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Terminal Two, Dubai International Airport

Saturday, August 30, 2008 by Marianne Elliott

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There are two terminals at Dubai International Airport. Terminal One has fancy restaurants and bars, first-class lounges, duty-free stores selling Gucci, Chanel and champagne, and hourly flights to Paris, New York and London. Terminal Two has a small mosque, a coffee shop, a duty free shop selling tampons, teabags and toothpaste, and hourly flights to Bagdad, Kandahar and Kabul.

If you are willing to overlook a few subtleties then the travellers at Terminal Two can quite easily be sorted into three categories. Firstly there are Afghans and Iraqis coming or going from their homelands. On the way home, in particular, they are often loaded up with excess luggage. Once I shared a flight to Kabul with hundreds of pilgrims returning from the Haj. On arrival, the luggage carousel was crowded with large plastic containers of water from the spring in Mecca.

Secondly there are private sector contractors and consultants, including ex-military personnel now working as private security contractors or engineers on projects in some of the most dangerous spots on the planet. This group includes the Chinese construction crew I saw at Terminal Two on their way into the heart of Afghanistan to build military bases funded by the US. Later I would come across these men building new barracks on the ISAF base in a remote province. The local US Department of State representative complained to me that it was security risk to have Chinese labourers getting such a good look inside a US military installation.

Then there are people like me, the humanitarian and aid workers. Although some remnants of our missionary and Peace Corps forebears survive we are an increasingly professionalised bunch whose careers are progressed by moving from one conflict-zone to the next. Many, like me, are strongly committed to our work and to the people for and with whom we work. Some of us object, for various important reasons, to the privatisation of security forces and think of ourselves as being quite distinct in our mission and ethics from the private sector contractors. But I wonder whether the Afghans and Iraqis sitting in the airport waiting room with us can tell any difference between us.


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10 Responses to "Terminal Two, Dubai International Airport"

  1. susanna says:

    Very interesting. You have so many potential stories in just this one post! Like the unfairness of those two terminals…how many families could be fed in Afghanistan for the price of one Chanel jacket? Or the uneasiness I feel when reading that Chinese engineers are building U.S. military bases? (And why do I feel that way? And is that fair? Is it a normal practice among militaries?) And why do you feel that way about private security forces (although I imagine that I share the same views as you do on that)? So much food for thought in one post.

  2. Swirly says:

    What a fascinating glimpse into some of the routines that exist in your work…getting to and from all kinds of places most people only read about in the media (and read terrifying things about). I think the world is hungry for stories like these, stories of all the people out there doing all kinds of work, who are simply living their lives, who just happen to be doing these things in the midst of horrifying conflict. This is important work you are doing, writing this book.

  3. Paris Parfait says:

    I have seen both those terminals and you’ve described them perfectly. Dubai has totally changed character over the past 20 years – one has to search for the “true” city and its historic buildings. And I find that both a remarkable signal of the country’s willingness to embrace change for a future when the oil runs out and sad, as the true character of Dubai seems masked in an Arab version of Disneyland.
    As for those Afghans and Iraqis sitting in the waiting room, I expect they can tell the difference between human rights advocates and contractors. The former are usually more sensitive and aware of their surroundings and careful not to offend local sensibilities. The contractors typically just blunder their way through, behaving pretty much the same, no matter where they are. Of course there are exceptions – I know one contractor who’s traveled the world and blends in wherever he goes, like a chameleon. I refer to him as my own personal Indiana Jones. (And that’s a story for MY book!) 🙂 xoxox

  4. Margaret says:

    Glad to find your new blog! Nice story. So true. I am sure some Iraquis and Afghnis can tell the difference while others cannot. It’s good food for thought as to what the differences and similarities are between contractors and humanitarian workers. Sometimes when I am feeling cynical, I don’t see many. You addressed the roots of my cynicism though, the professionalism, the traveling around to conflict zone after conflict zone,… the necessary distance needed in order for foreigners to do this work (such as big jeeps with ac, trips to spas to decompress, carepackages,…)
    Looking forward to further posts,

  5. Tazeen says:

    Interesting, I have been in transit at Dubai International but have never really seen this other terminal, perhaps because I have never traveled to either Iraq of Afghanistan.

  6. Harry Rud says:

    I’ve wondered that myself, but at 4 in the morning in terminal 2 after a sleepless night have never been that clearheaded about it. Always meant to take a photo of the depature board at t2 as well.

  7. stargazer says:

    hi. this is just a quick note to let you know that i’ve nominated you for a blog award, because i love your writing and your work. you can find the details here:
    and because i’m useless at technological stuff, i’ll also include the url for the blog award logo, in case you want to pass it on to your favourite bloggers:

  8. [a} says:

    I have no constructive criticism to offer 🙁 I’ll just be the gushing fan at the sidelines, eh?
    Agree with Paris Parfait: Dubai=Arab version of Disneyland, haha.
    An airport, filled with so many lives, so many stories, is the perfect place to start off. And fascinating at Dubai–with all the various cultures & contrasts…and that hint of tension…

  9. I agree with [a}, I love the fact that you start at the airport, it really is the ideal place to begin. You set the scene really well, descriptive without being overly so, and you keep the reader interested. Can’t wait for the next bit!

  10. Sarah says:

    This is excellent. I’m an armchair traveller who will likely never get to Kabul. I really enjoyed Sally Cooper’s “Burqa and a Hard Place” and Deborah Rodriguez’ “The Kabul Beauty School”, interesting sides you never see in any news stories. Also, Rory Stewart’s walk, he’s a lovely writer. Good luck with this, I will visit again.

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