God has graciously granted me another first, a phenomenal experience, and a fulfillment of a long-time goal. As many of you know, I love traveling to new places and I love to learn—it’s my hobby really. Prior to my most recent international trip, I think my trip to Cuba was the one on which I had the steepest learning curve. My most recent trip was to the Arabian Peninsula, specifically to the United Arab Emirates.
When a church friend, who is now a tentmaker there with his family, invited me to come to teach and preach for a week, I merely tucked it away in a mental file folder called, “O yeah, that would be nice”—I was not certain it would really happen. By God’s grace it did happen and I was mesmerized by all that I experienced. I returned home after an amazing ministry-filled week with a greater understanding of Arab Muslim culture, deeper appreciation for those who are laboring in less than open areas, and profound admiration for what has been accomplished in that part of the Arabian Peninsula—in only forty years or so.
I found myself saying “Wow!” over and over. The UAE is a concentration of the biggest, best, fastest, and most amazing that the world has to offer. Someone said that the Guinness Book of World Records has probably set a new world record for how many times they have traveled to the UAE to measure new world records. The world’s fastest roller coaster, the world’s tallest building, the world’s only seven star hotel, the indoor aquarium with the biggest continuous glass front, a mall with an indoor ski slope, an indoor parachuting venue, a man-made palm tree-shaped peninsula that houses luxury homes and hotels, and a project to create islands in the shape of the continents of the world so that a world map would be seen from the air, the world’s largest mall, etc., etc., etc. And all of this grew out of the desert floor—out of sand and rocks—and Bedouin tribal areas in less than my lifetime. As we drove down smooth five lane highways, illuminated by lampposts in perfectly straight lines for kilometers on end, irrigated palm trees on either side, I marveled that none of this was here just a few short decades ago. Now there are masterpieces of fine art masquerading as sail-shaped buildings, multistory disc-shaped office buildings, sky-scraping spires, and many of the buildings had a twin right next to it—as if one wonder were not enough, they duplicated it, just because they could. The sheiks want the country to be the best that the world has to offer so that no one would ever have to leave to do or see anything. In addition to thoroughbred camel races, they have ice hockey teams! Some said that the UAE posted a debt last year of hundreds of millions of dollars, but it wasn’t alarming because it was just a number. They have more wealth than they can count.
One of the most interesting missiological realities is that although there are about seven million people there, only about one million are citizens, and no one who is not a citizen will ever be one (even those who are born there). The UAE has so much money that its citizens get a check simply for being Emiratis. They have brought in six million expatriates to do the work that no one wants to do. Guards, clerks, waiters, maintenance people, construction workers, and virtually every level of society below the highest rung of the ladder, has been brought in to run the place. The expatriates, who serve the Emiratis, live in labor camps that are much like apartment complexes, although some are little more than blocks of buildings with bedrooms holding four or five bunk beds in each small room. The companies that recruit and import the workers provide their salaries, living quarters, a bus to get them to and from work, and the essentials of life. In some cases, night shift workers come home to sleep in the same beds that the day shift employees slept in during the night. Of course, those who do make decent salaries and have money are free to rent a place from an Emirati. Yes, rent, because with the exception of a very few small designated locales, only the Emiratis can own property.
My hosts told me that every business must have an Emirati who holds at least 51% ownership; no foreigner can come in and establish a business without Emirati involvement. Since the Emiratis are only one out of every seven people within the country and are at the top of this pyramid, the odds are pretty good that Emiratis can simply live the good life of driving SUVs to the coffee shop to visit with friends every day. Emiratis have had to learn English, even though Arabic is their mother tongue, because the workers in the coffee shops, dry cleaners, stores, and gas stations are often expatriates who may speak only English. Still, aside from having to learn English, it is a pretty good deal for the Emiratis. They do not wait in lines; if a line of foreigners is waiting to order at a fast food place, an Emirati simply walks to the front of the line and is immediately waited on ahead of the others. Indeed, at markets and stores, it was common to see Emiratis drive up in nice cars and honk the horn until some harried clerk came running out to ask them what they want and then run back in to buy it for them and bring it out to their car. Some Emiratis were discussing the revolutions and unrest in other Arab countries and someone asked whether anything like that would ever happen in the UAE. Another answered without hesitation that it would never happen there, “Because we are too lazy! We might hire someone to do it for us, but we would not march in the streets and revolt.”
Another fascinating element that was new for me was the absence of petty crime. When the heat reached 110-115, I noticed that many people would simply leave their car running when they ran into the store, so that the car would not heat back up with the AC turned off. Someone told me that his wife accidentally left a large amount of cash in her purse at the car wash, only for it to be discovered by the attendant and returned when she picked up the car. At Starbucks or the pool, you can run to the washroom or walk away to visit with a friend, leaving your keys, iPhone, laptop up and running, with your wallet sitting next to it and all will still be there when you return. Amazing. But why steal? They have no need for anything, and what we have is probably not as nice as what they already have. The poorer expatriates may be tempted to steal, but they risk strict jail terms followed by deportation. Crime is virtually nonexistent compared with many other countries I have visited, including my own.
The threat of crime is so low because the people really have no needs. However, evangelistic efforts have found little success there; partly for the same reason. Very little fruit has been harvested among the citizens, even though many are sowing. There are estimated to be only 10-12 Emirati Christians in the entire UAE and these are secret believers. Many of the tentmakers working in the UAE are as active in ministry as they dare to be, but realize that the areas of greatest promise are among the expatriates who are from dozens of countries all over Latin America, Asia, Europe, Australia, Africa, USA, and more.
I was there to teach chapter 15 of the Perspectives course and preach a few times. In the few evangelical churches that have a building, there were between 15 and 30 different language group congregations that shared the same building every week. When we finished our second English service, the Filipino congregation walked in behind us and began to set up for their service. It was so exciting to see all of these languages worshiping the Lord in culturally appropriate ways, seamlessly coordinating the use of a single structure, in a country where they were watched closely. Wow! God is truly up to something there.
The UAE is a place where you can stand still and reach the world by stretching out your arms. Perhaps our best creative access would be to concentrate on reaching and teaching the millions of expatriates, and then train them to reach and teach others around them there, as well as back home when they return. I was thrilled to think what else could grow out of that spot in the desert. And just like the marvel that the UAE has become, it could happen in our lifetime. Wow!