Monday, September 22, 2008


Something big has changed over the past few years. Before the Ports scandal, when I said I was brought up in Dubai, I was met with blank stares.

Today, people's eyes light up and their eyebrows skyrocket: "Oh DUBAI! Oh how wonderful. It seems like an amazing place. That must have such a great place to grow up in!".

And it was, for the most part. My sisters and I were blessed with a top-quality British education, which put us in better positions for university etc. Mum and Dad were both employed in fulfilling jobs that earned them a healthy living, which afforded us no shortage of luxuries like nice cars and golf club memberships. We still had a church to attend, without fear of retribution. We met people from all over the world, learned about their culture, savored their food. All this against a background of safe, clean, fun-in-the-sun living. None of this would have been possible had we stayed in India. It took a lot of sacrifice on Mum and Dad's part to get us there, and I am unbelievably grateful.

But, there was a lot about Dubai that left all of us dissatisfied. Beneath the modern, cosmopolitan surface lay a mucky river of prejudice that you couldn't get out of no matter how hard you worked, because the color of your skin was still the same. It's hard to explain. I had hoped it had dissipated in my absence.

Today, I read this article in the New York Times today.

It is, hands down, the BEST analysis I have ever read of Dubai in an American publication. No other article, that I have read, ignores the usual distraction of "the Islamic success story" and pins it quite like this one does.

The writer profiles an Egyptian working in Dubai, a Muslim who drinks beer everyday and dates a Russian prostitute.

First, it correctly portrays Dubai up as an oasis in a field of Islamic radicalism, the one place where folks from the region can come and let their hair down; within reason, of course. This is still a Muslim country.

However, it then addresses the inequality and the disgraceful conditions some of Dubai's poorest and hardest-working have to tolerate: company-provided housing in enormous dormitories where the mostly-Indian construction workers share a closet-sized room with 2 or 3 other guys. About a 100 men will share ONE BATHROOM and ONE KITCHEN. One character in the story was (rightly or wrongly) accused to stealing materials from a work site, was arrested, and then released by the police who have held onto his passport, essentially holding him hostage in Dubai. It also hints at some of the racism in Dubai. The article doesn't go into how the majority of those men got to Dubai, a story of deceit, betrayal and injustice.

Most importantly though, the article nails my central issue with Dubai, something I could never put into words.

Dubai's population is overwhelmingly expatriate (80% I think the article says). Each community keeps to itself though. The only unifying force to Dubai, as the writer correctly points out, is ambition and making money. And that's a soul-sapping unifying factor indeed, because it plays into one of the worst aspects of human nature: greed. Most people are only there for the money. When that's the driving force of a society, it can leave people feeling even more empty than they felt in the beginning; and that means about 80% of the people you run into are feeling very, very empty. Heck, that probably feeds into Dubai's incessant need to outdo itself: the tallest building in the world, the biggest arch bridge in the world, an artifical ski slope and so on and so on. If you read the article, you'll understand what I mean.

Take a second and read it if you can. Then you'll understand why I feel so ambivalent when I tell people where I'm from, and their eyes light up.



mandi said...

the part you mention about holding passports to imprison workers reminds me about a story I heard recently on npr about human trafficking and human rights violations regarding domestic workers. Young women from one country going to another to work in someone's home, isolated, without proper resources, or working conditions. Apparently, domestic workers all over the world do not fall under the same labor laws as anything else and subsequently suffer working around the clock, no pay, sometimes enduring sexual abuse, and having their passports essentially stolen by their employers, having absolutely no one to turn to. I could go on about the horrors of the situation these young women are put into often through misrepresentation or coersion. It's amazing and saddening what human beings will do to one another or tolerate someone else doing to another human. sigh.

aartilla the fun said...

sadly, that is a story i believe i heard about... dubai. :(

too true mandi my love, too true.

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