Dubai Inc. – Confronting the Truths (Part III) …


“Dubai Media City, please.” I say to the cab driver as the 2007 Toyota Camry drives down Jumeriah Beach Residence (JBR). JBR is in the heart and soul of the Dubai boom. The two dozen or so projects here include some of the most advanced architecture and design in the world.


I ask the cab driver, “how is your day?” Being alone in a big city has forced me to go extra out of my comfort zone in order to share a few words with someone I will only meet once. Today the conversation ends after, “Fine sir.” I know the Pakistani cab driver’s English is limited. Like many, the cab drivers in Dubai are from Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad, and other major cities and villages from Pakistan. On one particular day I remember being picked up from Medinat Jumeriah, a fancy getaway that is swamped with tourists from Europe and Russia. The cab driver introduces himself as Ahmed (for the purpose of confidentiality all names have been changed).

Again, I begin my conversation on the drive back to my apartment, “how is your day?” This time the conversation seems to be manageable.

“It has been a long day sir.”

Ahmed begins to tell me that the police came by and gave every cab driver a ticket for cueing for customers at the resort.

“The police said it was illegal to queue  and that I have been penalized.”

This will come from his paycheck along with the other cab drivers. The cab system is very unique to Dubai, from my experience. The government owns everything in Dubai. From cabs, to telecommunications, construction, gasoline, health insurance,  and even the major airline company.

Ahmed tells me the story of the way he is treated as a cab driver. Once when he wore sunglasses and a policeman asked him if he was Arab because he “was not allowed to wear sunglasses.”  This level of harassment exists, but this story is only unique to Ahmed. This type of treatment certainly diverges from Dubai’s Code of Conduct.


Human Rights Watch has written an extensive report on the exploitation of migrant workers, especially construction workers, in the UAE. This issue should not be taken lightly. What I saw, millions have seen, and few are writing about. Notably Johann Hari who says, “There are three different Dubais, all swirling around each other. There are the expats, like Karen; there are the Emiratis, headed by Sheikh Mohammed; and then there is the foreign underclass who built the city…” Stories that he writes about are nonetheless echoed by many of those workers who I had an opportunity to speak with as well. Stories such as workers who have their passport taken away from them and must begin work immediately upon arrival. The population is tightly controlled where individuals only have up to one month after losing their job to leave the country. Yet recently, this has been extended up to six months according to the Minister of Labour.

Rules are also strict. If you ask for a day off, as repeated by some cab drivers, the employer will ask, “Why, as if you have something better to do?” The idea is if you are not here to work then leave. This type of treatment or mentality does not get any better with the recent video of a member of the royal family torturing a man, shoving sand into a mans mouth and beating him with a wooden beam that has a nail protruding from it. At this point, I stop and take a deep breath.  I can only imagine the atrocities that have occurred over the past decade from prisoners in Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo.


In my building there was a Nepalese man named Gupal. He shares his story with me. He makes 900 AED (1 USD = 3.67 AED) per month. Yet, 300 AED go for rent, 100 AED for phone bills, and 500 is sent back to his family. I look at him with a smile, “What about food?” I know this could be a simple answer. Maybe he just sends a little less in order to eat, but he gives me a look and shakes his head from left to right.

Of course he doesn’t starve himself, but to my  Bangladeshi comrade, who I had an opportunity to befriend over the past few weeks explains, “We have to budget.” My Nepalese friend works 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. At night he shares a room with 3 other guys. Some share a bedroom with 6, 7, or even 8 other people. These are the things that must be fixed in the country and standards must be increased for migrant workers by the government. Rules and regulations must be enforced so companies are not taking advantage of uneducated and unskilled workers.


Dubai is a city that is being flooded by immigrants on work visas. Some stay for a couple years, and return to their country and some stay much longer. The majority of construction workers are from the Indian sub-continent. Cab drivers are Pakistani, restaurant workers and hotel workers are Filipino, and smaller Asian countries such as Bangladeshis and Nepalese men fill the countless other gaps in the working society of Dubai.

The stories shared all have distinct experiences and are unified by one thing: to make more money in order to send it back home to their wives and children. The difficult thing to comprehend, however, is that many of these workers actually pay agencies money to come work in Dubai. Agencies charge unskilled workers 5000-10,000 AED for visas, transportation, and other additional costs that should be assumed as expense for a company rather than placing the burden on the shoulders of migrant workers. Only upon arrival and work do people begin to realize that they will make their money back very slowly


During the economy boom, Ahmed the cab driver told me that on a good day during the peak of Dubai he was making 5000 AED a month, plus government health insurance. Now, with Dubai’s slowing economic boom, he says about 3000 a month. Yet, it goes down from here. With no minimum wage in the UAE, Construction workers make about 600 AED a month, and the man who cleans the bathrooms, gets about 1.50 AED an hour. I can hear the construction workers way before I even get out of bed. I decided to see one day what time work actually begins for many of the Indian expatriates.


The busses of workers begin to roll into the construction sites early in the morning between 5-6 am and work goes long into the night where workers can be on site for 12-14 hours, if not more.



The city has attracted world-class talent and has become the financial and tourist capital of the Middle East as it serves as a hub for Asia, the Gulf, Africa and Europe. As Dubai continues to attract world-class institutions and companies, i.e. Harvard Medical School Dubai , the city will to remain a punching bag for writers from major large established cities. The hands of immigrant workers who were looking for a better opportunity than their home country could have built cities such as New York and Chicago. And what about the Indonesian and Filipino immigrant workers who protest in massive cities such as Hong Kong?

My recommendations repeat what many reports have suggested in that there be accountability on the part of the UAE government as well as companies that are hiring foreign workers to provide the best quality of living possible. There also needs to be strict enforcement of labor laws as well as prohibition of certain companies from working with agencies. In the same way we hold companies accountable for providing the highest standards possible for their employees in developing countries, we must to do in the same in Dubai.

As I fold my cloths, pack my bags and walk out of my 42-story building to hail down a cab for the airport, I take one last look at a city that will surely be different when I come back later on. I stand with my suitcase on the street and know that in economic slow down, I am like a fish surrounded by cab sharks since a trip to the airport will be worth a lot. A cab pulls up and he pops the trunk for me, I throw my bags into it and sit into the back seat. The cab driver turns and I quickly recognize Ahmed when I say, “Airport please.”

| if I knew all the words I would write myself out of here. |

The Confusion of Dubai (Part I)…


It has been more than 72 hours since I have landed in what I have come to call this city as DubaiLand. Construction is non-stop and it can be seen clearly that Arab wealth, European design, and Indian hands have built this city. The city does not sleep and as of tonight I have accepted that it will be impossible for me to see everything in this city. There is no downtown. Originally everything was near the airport, then as things began to expand and the government came to understand the true value of this precious city tucked away in the Persian Gulf, the city began to develop in all directions.

Anything you want to do, you can do. It can be expensive or it can be cheap. It can be slow or it can be fast. Walking is unheard of, as today I saw my first and only lone bicyclist. Crime is not visible, well there just is little to no crime and I have only seen one police car here.

From the minute I stepped into the first cab, I began to understand more about this Emirate that I have always read so much about. As I left the airport, I began to chat with my taxi driver- a middle aged Pakistani man who is telling me the impact of the global economy on Dubai. He tells me that as a cab driver he is a government employee yet works on commission. Six months ago it would have taken 1-2 hours to get to the Jumeriah Beach Residence because of all the traffic. Today, it took only 30 minutes. He explains to me that buildings were being built faster than they could make room for new ones. Construction was 24/7. Work would begin and a single shift would be 8 hours, then a bus would pick up the Indian construction workers, to clear the way for a new shift to begin. All the tourist websites explained how difficult it is to get a cab at a mall because it is always packed, today cabs wait outside the mall for shoppers. Things have slowed down but I don’t think it will dramatically alter Dubai unless the global economy continues in this state for another half decade.


(Jumeriah Beach Residence)


Quick history- after the Sheikh realized the prosperity that was being gained from all the continued demand of construction and development two government companies were created but run independently as private businesses. (Apparently everything created here by the government comes in pairs in order to create competition).  One was Nakheel (Palm Jebel Ali, Palm Jumeriah, Ibn Battuta Mall, Dubai World) and the other was Emaar (Burj Dubai, the Lakes, the Greens). Now these two development companies are going around the world and flexing their skills. The UAE has become so influential that is holds major shares in almost anything and everything: Securing rice fields in Thailand, major share holder in Ferarri, 75% of the Chrysler Building in NYC, MGM, and even investing in UK Soccor.


Dubai is the first Muslim country I have ever stayed in, I find it quite interesting and it  (from what I understand) is one of the most liberal of the Gulf countries. The amount of wealth that is in Dubai is beyond many places in this world. There is a unique ambiance in which class matters, what you drive is who you are and you should be prepared to spend your money. There is old money and there are the new kids on the block who work endless hours to break into a new social class. However, all of this is done in a very subtle and elegant way. There is a level of respect, Sir and Madaam are commonly used, and women are treated with respect. However this city is not as foreign as I felt it would have been. It possesses Newport Beach’s cars and lifestyle, Las Vegas’ money, and New York City’s business.


There are however boundaries from what I have seen and read. No one criticizes the government or Islam, if women are showing too much skin in magazines they are blocked off and aside form the media, the Internet is also controlled. I cannot use Skype unless it is Skype to Skype.

Tonight I walked to the Marina Mall. With the amount of construction surrounding me, I was so surprised to not even find a coke can or piece of paper on the ground. When I walked into the massive mall, the first thing I thought to my self is how am I going to walk on these floors, there is no dirt on it for my shoes to stick to- the floors were polished clean and I couldn’t walk straight without slipping. As I walked the streets of Jumeriah Beach, I quickly realized how eclectic this city is and how I only have seen such a limited perspective of what Dubai really is.


I hope to explore this city and further understand the hands that run the city to the hands that have built the city.

| if I knew all the words I would write myself out of here. |