Thursday, November 12, 2009

Why The End of Dubai May Not Be A Bad Thing

I am sitting in the Dubai airport as I write this. The lounge as busy as ever, a clear reminder that the Emirates Airlines is one of the world's largest, most successful passenger carriers. The shops in the Duty Free are buzzing with tourists, though they are no cheaper than Bond Street. The new Glass-and-Steel Terminal 3 is a symbol of what could have been. But, Dubai seemed destined to be a city that would never be - some sort of Atlantis that sunk in a soulless quagmire in the middle of a financial earthquake.


Friends living here are not that pessimistic. They point out that Abu Dhabi, Dubai's bigger, wealthier, more conservative cousin state, will not let Dubai fail. Though Dubai has no oil, and has to renew more than $60 billion sovereign debt in the next few years, they are always hoping that Abu Dhabi will come out as Dubai's Knight in the shining armour. It is too closely linked, they say.



However, it is a bit too dire for comfort at this time. I know the planes will be full with people going home, whichever direction I fly from here. One is still finding abandoned cars in the airport parking lot. Many development projects will never be completed; and others, which will be somehow completed, will also suffer as the roads connecting them and the electric supply network hooking them on to the grid will never be.



Besides, despite denial from a red-faced ruling family, the place is full of gossip about the rift between the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Apparently, the rulers of Abu Dhabi want shares in Emirates Airlines, despite their own Etihad doing rather well. Al-Mokhtums are less than willing, but suddenly they are the junior partners in need, and they no longer have the clout to throw money at everything.



Foreign investors finally have woken up to Dubai. The party is truly over. The High Street investors have lately discovered what the more astute ones knew all along: Dubai is not a safe place to invest. Once you invest, you are tied to the personal whims and fancies of one man, and in today's world, that may not be what you want.



For me, Dubai was never attractive. We talked about it on and off, but the place appeared soulless to me and the lure of 'no income tax' was not going to sway me on the other side. Besides, irritatingly, you try to access a number of websites, and the strange notice [which I reproduce above] comes up. You suddenly have this feel about living in a police state, where the big brother is watching you all the time. Creepy! Not for me, surely.




Besides, despite all the efforts to build a modern city, Dubai remained arcane and corrupt and in some parts, built on blood money. Dawood Ibrahim, the big Indian Mafia who masterminded bombings in Bombay in 1993, invested a significant sum of money there. So, are the refugees - those who were persecuted by the people like Dubai, they have lived there and owned and ran businesses. While Dubai is relatively crime-free, except unhindered speeding and the fact that Emiratis can get away with murder, the rule for settlers seem to be this: We don't care what you do in another country, as long as you have the money and you don't do anything here.

I have been to labour camps in Dubai and seen what condition people live in. These were people mostly from Bangladesh and Eastern India, who spoke Bengali, and I learnt from them how they live in construction sites, in sub-human conditions and with limited rights. Any protest is treated with an expulsion from the country and a permanent black-listing, a severe punishment for those who sold the family land to pay the agents the passage money. I often wonder why the Western investors so much love Dubai: It is possibly this unencumbered opportunity to exploit people and cause almost Dickensian miseries have been so attractive.

And, finally, Dubai is as racist as one would imagine South Africa would have been at the height of apartheid. In a city state with 85% settlers, people who come to work here had no settlement rights and were classified according to their nationality. If you happen to be a person of colour, you end up getting employed in Junior positions and get paid less than a similarly qualified White person. Most companies work in racial compartments: An Emirati owner, an European CEO, Indian Managers and Filipino and Bangladeshi workers, seems to be the norm. People seem to be upfront about their racial preferences. I still remember the shock and awe from my first business discussion here: I was asked to recruit people with only certain skin colour, certain age and certain gender. Made my beloved profession sound like pimping, but that's Dubai.

So, in summary, Dubai is a combination of Pharaoh's Egypt, Apartheid-era South Africa, the innards of a Swiss Bank and an overbearing Myanmar-style Police State, all packaged and presented as the Disneyland of Capitalism. Take it too seriously, you are expelled; Don't believe that it exists and you are hauled to a prison, like the sex-in-the-beach British couple learnt to their cost. Thinking about all this, the party getting over may not be such a bad thing. In fact, it may actually allow us to gain our faith back and restore some sense in the end.

8 comments:

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Here is an article that brought back this old post into my memory http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/johann-hari/the-dark-side-of-dubai-1664368.html?fb_action_ids=10151530210207505&fb_action_types=news.reads&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map={%2210151530210207505%22%3A530879216927937}&action_type_map={%2210151530210207505%22%3A%22news.reads%22}&action_ref_map=[]

zakk sangkima said...

Very nicely written. Johann's article brought me here. A very enlightening article on a lie we call Dubai.

Anonymous said...

This is absolutely appaling and horrible. Of course, we all know there is still human trafficking and slave work, even within EU where I live, yet, any new case Im reading about just shocks me. I came here after reading the Independent article, which took me almost two hours to be able to read, because it just made me sick, with all the details in it. I also checked a few videos on youtube about the construction workers and the Ethiopian nurses and housemaids, being held in Dubai agaisnt their will. I myself used to work through an agency within EU, in a factory for some 200 or 300 hundred euros and though the living conditions were relatively fair and no one was held captive, I remeber well how everyone had issues with, if not hated outright, these agencies for any mistreatment they done - because it was frustrating, yet it cannot be even slightly compared to what those people in Dubai and elsewhere are going through. And one thing I cannot really understand, I havent seen any big international human rights organizations acknowledge what is going on in Dubai and do anything about it. But there must be a way to press on it?!?

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Indeed, there should b. But I guess the Human Rights agencies usually do very little in countries 'friendly' to the West; why else are they so silent about what goes on in Bahrain or any other Middle Eastern country for that matter? It seems as long as the country follows an western agenda, a consumption driven growth, an integrated banking system, etc., no one seems to care what they do inside.

Anonymous said...

Sure, historically, western countries contributed enormously to whats going on now in many countries in the world. And not just historically, current policies, and whole the system for that matter, of many western countries still cause a lot of injustice. But I still believe there are lots of people, NGOs and so on, everywhere in the world, not just in western countries of course, who can press on doing sth about that once its known. I want to hope that the information technologies will help to bring attention to it and that we, people, will press them to make the change. But at the same time Im sort of...almost afraid of it, definitely it wont be that easy as I thought at first when the internet and all the info it brings had hit our lives. Ive just read an article from HRW posted on April 15, one day before the meeting of Obama with the Crown prince of UAE, where the Middle East director at HRW said: President Obama should break with past US soft-pedalling criticism of severe abuses in the UAE, especially when he has called publicly for other countries in the region to respect human rights...but well, reading the reports on the meeting on the web, I doubt he said a word about that...

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

I agree. However, in the UAE, media is tightly controlled, and without support from media, NGOs can do very little. While I have greatest respect for the work some of the NGOs do, my experience tells me that they are far less vocal on the ground than they seem to be inside the Western societies. Most prefer to fight, say, the battle for human rights in Burma in London, rather than doing this in Yangoon. It is safer to do that way, and it raises more money.

Now, I am aware that there are exceptions to this, but the people fighting battles for worker rights in Dubai, on ground in Dubai, are likely to be expat workers themselves, who are swiftly expelled. I remember the story of an Ethiopian maid who murdered her employer as he tried to rape her, someone who was swiftly tried and executed - something that was subject to local gossip in Dubai, but was completely ignored in the media. Filipino government, at some stage, tried to negotiate a minimum wage rate with UAE, resulting in blacklisting of all Filipinos from coming to Dubai (the recruiters went to Nepal instead). When the Bangladeshi workers in Dubai became more vocal recently, that resulted in 'No Bangladeshi' policy.

Indeed, the NGOs in these countries, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Ethiopia, should have been most vocal in protecting their own citizens. However, the elite in these countries want the workers to be exported. Case in point in Bangladesh: Its two biggest sources of foreign exchange, which keeps the currency steady and allow their rich to buy their Land Rovers, are Garments (which is based on, as we know now, slave labour) and remittances from expats, mostly from Dubai. No one would rock the boat, much less the NGOs in Bangladesh, who are run by rich idealists all of whom spend a considerable time in London and other parts in Europe.

Anonymous said...

Well, yes, I can understand that. I don't know much about these issues but I presume it's often not only safer and easier, but I would expect more efficient too, for NGOs to work from outside…Like, in the case of Dubai, if one can't even go freely to the those camps and speak to those people, not to say to shoot it on camera (how did you get in, if I may ask? Officially or not?). Likewise, the media are controlled, so I would expect the pressure should really come from outside, and from the big ones, from the states, which should be pressured to do so by the human rights organizations, and so on, but I can see it's much more complicated than that and the interests of the corporations are so powerful…

The victims, like the poor illiterate expat workers are really powerless on the ground, I presume, and the desperate actions like jumping down from a building, throwing oneself under the car or murdering the employer because that's the only way to escape rape, that is all horrible. I don't know anything about who runs the NGOs, about the rich idealists based abroad. But, here in Slovakia, we have a lot of problems with the Roma minority, some of them are integrated and live well, but they sort of blended in and are no longer seen as being Roma. But the majority of Roma people are uneducated, unemployed, and discriminated against, they can't escape their situation, and we have a lots of NGOs who tries to help already for decades, but sometimes it just seems like it's getting worse only. Some NGOs are just idealists (not rich, rather silly ones) and their "help" is divorced from reality, others outright steal the money flowing in for the solution of this problem (and there are hundreds of millions of euros pouring in from the EU), and some of them are doing sth useful, but the results? Well…

That's really frustrating sometimes, we can't solve it even here at home, and when I read about the issues elsewhere, be it Dubai, Bangladesh, Burma, wherever it is, it's just frustrating. What common people, who get to know about that, can do? Like, one can choose not to go to Dubai for the holiday even if it's so 'cool' and even affordable, or avoid buying clothes from big corporations and buy local and fair trade instead, but is that enough to make any change? Well…

I have read somewhere that the sheikh insisted on making the conditions of the workers better after info about them leaked outside in 2007. But well, seeing how it is developing there, and what Dubai is all about, I guess it's the same PR campaign as all those buildings and islands and all that crazy stuff, at the end of the day. But well, I really liked your article, and thinking about those "components" of what is presented as the Disneyland of Capitalism...in such conditions, even if the "ruler" would honestly want to make some change, I can't see how would he do that…when it comes to about three millions expats working there, the very logistics of enforcing anything better for them sounds unimaginable, even in such a place where "everything is possible", as he likes to boast. He, and all the elites there, depend on them, their cheap work power, the agencies who make money of them, the investors, the more so in this crisis…the party getting over sems really like the only option for things getting better there…

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Thanks again for these comments. Indeed, I believe private citizens can bring change, and they do: However, in the context of Dubai, where powerful forces, as well as media and the states, are aligned against them, what they can do is limited.

What's at stake here is much more than the continued prosperity of Dubai: It is the sustainability of a particular model of development. Dubai's rulers were clever enough to create an oasis of trade and consumption, suspending all other norms of the civil society. So we have a modern looking society which is unabashedly racist, a set of technological wonders which come with huge environmental costs, a police state which harbours most of the South Asian mafia. Dubai is capitalism in its unrestrained form, the kind economic libertarians wish for.

My feeling is that end of Dubai will come from its midst, rather than from outside. It is a fake society, everyone living in cocoons, cultural life made up of shopping malls and an economy based on shopping and tourism, which are inherently fickle. Its own people are pampered - living off the privilege that everyone setting up businesses have to find a local sponsor and pay them a fee - and unable to take charge of their own country. Its new, fake islands have started sinking, its highly leveraged real estate is going empty, and people have started waking up and started leaving. Arab Spring may have given it a respite, but not for very long.

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