The Gulf: Critics and Construction Workers

Dubai may be the embodiment of modernization, but not without a human cost. Darryl Campbell argues the labors of its labor have been largely ignored by the Western media.

In the 100-degree heat and suffocating humidity of the Emirati summer, construction is prohibited by law between 12:30 and 3 p.m.—a government-mandated “heat break.”

So every day at 3 p.m., the evening shift, hundreds of thousands strong, rolls into the myriad construction sites around the city of Dubai. All of them are immigrants, predominantly South Asian, a few Chinese. And all of them depend almost entirely on their employer, whose name is screen-printed on the back of their cornflower-blue overalls.

Many of these men speak no Arabic or English, and most have surrendered their passports to their employers—if they strike, they get deported. They live in concrete and corrugated aluminum chawls, and drive back and forth between their construction sites and their shantytowns on company buses. On Fridays they go to the supermarkets. These workers are more responsible than anyone for Dubai’s glitzy hotels and themed malls, but nobody pays them any attention. They are, like the steel skeletons where they work, a temporary eyesore, to be avoided and ignored until they inevitably disappear.

Inside the finished buildings, the faces are much different. Filipinos, overwhelmingly women and overwhelmingly English-speakers, work behind the counters of retail stores and fast food chains, wait tables at restaurants, and man the cash registers of supermarkets. Still others are maids and domestic servants, with help wanted ads for live-in “Filipina girls” plastered all over bus stops and open-air souks.

Some, as I found out, are also prostitutes. Staying at a resort with my parents, a doorman refused to let my mother, who is Filipino, pass until she told him what room she was in. It wasn’t exactly diplomatic (or foolproof), but it showed the prevailing attitude toward Filipino women: they are there to fulfill a purpose, and nothing else.

This is Dubai, a city built and run by an invisible majority. Just under 80% of its official residents are foreigners, most of whom come from South and Southeast Asia. And too many live under a system that borders on slavery, as Johann Hari recently argued in The Independent. But apart from Hari, nobody seems to care about Dubai’s laissez-faire attitude toward the exploitation of unskilled labor of all sorts. Before last month, such criticism had generally been muted in the press—and even The New York Times’s link to the article doesn’t even mention its long discussion of the working and living conditions of these construction workers, cashiers, and domestic servants.

Granted, Hari’s piece borders on the sensational at times. In response, people have pointed out that similar conditions exist in the West, that he ignores Dubai’s middle class, and that his essay fits very neatly into the nascent genre of “Dubai-bashing,” the supposed bumper crop of criticisms aimed at the emirate and its rulers.

On one hand, they all have valid points. Not every Westerner in Dubai is a miniature Nero or Kipling, and not every immigrant laborer lives in squalor. There are also plenty of unskilled, semi-skilled, or professional workers from all over the world who get by, in terms of both income and living conditions, quite decently. And the international media has indeed taken aim at Dubai more frequently in the past year. On the other hand, invoking “Dubai-bashing” is a straw man. Most negative media coverage of Dubai so far has consisted of vague hand-wringing about economic indicators and journalistic freedoms; Hari’s exposé doesn’t belong in the same category as arguments over abstractions and abandoned cars.

And none of these supposed counter-arguments change the fact that Hari is right. So, on the heels of all this attention from the British (not American) media, will this story finally gain some traction?

My guess is no. First of all, Dubai is like reality television—anything that deflates the fantasy is just too unpleasant to think about. It’s easier to focus on the half-hour of escapism than to worry about all the behind-the-scenes scripting, editing, and stage-managing. Besides, the city’s image as a grown-up’s Disneyland allows us to distance ourselves from it; it’s meant to be visited, even experienced, but never fully owned. Dubai’s problems are its own, not ours (and our own problems, thanks to the global financial crisis, are big enough at the moment anyway).

But Dubai is also a suitably “Westernized” Middle Eastern polity, and when compared with the rest of the region, it’s tempting to rationalize its shortcomings. It might be shot through with economic injustices and strict social and racial hierarchies, but hey, that’s the free market at work. Like a third-world sweatshop, it provides opportunity, even if it happens to be exploitative. Better that, whispers our subconscious, than another radical Islamic state.

So there was probably never much hope that the difficulties of Dubai’s migrant workers would capture people’s attention for long—especially when they’re so convenient to ignore. Dubai, the world’s fantasy, will remain intact, and its migrant population will remain invisible.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.