Working in the Shadows of the World’s Biggest Boomtown

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

‘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.

Go there >>
Sun, Sand and Slavery

Go there, too >>
A Dearth of Politics in Booming Dubai

Related Links:

Related Links from the Utne Reader

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to
Utne Reader

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.