The unspoken truth
February 7, 2007 - Dubai
Dubai's economic model seems to rely on the truth that dare not speak its name, the exploitation of foreign labour, writes road warrior Eric Ellis.
Transitting through Dubai en route to London from Tehran, I never fail to be amazed by this thrusting city-state.
No doubt you've seen the myriad of articles about the Miracle of Dubai, how it's become the Singapore of the Desert (hardly an endorsement to my Singapore-based ears), that it's enjoying a limitless economic boom, becoming a tourist magnet to the chavs and blingmeisters like Posh and Becks (a good reason to stay away I'd say). The ubiquitous Emirates Airlines seems to sponsor everything from Collingwood to Chelsea.
There's that bizarre development "The World," where the rich and gauche can pay $10 million and more for a man-made island arranged in a phony archipalego that's supposed to be a map of the globe. There's that ridiculous indoor ski resort, and the Burj-al-Arab, the iconic hotel tower that evokes the sail of a dhow. Stunning to look at from afar, its interiors are tack on steroids. Why you'd ever want to stay in its "7 star" hotel at $1000 a night and then some, let alone holiday here, is beyond me. The Burj Tower is another phenomenon taking shape - at 420m it's already the tallest building in the Middle East and the sixth tallest in the world, but some local reports claim its only half-built. Could it be the world's first kilometre-high building? Why not? Oil-free Dubai looks like the world's biggest construction site and it's all quite remarkable, a triumph of the art of the possible.
It conjures up images of Dubaians as the new Chinese, industrious workaholics bent on global economic domination. The second part may well be correct but not necessarily the first. Dubai's economic model - and this is true of much of the resource-rich Arab Gulf states - seems to rely on the truth that dare not speak its name, the exploitation of foreign labour. Millions of impoverished Lankans, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Africans et al get paid triple what they might back home if jobs existed - which is still below the poverty line of most Western countries. It's almost as if Dubai's economic planners have scanned the latest OECD wealth survey and sent its talent scouts off to the bottom 20. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has the world's highest foreigners-to-locals ratio; about 80 per cent of the UAE's four million people were born somewhere else, usually somewhere poor. Indeed, about the only Emirati one meets in Dubai is the guy - it's almost always a man - who stamps your passport on the way in. Sub-continentals are OK for toiling in the 50 degree sun for 12 hours a day on a pittance they send home while spending years away from their families, but the UAE doesn't trust them with important stuff. As a Middle Eastern Emma Lazarus might've said, "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses and we'll exploit the hell out of you".
Another reason is that Dubai has also been a huge winner from 9/11. Arab oil money that would ordinarily have found its way to Europe and North America now gets speculatively parked here, because its owners feel discriminated against when they travel to the West with their Islamic names, the West remembering that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi. Apparently sheikhs don't much like taking off their shoes, getting patted down and interrogated going through Western immigration channels.
The UAE isn't exactly a paragon of enlightenment, with democracy and workers' rights not being that high on the national priority list, two things it has in common with Singapore. As one Lankan restaurant worker lamented to me, complain about your conditions and you're on the first flight back to Colombo, a ticket you've paid for. The untaxed Emirati minority sit back, count their money and invest it in an ever-spiralling tower of speculation. The myriad of monuments to excess sprouting around town - party-time for overpaid foreign architects but many of their buildings are untenanted - in a huge speculative wave suggests to me that it can't be sustained.
I fear this amazing boom will one day end in tears.