"I am sorry, sir. I have only been here five days."
"That's all right, I'll show you."
The automobile is currently the primary means of getting around the United Arab Emirates. In the cities, and certainly in Abu Dhabi, the automobile of choice for many is the taxi.
It was my choice, my first couple of months, but I went on to get my UAE driver's license and drove my own vehicle the rest of my stay.
In New York they are an ocean of yellow. In London, often black. In Abu Dhabi, a sea of silver-grey. In New York and in Abu Dhabi, people are on every street corner, hands up, flagging a cab. In Abu Dhabi, people don't whistle and shout at passing taxis, they just bake in the heat.
It is not uncommon to encounter a taxi driver on his first day on the job. I don't know what training they get, but there is certainly no equivalent to London taxi drivers' The Knowledge, and they all drive the way they learned in their home countries. Also, all Abu Dhabi taxi drivers put their automatic transmissions in neutral at stop lights.
I classify drivers in the UAE into three main groups: Taxi, Native, and Western.
Though it seems to me that many Abu Dhabi taxi drivers are from Pakistan, several other countries are represented. However, they all seem to drive like people from Delhi as it is demonstrated on the syndicated television show Don't Drive Here.
Though Abu Dhabi taxi drivers do tend to acknowledge painted traffic lanes, by no means does that mean that they will stay in them. A safe gap between cars is an opportunity, and a cab will fill that gap. It is common for a taxi to fly across three lanes of traffic to make a turn if the taxi driver believes that it will get him to his destination faster, and on to the next fare.
Taxi drivers assume responsibility for what they can see ahead of them and in their peripheral vision. Anything behind that is the responsibility of drivers behind them. They'll signal a lane change, but if you are in that lane, behind them, out of their field of vision, it's on you, boss. I'm pretty sure mirrors are optional.
These grey devils are almost reckless, somewhat aggressive, always something to watch out for. But I've seen worse.
Natives, on the other hand, can be decidedly reckless, and certainly drive aggressively. You can often tell Emeratis by their expensive cars, or SUVs, and by darkly tinted windows. If the vehicle is particularly expensive and the license plate has a very low number, you may be being passed on the highway by a member of the royal family, or some other rich sheikh or sheikha, headlights flashing to get you to move out of the fast lane. There are no vanity plates, but plates with a low number series (1) or something interesting (123) are coveted.
Emerati society can still be thought of as following tribal lines. If you are a stranger, outside the "tribal circle" then courtesy comes only in specific circumstances, though the courtesy is considerable when those circumstances are met.
Emeratis will cut you off in traffic and do other things that most Westerners would consider incredibly rude. Blocking traffic by double-parking is rampant. But call them out on it and they may be astonished that you've taken offense. It's simply the way things are done. The tribal lines extenuate the behavior.
A gross, perhaps misleading, oversimplification might be to say, "I don't know you, so fuck off." It's more complicated than that. As is everything.
Here's where it gets interesting. Catch an Emerati's eye. Communicate non-verbally — a glance, a polite gesture — and, suddenly, courtesy applies. Whereas before they wouldn't let you into their lane, afterward they'll bend over backward to be nice.
Westerners generally drive about how someone here in the USA might expect. Law-abiding, for the most part. I've seen examples of American road rage triggered by Emerati driving habits, and the kind of recklessness that entails. Riding in my boss's car is a good way to get high blood pressure, neck strain from swerving lane changes, and deafness from the honking horn.
That last is something I was aware of before I moved to the UAE, but that, nevertheless, startled the crap out of me the first week I was back.
I had forgotten just how inexplicably angry Americans always seem to be in their everyday lives.
Where an Emerati might come flying up behind you at 180 kph on the highway, they'll flash their high beams to get you to move. An American will just start tail-gating you in an old beater and, if you don't move fast enough, will blow past you in the slow lane, flipping you the bird the whole way.
Though traffic in the UAE can seem dangerous, it has societal rules if you pay attention and learn them. In the USA there are no rules. The "I don't know you, so fuck off" applies, but there are no circumstances where courtesy takes over. There's only the "fuck you".