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Dubai’s Open Secrets Are the World’s Dirty Secrets

April 9, 2009

In reading Johann Hari’s article, The Dark Side of Dubai, it’s important to remember that the place and problems described are not the result of any one culture or nation’s differences but, rather, unfortunately common symptoms of late-phase global capitalism.

outside a Pudong construction siteIt isn’t just that the building-up with sky cranes is an effort to imitate Manhattan and Pudong. In Dubai, the towers are constructed largely by foreign workers who have had their passports taken, are kept in debt-bondage, and who lose any wages they might have been promised when the building companies fail. In Manhattan, some construction is done by undocumented immigrants or immigrants who are not authorized to work. Some are, as the stereotype would have it, from Mexico, but others (the ones I knew when I lived in Brooklyn) are from Poland and Russia. If they’re paid beneath minimum wage or a company fails to pay them at all, what recourse do they have? In the parts of Brooklyn not yet gentrified, these immigrants share small rooms.

The migrants who build the gleaming skyscrapers of Shanghai’s business district are more likely to be internal (though there are international immigrants too), arriving by train from impoverished inland provinces. Often, a child will be left with his or her grandparents so that the parents can both seek work. These migrants have been known to show up to work only to find their worksite padlocked and their wages nowhere to be found.

Hari describes how employers may take their maids’ passports and then control entirely how many hours they work and how much they get payed. This isn’t so different from the way Americans may treat domestic help (it’s passé to call them servants) who do not have legal immigration papers.

The Emiratis and immigrants from Western countries with whom Hari talks for the most part seem indifferent to the suffering of the underclass. Indeed, they appreciate the lifestyle slavery allows them. Is this so different from wearing cheap sweatshop-produced clothes, eating fast food made with ingredients picked by exploited workers, or enjoying chocolate harvested by child slaves?

Finally, in reading the story of Karen, the Canadian reduced to living in a car park, it’s hard not to think of Nickelsville and other similar encampments, even if the precise causes differ. As for whether debtors’ prison is unique, the fact of the matter is that countries like the US simply don’t call it that when they imprison a homeless single mother for failing to pay the cost of her child’s imprisonment.

In Dubai, as in much of the world, luxury and ease depends on the existence of a broad underclass. Globally, women and girls are disproportionately impacted by this poverty.

4 Comments
  1. April 17, 2009 1:05 am

    I’m with you ekswitaj! And I’ve shared similar views in comments on various online articles as well as on my own blog here: http://www.amazingwomenrock.com/myblog/an-open-letter-to-johann-hari-of-the-independent.html

    The post includes some thoughtful comments.

    For an excellent parody of Mr Hari’s article see here: http://blogs.sun.com/christophersaul/entry/yet_another_gulf_bashing_article

  2. April 21, 2009 4:00 am

    No, Susan, you are a hypocrite. You are an apologist for the Dubai dictatorship of the elite.

    • April 21, 2009 9:32 am

      Hmmm. Well, those are harsh words coming from someone who has no idea who I am or what I stand for.

      I don’t know who you are Zeke. And I don’t know why you think you have the right to judge me. But I don’t accept your judgment. I’m not an apologist for anyone.

      I think human rights abuses, and all the rest of the ills that go along with them, are shocking no matter where they occur, whether it’s in Dubai or Denver, Lima or London. Dubai is, overall, no better or worse than anywhere else in the world. That’s the real tragedy.

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