The dark side of Dubai
Dubai was meant to be a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La, a glittering
> monument to Arab enterprise and western capitalism. But as hard
>  times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an
>  uglier story is emerging. Johann Hari reports
> The wide, smiling face of Sheikh Mohammed – the absolute ruler of
Dubai – beams down on his creation. His image is displayed on every
> other building, sandwiched between the more familiar corporate
> rictuses of Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders. This man has sold
Dubai to the world as the city of One Thousand and One Arabian Lights,
> a Shangri-La in the
Middle East insulated from the dust-storms
> blasting across the region. He dominates the Manhattan-manqué skyline,
> beaming out from row after row of glass pyramids and hotels smelted
> into the shape of piles of golden coins. And there he stands on the
> tallest building in the world – a skinny spike, jabbing farther into
> the sky than any other human construction in history.
> But something has flickered in Sheikh Mohammed’s smile. The ubiquitous
> cranes have paused on the skyline, as if stuck in time. There are
> countless buildings half-finished, seemingly abandoned. In the
> swankiest new constructions – like the vast Atlantis hotel, a giant
> pink castle built in 1,000 days for $1.5bn on its own artificial
> island – where rainwater is leaking from the ceilings and the tiles
> are falling off the roof. This Neverland was built on the Never-Never
> – and now the cracks are beginning to show. Suddenly it looks less
> like
Manhattan in the sun than Iceland in the desert.
> Once the manic burst of building has stopped and the whirlwind has
> slowed, the secrets of
Dubai are slowly seeping out. This is a city
> built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide,
> suppression and slavery.
Dubai is a living metal metaphor for the
> neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing – at last – into
> history.
> *I. An Adult
> Karen Andrews can’t speak. Every time she starts to tell her story,
> she puts her head down and crumples. She is slim and angular and has
> the faded radiance of the once-rich, even though her clothes are as
> creased as her forehead. I find her in the car park of one of
> finest international hotels, where she is living, in her Range Rover.
> She has been sleeping here for months, thanks to the kindness of the
> Bangladeshi car park attendants who don’t have the heart to move her
> on. This is not where she thought her
Dubai dream would end.
> Her story comes out in stutters, over four hours. At times, her old
> voice – witty and warm – breaks through. Karen came here from
> when her husband was offered a job in the senior division of a famous
> multinational. “When he said
Dubai, I said – if you want me to wear
> black and quit booze, baby, you’ve got the wrong girl. But he asked me
> to give it a chance. And I loved him.”
> All her worries melted when she touched down in
Dubai in 2005. “It was
> an adult
Disneyland, where Sheikh Mohammed is the mouse,” she says.
> “Life was fantastic. You had these amazing big apartments, you had a
> whole army of your own staff, you pay no taxes at all. It seemed like
> everyone was a CEO. We were partying the whole time.”
> Her husband, Daniel, bought two properties. “We were drunk on
> she says. But for the first time in his life, he was beginning to
> mismanage their finances. “We’re not talking huge sums, but he was
> getting confused. It was so unlike Daniel, I was surprised. We got
> into a little bit of debt.” After a year, she found out why: Daniel
> was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
> One doctor told him he had a year to live; another said it was benign
> and he’d be okay. But the debts were growing. “Before I came here, I
> didn’t know anything about
Dubai law. I assumed if all these big
> companies come here, it must be pretty like
Canada‘s or any other
> liberal democracy’s,” she says. Nobody told her there is no concept of
> bankruptcy. If you get into debt and you can’t pay, you go to prison.
> “When we realised that, I sat Daniel down and told him: listen, we
> need to get out of here. He knew he was guaranteed a pay-off when he
> resigned, so we said – right, let’s take the pay-off, clear the debt,
> and go.” So Daniel resigned – but he was given a lower pay-off than
> his contract suggested. The debt remained. As soon as you quit your
> job in
Dubai, your employer has to inform your bank. If you have any
> outstanding debts that aren’t covered by your savings, then all your
> accounts are frozen, and you are forbidden to 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.
> Daniel was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment at a trial he
> couldn’t understand. It was in Arabic, and there was no translation.
> “Now I’m here illegally, too,” Karen says I’ve got no money, nothing.
> I have to last nine months until he’s out, somehow.” Looking away,
> almost paralysed with embarrassment, she asks if I could buy her a meal.
> She is not alone. All over the city, there are maxed-out expats
> sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars.
> “The thing you have to understand about
Dubai is – nothing is what it
> seems,” Karen says at last. “Nothing. This isn’t a city, it’s a
> con-job. They lure you in telling you it’s one thing – a modern kind
> of place – but beneath the surface it’s a medieval dictatorship.”
> *II. Tumbleweed*
> Thirty years ago, almost all of contemporary
Dubai was desert,
> inhabited only by cactuses and tumbleweed and scorpions. But downtown
> there are traces of the town that once was, buried amidst the metal
> and glass. In the dusty fort of the
Dubai Museum, a sanitised version
> of this story is told.
> In the mid-18th century, a small village was built here, in the lower
Persian Gulf, where people would dive for pearls off the coast. It
> soon began to accumulate a cosmopolitan population washing up from
Persia, the Indian subcontinent, and other Arab countries, all hoping
> to make their fortune. They named it after a local locust, the daba,
> who consumed everything before it. The town was soon seized by the
> gunships of the
British Empire, who held it by the throat as late as
> 1971. As they scuttled away,
Dubai decided to ally with the six
> surrounding states and make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
> The British quit, exhausted, just as oil was being discovered, and the
> sheikhs who suddenly found themselves in charge faced a remarkable
> dilemma. They were largely illiterate nomads who spent their lives
> driving camels through the desert – yet now they had a vast pot of
> gold. What should they do with it?
Dubai only had a dribble of oil compared to neighbouring Abu Dhabi
> so Sheikh Maktoum decided to use the revenues to build something that
> would last.
Israel used to boast it made the desert bloom; Sheikh
> Maktoum resolved to make the desert boom. He would build a city to be
> a centre of tourism and financial services, sucking up cash and talent
> from across the globe. He invited the world to come tax-free – and
> they came in their millions, swamping the local population, who now
> make up just 5 per cent of
Dubai. A city seemed to fall from the sky
> in just three decades, whole and complete and swelling. They
> fast-forwarded from the 18th century to the 21st in a single generation.
> If you take the Big Bus Tour of Dubai – the passport to a
> pre-processed experience of every major city on earth – you are fed
> the propaganda-vision of how this happened. “
Dubai‘s motto is ‘Open
> doors, open minds’,” the tour guide tells you in clipped tones, before
> depositing you at the souks to buy camel tea-cosies. “Here you are
> free. To purchase fabrics,” he adds. As you pass each new monumental
> building, he tells you: “The World Trade Centre was built by His
> Highness…”
> But this is a lie. The sheikh did not build this city. It was built by
> slaves. They are building it now.
> *III. Hidden in plain view*
> There are three different Dubais, all swirling around each other.
> There are the expats, like Karen; there are the Emiratis, headed by
> Sheikh Mohammed; and then there is the foreign underclass who built
> the city, and are trapped here. They are hidden in plain view. You see
> them everywhere, in dirt-caked blue uniforms, being shouted at by
> their superiors, like a chain gang – but you are trained not to look.
> It is like a mantra: the Sheikh built the city. The Sheikh built the
> city. Workers? What workers?
> Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build
> are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out
> of town, where they are quarantined away. Until a few years ago they
> were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats
> complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal
> buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. They sweat
> like sponges being slowly wrung out.
> Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical
> concrete buildings. Some 300,000 men live piled up here, in a place
> whose name in Hindi means “City of
Gold“. In the first camp I stop at
> – riven with the smell of sewage and sweat – the men huddle around,
> eager to tell someone, anyone, what is happening to them.
> 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.
> Sahinal was in a panic. His family back home – his son, daughter, wife
> and parents – were waiting for money, excited that their boy had
> finally made it. But he was going to have to work for more than two
> years just to pay for the cost of getting here – and all to earn less
> than he did in
> He shows me his room. It is a tiny, poky, concrete cell with
> triple-decker bunk-beds, where he lives with 11 other men. All his
> belongings are piled onto his bunk: three shirts, a spare pair of
> trousers, and a cellphone. The room stinks, because the lavatories in
> the corner of the camp – holes in the ground – are backed up with
> excrement and clouds of black flies. There is no air conditioning or
> fans, so the heat is “unbearable. You cannot sleep. All you do is
> sweat and scratch all night.” At the height of summer, people sleep on
> the floor, on the roof, anywhere where they can pray for a moment of
> breeze.
> The water delivered to the camp in huge white containers isn’t
> properly desalinated: it tastes of salt. “It makes us sick, but we
> have nothing else to drink,” he says.
> The work is “the worst in the world,” he says. “You have to carry 50kg
> bricks and blocks of cement in the worst heat imaginable … This heat
> – it is like nothing else. You sweat so much you can’t pee, not for
> days or weeks. It’s like all the liquid comes out through your skin
> and you stink. You become dizzy and sick but you aren’t allowed to
> stop, except for an hour in the afternoon. You know if you drop
> anything or slip, you could die. If you take time off sick, your wages
> are docked, and you are trapped here even longer.”
> He is currently working on the 67th floor of a shiny new tower, where
> he builds upwards, into the sky, into the heat. He doesn’t know its
> name. In his four years here, he has never seen the
Dubai of
> tourist-fame, except as he constructs it floor-by-floor.
> Is he angry? He is quiet for a long time. “Here, nobody shows their
> anger. You can’t. You get put in jail for a long time, then deported.”
> Last year, some workers went on strike after they were not given their
> wages for four months. The
Dubai police surrounded their camps with
> razor-wire and water-cannons and blasted them out and back to work.
> The “ringleaders” were imprisoned. I try a different question: does
> Sohinal regret coming? All the men look down, awkwardly. “How can we
> think about that? We are trapped. If we start to think about
> regrets…” He lets the sentence trail off. Eventually, another worker
> breaks the silence by adding: “I miss my country, my family and my
> land. We can grow food in
Bangladesh. Here, nothing grows. Just oil
> and buildings.”
> Since the recession hit, they say, the electricity has been cut off in
> dozens of the camps, and the men have not been paid for months. Their
> companies have disappeared with their passports and their pay. “We
> have been robbed of everything. Even if somehow we get back to
Bangladesh, the loan sharks will demand we repay our loans
> immediately, and when we can’t, we’ll be sent to prison.”
> This is all supposed to be illegal. Employers are meant to pay on
> time, never take your passport, give you breaks in the heat – but I
> met nobody who said it happens. Not one. These men are conned into
> coming and trapped into staying, with the complicity of the
> authorities.
> Sahinal could well die out here. A British man who used to work on
> construction projects told me: “There’s a huge number of suicides in
> the camps and on the construction sites, but they’re not reported.
> They’re described as ‘accidents’.” Even then, their families aren’t
> free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found
> there is a “cover-up of the true extent” of deaths from heat
> exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered
> 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was
> leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.
> At night, in the dusk, I sit in the camp with Sohinal and his friends
> as they scrape together what they have left to buy a cheap bottle of
> spirits. They down it in one ferocious gulp. “It helps you to feel
> numb”, Sohinal says through a stinging throat. In the distance, the
> glistening
Dubai skyline he built stands, oblivious.
> *IV. Mauled by the mall*
> I find myself stumbling in a daze from the camps into the sprawling
> marble malls that seem to stand on every street in
Dubai. It is so hot
> there is no point building pavements; people gather in these
> cathedrals of consumerism to bask in the air conditioning. So within a
> ten minute taxi-ride, I have left Sohinal and I am standing in the
> middle of Harvey Nichols, being shown a £20,000 taffeta dress by a
> bored salesgirl. “As you can see, it is cut on the bias…” she says,
> and I stop writing.
> Time doesn’t seem to pass in the malls. Days blur with the same
> electric light, the same shined floors, the same brands I know from
> home. Here,
Dubai is reduced to its component sounds: do-buy. In the
> most expensive malls I am almost alone, the shops empty and echoing.
> On the record, everybody tells me business is going fine. Off the
> record, they look panicky. There is a hat exhibition ahead of the
Dubai races, selling elaborate headgear for £1,000 a pop. “Last year,
> we were packed. Now look,” a hat designer tells me. She swoops her arm
> over a vacant space.
> I approach a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in
> hotpants, oblivious to the swarms of men gaping at her. “I love it
> here!” she says. “The heat, the malls, the beach!” Does it ever bother
> you that it’s a slave society? She puts her head down, just as Sohinal
> did. “I try not to see,” she says. Even at 17, she has learned not to
> look, and not to ask; that, she senses, is a transgression too far.
> Between the malls, there is nothing but the connecting tissue of
> asphalt. Every road has at least four lanes;
Dubai feels like a
> motorway punctuated by shopping centres. You only walk anywhere if you
> are suicidal. The residents of
Dubai flit from mall to mall by car or
> taxis.
> How does it feel if this is your country, filled with foreigners?
> Unlike the expats and the slave class, I can’t just approach the
> native Emiratis to ask questions when I see them wandering around –
> the men in cool white robes, the women in sweltering black. If you
> try, the women blank you, and the men look affronted, and tell you
> brusquely that
Dubai is “fine”. So I browse through the Emirati
> blog-scene and found some typical-sounding young Emiratis. We meet –
> where else? – in the mall.
> Ahmed al-Atar is a handsome 23-year-old with a neat, trimmed beard,
> tailored white robes, and rectangular wire-glasses. He speaks perfect
> American-English, and quickly shows that he knows
London, Los Angeles
> and
Paris better than most westerners. Sitting back in his chair in an
> identikit Starbucks, he announces: “This is the best place in the
> world to be young! The government pays for your education up to PhD
> level. You get given a free house when you get married. You get free
> healthcare, and if it’s not good enough here, they pay for you to go
> abroad. You don’t even have to pay for your phone calls. Almost
> everyone has a maid, a nanny, and a driver. And we never pay any
> taxes. Don’t you wish you were Emirati?”
> I try to raise potential objections to this Panglossian summary, but
> he leans forward and says: “Look – my grandfather woke up every day
> and he would have to fight to get to the well first to get water. When
> the wells ran dry, they had to have water delivered by camel. They
> were always hungry and thirsty and desperate for jobs. He limped all
> his life, because he there was no medical treatment available when he
> broke his leg. Now look at us!”
> For Emiratis, this is a Santa Claus state, handing out goodies while
> it makes its money elsewhere: through renting out land to foreigners,
> soft taxes on them like business and airport charges, and the
> remaining dribble of oil. Most Emiratis, like Ahmed, work for the
> government, so they’re cushioned from the credit crunch. “I haven’t
> felt any effect at all, and nor have my friends,” he says. “Your
> employment is secure. You will only be fired if you do something
> incredibly bad.” The laws are currently being tightened, to make it
> even more impossible to sack an Emirati.
> Sure, the flooding-in of expats can sometimes be “an eyesore”, Ahmed
> says. “But we see the expats as the price we had to pay for this
> development. How else could we do it? Nobody wants to go back to the
> days of the desert, the days before everyone came. We went from being
> like an African country to having an average income per head of
> $120,000 a year. And we’re supposed to complain?”
> He says the lack of political freedom is fine by him. “You’ll find it
> very hard to find an Emirati who doesn’t support Sheikh Mohammed.”
> Because they’re scared? “No, because we really all support him. He’s a
> great leader. Just look!” He smiles and says: “I’m sure my life is
> very much like yours. We hang out, have a coffee, go to the movies.
> You’ll be in a Pizza Hut or Nando’s in
London, and at the same time
> I’ll be in one in
Dubai,” he says, ordering another latte.
> But do all young Emiratis see it this way? Can it really be so sunny
> in the political sands? In the sleek Emirates Tower Hotel, I meet
> Sultan al-Qassemi. He’s a 31-year-old Emirati columnist for the
> press and private art collector, with a reputation for being a
> contrarian liberal, advocating gradual reform. He is wearing Western
> clothes – blue jeans and a Ralph Lauren shirt – and speaks incredibly
> fast, turning himself into a manic whirr of arguments.
> “People here are turning into lazy, overweight babies!” he exclaims.
> “The nanny state has gone too far. We don’t do anything for ourselves!
> Why don’t any of us work for the private sector? Why can’t a mother
> and father look after their own child?” And yet, when I try to bring
> up the system of slavery that built
Dubai, he looks angry. “People
> should give us credit,” he insists. “We are the most tolerant people
> in the world.
Dubai is the only truly international city in the world.
> Everyone who comes here is treated with respect.”
> I pause, and think of the vast camps in Sonapur, just a few miles
> away. Does he even know they exist? He looks irritated. “You know, if
> there are 30 or 40 cases [of worker abuse] a year, that sounds like a
> lot but when you think about how many people are here…” Thirty or
> 40? This abuse is endemic to the system, I say. We’re talking about
> hundreds of thousands.
> Sultan is furious. He splutters: “You don’t think Mexicans are treated
> badly in
New York City? And how long did it take Britain to treat
> people well? I could come to
London and write about the homeless
> people on
Oxford Street and make your city sound like a terrible
> place, too! The workers here can leave any time they want! Any Indian
> can leave, any Asian can leave!”
> But they can’t, I point out. Their passports are taken away, and their
> wages are withheld. “Well, I feel bad if that happens, and anybody who
> does that should be punished. But their embassies should help them.”
> They try. But why do you forbid the workers – with force – from going
> on strike against lousy employers? “Thank God we don’t allow that!” he
> exclaims. “Strikes are in-convenient! They go on the street – we’re
> not having that. We won’t be like
France. Imagine a country where they
> the workers can just stop whenever they want!” So what should the
> workers do when they are cheated and lied to? “Quit. Leave the country.”
> 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?
> will go down the Iranian path, the Islamist path.”
> Sultan sits back. My arguments have clearly disturbed him; he says in
> a softer, conciliatory tone, almost pleading: “Listen. My mother used
> to go to the well and get a bucket of water every morning. On her
> wedding day, she was given an orange as a gift because she had never
> eaten one. Two of my brothers died when they were babies because the
> healthcare system hadn’t developed yet. Don’t judge us.” He says it
> again, his eyes filled with intensity: “Don’t judge us.”
> **
> *V. The Dunkin’ Donuts Dissidents*
> But there is another face to the Emirati minority – a small huddle of
> dissidents, trying to shake the Sheikhs out of abusive laws. Next to a
> Virgin Megastore and a Dunkin’ Donuts, with James Blunt’s “You’re
> Beautiful” blaring behind me, I meet the
Dubai dictatorship’s Public
> Enemy Number One. By way of introduction, Mohammed al-Mansoori says
> from within his white robes and sinewy face: “Westerners come her and
> see the malls and the tall buildings and they think that means we are
> free. But these businesses, these buildings – who are they for? This
> is a dictatorship. The royal family think they own the country, and
> the people are their servants. There is no freedom here.”
> We snuffle out the only Arabic restaurant in this mall, and he says
> everything you are banned – under threat of prison – from saying in
Dubai. Mohammed tells me he was born in Dubai to a fisherman father
> who taught him one enduring lesson: Never follow the herd. Think for
> yourself. In the sudden surge of development, Mohammed trained as a
> lawyer. By the Noughties, he had climbed to the head of the Jurists’
> Association, an organisation set up to press for
Dubai‘s laws to be
> consistent with international human rights legislation.
> And then – suddenly – Mohammed thwacked into the limits of Sheikh
> Mohammed’s tolerance. Horrified by the “system of slavery” his country
> was being built on, he spoke out to Human Rights Watch and the BBC.
> “So I was hauled in by the secret police and told: shut up, or you
> will lose you job, and your children will be unemployable,” he says.
> “But how could I be silent?”
> He was stripped of his lawyer’s licence and his passport – becoming
> yet another person imprisoned in this country. “I have been
> blacklisted and so have my children. The newspapers are not allowed to
> write about me.”
> Why is the state so keen to defend this system of slavery? He offers a
> prosaic explanation. “Most companies are owned by the government, so
> they oppose human rights laws because it will reduce their profit
> margins. It’s in their interests that the workers are slaves.”
> Last time there was a depression, there was a starbust of democracy in
Dubai, seized by force from the sheikhs. In the 1930s, the city’s
> merchants banded together against Sheikh Said bin Maktum al-Maktum –
> the absolute ruler of his day – and insisted they be given control
> over the state finances. It lasted only a few years, before the Sheikh
> – with the enthusiastic support of the British – snuffed them out.
> And today? Sheikh Mohammed turned
Dubai into Creditopolis, a city
> built entirely on debt.
Dubai owes 107 percent of its entire GDP. It
> would be bust already, if the neighbouring oil-soaked state of Abu
> Dhabi hadn’t pulled out its chequebook. Mohammed says this will
> constrict freedom even further. “Now
Abu Dhabi calls the tunes – and
> they are much more conservative and restrictive than even
> Freedom here will diminish every day.” Already, new media laws have
> been drafted forbidding the press to report on anything that could
> “damage”
Dubai or “its economy”. Is this why the newspapers are giving
> away glossy supplements talking about “encouraging economic indicators”?
> Everybody here waves Islamism as the threat somewhere over the
> horizon, sure to swell if their advice is not followed. Today, every
> imam is appointed by the government, and every sermon is tightly
> controlled to keep it moderate. But Mohammed says anxiously: “We don’t
> have Islamism here now, but I think that if you control people and
> give them no way to express anger, it could rise. People who are told
> to shut up all the time can just explode.”
> Later that day, against another identikit-corporate backdrop, I meet
> another dissident – Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, Professor of Political
> Science at
Emirates University. His anger focuses not on political
> reform, but the erosion of Emirati identity. He is famous among the
> locals, a rare outspoken conductor for their anger. He says somberly:
> “There has been a rupture here. This is a totally different city to
> the one I was born in 50 years ago.”
> He looks around at the shiny floors and Western tourists and says:
> “What we see now didn’t occur in our wildest dreams. We never thought
> we could be such a success, a trendsetter, a model for other Arab
> countries. The people of
Dubai are mighty proud of their city, and
> rightly so. And yet…” He shakes his head. “In our hearts, we fear we
> have built a modern city but we are losing it to all these expats.”
> Adbulkhaleq says every Emirati of his generation lives with a
> “psychological trauma.” Their hearts are divided – “between pride on
> one side, and fear on the other.” Just after he says this, a smiling
> waitress approaches, and asks us what we would like to drink. He
> orders a Coke.
> *VI.
Dubai Pride*
> There is one group in
Dubai for whom the rhetoric of sudden freedom
> and liberation rings true – but it is the very group the government
> wanted to liberate least: gays.
> Beneath a famous international hotel, I clamber down into possibly the
> only gay club on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. I find a United Nations
> of tank-tops and bulging biceps, dancing to Kylie, dropping ecstasy,
> and partying like it’s
Soho. “Dubai is the best place in the Muslim
> world for gays!” a 25-year old Emirati with spiked hair says, his arms
> wrapped around his 31-year old “husband”. “We are alive. We can meet.
> That is more than most Arab gays.”
> It is illegal to be gay in
Dubai, and punishable by 10 years in
> prison. But the locations of the latest unofficial gay clubs circulate
> online, and men flock there, seemingly unafraid of the police. “They
> might bust the club, but they will just disperse us,” one of them
> says. “The police have other things to do.”
> In every large city, gay people find a way to find each other – but
Dubai has become the clearing-house for the region’s homosexuals, a
> place where they can live in relative safety. Saleh, a lean private in
> the Saudi Arabian army, has come here for the Coldplay concert, and
> tells me
Dubai is “great” for gays: “In Saudi, it’s hard to be
> straight when you’re young. The women are shut away so everyone has
> gay sex. But they only want to have sex with boys – 15- to
> 21-year-olds. I’m 27, so I’m too old now. I need to find real gays, so
> this is the best place. All Arab gays want to live in
> With that, Saleh dances off across the dancefloor, towards a Dutch guy
> with big biceps and a big smile.
> *VII. The Lifestyle*
> All the guidebooks call
Dubai a “melting pot”, but as I trawl across
> the city, I find that every group here huddles together in its own
> little ethnic enclave – and becomes a caricature of itself. One night
> – in the heart of this homesick city, tired of the malls and the camps
> – I go to Double Decker, a hang-out for British expats. At the
> entrance there is a red telephone box, and
London bus-stop signs. Its
> wooden interior looks like a cross between a colonial clubhouse in the
> Raj and an Eighties school disco, with blinking coloured lights and
> cheese blaring out. As I enter, a girl in a short skirt collapses out
> of the door onto her back. A guy wearing a pirate hat helps her to her
> feet, dropping his beer bottle with a paralytic laugh.
> I start to talk to two sun-dried women in their sixties who have been
> getting gently sozzled since
midday. “You stay here for The
> Lifestyle,” they say, telling me to take a seat and order some more
> drinks. All the expats talk about The Lifestyle, but when you ask what
> it is, they become vague. Ann Wark tries to summarise it: “Here, you
> go out every night. You’d never do that back home. You see people all
> the time. It’s great. You have lots of free time. You have maids and
> staff so you don’t have to do all that stuff. You party!”
> They have been in
Dubai for 20 years, and they are happy to explain
> how the city works. “You’ve got a hierarchy, haven’t you?” Ann says.
> “It’s the Emiratis at the top, then I’d say the British and other
> Westerners. Then I suppose it’s the Filipinos, because they’ve got a
> bit more brains than the Indians. Then at the bottom you’ve got the
> Indians and all them lot.”
> They admit, however, they have “never” spoken to an Emirati. Never?
> “No. They keep themselves to themselves.” Yet
Dubai has disappointed
> them. Jules Taylor tells me: “If you have an accident here it’s a
> nightmare. There was a British woman we knew who ran over an Indian
> guy, and she was locked up for four days! If you have a tiny bit of
> alcohol on your breath they’re all over you. These Indians throw
> themselves in front of cars, because then their family has to be given
> blood money – you know, compensation. But the police just blame us.
> That poor woman.”
> A 24-year-old British woman called Hannah Gamble takes a break from
> the dancefloor to talk to me. “I love the sun and the beach! It’s
> great out here!” she says. Is there anything bad? “Oh yes!” she says.
> Ah: one of them has noticed, I think with relief. “The banks! When you
> want to make a transfer you have to fax them. You can’t do it online.”
> Anything else? She thinks hard. “The traffic’s not very good.”
> When I ask the British expats how they feel to not be in a democracy,
> their reaction is always the same. First, they look bemused. Then they
> look affronted. “It’s the Arab way!” an
Essex boy shouts at me in
> response, as he tries to put a pair of comedy antlers on his head
> while pouring some beer into the mouth of his friend, who is lying on
> his back on the floor, gurning.
> 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.
> In a Burger King, a Filipino girl tells me it is “terrifying” for her
> to wander the malls in
Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always
> sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. “They
> say – ‘Please, I am being held prisoner, they don’t let me call home,
> they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.’ At first I
> would say – my God, I will tell the consulate, where are you staying?
> But they never know their address, and the consulate isn’t interested.
> I avoid them now. I keep thinking about a woman who told me she hadn’t
> eaten any fruit in four years. They think I have power because I can
> walk around on my own, but I’m powerless.”
> The only hostel for women in
Dubai – a filthy private villa on the
> brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela
> Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me
> what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a
> paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old
> daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future.
> “But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an
> Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from
6am to
> 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a
> break, but they just shouted: ‘You came here to work, not sleep!’ Then
> one day I just couldn’t go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her
> fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn’t give me my
> wages: they said they’d pay me at the end of the two years. What could
> I do? I didn’t know anybody here. I was terrified.”
> One day, after yet another beating, Mela ran out onto the streets, and
> asked – in broken English – how to find the Ethiopian consulate. After
> walking for two days, she found it, but they told her she had to get
> her passport back from Madam. “Well, how could I?” she asks. She has
> been in this hostel for six months. She has spoken to her daughter
> twice. “I lost my country, I lost my daughter, I lost everything,” she
> says.
> As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double
> Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best
> thing about
Dubai was. “Oh, the servant class!” she trilled. “You do
> nothing. They’ll do anything!”
> *VIII. The End of The World*
> The World is empty. It has been abandoned, its continents unfinished.
> Through binoculars, I think I can glimpse
Britain; this sceptred isle
> barren in the salt-breeze.
> Here, off the coast of
Dubai, developers have been rebuilding the
> world. They have constructed artificial islands in the shape of all
> planet Earth’s land masses, and they plan to sell each continent off
> to be built on. There were rumours that the Beckhams would bid for
Britain. But the people who work at the nearby coast say they haven’t
> seen anybody there for months now. “The World is over,” a South
> African suggests.
> All over
Dubai, crazy projects that were Under Construction are now
> Under Collapse. They were building an air-conditioned beach here, with
> cooling pipes running below the sand, so the super-rich didn’t singe
> their toes on their way from towel to sea.
> The projects completed just before the global economy crashed look
> empty and tattered. The Atlantis Hotel was launched last winter in a
> $20m fin-de-siecle party attended by Robert De Niro, Lindsay Lohan and
> Lily Allen. Sitting on its own fake island – shaped, of course, like a
> palm tree – it looks like an immense upturned tooth in a faintly
> decaying mouth. It is pink and turreted – the architecture of the
> pharaohs, as reimagined by Zsa-Zsa Gabor. Its Grand Lobby is a
> monumental dome covered in glitterballs, held up by eight monumental
> concrete palm trees. Standing in the middle, there is a giant shining
> glass structure that looks like the intestines of every guest who has
> ever stayed at the Atlantis. It is unexpectedly raining; water is
> leaking from the roof, and tiles are falling off.
> A South African PR girl shows me around its most coveted rooms,
> explaining that this is “the greatest luxury offered in the world”. We
> stroll past shops selling £24m diamond rings around a hotel themed on
> the lost and sunken continent of, yes, Atlantis. There are huge water
> tanks filled with sharks, which poke around mock-abandoned castles and
> dumped submarines. There are more than 1,500 rooms here, each with a
> sea view. The
Neptune suite has three floors, and – I gasp as I see it
> – it looks out directly on to the vast shark tank. You lie on the bed,
> and the sharks stare in at you. In
Dubai, you can sleep with the
> fishes, and survive.
> But even the luxury – reminiscent of a Bond villain’s lair – is also
> being abandoned. I check myself in for a few nights to the classiest
> hotel in town, the Park Hyatt. It is the fashionistas’ favourite
> hotel, where Elle Macpherson and Tommy Hilfiger stay, a gorgeous,
> understated palace. It feels empty. Whenever I eat, I am one of the
> only people in the restaurant. A staff member tells me in a whisper:
> “It used to be full here. Now there’s hardly anyone.” Rattling around,
> I feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, the last man in an
> abandoned, haunted home.
> The most famous hotel in
Dubai – the proud icon of the city – is the
> Burj al Arab hotel, sitting on the shore, shaped like a giant glass
> sailing boat. In the lobby, I start chatting to a couple from
> who work in the City. They have been coming to
Dubai for 10 years now,
> and they say they love it. “You never know what you’ll find here,” he
> says. “On our last trip, at the beginning of the holiday, our window
> looked out on the sea. By the end, they’d built an entire island there.”
> My patience frayed by all this excess, I find myself snapping: doesn’t
> the omnipresent slave class bother you? I hope they misunderstood me,
> because the woman replied: “That’s what we come for! It’s great, you
> can’t do anything for yourself!” Her husband chimes in: “When you go
> to the toilet, they open the door, they turn on the tap – the only
> thing they don’t do is take it out for you when you have a piss!” And
> they both fall about laughing.
> *IX. Taking on the Desert*
Dubai is not just a city living beyond its financial means; it is
> living beyond its ecological means. You stand on a manicured
> lawn and watch the sprinklers spray water all around you. You see
> tourists flocking to swim with dolphins. You wander into a
> mountain-sized freezer where they have built a ski slope with real
> snow. And a voice at the back of your head squeaks: this is the
> desert. This is the most water-stressed place on the planet. How can
> this be happening? How is it possible?
> The very earth is trying to repel
Dubai, to dry it up and blow it
> away. The new Tiger Woods Gold Course needs four million gallons of
> water to be pumped on to its grounds every day, or it would simply
> shrivel and disappear on the winds. The city is regularly washed over
> with dust-storms that fog up the skies and turn the skyline into a
> blur. When the dust parts, heat burns through. It cooks anything that
> is not kept constantly, artificially wet.
> Dr Mohammed Raouf, the environmental director of the Gulf Research
> Centre, sounds sombre as he sits in his
Dubai office and warns: “This
> is a desert area, and we are trying to defy its environment. It is
> very unwise. If you take on the desert, you will lose.”
> Sheikh Maktoum built his showcase city in a place with no useable
> water. None. There is no surface water, very little acquifer, and
> among the lowest rainfall in the world. So
Dubai drinks the sea. The
> Emirates’ water is stripped of salt in vast desalination plants around
> the Gulf – making it the most expensive water on earth. It costs more
> than petrol to produce, and belches vast amounts of carbon dioxide
> into the atmosphere as it goes. It’s the main reason why a resident of
Dubai has the biggest average carbon footprint of any human being –
> more than double that of an American.
> If a recession turns into depression, Dr Raouf believes
Dubai could
> run out of water. “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.
> I wanted to understand how the government of
Dubai will react, so I
> decided to look at how it has dealt with an environmental problem that
> already exists – the pollution of its beaches. One woman – an
> American, working at one of the big hotels – had written in a lot of
> online forums arguing that it was bad and getting worse, so I called
> her to arrange a meeting. “I can’t talk to you,” she said sternly. Not
> even if it’s off the record? “I can’t talk to you.” But I don’t have
> to disclose your name… “You’re not listening. This phone is bugged.
> I can’t talk to you,” she snapped, and hung up.
> The next day I turned up at her office. “If you reveal my identity,
> I’ll be sent on the first plane out of this city,” she said, before
> beginning to nervously pace the shore with me. “It started like this.
> We began to get complaints from people using the beach. The water
> looked and smelled odd, and they were starting to get sick after going
> into it. So I wrote to the ministers of health and tourism and
> expected to hear back immediately – but there was nothing. Silence. I
> hand-delivered the letters. Still nothing.”
> The water quality got worse and worse. The guests started to spot raw
> sewage, condoms, and used sanitary towels floating in the sea. So the
> hotel ordered its own water analyses from a professional company.
> “They told us it was full of fecal matter and bacteria ‘too numerous
> to count’. I had to start telling guests not to go in the water, and
> since they’d come on a beach holiday, as you can imagine, they were
> pretty pissed off.” She began to make angry posts on the expat
> discussion forums – and people began to figure out what was happening.
Dubai had expanded so fast its sewage treatment facilities couldn’t
> keep up. The sewage disposal trucks had to queue for three or four
> days at the treatment plants – so instead, they were simply drilling
> open the manholes and dumping the untreated sewage down them, so it
> flowed straight to the sea.
> Suddenly, it was an open secret – and the municipal authorities
> finally acknowledged the problem. They said they would fine the
> truckers. But the water quality didn’t improve: it became black and
> stank. “It’s got chemicals in it. I don’t know what they are. But this
> stuff is toxic.”
> She continued to complain – and started to receive anonymous phone
> calls. “Stop embarassing
Dubai, or your visa will be cancelled and
> you’re out,” they said. She says: “The expats are terrified to talk
> about anything. One critical comment in the newspapers and they deport
> you. So what am I supposed to do? Now the water is worse than ever.
> People are getting really sick. Eye infections, ear infections,
> stomach infections, rashes. Look at it!” There is faeces floating on
> the beach, in the shadow of one of
Dubai‘s most famous hotels.
> “What I learnt about
Dubai is that the authorities don’t give a toss
> about the environment,” she says, standing in the stench. “They’re
> pumping toxins into the sea, their main tourist attraction, for God’s
> sake. If there are environmental problems in the future, I can tell
> you now how they will deal with them – deny it’s happening, cover it
> up, and carry on until it’s a total disaster.” As she speaks, a
> dust-storm blows around us, as the desert tries, slowly, insistently,
> to take back its land.
> *X. Fake Plastic Trees *
> On my final night in the Dubai Disneyland, I stop off on my way to the
> airport, at a Pizza Hut that sits at the side of one of the city’s
> endless, wide, gaping roads. It is identical to the one near my
> apartment in
London in every respect, even the vomit-coloured decor.
> My mind is whirring and distracted. Perhaps
Dubai disturbed me so
> much, I am thinking, because here, the entire global supply chain is
> condensed. Many of my goods are made by semi-enslaved populations
> desperate for a chance 2,000 miles away; is the only difference that
> here, they are merely two miles away, and you sometimes get to glimpse
> their faces?
Dubai is Market Fundamentalist Globalisation in One City.
> I ask the Filipino girl behind the counter if she likes it here. “It’s
> OK,” she says cautiously. Really? I say. I can’t stand it. She sighs
> with relief and says: “This is the most terrible place! I hate it! I
> was here for months before I realised – everything in
Dubai is fake.
> Everything you see. The trees are fake, the workers’ contracts are
> fake, the islands are fake, the smiles are fake – even the water is
> fake!” But she is trapped, she says. She got into debt to come here,
> and she is stuck for three years: an old story now. “I think
Dubai is
> like an oasis. It is an illusion, not real. You think you have seen
> water in the distance, but you get close and you only get a mouthful
> of sand.”
> As she says this, another customer enters. She forces her face into
the broad, empty
Dubai smile and says: “And how may I help you
> tonight, sir?”



  1. Katie said,

    April 21, 2009 at 1:53 am

    Hi nice blog 🙂 I can see a lot of effort has been put in.

  2. alhaadi said,

    April 21, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Thanks for the praise. Pray that the All-Mighty accept our humble efforts.

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