other, careful not to disturb their immaculately painted faces and carrying handbags worth more than I was set to earn in a month. Well, some of them carried their own bags.
When I started writing down the English translation of the speeches, using shorthand, I despaired. The other ‘journalists’ at the table asked what it was – then discussed how they’d never seen it before. This, in a country where recording devices are banned.
There are big constraints on what or how things are reported: no criticism of the government; everything about the military stamped TOP SECRET; no photos without people’s permission; and government PRs simply ignoring you if they don’t want to answer your questions.
These are the frustrating negatives. The positives are that you will get face-to-face access to world figures, celebrities and top sportspeople like nowhere else in the world. Politicians like Bill Clinton, Boris Johnston, David Cameron, William Hague and even Alex Salmond all turned up during my two years, along with celebs like Tom Cruise.
Did you know that actor, Simon Pegg’s wife is from Maryhill in Glasgow? Neither did I until he spotted my Scottish accent…
You also get invitations to the shiniest, poshest, most lavish venues and events you can imagine. Freebies abound – mugs, hats, memory sticks, food, perfume, the list goes on and on. I even got a voucher for knickers!
Stories from Dubai which made it big in the UK during my two years there included the couple who got caught having sex in the back of a taxi. There was horror in the British media about their sentences. Well, if you live in Rome, do as the Romans do.
One travesty I did spend time on was the archaic debtor laws where every loan is secured by a cheque for the full amount of the finance. Default and the bank presents the cheque which bounces and you get years in jail, depending on the amount. Forget bankers’ bonuses over here, the way the banks treat people in Dubai is far more scandalous. I’d like to think the bounced cheque exclusives I wrote were read by the regime and made a difference, however small.
Then there was the tragic story of Scot, Timmy MacColl, who remains missing after his Royal Navy ship docked in Dubai. The one story I really wanted to cover was him being found.
So, to go to Dubai or not? It’s an amazing experience and one I wouldn’t have missed. Just be careful who you sign up to work for and expect to have to adjust. It’s a bit like stepping back in journalistic time, no electoral register, no phone directory and no proper addresses – you rely on the multi-cultural public to keep you informed. And, boy, are they characters!
Expect to be stunned and amazed by the things that happen – only in Dubai!
P.S. I only covered one cheque presentation in two years…
Myra Philp began her journalism career with the Glenrothes Gazette in 1978. From there she went to the Evening Express in Aberdeen, the Evening Times, the Daily Record and The Scottish Sun, before becoming executive news editor of the Scottish Daily Express. After spending time in Egypt she returned to The Sun, working in its Edinburgh office. Most recently, she has returned to Scotland after two years at Dubai’s daily newspaper, 7DAYS, to run her own news agency, East Scotland News.