Searching for reality in Dubai

Published in
September 2011

On my first day in Dubai, not yet comprehending its size, I attempted to walk from Dubai Creek – where it's still possible to see old stone buildings and wooden dhows moored along the quays – to the skyscrapers of Marina, the expat enclave down the coast. It turned out to be fourteen miles distant, and I was soon exhausted. I found myself tramping beside a motorway, pouring with sweat in the desert heat. The motorway verges were lined with greenery, palm trees and banks of purple flowers, kept alive only by constant irrigation with desalinated water from the Arabian Sea. Stopping for breath along the way, I grubbed up a patch of grass with my shoe. Its roots tore easily away; there was no topsoil, no earth. Underneath was only desert sand.

The symbol of 'a city built on sand' has become one of Dubai's many clichés, a stock retort of western critics condemning its unsustainability, its sheer unnaturalness. But I find this image as hard to avoid, when writing about Dubai, as the use of hyperbole. Dubai demands superlatives: it's the city with the world's tallest skyscraper, the world's biggest shopping mall, the world's only seven-star hotel, the world's largest per capita carbon footprint. Add to that the manmade islands, the indoor ski-slope, the ten tonnes of gold that can be found, apocryphally, at any one time in its Gold Souk, and the city seems to turn – depending on one's point of view – into either a modern fairytale kingdom or a consumerist nightmare.

It's a place that polarises opinion, driving its pro and anti camps into fits of rhetoric. To its admirers, it stands as a beacon of hope and strength for the Arab world, a society that seeks to marry free trade and prosperity with Islamic values. 'Where Vision Inspires Humanity,' gasps the utopian slogan of Nakheel Properties, the construction firm behind some of its most bombastic developments (manmade islands among them). Such obsequious corporate literature peddles Dubai as nothing less than a testament to human ambition; and, of course, to the beneficence of its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

To Dubai's detractors, on the other hand, it embodies capitalism's worst excesses, where the decadent lifestyle of the super-rich depends upon the quasi-slavery of millions of migrant workers. Western liberals take delight in prophesying its imminent collapse; Simon Jenkins perhaps outdid them all with his apocalyptic vision of a future in which the towers of Dubai 'will shed glass. Sand will drift round their trunkless legs. Animals will inhabit their basements... Gangs will seize the gated estates and random anarchy will rule the soulless boulevards.'

It's almost impossible to visit such a place, having read such divergent and often downright hysterical views, with an open mind or sense of balance. I'll admit that I went expecting the worst, partly because of the project that took me there: a radio programme about the lives of the South Indian migrant workers who make up the bulk of the city's workforce, and how they have suffered in the economic crisis that sunk the construction industry. But I was anxious to avoid the Ozymandius metaphors, the overinflated doom-mongering that distorts so much of the debate. I wanted to keep in mind that this was a real city, in which real people lived and worked, and not a metaphor.

A few days after my motorway tramp, I covered the distance back to Marina in just over half an hour, skimming above the traffic-choked roads in an air-conditioned skytrain. From the elevated rails of the metro's Red Line, which runs equidistantly between the Arabian Sea and the desert, I got my first glimpse of the city's extremes. The line dips underneath Dubai Creek to surface south of Port Rashid, the gigantic commercial port with which Dubai first sold itself as a hub of global trade. It skims the low-rise sprawl of Satwa, a poor South Asian immigrant district, and snakes its way south of Jumeirah, where rich expats live in luxury villas spreading block by block towards the beach, each complete with its swimming pool and obligatory Filipina housemaid. Dimly visible to the south, looming through a yellow haze, are the Al Quoz Industrial Areas (1, 2, 3 and 4), a vast expanse of industrial plants and barrack-like labour camps that house hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. Finally come the skyscrapers of Marina – Canary Wharf in the sun – and opposite them the gated communities known simply as 'Springs' and 'Meadows.'

This metro journey is a tour of the icons of Dubai's excess, the totems of its dizzying expansion: from Dubai Mall, the biggest in the world, and the opulent Mall of the Emirates, which houses the famous ski-slope, to a glimpse of the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab on its artificial island – described by Will Self as 'a great white grub crawling up into the heavens' – and, of course, the jagged, tapering spike of the Burj Khalifa, towering impossibly tall, almost one kilometre, over everything.

But for me, the most unbelievable sight was one that no guidebook mentions. For minutes on end, through the train's lefthand window, passengers can gaze upon mile after mile of construction projects frozen by the economic crisis; a necropolis of half-finished skyscrapers, abandoned before they could be completed, receding into the murk of the ruined desert. I was astounded by their scale, their sheer dystopian weirdness. These towers mark the decline in Dubai's fortunes, the detritus left behind when the property bubble burst. It was impossible not to leap at metaphor, if only as a coping mechanism: the dire omens of collapse, of Ozymandius and the Tower of Babel, all came rushing back.

Of course, in the jargon of Dubai's rulers, none of these projects are abandoned, merely 'suspended.' Just as the tens of thousands of workers who lost their jobs have not been laid off, but placed on 'temporary leave.' These euphemisms become meaningless when you see evidence like this: concrete, in both senses of the word.

In the month and a half I was there, I spent a long time looking at the map. You can learn a lot about Dubai from studying the names. Alongside the Arabic names of older districts (Al Rigga, Karama, Deira, Umm Suqeim), can be found Dubai Media City, Dubai Silicon Oasis, Culture Village, Arabian Ranches and Dubai Motor City. It gets weirder: Sahara Kingdom, Living Legends, Islamic Culture & Science World, Beauty Land, and – my favourite – Falcon City of Wonders. There's even a bay called Business Bay. Many of these developments are marked with the ubiquitous (u/c) – 'under construction' – a reminder that this city was, until the global downturn hit, in a state of constant flux and expansion.

Every time I saw this map, I thought of the computer game SimCity, in which, which godlike omnipotence, you build your metropolis from scratch – complete with parks and sewage systems, stadiums and industrial zones – plonked down, as if from the sky, on an empty wasteland. Similarly, Dubai is a city conceived of and designed from the top, in line with the famous 'vision' of its ruling family. 'In the late 1950s, the late Sheikh Rasheed bin Saeed Al Maktoum stood in Dubai's desert and imagined a great city rising from the sand,' as it goes in Nakheel's blurb. 'In the late 1990s, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum continued his father's legacy.'

As a historical achievement – no matter to which camp you belong – there's no denying that Dubai's growth is pretty extraordinary. I didn't quite realise how extraordinary until I saw some archive photos from the 1960s. They showed a town of squat, mud-walled houses clustered along the waterway, a desolate trading outpost on the edge of a vast desert. There were only a few stone buildings – the ruler's palace, some crumbling watchtowers – most of the population lived in traditional barasti houses constructed from palm fronds. People lived by pearl diving and fishing. Inland transport was by camel. There were no schools, hospitals, roads. Britain effectively kept its protectorate – along with the other 'Trucial States' that would merge, in 1971, into the United Arab Emirates – in a condition of stultifying poverty.

As the UAE formed a nation, oil money flooded the region. Neighbouring Abu Dhabi – the largest and richest of the seven emirates, which became the country's capital – was found to possess almost 10% of the world's proven reserves. By an unlucky twist of geography, Dubai's own oil-wells yielded little; so the Al Maktoum family cannily diversified into tourism, property and financial services, transforming their city into a global business centre. The strategy worked astoundingly well: Dubai doubled, tripled, quadrupled, blooming down the coast. Within a couple of generations, the local Arab population went from scraping a meagre existence in one of the harshest environments on Earth to having more money than they could have possibly imagined. From being a marginalised population on the forgotten fringe of Arabia, they were transformed into ultra-wealthy, globalised citizens of the world. The palm-frond houses were swept away, along with most of the kingdom's culture. Older Emiratis who remember travelling by camel as children now take trips in yachts and private jets.

The unprecedented mushrooming of wealth explains the nouveau riche aspect to the city's character. There was more money than anyone knew what to do with. When you suddenly find yourself rich beyond your wildest dreams, why not build the tallest tower in the world, or make it snow in the desert? Why not build an archipelago of islands in the shape of the world's continents? It also explains, I can't help thinking, the resentment clearly felt by some of Dubai's critics. As with lottery winners, Russian oligarchs, or Spanish-style villas on the west coast of Ireland, there's a distinctly snobbish air to much anti-Dubai rhetoric, which fixates on its loudness, its crassness, its tackiness, its poor taste. I've not heard a single western reporter comment on one of the most remarkable aspects of the UAE's wealth: the fact that they actually managed to keep the money for themselves. Normally, when a poor, semi-literate and deeply traditional tribal society finds vast amounts of oil on its territory, it isn't long before western companies swoop in and start siphoning it off, leaving its population with nothing; witness the chronic poverty of the oil-rich Niger Delta. But the Emiratis stayed on top, avoiding being disempowered or exploited, skilfully diverting the profits into their own pockets.

Unfortunately, they achieved this by simply exploiting someone else. Migrant workers were imported in their millions to fill the demands of the growing city, doing everything from building, cleaning, cooking, waitering and gardening to driving the wooden water taxis that shuttle across Dubai Creek. So many immigrants were shipped in that foreigners soon unnumbered native Emiratis. Today, only 17% of the population are UAE nationals. Western expats, for all their showiness, comprise under 5%. The rest – the vast majority – come from various parts of South Asia, predominantly India.

This South Asian workforce is carefully sequestered, pigeon-holed along racial lines, with workers of different nationalities slotted neatly into different sectors. It's a bit like the joke about Heaven in which the policemen are all British, the cooks Italian, the lovers French and the engineers German; in Sheikh Mohammed's paradise, the shop assistants are Filipino, the housemaids Filipina, the taxi drivers Pakistani, and the construction workers and labourers Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepalese and Sri Lankan.

These were some of the people I met in the course of making my radio programme. The recording took me far from Jumeirah and the bubbling fountains of Marina, away from the irrigated verges and air-conditioned shopping 'experiences,' and into the sprawling labour camps that lie on the desolate fringes of the city. This is a world seldom seen by visitors. Dubai's migrant workers are housed in the desert, far from sensitive westerners' eyes, crammed eight or ten to a room in barrack-like accommodation blocks from which they are cattle-trucked every morning to their construction sites. Swirled about by choking yellow dust, littered with rubbish, stinking of sewage and hammered incessantly by the sun, this is what lies behind Dubai's facade.

Gaining access to this world was surprisingly easy – I went in and out by bus and taxi – despite the warnings I'd been given about journalists arrested for trespass, interrogated by the security police, in some cases even deported. Having been stung by damning reports from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, the UAE government is acutely sensitive to criticism of how it treats its workforce. I was even more surprised at how willing the workers were to talk to me, given the risks they faced in speaking out against their employers. But it seemed their situations were so dismal, their disillusionment so great, they felt they had little to lose in telling their stories.

Their stories were all variations on a theme, which runs roughly like this: first, they are recruited by agents who come to their villages back home, promising them lucrative jobs in the Gulf, with attractive salaries and excellent living conditions. Poorly-educated and gullible, they jump at what seems to be a dream offer. In order to get to the UAE they take out loans to pay for visas and plane tickets, a debt they are told they can easily clear, despite the high rates of interest. But on arrival in Dubai, they find that the promised jobs do not exist. Instead, they must accept longer hours, worse conditions and lower rates of pay. Some are told to sign documents written in Arabic, which they don't understand. To further guarantee their compliance the companies confiscate their passports, charging exorbitant 'processing fees' if they want them back.

It's essentially a three-way con, perpetuated between the recruitment agents, the companies and the government. The agents trick them into coming to Dubai, the companies exploit their powerlessness, and the government – despite officially frowning on practices like passport confiscation – benefits from a limitless pool of cheap, expendable labour. Deprived of rights, trapped in debt, and still desperate to send money home, migrants have no choice but to work the required eleven or twelve hours a day, six days a week, for years.

Things have got even worse since the property bubble burst. In the labour camps of Al Quoz and Sonapur – a sprawling slum-city of 500,000 men, whose name in Hindi means 'City of Gold' – I saw the human fallout from those eerie miles of abandoned skyscrapers glimpsed from the train. When the global downturn hit, many construction firms went bankrupt and stopped paying wages. Dozens of men showed me time-sheets for work they had never been paid for. But under the strict terms of their visas, migrants are bound to the company that hires them – a system of indentured labour that human rights groups call modern slavery – preventing them from seeking employment anywhere else in the country.

On a rooftop in the district of Satwa, within view of the glittering towers of Financial Centre and the Burj Khalifa, I met a group of Indian men sleeping rough under plastic sheets. Their washing was strung between satellite dishes, along with a few hopeful yellow hardhats, and they had built a crude stove of bricks to cook vegetables and rice. With no home, no jobs, no passports, no visas, not even money to buy food – they survived on weekly donations from a charitable Indian businessman – these men were at the bottom of the bottom of the pile. Some had been stuck here for years, far from their wives and families. They could see no possibility of ever getting home.

Once I had caught a glimpse of the world that exists beneath Dubai's shiny surface, it started to become more and more apparent. Where before my eyes had been drawn to the ludicrous buildings looming above me, now I began to notice the huddled forms of men sleeping in car-parks, in empty lots, in the shadows of flyovers, creeping across the lawns of public parks after the sun went down. This is Dubai's silent population, one that the westerners living here train themselves not to notice.

They must also train themselves not to listen, and not to ask awkward questions. Every time I took a taxi, I would ask, fairly innocuously, what the driver thought of Dubai. At first they were normally reticent, or else unconvincingly upbeat, but after a few minutes' conversation they became more candid. All of them told a similar story. None were happy here. The economy was down, wages were bad, they wanted to go home. They worked up to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, and were fined if they turned up for duty unshaved or wearing a creased uniform. They were humiliated daily, bossed about, bullied, treated as inferiors. But, just like the construction workers, there was nothing they could do about it. They had no rights. They were mired in debt. All they could do was keep working.

Amongst these stories of everyday misery were ones of greater darkness. An Indian charity worker broke down and wept as he described the suffering he'd seen: workers crippled for life on construction sites and then left to fend for themselves, or else sent home with compensation so meagre it was simply insulting. In a safehouse run by a foreign embassy, I met a twenty-one year-old housemaid whose employer had repeatedly raped her. She'd eventually escaped and crossed the city barefoot, and was now begging her embassy to give her a flight back home. Unbelievably, she faced arrest herself for committing the migrant's cardinal sin: breaking the terms of her contract by running away.

Stories like this are depressingly common. Exploitation is embedded in the system, and so many housemaids get raped it almost seems part of the job description. These abuses seem to stem from an attitude that regards migrant workers, both male and female, as the employer's personal property. Perhaps it's rooted in slavery, but, although slavery has a long history in this part of the world, it's not confined to the Emiratis; the companies that humiliate their workers, and the employers who rape their housemaids, come from all over the globe, including Europe and America.

So what about the expats, the 'Jumeirah Janes,' whose glamorous lives in the sun depend upon this exploitation? By all rights they should be having a high old time, enjoying their tax-free shopping in the malls, living it up in the bars and nightclubs, on the beaches and world-class golf courses, downing cocktails at the yacht club. I suppose some of them are. They must be, or they wouldn't stay. I visited a British couple in Springs, the gated community near Marina, who seemed to be doing well for themselves: making far more money than they could at home, with a luxury villa and a swimming pool, and sunshine twelve months of the year. The only problem, they complained, was the lack of culture.

But the other young professionals I met – I stayed, for a few nights at a time, with various expats through the CouchSurfing website – seemed to be living rather lonely lives, beneath the luxury. They were only there to make money; when their visas expired, they would leave. The UAE's strict immigration laws make citizenship impossible, and only those in higher income brackets get to bring their families. This isn't a place where people come to start a new life, to lay down roots, to establish a lasting community. Predictably, this results in a total lack of community feeling. Margaret Thatcher would have understood Dubai: there is no such thing as society here. It's reflected in the very design of the city, in which the concept of public space is replaced by that of the mall. People are not citizens, but consumers.

And what of the Emiratis themselves? To be honest, I can't really say. In the six weeks I was there, I never had a conversation with one; I spoke to westerners who'd lived there for years, and got no closer than me. I glimpsed them only occasionally: strangely ethereal-looking beings floating over polished floors, the men in spotlessly white dishdashas and the women clad in black abayas revealing only eyes. Writing this, I realise I am straying back towards the unreal, describing the city's ruling class in literally black and white terms. I can only say that this is how it genuinely felt. In any society, the extremely wealthy have the same untouchable quality, an aura of superiority that keeps them aloof and apart. Aristocrats don't mix with the rabble, or they wouldn't be aristocrats. The Emirati population seem to regard the foreigners in their city as a regrettable, but unavoidable, consequence of wealth; a population to be tolerated – and, as I learned, exploited – rather than befriended or engaged with.

The day before I left Dubai – flying to Kerala in South India to hear the stories of ex-migrant workers on the other side of the Arabian Sea – I booked my elevator ride to the top of the Burj Khalifa. Actually, it wasn't the top, but from the 124th floor, 1,500 feet into the sky, it still felt like looking down from the window of an aeroplane. From this height the city looked like an architect's model. There were the construction sites below, enormous pits containing the foundations of new skyscrapers, though the sweating, blue-boiler-suited workers were invisible from here. There was the grubby sprawl of Satwa, and I wondered on which of those tiny rooftops the men I'd met were sleeping on, and how many more like them might be down there somewhere. There was the haze of the desert beyond, a mess of concrete, pylons, roads, and behind me an area marked on the map as Meydan Godolphin River City (u/c). Straight ahead, off the coast, were scattered the manmade islands of The World, which resembled little more than patches of mould floating in the sea.

I traced the routes of the journeys I'd made, criss-crossing the city by bus, taxi, metro and on foot. I'd seen many sides of it, but couldn't reconcile them in my mind into anything approaching a whole. After all I'd experienced and everyone I'd talked to, Dubai still felt entirely alien to me, just as unreal as before.

But how could this place not feel unreal? A contrived and artificial city, built according to the whims of a billionaire sheikh, devoid of cohesion or community, inhabited by a transient population, the vast majority of which is kept carefully out of sight? Like the grass beside the motorway, the city's residents have no roots. They are only able to exist here with the artificial irrigation of money, and when the money dries up, they will wither away.

And so I return to that first image: a city built on sand. It may be hackneyed, overused, but I can find no better description. This is why it's so hard to write about Dubai, to find a reality independent of what previous commentators have said. It's all there, just as they say it is: the riches and the poverty, the luxury and the slavery, the frenetic growth and the unsustainability, the indulgence and the exploitation. The clichés, the stereotypes, the wild hyperbole: all of it is true.