by Valentin Schipfer
In 2007 I undertook a one-week trip to my Viennese friend Ferdinand staying in Dubai. Back then his father was the Commercial Counselor, so there was nothing to complain about accommodation, food nor transport. On the contrary the luxury, the government provided them with, swept me off my feet: A huge villa with several guest-rooms, terraces and a swimming-pool, two American cars and of course a permanently filled fridge with all kinds of Arabian and international goodies. But the address was irritating: Instead in a silent residential area, the mansion had been set up next to a road with four lanes. Only later it turned out that the car is the number one city planner.
As fuel is cheaper than water in this oil-rich region, my friend took me out for a joyride. Soon, after having passed another big, fuel-thirsty US-imported car, Ferdinand started off a race with the Sheikh-kids driving it. After this high speed duel I was explained that there were no penalties for tempo-loving government-employees. One of my first surprises in United Arabian Emirates.
It should be soon followed by others. Driving around in an air-conditioned car, I wondered about all these new skyscrapers, shopping-malls, hotels and artificially green areas in this most arid area of the planet. Of course I knew about Sheikh Maktoum’s decision to build a city to be a center of tourism and financial services, sucking up cash and talent form across the globe. What I did not know was the shocking background information I’ve just gathered in a two-year old but still current article. I’ll try to connect this extensive and informative essay by Johann Hari with my own impressions in the following paragraphs.
Dubai fast-forwarded from the 18th century to the 21st in a single generation. With its claim “Open doors, open minds”, it did not only invite the financial world with its expats to come tax-free but also the foreign underclass who built the city and got trapped here. These thousands of young, Indian and East-African men are bussed from their construction sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town. That’s where they sleep. This rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings for some 300,000 men is called Sonapur. This Hindi name for “City of Gold” is as delusive as the worker’s idea before they got here. In their home countries employment agents tell them that there is a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (€480,-) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It is a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they have to do is pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (€ 2,760,-) for the work visa – a fee they’d pay off in the first six months, easy.
As soon as they arrive at Dubai airport, they passports are taken away by their construction company. They get told that from now on they would be working 14-hours day in the desert heat, hitting 55 degrees for 500 dirhams a month (€108,-), less than a quarter of the wage they are promised. Accident insurance not included! If you don’t like it, the company told to one of the workers in the article, then 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!”, the company replied. Since the recession hit, the electricity has been cut off in dozens of the camps, and the men have not been paid for months. Their companies have even disappeared with their passports and their pay. These men are conned into coming and trapped into staying, with the complicity of the Dubai authorities.
On my trip to Dubai, I soon realized that most of the public life takes place in its numerous malls. Between them, there is nothing but the connecting tissue of asphalt. That’s why Dubai feels like a motorway punctuated by shopping centers. Unlike my expectations, it was not only tourists and western people strolling around in the malls. You also see many Emiratis – men in cool white robes, the women in sweltering black, wandering around and their kids playing in amusement arcades.
The interviews in Hari’s essay show that Emiratis share different feelings for their government lead by Sheikh Mohammed: On one hand they call it Santa Claus state, handing out goodies to Emiratis 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. On the other hand some criticize that this nanny state has gone too far by owning most companies and opposing human rights laws for foreign workers. Some others fear the erosion of Emirati identity and that they are losing the modern city to foreign expats.
These expats from around the globe appreciate a certain, local theme: their joy at having staff to do the work that would clog their lives up back home. Everyone 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.
Being distracted by Dubai’s monumental constructions projects, I didn’t take notice, like most tourists, of these social evils. They have constructed artificial islands in the shape of all planet Earth’s land masses or a palm tree, they were building an air-conditioned beach here, the Atlantis Hotel was launched in a € 25m fin-de-siecle party. Its Neptune suite has three floors, and it looks out directly on to the vast shark tank.
Dubai is not just a city living beyond its financial means; it is living beyond its ecological means. In Hari’s article the environmental director of the Gulf Research Center explains that Dubai’s 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. 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. Another significant ecological problem arose because 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. Now the water is worse than ever. People are getting really sick. Eye infections, ear infections, stomach infections, rashes. The authorities just don’t give a toss about the environment.
Summing up, after one week of stay and reading Hari’s article, I can state that entire Dubai is fake, the trees are fake, the worker’s contracts are fake, the islands are fake, the smiles are fake – even the water is fake! At least my friend Ferdinand isn’t fake and nourished my trip with real places for delicious Arabian culinary art.