It’s been a long week in Dubai, and rarely have I disliked a place this much. It is impressive, there is no doubt about it. In the last five years they have built a hundred skyscrapers, each fifty floors tall. One of them, the Burj Khalifa, is the tallest building in the world. Everything here is a superlative – Dubai has the largest mall, the biggest aquarium with the most species, the oddest-shaped man-made islands, and more high-end sports cars than a teenage boy can fantasize about. In fact, Dubai has everything. The people who live here insist on pointing out that anything is available, all the time, and that the things you can buy in New York or Paris are available here, too… around the clock!
But is completely meaningless. Dubai is an orgy of consumption, with no production other than banking products tailored for converting Arab oil revenue in leveragable assets, and real estate projects that need to be syndicated to hapless fund managers and small time investors. More than any other place in the world, people seem to define themselves by what they buy, because there is virtually nothing else to do.
There isn’t a single sidewalk. It is virtually impossible to get from one area to the next without taking a car. “Knowledge Village” may be next to “Internet City” but you can’t walk from one to the other without taking your life into your hands amongst untrained drivers in high-powered vehicles. When you get there, be it the Jumeirah Beach Resort walk, the Marina bay, or the Financial District, you can spend time in architecturally wonderful plazas. But to me they are unbearable, because the giant air conditioning intake vents and heat exchangers are built at ground level, and there is a constant loud din that builds up a tension in your mind and body. You don’t become aware of the noise until you step inside and suddenly experience silence.
The building boom continues, and Dubai seems too big to fail. The projects will continued to be financed, and there is a tacit agreement to keep the Emirate humming because the investment banks and other service providers have too much at stake to let the place go. There is an inevitability to it. Everyone assumes the oil will run out sooner or later, and they will disengage just in time… let’s just not rock the boat while fees can still be generated.
Dubai is built on the backs of foreigners, and there are clear tiers of importance. There are the Gulf Arabs of course, who are the only ones allowed to own anything. They walk with a swagger through crowded malls, and drive in a seemingly constant state of road rage. Next are the Expats from Europe and the United States who enjoy the tax free environment, career opportunities, and cheap staff. Right behind them come the economic and intellectual refugees from the failing Arab countries – the Lebanese, the Syrians, and wherever else incompetent dictators or violent Fundamentalists make like intolerable. There are smiling subservient Philippinos and Indians who have jobs in the service sector and cater to the Expats in clubs, restaurants, and around the offices. And then there are the Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and Africans who do the manual labor, without any social net. Construction continues 24 hours a day, and the thermometer only goes to 49 degrees Celsius (120 F) because above that no one has to work… officially. But God forbid they break a leg or slip a disk, there is no quality health care, or paid time off.
Dubai encourages businesses to hire people from other poor countries to come here and work. They have them sign contracts that are a decade long and then take their passports. Even though taking passports is officially illegal, the government knows it happens and does nothing to enforce the law. These poor people are promised a certain pay, but the companies neglect to tell them they will be deducting their cost of living from their paychecks, leaving them virtually penniless – that is, if they choose to pay them. Companies hold back paychecks for months at a time. When the workers strike as a result, they are jailed. Protesting is illegal, but apparently this is one law that is actually enforced.
These people will never make enough to buy a ticket home and even if they do, they do not have their passports. They live crammed in portables with many others, in highly unsanitary conditions. The kicker: they are building hotels that cost more to stay in for one night than they will make in an entire year. Things are so bad that a number of laborers are willing to throw themselves in front of cars because their death would bring their family affluence in the form of diya, blood money paid to the victim’s family as mandated by the government.
The laws are applied unevenly, and several people who live here have told me there is no point in contesting anything if an Arab is involved. If there’s a fender bender in traffic, guess who’s fault it is? And a Bangladeshi’s life is cheaper in a car accident than a camel. The replacement cost of the camel is higher than the money you’d have to pay to the dead man’s family… if he has one that can be located back in his country.
If this place disappeared tomorrow, and everyone simply had to walk home, there would a be a big collective shrug. This place has no soul, and very few would truly mourn its disappearance. But in the mean time it remains the Victoria Falls of the oily River Nile, a breath-taking stop close to the source of all the petroleum wealth, and everyone who can get a piece will participate. But we’ve seen the bankers and the accountants, and most don’t know when the bubble is over. They won’t get out in time, and let’s just hope they don’t pull us down with them.