Working in the Shadows of the World's Biggest Boomtown

Dubai's massive tourism industry is being built on the backs of exploited migrant workers


| May 31, 2007


Capitalism is thriving in Dubai, the small emirate where the world is literally being constructed and sold off -- or at least artificial islands that make up a map of the world are. That seemingly fantastical venture is one of many ambitious building projects in Dubai, which include the world's largest theme park (Dubailand), a mall to rival the world's largest, and several buildings that will vie for the title of world's tallest. In The Final Call, author Leo Hickman investigates this wonderland for the world's wealthiest and finds on its outskirts an exploited workforce that's constructing and serving the desert oasis.

'Nowhere else on Earth… is anything being built on this scale,' writes Hickman in an excerpt from the book, published by the Guardian. After visiting Dubai's Burj al-Arab -- what is believed to be the world's most expensive hotel -- Hickman travels off the beaten tourist path to Dubai's largest labor camp, Sonapur, which in Hindi means 'city of gold.' Upon entering the settlement of 150,000 male laborers (some claim as many as 500,000 reside there), the misnomer is apparent to Hickman, who writes that the residents of the so-called 'town' are housed in rows of concrete walls, some enclosed by barbed wire, others by metal gates. The conditions, he writes, are those of 'wage-slaves scratching out a pitiful living' while the country's elites benefit handsomely from the tourism boom.

The dynasty leaders rule the emirate like corporate executives of Dubai Inc., writes Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post. Dubai is now the Middle East's economic capital, he writes, drawing in the region's oil wealth, tourism business, and thousands of migrant workers. Earning essentially subsistence wages, migrants send much of their earnings home to support their families, while their own living conditions are ignored by a society with little to no social services.

A small contingent of activists, however, are campaigning for workers' rights and forcing political issues on a country that prides itself on having no politics. Seher Mir, an activist from Dubai's only women's shelter, tells Shadid that '[t]here's absolutely no civil society here. There are no (nongovernmental organizations) here, people don't understand what human rights are.' The government's lack of experience in dealing with a large and diverse poor working class, Mir's supervisor says, has lead to an uphill battle for advocates trying to win rights for workers, who find little recourse to challenge dangerous work conditions, lack of pay, and threats of deportation.

Shadid also quotes Mohammed al-Roken, one of Dubai's most prominent human rights activists, who says that he is more unsettled by the cultural alienation felt by natives in Dubai, who, given the influx of wealthy foreigners and migrant workers, now comprise a minority in their own land. In al-Roken's opinion, the new developments are instilling in Dubai a foreign culture of flagrant excesses. He warns, 'If we keep ourselves passive, the identity, the culture will fade away very quickly.' Already the luxury hotels and replicas of the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower are casting tall shadows over the labor camps of Dubai's outskirts.

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