Welcome to paradise. But where are you?
It is the Persian Gulf city-state of Dubai in 2010. After Shanghai (current population: 15 million), Dubai (current population: 1.5 million) is the world’s biggest building site: an emerging dreamworld of conspicuous consumption and what locals dub “supreme lifestyles. Dozens of outlandish mega-projects — including “The World” (an artificial archipelago), Burj Dubai (the Earth’s tallest building), the Hydropolis (that underwater luxury hotel, the Restless Planet theme park, a domed ski resort perpetually maintained in 40C heat, and The Mall of Arabia, a hyper-mall — are actually under construction or will soon leave the drawing boards. Under the enlightened despotism of its Crown Prince and CEO, 59-year-old Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Rhode-Island-sized Emirate of Dubai has become the new global icon of imagineered urbanism. ge. Even more than Singapore or Texas, the city-state really is an apotheosis of neo-liberal values. On the one hand, it provides investors with a comfortable, Western-style, property-rights regime, including freehold ownership, that is unique in the region. Included with the package is a broad tolerance of booze, recreational drugs, halter tops, and other foreign vices formally proscribed by Islamic law. (When expats extol Dubai’s unique “openness,” it is this freedom to carouse — not to organize unions or publish critical opinions — that they are usually praising.) On the other hand, Dubai, together with its emirate neighbors, has achieved the state of the art in the disenfranchisement of labor. Trade unions, strikes, and agitators are illegal, and 99% of the private-sector workforce are easily deportable non-citizens. Indeed, the deep thinkers at the American Enterprise and Cato institutes must salivate when they contemplate the system of classes and entitlements in Dubai. At the top of the social pyramid, of course, are the al-Maktoums and their cousins who own every lucrative grain of sand in the sheikhdom. Next, the native 15% percent of the population — whose uniform of privilege is the traditional white dishdash — constitutes a leisure class whose obedience to the dynasty is subsidized by income transfers, free education, and government jobs. A step below, are the pampered mercenaries: 150,000-or-so British ex-pats, along with other European, Lebanese, and Indian managers and professionals, who take full advantage of their air-conditioned affluence and two-months of overseas leave every summer. However, South Asian contract laborers, legally bound to a single employer and subject to totalitarian social controls, make up the great mass of the population. Dubai lifestyles are attended by vast numbers of Filipina, Sri Lankan, and Indian maids, while the building boom is carried on the shoulders of an army of poorly paid Pakistanis and Indians working twelve-hour shifts, six and half days a week, in the blast-furnace desert heat. Dubai, like its neighbors, flouts ILO labor regulations and refuses to adopt the international Migrant Workers Convention. Human Rights Watch in 2003 accused the Emirates of building prosperity on “forced labor.” Indeed, as the British Independent recently emphasized in an exposé on Dubai, “The labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British.” “Like their impoverished forefathers,” the paper continued, “today’s Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the United Arab Emirates. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them” In addition to being super-exploited, Dubai’s helots are also expected to be generally invisible. The bleak work camps on the city’s outskirts, where laborers are crowded six, eight, even twelve to a room, are not part of the official tourist image of a city of luxury without slums or poverty. In a recent visit, even the United Arab Emirate’s Minister of Labor was reported to be profoundly shocked by the squalid, almost unbearable conditions in a remote work camp maintained by a large construction contractor. Yet when the laborers attempted to form a union to win back pay and improve living conditions, they were promptly arrested.
Paradise, however, has even darker corners than the indentured-labor camps. The Russian girls at the elegant hotel bar are but the glamorous facade of a sinister sex trade built on kidnapping, slavery, and sadistic violence. Dubai — any of the hipper guidebooks will advise — is the “Bangkok of the Middle East,” populated with thousands of Russian, Armenian, Indian, and Iranian prostitutes controlled by various transnational gangs and mafias. (The city, conveniently, is also a world center for money laundering, with an estimated 10% of real estate changing hands in cash-only transactions.) Camel racing is a local passion in the Emirates, and in June 2004, Anti-Slavery International released photos of pre-school-age child jockeys in Dubai. HBO Real Sports simultaneously reported that the jockeys, “some as young as three — are kidnapped or sold into slavery, starved, beaten and raped.” Some of the tiny jockeys were shown at a Dubai camel track owned by the al-Maktoums. The Lexington Herald-Leader — a newspaper in Kentucky, where Sheikh Mo has two large thoroughbred farms — confirmed parts of the HBO story in an interview with a local blacksmith who had worked for the crown prince in Dubai. He reported seeing “little bitty kids” as young as four astride racing camels. Camel trainers claim that the children’s shrieks of terror spur the animals to a faster effort. This is Dubai, the wonderland. This is the modern Sodom and Gomorrah.