Dubai: Sheikdom of Schlok

It seems impossible to think that a young girl from Namibia can be abducted and trafficked to Dubai.  In many ways, however, it does not seem out of the ordinary for a place like Dubai, which seems intent on becoming the most shallow, materialistic, and corrupt place on the planet.


If you ever needed proof that a complete and unfettered embrace of capitalism leads to gratuitous social exclusionism and a widespread cultural vacuousness, then you need look no further than Dubai.  Dubai is the geospatial equivalent of the Kardashians, it has less of an identity than an intensely self-conscious brand, which it shamelessly promotes in a bid to sell itself to consumers in as grandiose and chintzy a manner as humanly possible.  It is a place that desperately seeks the world’s attention, often through no inherent or truly substantive value of its own.  Equally condemned as it is worshipped for what essentially amounts to the same thing – being a plasticized kingdom (or sheikdom really) – Dubai cavalierly brushes aside all ethical concerns in its pursuit of wealth and attention.  When stripped down, ‘Brand Dubai’ is like the Holy Grail for reality show personalities: it is famous for being famous. 


Dubai brims with the gaudy, glossy icons of its chosen path, many of which are the only thing that people know about it.  For example, it scooped up and dredged almost 100,000,000 cubic meters of sand and 7 million tons of rock in the Persian Gulf to create the Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest artificial island, and the first (and smallest) of three palm-shaped islands intended to increase Dubai’s shoreline by over 300 miles. It followed this with the World Islands, a convoluted cluster of several hundred small islands in the shape of a world map.  The sole purpose of these odd heaps of sand, which are so massive that they can be seen from space, was to create prime beachfront real estate for as many supersized McMansions as possible, almost all of which were sold to wealthy foreigners. Plopped on top of another artificial island created just for it is the Burj Al Arab, a tall, sail-shaped building that bills itself as ‘The world’s only 7 star hotel’ and the ‘world’s most luxurious hotel.’  While the Burj Al Arab was specifically designed to be a symbol of modern Dubai, it doubles nicely as an ode to hedonistic tourism.  Dubai is also home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, a shining spire of glass and steel that looks just like a Saturn rocket and garners a long list of the world’s tallest/highest honors from tallest structure ever built to highest nightclub.  There are also plenty of garish nightclubs to choose from, as well as gigantic shopping malls.  In fact, Dubai has more malls per capita than anywhere on the planet, crammed with high-end boutiques and shops with premier names like Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Saks Fifth Avenue.  The Mall of the Emirates (one of the largest shopping malls in the world) even includes an indoor ski slope (which of course markets itself as one of the largest indoor ski resorts in the world).   These iconic structures are just a small part of a sea of glittering new high rises, glass towers, and exclusive gated communities that have made Dubai one of the world’s fastest growing cities.   Touting itself as a pinnacle of capitalist achievement, Dubai has become the preeminent playground and party town for the rich and famous.   


It is hard to imagine that as late as the 1950s Dubai was little more than a backwater trading post for roaming tribes of Bedouins.  Its only electricity came from a generator that a British colonial diplomat periodically fired up so he could switch on a solitary light bulb at night in order to make the town visible to passing steamships.   The town itself was little more than a narrow strip of low-lying adobe and coral stone structures and palm-thatched huts clinging precariously to a shallow, meandering creek.  Residents competed for space with donkey carts and camels in the town’s narrow alleyways and small but bustling bazaars full of squabbling merchants. Fishermen moored their small dhows – a traditional sailing vessel – to the rickety wharves along the creek or simply beached them to unload the day’s catch.  It was a continuous struggle just to keep the desert sands from reclaiming the place entirely. 


Dubai’s extraordinary transformation from a small, regional trading hub and sleepy colonial outpost to one of the world’s fastest growing cities and preeminent symbols of modernity is due in large part to the uninterrupted and remarkably stable rule of a long line of bearded patriarchs from a single family. For almost 200 years, the Maktoums have ruled over Dubai, from the days when it was a village whose very existence was susceptible to tribal feuding and the occasional fire, to 1973 when it became part of the United Arab Emirates as it joined a handful of neighboring sheikdom left out in the cold by a moribund British Empire, to the latter decades of the twentieth century and the present time as it has come to embrace trade and tourism, real estate and construction, and the financial services sector as the backbone of its economy.  All the while, the Maktoums have transformed Dubai into something quite unlike the UAE’s other emirates or, for that matter, any Middle Eastern country at all.  They pursued a truly unique vision that did not involve oil an anti-Western stance of any kind.  Instead, they led Dubai in the opposite direction by embracing the ideological underpinnings of capitalism and promoting trade, commerce, and international tourism and investment.  And that embrace has become increasingly passionate with each succeeding generation of Maktoum leaders.  To some extent, the family vision was predetermined by geography and environmental circumstance: while Dubai does not sit atop massive oil fields, it is well situated to take advantage of regional trade, especially with Iran.  Since at least the 19thcentury, Dubai has been a desirable destination for Arab merchants, but it was not until the latter stages of the 20thcentury – when it became clear that oil was not the future path for the small emirate – that the Maktoums made significant moves to expand Dubai as a formal center of trade and commerce.


During the 1950’s, Sheik Rashid kicked off these efforts by dredging the notoriously silty Dubai Creek in order to create a proper channel with port facilities that had the capacity to host large cargo ships.  As if this herculean task was not enough, he brought electricity to Dubai in the 1960’s, constructed a second, larger port in the 1970’s and, in the 1980s, built an even larger port – the world’s largest man-made harbor to be exact.  Together, these projects became the catalyst for Dubai’s unprecedented growth and development during the latter half of the twentieth century.  The city quickly spread outward from these massive development hubs to fulfill Sheik Rashid’s vision of making Dubai a truly international “city of merchants.” 


Sheik Rashid’s sons, Maktoum and Mohammed, continued in their father’s footsteps by modernizing Dubai’s port facilities and completely transforming its urban landscape.  In addition, Sheik Mohammed took his father’s vision and applied it to making Dubai an international tourist mecca, starting from scratch by taking a harsh desert environment that was, if anything, completely hostile to tourists, and transforming it into a gigantic, climate controlled, luxury playground.  He kicked it all off by constructing one of the world’s largest international airports and creating a national airline – Emirates – that would also grow into one of the world’s largest airlines.  Like his father’s obsession with seaports, Sheik Mohammed was not satisfied with his initial efforts and almost immediately began expanding the existing airport while making plans to construct an even bigger one across town.  He then began building all the places Dubai need to make it attractive to tourists: luxury hotels, massive shopping malls, artificial islands, artificial beaches, restaurants, nightclubs, golf courses, and all the temples and structural icons associated with Brand Dubai and seemingly inspired by a master development plan based on smashing together adjectives of great size and proportion with those of total schmaltz.  Then he built more of everything.  And more. In 2002, he culminated the entire process by decreeing that foreigners could buy real estate in Dubai, which touched off a construction boom and housing speculation market unlike any the world had ever seen.  Unable to help themselves, foreign developers poured in from everywhere, building and selling high-rise apartments, houses, and condominiums at an unprecedented pace.


Meanwhile, Sheik Mohammed carefully sculpted and refined Dubai’s image, establishing an elaborate network of government departments, public relations firms, and marketing consultants from around the world whose sole functions were to promote the positive traits of Brand Dubai, police and discipline its critics, and generally spin straw into gold.  It was like creating a string of billboards around the globe advertising Dubai’s astounding transformation into an Arabicized corn palace.  And it worked: millions of people flocked to the tiny emirate until the tourism sector accounted for nearly a quarter of its total economy.  Around the world, Brand Dubai became synonymous with guilt-free fun and the good times to be had from pure self-indulgence.  Dubai had arrived. 


This was all made possible because the Maktoums decided it should be so.  It is important to emphasize that Dubai’s relatively free-wheeling and lenient atmosphere does not extend to the political arena; the emirate is governed by the Maktoums and everybody else is there to carry out their wishes and/or simply agree with them.  As a whole, the UAE is consistently ranked at or near the very bottom when it comes to measuring the state of democracy around the world.  Its political landscape is not nearly as shiny and modern as its urban one; if anything, it resembles a city-state from the Middle Ages, replete with a smattering of influential feudal lords and hordes of anemic peasants.  The Maktoums have made Dubai into what it is today by building on the backs of the peasants while ensuring that its lords are kept fat and happy.


In the case of Dubai, the lords are the Emirati, or citizens of Dubai.  Making up only about 5% of Dubai’s total population, they are largely invisible, and you would be hard pressed to bump into them on the streets or in the workplace.  Most Emirati live in walled mansions on the outskirts of the city, and for those who are employed (largely men), over 80% work in cushy, life-long government jobs where there is almost no risk of being retrenched, replaced, or even having your job performance reviewed.  A system of preferences known as Emiratizationprotects Dubai nationals from open competition with foreign workers.  It is just one part of a much wider strategy among UAE leaders to maintain power by supporting and generally subsidizing every aspect of their fellow citizens’ lives. In fact, Emirati have to do very little to survive other than be Emirati.  In addition to their government jobs, every male gets $55,000 a year for what essentially amounts to no real reason at all.  Citizens receive free land, free water, free health care, free education, and highly subsidized electricity, food, and education. Emirati do not pay income or property tax while being eligible for a whole slew of benefits from no interest loans to generous monthly payments if you happen to be a widow, divorcee, orphan, or oddly enough, a relative of someone in prison.  In fact, if you are fortunate enough to be born Emirati (which is virtually the only means of claiming citizenship), there is very little in life that is not free or paid for by the government.  Most people view their government-subsidized lifestyles as a fundamental right of citizenship, a belief that is particularly entrenched among the younger generations, most of whom have never known economic hardship in the slightest.  UAE leaders have effectively transformed Emirati into a small class of pampered citizen-elites and hyper end-users whose sense of entitlement and appetite for luxury items have become part of their everyday lives.  For powerful political dynasties like the Maktoums, the art of power is as easy as it is effective: you simply buy off the citizens. 


It is left to a vast army of skilled and unskilled migrant laborers from across the globe to actually carry out the Maktoum’s vision.  They make up anywhere from 90-95% of Dubai’s population at any one time – no other place in the world has such a large portion of transient workers. And they all exist in an unprotected limbo state as permanent non-residents with absolutely no chance of obtaining citizenship and few if any rights.  They come from over 200 countries – ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe – with the vast majority coming from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  There are also large numbers of western ex-patriots in Dubai – mostly from the United Kingdom – who work in high-salary white-collar positions.  Dubai is aggressive in its efforts to attract skilled labor from the west, relying on its cosmopolitan yet generically familiar consumer culture as a major selling point. 


But lifestyle options are not exactly an incentive for the bulk of foreign, unskilled laborers who come from the Indian subcontinent.  For them, the job itself is the attraction, and Dubai relies heavily on menial labor to keep things going, particularly in the construction and service industries – including domestic work.  These are the individuals behind Dubai’s infrastructural development and ever shifting skyline, they are the ones who cook, clean, serve, haul, paint, and dig in order to keep Brand Dubai afloat.  Most are bussed in each morning from massive labor camps on the city’s outskirts, working long hours under harsh conditions so they can send small remittances to relatives back home.  All are subject to the kafala– or sponsorship – system that is widely practiced by Arab States throughout the Persian Gulf.  The kafala system requires all unskilled migrant laborers to have an in-country sponsor – generally their employer – who is responsible for their visa and labor permit.  The system is notorious for being exploitive, employers regularly seize their workers’ passports when they arrive, and workers must get permission from employers before changing jobs, leaving the country, or things like obtaining a drivers license or opening a bank account.  Meanwhile, most unskilled workers are in debt to notoriously shady recruiting agents and money lenders who got them to get their Dubai jobs in the first place.  Subsequently, they are subject to the whims of an unsympathetic employer whose power is reinforced by the kafala system and a weak set of labor laws, while simultaneously being in debt-bondage to a string of recruiters and lenders who are themselves in lockstep with employers.  Between trying to repay their loans, which quickly grow out of hand, and sending what little money is left back home to family members, Dubai’s foreign workers barely survive while being exposed to a barrage of exploitive and underhanded labor practices and dangerous work conditions.   


Many of these issues came to light – or at least received more attention in the popular press – when the global recession hit.  Until 2008, the Maktoum’s vision for Dubai unfolded virtually unchecked as it transformed the desert sands into a futuristic city of gold and glamour.  It was the neoliberal darling of the world, somehow garnering praise from both the West and the Middle East at the same time.  The numbers reinforced the hallowed image of Brand Dubai: throughout the 1990’s and up until 2006, Dubai’s growth and success was a key reason why the UAE was one of the top five economic performers in the world in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita.  At its peak, the economy of Dubai itself was growing four times faster than that of the United States.  In the years preceding the 2008 economic crash, the city’s population doubled and its urban footprint quadrupled.  Dubai was regularly described as the fastest growing city in the world, and government leaders proudly displayed all kinds of quirky evidence in support of this fact, including how the emirate had amassed a quarter of the world’s construction cranes or how Emirates Airlines had placed the biggest order for airplanes from Boeing in the company’s history.  Before and after photos popped up everywhere showing the miraculous transformation of a sparse desert landscape into a modern city of spiraling glass towers.  There was talk of how Dubai was becoming “the most important city in the world” and that it was spearheading an “Arab Renaissance.”  The superlatives were never-ending as Dubai’s growth and potential seemed limitless.     


But when the financial crisis of 2008 finally hit Dubai, it hit hard.  Real estate development and construction came to a grinding halt as values plummeted by as much as 60%, investment disappeared overnight, tourism collapsed, and thousands of foreign workers found themselves with no jobs.  Dubai had borrowed heavily to fuel growth, which suddenly left it with an enormous debt that ranged somewhere in the neighborhood of US $80 billion dollars. Dubai World, a quasi-government investment company that manages Dubai’s business interests and projects, was forced to delay and then restructure the emirates loan repayments while laying off over 10,000 employees.  In 2009, for the first time since the late 1980s, the UAE’s economy shrank. 

Brand Dubai took a hit too.  The once bustling city was described as a gloomy, dusty ghost town as tens of thousands of foreign workers lost their jobs and had their visas revoked. Stories circulated about the high number of luxury automobiles abandoned on the streets and at Dubai International Airport by well-heeled ex-pats who lost their jobs and fled the country. Descriptions of decadent lifestyles and extravagant parties were replaced by scenes of sacked bankers, lawyers, architects, and project managers sitting by themselves at pool side bars, desperately tapping away on their laptops searching for jobs that were no longer there.  The Indian embassy, in anticipation of a “mass exodus” of its citizens from Dubai, bulk-booked 20,000 seats on flights back to India.  Attention turned to the growing number of laborers – both skilled and unskilled – who were being thrown into Dubai’s prisons as debtors.  The suicide rate among unemployed construction workers and day laborers was said to be skyrocketing.  Story after story appeared in the international media referencing Dubai’s “hangover” and how the city was “emptying out.”  


Even the most iconic symbols of Dubai’s success were now viewed as somewhat ironic representations of its downward spiral.  The 300 artificial islands making up Dubai’s World Islands, for example, remained completely uninhabited with the exception of two, one of which was Sheik Mohammed’s personal retreat, itself intended as a showpiece to promote further development on the other islands.  With the financial crash, however, the image of this one island – with it’s gigantic mansion surrounded by lush gardens and dense green forest – sitting alone among hundreds of barren clumps of white sand became a telling example of one man’s failed obsession to fashion Dubai as the center of the world. The undeveloped islands soon became potent metaphors for Dubai’s economic woes and the personal financial troubles of their owners, the president of the company that bought ‘Ireland’ committed suicide in 2009 – it was reported due to mounting financial troubles – while the British property tycoon who bought ‘little Britain’ was thrown in a Dubai jail for writing millions of dollars worth of bad checks. To add insult to injury, the press made frequent mention of how the islands were gradually sinking back into the sea due to erosion and deterioration.  The massive, multi-billion dollar project that served as the centerpiece of Dubai’s plan for continued growth and success now seemed to stand for the financial recklessness and failure of a development strategy based on casino capitalism. 


And as soon as Dubai was down, it seemed like the media could not stop from piling it on.  Perhaps the most noteworthy example was a 2009 piece by Johann Hari that appeared in the U.K.’s Independent titled “The Dark Side of Dubai,” which slammed the emirate on everything from its spoiled citizens and plasticized cultural landscape to its treatment of foreign workers.  The piece was widely cited, and it became an effective framework and call to arms for critiquing almost every aspect of Dubai society.  In its wake, a slew of negative reports and media stories from every corner emerged, while critical pieces from prior years were given renewed attention.  Most of the focus came to rest squarely on Dubai’s treatment of its unskilled foreign workforce.  And when it came to women, Dubai became synonymous with the invisible lives and experiences of domestic servants, where sex, choice, and various forms of violence and exploitation were widely debated and speculated on.