Disturbing Dubai

Smoggy Dubai (c) Michael Steen

Smoggy Dubai (c) tienshan

It’s rare that I hit on topics here that don’t involve myself, my adoptive country of China or my homeland of Canada. However, I just finished a long investigative report in The Independent about Dubai, and felt the need to share.

The article, written by Johann Hari, shocked me. I had never really put much thought into Dubai, more than knowing it was a common option for people living the expat life.

Hari does an excellent job of breaking down the success and seediness of the city state into multiple levels:

A Canadian in a car park

Karen, a Canadian woman, has lived out of her SUV ever since her husband, Daniel, quit his job in an effort to get out of debt and leave the country.

“Suddenly our cards stopped working. We had nothing. We were thrown out of our apartment.” Karen can’t speak about what happened next for a long time; she is shaking.

Daniel was arrested and taken away on the day of their eviction. It was six days before she could talk to him. “He told me he was put in a cell with another debtor, a Sri Lankan guy who was only 27, who said he couldn’t face the shame to his family. Daniel woke up and the boy had swallowed razor-blades. He banged for help, but nobody came, and the boy died in front of him.”

Karen managed to beg from her friends for a few weeks, “but it was so humiliating. I’ve never lived like this. I worked in the fashion industry. I had my own shops. I’ve never…” She peters out.

The Sheikh and the slaves

Though Sheikh Mohammed, the supreme ruler of Dubai with a slick Web site t’boot, takes most of the credit for the city’s break-neck advancement. However, most of the necks that have been broken are those of a slave labour class imported from poor villages from Asia and Africa, trucked into the city from a large compound several kilometres out into the desert.

Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. “To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell,” he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal’s village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa – a fee they’d pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.

As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don’t like it, the company told him, go home. “But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket,” he said. “Well, then you’d better get to work,” they replied.

The Ugly Expat

Hari paints a bleak, but not all that unfamiliar, portrait of expats living in Dubai.

Later, in a hotel bar, I start chatting to a dyspeptic expat American who works in the cosmetics industry and is desperate to get away from these people. She says: “All the people who couldn’t succeed in their own countries end up here, and suddenly they’re rich and promoted way above their abilities and bragging about how great they are. I’ve never met so many incompetent people in such senior positions anywhere in the world.” She adds: “It’s absolutely racist. I had Filipino girls working for me doing the same job as a European girl, and she’s paid a quarter of the wages. The people who do the real work are paid next to nothing, while these incompetent managers pay themselves £40,000 a month.”

With the exception of her, one theme unites every expat I speak to: their joy at having staff to do the work that would clog their lives up Back Home. Everyone, it seems, has a maid. The maids used to be predominantly Filipino, but with the recession, Filipinos have been judged to be too expensive, so a nice Ethiopian servant girl is the latest fashionable accessory.

It is an open secret that once you hire a maid, you have absolute power over her. You take her passport – everyone does; you decide when to pay her, and when – if ever – she can take a break; and you decide who she talks to. She speaks no Arabic. She cannot escape.

The Emirati Elite

As eye-opening as the other parts of the article were, it was a conversation with Sultan al-Qassemi, a columnist with “liberal/reformist” leanings, that worried me the most. He didn’t seem all that liberal when Hari brought up the darker side of Dubai:

I sigh. Sultan is seething now. “People in the West are always complaining about us,” he says. Suddenly, he adopts a mock-whiny voice and says, in imitation of these disgusting critics: “Why don’t you treat animals better? Why don’t you have better shampoo advertising? Why don’t you treat labourers better?” It’s a revealing order: animals, shampoo, then workers. He becomes more heated, shifting in his seat, jabbing his finger at me. “I gave workers who worked for me safety goggles and special boots, and they didn’t want to wear them! It slows them down!”

And then he smiles, coming up with what he sees as his killer argument. “When I see Western journalists criticise us – don’t you realise you’re shooting yourself in the foot? The Middle East will be far more dangerous if Dubai fails. Our export isn’t oil, it’s hope. Poor Egyptians or Libyans or Iranians grow up saying – I want to go to Dubai. We’re very important to the region. We are showing how to be a modern Muslim country. We don’t have any fundamentalists here. Europeans shouldn’t gloat at our demise. You should be very worried…. Do you know what will happen if this model fails? Dubai will go down the Iranian path, the Islamist path.”

It freaks me out that the concepts of democracy and human rights are so easily washed away under the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. It concerns me that the Great Arab Hope it seems has adopted an ideology of “ignore our faults, or fear our wrath.”

The Desert

Dubai is built on desert. This might seem obvious, but it startled me to learn it has absolutely no usable water that isn’t imported from outside or “reclaimed” from seawater – a process that emits large volumes of CO2 into the environment. In an interview with Hari, Dr Mohammed Raouf, the environmental director of the Gulf Research Centre, explains:

“At the moment, we have financial reserves that cover bringing so much water to the middle of the desert. But if we had lower revenues – if, say, the world shifts to a source of energy other than oil…” he shakes his head. “We will have a very big problem. Water is the main source of life. It would be a catastrophe. Dubai only has enough water to last us a week. There’s almost no storage. We don’t know what will happen if our supplies falter. It would be hard to survive.”

Global warming, he adds, makes the problem even worse. “We are building all these artificial islands, but if the sea level rises, they will be gone, and we will lose a lot. Developers keep saying it’s all fine, they’ve taken it into consideration, but I’m not so sure.”

Is the Dubai government concerned about any of this? “There isn’t much interest in these problems,” he says sadly. But just to stand still, the average resident of Dubai needs three times more water than the average human. In the looming century of water stresses and a transition away from fossil fuels, Dubai is uniquely vulnerable.


As long as some of those excerpts from the article are, Hari goes into much more detail about the place in full here: “The dark side of Dubai“. It’s not short; but well, well worth the read.

That virtually all the criticisms could equally be applied to China will not be lost on anyone who reads it and lives or has lived in the Middle Kingdom.

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