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Behind the glitz of Dubai

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Dizzying construction boom relies on migrant labourers who are lured into a life of squalor and exploitation, writes Ghaith Abdul-Ahad.

The sun is setting and its dying rays cast triangles of light on to the bodies of the Indian workers. Two are washing themselves, scooping water from tubs in a small yard next to the labour camp’s toilets. Others queue for their turn. The heat is suffocating and the sandy wind whips our faces. The sprinkles of water from men drying their clothes fall like welcome summer rain.

All around, a city of labour camps stretches out in the middle of the Arabian desert, a jumble of low, concrete barracks, corrugated iron, chicken-mesh walls, barbed wire, scrap metal, rusted machinery and thousands of men with tired and gloomy faces.

I have left Dubai’s spiralling towers, man-made islands and mega-malls behind and driven through the desert to the outskirts of the neighbouring city of Abu Dhabi. Turn right before the Zaha Hadid bridge, and a few hundred metres takes you to the heart of Mousafah, a ghetto-like neighbourhood of camps hidden away from the eyes of tourists. It is one of many areas around the Gulf set aside for an army of labourers building the icons of architecture that are mushrooming all over the region.

Behind the showers, in a yard paved with metal sheets, men stand silently in front of grease-blackened pans, preparing their dinner. A heavy smell of spices and body odour fills the air.

In a neighbouring camp, a group of Pakistani workers from north and south Waziristan sit exhaustedly sipping tea while one of them cooks outside. In the middle of the cramped room in which 10 men sleep, one worker in a filthy robe sits on the floor grinding garlic and onions with a mortar and pestle.

Hamidullah, a thin Afghan from Maydan, a village on the outskirts of Kabul, tells me: “I spent five years in Iran and one year here, and one year here feels like 10 years. When I left Afghanistan I thought I would be back in a few months, but now I don’t know when I will be back.”

Another worker, on a bunk bed next to him, adds: “He called his home yesterday and they told him that three people from his village were killed in fighting. This is why we are here.”

Hamidullah earns about 450 dirhams a month as a construction worker. How is life? I ask. “What life? We have no life here. We are prisoners. We wake up at five, arrive to work at seven and are back at the camp at nine in the evening, day in and day out.”

Outside in the yard another man sits on a chair made of salvaged wood, in front of a broken mirror, a plastic sheet wrapped around his neck, while the camp barber trims his beard. Despite the air of misery, tonight is a night of celebration. One of the men is back from a break in his home village in Pakistan, bringing with him a sack of rice, which he is cooking with meat. Rice is affordable at weekends only: already wretched incomes have been eroded by the weak dollar and rising food prices. “Life is worse now,” one worker told me. “Before, we could get by on 140 dirhams a month; now we need 320 to 350.”

The dozen or so men sit on news­papers advertising luxury watches, cellphones and high-rise towers. When three plastic trays arrive, filled with yellowish rice and tiny cubes of meat, each offers the rare shreds of meat to his neighbours.

All of these men are part of a huge scam that is helping the construction boom in the Gulf. Like hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, they each paid more than £1 000 to employment agents in India and Pakistan. They were promised double the wages they are actually getting, plus plane tickets to visit their families once a year, but none of the men in the room had actually read his contract. Only two of them knew how to read.

“They lied to us,” a worker says. “Some of us sold our land; others took big loans to come and work here.”

Once they arrive in the United Arab Emirates migrant workers are treated little better than cattle, with no access to healthcare or many other basic rights. The company that sponsors them holds on to their passports—and often a month or two of their wages to make sure that they keep working. And for this some will earn just 400 dirhams a month.

A group of construction engineers told me, with no apparent shame, that if a worker becomes too ill to work he will be sent home after a few days. “They are the cheapest commodity here. Steel, concrete, everything is up, but workers are the same.”

Immigrant workers have no right to form unions, but that didn’t stop strikes and riots spreading across the region recently—something unheard of a few years ago. In Mousafah I encounter one of the few illegal unions, where workers have established a form of underground insurance scheme, based on the tribal structure back home. “When we come here,” one member of the scheme tells me, “we register with our tribal elders, and when one of us is injured and is sent home, or dies, the elders collect 30 dirhams from each of us and send the money home to his family.”

In a way, the men at Mousafah are the lucky ones. Down in the Diera quarter of old Dubai, where many of the city’s illegal workers live, 20 men are often crammed into one small room. United Nations agencies estimate that there are up to 300 000 illegal workers in the emirates.

Like the rest of the Gulf region, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are being built by expat workers. They are strictly segregated and a hierarchy worthy of previous centuries prevails.

At the top, floating around in their black or white robes, are the locals, with their oil money. Immaculate and pampered, they own everything. Outside the “free zones”, where the rules are looser, no one can start a business in the UAE without a partner from the emirates, who often does nothing apart from lending his name. No one can get a work permit without a local sponsor.

Under the locals come the Western foreigners, the experts and advisers, making double the salaries they make back home, all tax free. Beneath them are the Arabs—Lebanese and Palestinians, Egyptians and Syrians. What unites these groups is a mixture of pretension and racism.

At the base of the pyramid are the labourers, waiters, hotel employees and unskilled workers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and beyond. They move deferentially around the huge malls, cafés, bars and restaurants, bowing and calling people “sir” and “madam”. These are the victims of the racism that is not only flourishing in the UAE but is increasingly being exported to the rest of the Middle East.

One evening in Abu Dhabi, I have dinner with my friend Ali, a charming Iraqi engineer whom I have known for two decades. “We will never use the new metro if it’s not segregated,” he tells me, referring to the state-of-the-art underground system being built in Dubai. “We will never sit next to Indians and Pakistanis with their smell,” his wife explains.

Not for the first time, I am told that while the immigrant workers are living in appalling conditions, they would be even worse off back home—as if poverty in one place can justify exploitation in the other. “We need slaves,” my friend says. “We need slaves to build monuments. Look who built the pyramids—they were slaves.”

Sharla Musabih, a human rights campaigner who runs the City of Hope shelter for abused women, is familiar with such sentiments. “Once you get rich on the back of the poor, it’s not easy to let go of that lifestyle.

“They are devaluing human beings,” she says. “The workers might eat once a day back home, but they have their family­ around them, they have respect.”

Back at the Mousafah camps, a Pakistani worker walks me through his neighbourhood. On both sides of the dusty lane stand concrete barracks and the familiar detritus: raw sewage, garbage, scrap metal. We enter a room, flip-flops piled by the door. Inside, a steelworker gets a pile of papers from an envelope and shoves them into my lap. He is suing the company that employed him for unpaid wages.

“I’ve been going to court for three months, and every time I go they tell me to come in two weeks.” His friends nod their heads. “Last time the [company] lawyer told me, ‘I am in the law here—you will not get anything.’”

“Economically, Dubai has progressed a lot in the past 10 years, but socially it has stayed behind,” says Musabih. “Labour conditions are like the United States in the 19th century—but that’s not acceptable in the 21st century.”—

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