Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Dark Side of Dubai - Johann Hari

To the world, Dubai is 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. A dominating skyline, row after row of glass pyramids and hotels.

But something isn't right. The cranes have paused on the skyline, as if stuck in time. Countless buildings are half-finished, seemingly abandoned. In the vast Atlantis hotel, a giant pink castle built in 1,000 days for $1.5bn on an artificial island – rainwater is leaking from the ceilings. And the secrets of Dubai are slowly seeping out.

This is a city built from nothing in just a few decades on credit, suppression and slavery. In the mid-18th century, a small village was built here. People would dive for pearls off the coast and it soon began to accumulate a cosmopolitan population 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.

When oil was discovered, the sheikhs faced a dilemma. They were largely illiterate nomads who spent their lives driving camels through the desert. So Sheikh Maktoum decided to use the revenues to build something that would last. A city seemed to fall from the sky in just three decades, from the 18th century to the 21st in a single generation.

Hidden in plain view
Today there are three different Dubais. Expats; Emiratis; and the foreign underclass, who built the city. You see the last kind everywhere, in dirt-caked blue uniforms, being shouted at by their superiors – but you are trained not to look. Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to where they live, an hour out of town. They used to travel on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they use small metal buses. Their home, Sonapur (City of Gold in Hindi) is miles and miles of identical concrete buildings housing around 300,000 men. The camps smell of sewage and sweat – the men huddle around me, eager to tell someone, anyone, what is happening to them.

Sahinal Monir is a slim 24-year-old Bangladeshi. "To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven." Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in his village telling the men that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) for working nine-to-five in construction. They would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay 220,000 takka upfront (£2,300) for the work visa – 'money easily remade in the first six months of work'. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.

As soon as Sahinal arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told that he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat. Western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees. His salary would be 500 dirhams a month, less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But you have my passport, and I can't afford a ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied. It would take more than two years just to pay for the cost of getting here – and all to earn less than he did in Bangladesh.

Sahinal lives with 11 other men in a tiny concrete room cramped with bunkbeds. His belongings are piled on his bunk: three shirts, a spare pair of trousers, and a cellphone. The holes in the ground in the corner of the camp are toilets, backed up with excrement and clouds of black flies. The heat is unbearable without AC or fans. Water delivered to the camp isn't properly desalinated: it tastes of salt. "It makes us sick, but we have nothing else to drink," he says.

"For work, you have to carry 50kg bricks and blocks of cement in the worst heat imaginable. You sweat so much you can't pee, not for days or weeks. You become dizzy and sick but you aren't allowed to stop, except for an hour in the afternoon. If you take time off sick, your wages are docked, and you are trapped here even longer." Sahinal is currently working on the 67th floor of a shiny new tower. He doesn't know its name. In his four years here, he has never seen the Dubai of tourist-fame. 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."

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, electricity has been cut off in dozens of the camps, and the men have not been paid for months. "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."

A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides, but they're not reported. They're classed as 'accidents'." Even after death, their families 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.

Mauled by the mall
Malls seem to stand on every street in Dubai. People gather to bask in the air conditioning. 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 "I try not to see," she says.

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. The men look offended, and tell you brusquely that Dubai is "fine." Ahmed al-Atar is a blogger and 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 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 a free house when you get married. Free healthcare, and if it's not good enough here, they pay for you to go abroad. Almost everyone has a maid, a nanny, and a driver. And we never pay any taxes. Don't you wish you were Emirati?"

Sultan al-Qassemi, a 31-year-old Emirati columnist for the Dubai press looks angry when I bring up the slavery system. "People should give us credit," he insists. "We are the most tolerant people in the world. Everyone who comes here is treated with respect." Does he even know about the labour camps in Sonapur? He looks irritated. "You know, if there are 30 or 40 cases a year, that sounds like a lot but when you think about how many people are here..." 30 or 40? We're talking hundreds of thousands, I say. Sultan is furious. "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 wages withheld. And why do you forbid the workers from going on strike against bad employers? "Thank God we don't allow that!" he exclaims. "Strikes are inconvenient! They go on the street – we're not having that. We won't be like France. Imagine a country where 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 imitates his 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.

The Dunkin' Donuts Dissidents
But there is another face to the Emirati minority. Next to a Virgin Megastore and a Dunkin' Donuts, I meet Mohammed al-Mansoori. "Westerners come here and see the malls and the tall buildings." 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. 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 an 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."

The Lifestyle
One night, 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. 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. "You stay here for The Lifestyle," they say. Ann Wark tries to summarise it: "Here, you go out every night. You'd never do that back home. 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 explain how the city works. "You've got a hierarchy" 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."

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."

Later, I start chatting to an Expat American who 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. Filipino girls get paid a quarter of the wages of a European doing the same job. The people who do the real work are paid next to nothing, while these incompetent managers pay themselves £40,000 a month."

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 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 with four children – Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. When I pleaded for a break, they shouted: 'You came here to work, not sleep!' Madam beat me with her fists and kicked me. They wouldn't pay me: they said they'd pay me after two years. What could I do? I was terrified."

One day, after yet another beating, Mela ran out onto the streets, and asked – in broken English – to find the Ethiopian consulate. After two days, she found it, but they told her she had to get her passport back. "How could I?" she asks. She has been in this hostel for 6 months. She has spoken to her daughter twice. "I lost my country, my daughter, 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!"

In the lobby of the Burj Al Arab, I start chatting to a couple from London. They have been coming to Dubai for 10 years now and 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 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.

Fake Plastic Trees
On my final night in Dubai, I stop at a Pizza Hut on my way to the airport. My mind is whirring and distracted. 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. 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 mirage. It's 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?"

Some names in this article have been changed.

The full article can be found at:


nabeel said...

This is actually a much longer article and I have summarised it here for the ease of reading. My apologies to the original writer.

The reason I am posting an article on the Dark Side of Dubai (when obviously this blog deals with Kuwait) is to trace the similarity of 'progress' that seems to be happening in the Gulf. I believe that our concept of progress is sooo skewed.

Change a few things in this story to make it apply to Kuwait - like change Indian to Bengali, and in my experience, our British Expats seem much nicer.. but there's always someone benefitting from the hard labour of our 'slaves' isn't there?

The idea of posting this is not that we should respond 'oh my Gosh - at least it's not that bad here.' Because it is.

The idea is to realise that we are the ones that benefit. We are allowing them to pay the price for our 'progress.' We benefit - with every cup of coffee, every stroll in a fancy building or mall, every nice evening out with the family. These things are here because of the blood, sweat, tears and lost lives of our workers and their families. In many public gains we enjoy in Kuwait, there is almost certainly a terrible loss wrapped up deep inside it.

So what do we do? The conscience of the entire universe screams out that this is very very wrong. But the human conscience is so easy to distract, so easy to quieten until you hardly hear anything at all.

It's true, we can't go around feeling guilty for living well and enjoying nice things - there is NOTHING essentially wrong in living well.

BUT - if we enjoy these things with one hand and cannot find the time to DO/ACT/WORK with our other hand to help these abused workers and maids - then damn straight, we should be feeling guilty - as guilty as sin.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article, and the summary.

You say, "You are trained not to look." which is a huge part of the problem. Every sane person has a minimum level at least, of common sense and an overall sense of justice. Yet, miraculously, people choose not to see, not to acknowledge, and - therefore - not to condemn or change things.

Your posts dwell on so many important issues regarding the value of human beings and the way we should treat one another as people. That, and of course, the significance of altering our behavior and actually doing something.

No country should prohibit strikes since strikes is an action that guarantees integrity and prohibits wage slavery, which exists in Dubai, Kuwait, Lebanon, and many other countries as well.

The article states, "Oh, the servant class!" she trilled. "You do nothing. They'll do anything!". You cannot imagine how obscene this statement is. This is exactly what wage-slavery achieves; a person who is willing to do anything is stripped from any integrity whatsoever. And to do that is extremely inhumane, dangerous for both parties, and stupid since it means surrounding yourself with people who have no integrity and are - therefore - inhumane themselves.

A great person is one who allows and even pushes others to grow, physically and mentally while a weak, selfish, and inhumane person crushes others and enslaves them, only to reap the negative results later (maids who revengefully attack their employers).

I was driving home the other day, when I saw an extremely tired-looking old man, an expatriate worker/builder who appeared to have been working all day.

Before reading this blog, I would notice yet would never have thought about doing something about it since it is - after all - his job. But reading your blog helped me realize that taking action isn't really that hard.

I picked him up and drove him to where he wanted to be; we had a nice chat and his integrity and ego didn't permit him to take any money. Taking action, even simple day to day little tasks, are very easy and nothing should stop us from doing so.

Keep up the good work, Nabeel, you are making a difference.

nabeel said...


that is truly awesome. God bless you. i am so touched by the fact that you did that.

As you no doubt are aware (from reading your comment) yes there is bad on both sides - some expat maids and workers no doubt have their own dark side, and so acts of kindness should also be done with safety in mind. for instance using your home as a shelter is not really a great idea.

But forgetting caution for a moment, that was an awesome thing to read on waking up in the morning. Thanks Anon :D Made my day!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nabeel, for helping me notice laborers everywhere, of all nationalities and backgrounds.

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