ABU DHABI // When John Schneider-Merck landed in the UAE in 1976, he immediately saw it as a country of opportunity.
Mr Schneider-Merk was 35 years old when he arrived from Germany to oversee a family business.
The business would later shut down, but instead of heading home, he decided to stay and start his own business.
“I didn’t know Dubai at all. I looked at the map and it said Trucial [State] pirate coast – so I said, ‘Oh, this is interesting. I must go there’,” he recalled.
Mr Schneider-Merck’s life in the UAE is one that few Emiratis today recognise.
He describes himself as an “old desert crocodile”.
“When I came, I immediately realised this was a pioneer country,” he said.
“Everything was being built up. They were still digging out the Jebel Ali port”, and the currency, although by then the dirham, was still colloquially called the rupee.
“It was fairly empty. At the border of Dubai and Abu Dhabi there were still manned border posts.”
There were no street names back then and directions were based on the few landmarks, such as a KFC fast-food restaurant or a nearby clock tower.
“To find places, people put up balloons,” he said.
The only newspaper at the time was Aletihad, The National’s Arabic-language sister newspaper, and there was only one television station, which broadcast in black and white. In any case, it stopped transmission each evening at 10pm.
“Of course you could do a lot of watersports, like diving, fishing, sailing. But apart from that, there was nothing else. For social interaction, you had the majlis.”
One challenge for the authorities back then was to defuse differences among residents.
“I’ll tell you this one anecdote,” he said. “Once I brought a friend of mine with me to Deira – he had an ice factory in Satwa. He came to the majlis with me and I introduced him.”
Soon after, one of his acquaintances at the majlis joked: “‘Why did you bring him here? He is from Bur Dubai and we are Deira boys … No one from Bur Dubai should come to our majlis’.”
Mr Schneider-Merck subsequently recounted that incident at another majlis, this time one hosted by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, the late Ruler of Dubai.
“I was telling this story and they were all laughing. Then Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, who always listened very carefully, decided to start football clubs. So instead of saying, ‘We are Bur Dubai or Satwa boys’, they will be members of the Al Wasl or Al Nasr clubs.”
He recalled how the UAE was “more personable” back in thosedays. “Everyone knew almost everyone,” he said. “It was much more relaxed. During that time, you only had the telex machine,” he says.
“Now, it’s instant gratification. But before, it was much more relaxing – you went to the bazaar and spent the whole day talking. Everything was resolved at the majlis – there were no police.
“If you had asked many expats, ‘Do you know any locals? Have you been invited to any weddings?’ the answer would be, ‘Of course’.”
He said that expats would go to weddings and “if someone died, you went to the wake. The majlises of the sheikhs were always open, and expats went. It still is, but it’s different today”.
Mr Schneider-Merck still lives in Sharjah. “All my friends are miffed about why I never moved, but I have my villa on the beach and my cats.” Every day at 4pm, up to 40 street cats, all of which he has had vaccinated and neutered, show up at his house for the food he puts out for them.
“How can I move 40 cats? If at 4pm we are not out with the food, they start protesting. They are the best-fed cats in Sharjah,” he said with a smile.
He plans to remain in the UAE for several more years. “When I’m in Germany, I’m happy to be with family and friends. When I’m back in the UAE, it feels like I’m home.”
Mr Schneider-Merck said he was happy that the union of the emirates went from strength to strength with each passing year.