The Dark Side of Dubai

(Image: "Dubai Metropolis," The Business Bay Executive Towers in Dubai. From the CC-licensed Flickr stream of "twocentsworth." )

An incredible piece by Johann Hari in the UK Independent about hard times hitting in the Arab city-state "built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery." A long read, but you won't want to miss a word. Toward the end of the piece, Hari boils his impression of the place down to these six words: "Market Fundamentalist Globalisation in One City."

The feature starts with a vignette about an expat named Karen Andrews, who now lives in her Range Rover, camped in the parking lot of one of Dubai's finest hotels. Her troubles began when her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor, lost his job, and the couple quickly slipped into debt. Snip:

One doctor told him he had a year to live; another said it was benign and he'd be okay. But the debts were growing. "Before I came here, I didn't know anything about Dubai law. I assumed if all these big companies come here, it must be pretty like Canada's or any other liberal democracy's," she says. Nobody told her there is no concept of bankruptcy. If you get into debt and you can't pay, you go to prison. "When we realised that, I sat Daniel down and told him: listen, we need to get out of here. He knew he was guaranteed a pay-off when he resigned, so we said – right, let's take the pay-off, clear the debt, and go." So Daniel resigned – but he was given a lower pay-off than his contract suggested. The debt remained. As soon as you quit your job in Dubai, your employer has to inform your bank. If you have any outstanding debts that aren't covered by your savings, then all your accounts are frozen, and you are forbidden to leave the country.

"Suddenly our cards stopped working. We had nothing. We were thrown out of our apartment." Karen can't speak about what happened next for a long time; she is shaking.

Daniel was arrested and taken away on the day of their eviction. It was six days before she could talk to him. "He told me he was put in a cell with another debtor, a Sri Lankan guy who was only 27, who said he couldn't face the shame to his family. Daniel woke up and the boy had swallowed razor-blades. He banged for help, but nobody came, and the boy died in front of him."

Karen managed to beg from her friends for a few weeks, "but it was so humiliating. I've never lived like this. I worked in the fashion industry. I had my own shops. I've never..." She peters out.

Daniel was sentenced to six months' imprisonment at a trial he couldn't understand. It was in Arabic, and there was no translation. "Now I'm here illegally, too," Karen says I've got no money, nothing. I have to last nine months until he's out, somehow." Looking away, almost paralysed with embarrassment, she asks if I could buy her a meal.

She is not alone. All over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars.

"The thing you have to understand about Dubai is – nothing is what it seems," Karen says at last. "Nothing. This isn't a city, it's a con-job. They lure you in telling you it's one thing – a modern kind of place – but beneath the surface it's a medieval dictatorship."

The dark side of Dubai (via monochrom/@Johnannes)


  1. Halliburton moved its corporate headquarters to Dubai.

    Maybe we should make them stay there.

  2. The article looks fascinating, and matches my feelings about this nasty explosion of flashy money and hubris, but if I may dive off topic…

    Go to the article, and then choose the ‘print article’ link, and look at the various printing options. I think The Independent is run by optimists. Desperate optimists.

  3. I found this through stumbleupon a few days back, and it’s an amazing read, though the exact degree of bias is difficult to pin down. I expect it is close to accurate, which is a shame.

    The end of the article seems to focus on how easy it would be to completely trash the economy of Dubai by going into great detail into engineering weaknesses. It’s like a big “PUT THE BOMB HERE” sign. As terrible as that would be, and as much as I hope the situation improves peacefully, I don’t see anyone powerful over there wising up without a massive disaster completely crippling dubai, and even then it’d likely get worse before it gets better in terms of personal freedoms.

    I like the fact that the entire nation seems to be afraid of radical Islamists, but none of them are actually doing anything to educate the countries around them.

  4. How do you think a place like this gets built in the 3rd World? By robots? By legal workers represented by powerful European or American labor unions? Slave labor built the pyramids. Slave labor powered the entire world for most of the past four thousand years, and today is responsible for almost every stitch of clothing you wear on your backs. Do you think the wage-slaves in every Hong Kong factory have it any better than these poor chumps? Just because Western democracies no longer directly employ slave labor, what kind of labor do you think builds your iPods and knits your rugs?

    Dubai is an American Western boom-town being built entirely *on credit*. I used to think it was going to be like…Idaknow, SingularityLand or something when I first heard of it–but once I realized it was little more than a folly being built to look impressive but ultimately useless, I wrote it off.

    However, in another twenty years, it’s going to look entirely post-apocalyptic…sand blowing in the ruins of half-built buildings, cellars full of rotting bones, feral children hunting each other in the wreckage. The SMART investors will wait until Dubai is almost completely abandoned to buy up the city and open ApocalypseLand….Oh, and there will still be slave labor in Dubai even then.

  5. I know a few people lured over there by the promise of wealth and quickly-rich promises.

    I feel sorry for most of them, as they are getting totally screwed.

    But as Derek above me points out – how do you think it came to be? The woman in the article shows a monumental of naivity in her assumptions – which doesn’t make her or her husbands’ plight any less heartbreaking. But you what has happened to them really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, and shows a certain lack of foresight.

    But that can describe a huge chunk of the worlds’ “western” population right now: Dumbfounded by the obviously unavoidable collapse not being avoided.

  6. Funny thing is that anybody who knew anything about human rights and the middle east has been saying this for a long time.

    Of course, when white people could get rich off of the slavery of Pakistanis, when celebrities could buy luxury resorts shaped like palm trees, nobody gave a damn and the place was held up as some sort of paradise.

    It’s only when things turned bad for the rich white expats that the international press woke up to the horrifying lack of human rights.

    Hey, human rights aren’t such an abstract concept now, are they?

  7. I am glad people are starting to open their eyes. There is a temptation to look at these “rich assholes” who thought that Dubai was their ticket to some byzantine playworld, and think “ha ha” nelson muncz styly. It is amazing that no one seemed to think this was an house of cards whilst it was being built… clearly this was a pyramid scheme par excellence. I really never understood why people wanted to travel to some over-gilt, horror vacui, man-made , trashy paradise.

  8. Wow. Some of the comments made by the expats interviewed about the slave class are absolutely appalling. I’m actually shocked.

    I mean, I knew it was a deprived place, but these people are all f#@king sick, Westerners and Emiratis alike. They are pure evil.

  9. I’m only comforted in the fact that in a very short period of time, the stain of that place will be wiped off the face of the Earth, and no one will have ever known it was there.

    Dubai is the kinda exclamation point at the end of idealistic capitalism (that is, capitalism based on the idea of infinite, permanent growth for growth’s sake).

  10. Any town that snazzy looking has to have vice in order for it to gain flavor, be real, or have anything real going on. If you live in the U.A.E., from what I’ve heard, if you need your vice, you’re kinda S.O.L.

    City destined to fail. Econopocalypolis is a perfect word for it.

  11. The world might be a better place if we all learned some lessons from basic physics: everything has to come from somewhere, you never get something for nothing, and nothing is infinite. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction: if somebody is making wealth from nothing, a lot of people elsewhere are likely getting screwed.

  12. “I assumed if all these big companies come here, it must be pretty like Canada’s or any other liberal democracy’s,” she says.”

    Should we call this one the Cosmopolitan Fallacy?
    All people are not alike, and so the states they make are not alike. You cannot be a citizen of the world.

  13. Let this serve as a lesson to all of the ex-patriots out there: take the time to learn the laws of your host country.

  14. I did my MA in Arab history and was the recipient of some funds from endowments out of Dubai, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. After graduation I was able to visit all three countries in 2004.

    While I’ll always have a deep fascination with the history of the region, I was just gob-smacked by the excesses and disparities I saw in my time in Dubai. Even on our very carefully minded tour I couldn’t help but see the foriegn workers treatment was often appalling. Westerners make great hay, as they should, about the treatment of women, but I saw male manual laborers treated as little more than chattel slaves.

    It’s a culture that was, at the time, so wealthy it could spend itself to death. Their oil is running out and there was this fantasy they could somehow become the “Las Vegas of the Middle East”. I heard that term about a thousand times while I was there. It was half hope, half prayer.

    Even the “white-collar” expats were in a precarious spot. The laws are Sharia and most of the companies that bring in highly skilled tech people only give them a cursory introduction. Coming from a democracy to Dubai is the very definition of a culture shock.

    I wish the story in the telegraph shocked me. It really doesn’t.

  15. Laid-Off Foreigners Flee as Dubai Spirals Down

    Sofia, a 34-year-old Frenchwoman, moved here a year ago to take a job in advertising, so confident about Dubai’s fast-growing economy that she bought an apartment for almost $300,000 with a 15-year mortgage.

    An abandoned car in a parking garage in Dubai. One report said 3,000 cars were sitting abandoned at the Dubai Airport.

    Now, like many of the foreign workers who make up 90 percent of the population here, she has been laid off and faces the prospect of being forced to leave this Persian Gulf city — or worse.

    “I’m really scared of what could happen, because I bought property here,” said Sofia, who asked that her last name be withheld because she is still hunting for a new job. “If I can’t pay it off, I was told I could end up in debtors’ prison.”

  16. I’d say calling them market fundamentalists is a bit unfair, given that they’re determined to avoid a free market for labour, among other things. Old-fashioned oligarchy is closer to the truth.

  17. Slavery and free markets are mutually exclusive. If Dubai depends (or depended) on slavery, it’s not ‘market fundamentalist globalization’ in any useful sense of those words.

  18. Wow, that really was the best piece I’ve read on Dubai. I wish more countries with enslaved workers were doing more to free their citizens.

    I think the least that we as Westerners can do is to press our governments to investigate expats from our own countries to see if they have committed any human rights crimes in their treatment of their personal workers (maids, etc.) during their time in Dubai. Such expats might want to pretend that what they do in Dubai stays in Dubai and behave like petty Rajahs, but hopefully now we won’t let them get away with it.

  19. In the comments section of that article, so many of the responses by Dubai apologists started with: now, Dubai isn’t perfect, but… or Dubai has its problems, but…

    Just about all such responses then went on to say that the problem’s not bad, and the mistreated slaves are exceptions, and in any case they should stop whining.

    Can we make some kinds of internet rule, like “X is not perfect, but…” will always be assumed to be the beginning of a disingenuous response.

  20. How long before Sheikh Mohammed makes his exit with as many billions as he can get away with?

  21. he can’t. The neighbouring emirates have lent the initial bailouts and will insist on handsome vigorish. One way or another.

  22. Damn. That’s a heck of an article. It says a lot that this is the model our own ruling class aspires to, doesn’t it?

  23. @Noahpoah

    The joke is that actually, there are no “really truly free markets.” They’re all based on unwilling workers who can’t escape, to one extent or another.

  24. I assumed if all these big companies come here, it must be pretty like Canada’s or any other liberal democracy’s,” she says

    Oh, wow. That’s impressively naive.

  25. I’m glad I saw that this is an opinion piece, because as I read it, it felt so lacking in substance. Nearly every quote ends with an exclamation point? “I love my army of maids and the sun and the beach!! I’m saying perfectly vapid things for your scathing piece!! Yay!!”

  26. Too bad their plan – to grab the big pay-out and leave the folks they owed hanging in the wind – didn’t work. Maybe next time.

  27. @Derek: “Slave labor built the pyramids.”

    That’s not correct. As far as we know today the pyramids were not built by slave labour, but simply by the citizens of Egypt who didn’t really have much to do outside of the harvest seasons and were glad to make money by building something for their ruler and god.

  28. It’s pretty interesting, how every article on Dubai becomes a gloat-fest about how an eyesore is finally going to get its comeuppance.

    Here’s the thing. Like it or not, Dubai is one of the most liberal places in Middle East. You’ve got Christian churches and Hindu temples out in the street. Ask any non-Muslim in the Middle East where he’d like to live, and most of the time you’ll hear Dubai or Sharjah.

    Now, worker treatment: I have no doubt that some companies exploit workers in Dubai. I also know, from personal experience speaking with labourers, that this doesn’t happen to all. Many do go to Dubai, earn money, visit their homelands once a year, and *return* of their own free will. It isn’t that hard to verify: sit with the returning labourers on any outbound flight from Dubai to any of India’s smaller airports, or to Pakistan, or Bangladesh. And talk to them.

    Johann Hari is probably right when he says workers are mistreated more than is reported in official figures. However the departure (and arrival) lines at Dubai airport give the lie to it being ‘endemic’.

    Here’s the rub: The Middle East has a surfeit of young men. Those men need productive employment and the promise of a better life. Like it or not, the guy in the article who said “Dubai’s main export isn’t oil, it’s hope” was totally spot on. It’s not perfect (I’d rather have a liberal awakening in the Middle-east followed by a free-market Middle-east, but I’ll take a free-market Middle-east knowing that given enough prosperity some liberal awakening is bound to follow.)

  29. “I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains: round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

  30. I really think that people dislike what Dubai represents, rather than what the city is like in reality.

    And people who are rubbing their hands together with glee without having actually visited Dubai itself should really consider whether they have anything valuable to say about the issue at all.

    I’ve posted a short rebuttal to this article, and articles of this type over on my blog:

  31. @MOJAVE #7: “Insert worlds smallest violin here.

    Boo-freakin’hoo lady.”

    I would like to know what part of my brain makes me enjoy your comment so much. You’re basically saying the same thing as #8, but in a completely disarming, polemic and destructive manner. That I really like. But probably shouldn’t.

    I guess it just doesn’t add any value at all to kick a (sadly) dead horse like you did, doesn’t say anything else but “told ya!”. It seems to be the only purely sensible position one could assume to her misery. It certainly doesn’t help, but is brutally correct.

    Evolution really is a mixed calculation.

  32. This article, more than anything else I have ever read, makes me disgusted and ashamed to be alive.

    To think this is humanity, at it’s worst. Maybe not, it could be worse. That’s what frightens me.

    I hope against all hope, the record of Dubai in the history of the world is never forgotten, to show mankind what must never be repeated- that city is a living Pandora’s Box, full of, for lack of a less religious-sounding term, evil, and the sooner it burns into the sand, with it’s bastard rulers, the better.

    I want to die after reading this. I’m amazed anyone could have the will to keep living upon seeing such injustice in the world.

  33. Hey all you enlightened Libertarians – welcome to the end game for your beloved “free market.”

  34. any shocked at this should read labor history in their own countries. You may be surprised to know how high and how fast you have risen. And can fall again for that matter.

  35. Interest (a sum paid or charged for the use of money or for borrowing money) is illegal in Islam. Now they (the government of the UAE) are locking up anyone and everyone who is unable to pay their interest based loans (i.e., credit cards, loans, etc). Religious hypocrisy?

  36. @ #36,

    Forgive me if it seems like a personal attack, but if you RTFA, you’d know Libertarian ideals don’t enter the equation here ANYWHERE. Dubai was built on a fascist ideal more than anything- here meaning the government “rulers” practically own every corporation/facet of life there. Free-market capitalism mixes in there to a large degree, but a lot smacks of blunt fascism- look at the levels of gov. control over corps and every facet of everyday life.

    Libertarians had NOTHING to do with this shithole, excuse me.

    This is a bastard child of oil wealth, avrice, and cloaked fascism. Get your terminology right, please, and leave Libertarians out of this.

  37. Why would anyone think that anywhere in the Middle East would have similar laws to a liberal democracy?

    The Arab states are poisonous shit holes. We just usually meet the rich kids who have it easy.

  38. Having lived in the Middle East for 15 years, I can safely say that Kuwait City, Dubai and many of the richer Arab cities are nothing but Disneyland with the death penalty, as William Gibson dubbed Singapore. Modern on the outside, medieval inside.

    It’s not all bad, though. Muslims don’t believe in income tax, promote tithing and you don’t get stuck in insurance hell after a health problem or a car accident. If you’re at fault, you pay damages and no lawyer will come chasing after ambulances. If you’re sick, you go to the hospital and pay on treatment of your illness and no doctor will tell you it’s a pre-existing condition, you’re SOL.

    So, this – “Nobody told her there is no concept of bankruptcy. If you get into debt and you can’t pay, you go to prison” – smacks of ignorance and western hubris on Ms. Andrews’s part. What got us into our GECSTD (Greatest Economic Crisis Since The Depression) is living on Other People’s Money and expecting other countries to do the same is just silly.

    #31 “I’ll take a free-market Middle-east knowing that given enough prosperity some liberal awakening is bound to follow.”

    Not necessarily. Kuwait has been a free-market nation since the mid-1950s and even after having its socks knocked off by Iraq in 1990 and being saved at the last minute by the US, a liberal awakening is something that that oligarchy will neither imagine nor allow. Especially not as long as the west needs and fuels that undemocratic, unregulated free market.

  39. I agree with the beginning of #5, that it’s really hard to tell where the facts end and the bias begins. I imagine that it’s fairly accurate, if completely one-sided, so it’s a shame.
    But when the writer uses the same disgust to describe the decor of Pizza Hut that he uses to describe the British lady who thinks that slavery is awesome, it dilutes his message.

  40. All of this terrible underbelly aside, I’m still incredibly tempted to visit Dubai because of my fascination with skyscrapers. They HAVE built the tallest man-made structure of any kind ever. Which is a shame how they went about it, but I’d sure as hell still like to see it.

  41. What the world needs now, is some common sense atheism. Toss out all the old theologies, get rid of the voodoo economies and get smart.

  42. I left the desert sands in 1982

    We knew then that the whole place was matched to its calender date of 1402
    and nothing has changed -just some high-tech machinery.

    Its about time these get rich people read some recent history.
    There are no human or legal rights, unless you are a citizen of that country, but that varies depending on who your allies are.

    This applies to all the Gulf and Saudi kingdoms.
    There ain’t nothing new under the sun.

  43. I’m intrigued by the apologetics going around for Dubai (see Sandman84’s link at #34, as well as this article).

    I have a feeling we’d have been hearing similar kinds of comments from white South Africans if the blogosphere had existed back in the Apartheid years. The two situations are remarkably similar.

  44. So, this is the kind of lifestyle we could all achieve with automated labor? We cannot tolerate this for people, in no way. The article made me cry, all those blind fuckers abusing people to feel good. Paying them next to nothing while they get fat.
    Bring on the robots, I say.

    However, I think, are bastards like the exploiters in the article entitle to a labor free life? It would be so unfair.

  45. #7 posted by Mojave:

    Insert worlds smallest violin here.

    Boo-freakin’hoo lady.

    I certainly wouldn’t have made the same decisions as this woman myself, but she’s homeless and bankrupt in a hostile country while her husband is in prison with a brain tumor, for Pete’s sake. She may have been a little naive but that doesn’t mean she is completely undeserving of sympathy.


    and now you know why I hate Arabs and all those who suck up to them…

    Because you’re a racist dullard?

  47. This article is so full of FAIL it is hard to know where to start. “Market Fundamentalist Globalisation”? They go to a dynastic ruled Arab nation and are amazed when it turns out to *not* be Canada? Well what a surprise!

    The illness is a tragedy for sure, but “I assumed if all these big companies come here, it must be pretty like Canada’s or any other liberal democracy’s”… sorry, that is moronic.

    It seems anything that does not excuse people for suffering the consequences of their own stupidity is “market fundamentalism” (i.e. it does not force everyone else to pony up the money for the mistakes of others).

    If they had spent spent 30 mins on google doing a little research into the nature of local law and politics, maybe they might have thought again… or more likely they would have gone anyway because they just chose to contemplate the upsides. Johann Hari is a fine writer and an intellectual dishonest one as usual but this woman is a fool.

  48. So Dubai is bad because non-citizens do not get the same rights as citizens; and if you’re in debt, they don’t let you leave the country? Let me get this straight. Does this mean that I can go to America or any other western country, run up a debt of a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and when I can’t pay it, just leave the country and go home?

    Treating foreign workers badly is, well, bad. But I doubt Dubai is the only place this happens. Those middle-men who charge exorbitant fees and promise unrealistic wages are scum. But the authorities of their home countries can do something about this. They need to get passports before leaving their own country, and that’s a great time to talk to them, about average wages at the country they’re going to, for foreigners at their skill level; unexpected fees like taxes or levies, etc; cost of tickets to and fro; etc. The stuff they may not have thought through.

    Perhaps they may decide that it’s not worthwhile to pay so much money up-front. They may decide to not take the job offer after all. Even if they’ve already paid the middle-men, they could decide to take the loss, and not lose more money on the air fare, and not be stranded in a foreign country.

    As for employers taking the foreign worker’s passports, perhaps the embassy could be more lenient in issuing replacement passports. We could use a revocation list like in digital certificates. Countries would exchange this lists amongst themselves. When a passport is reported stolen, it goes into the revocation list, and a day or two later, every country knows it is stolen. The owner can just get a new passport, and the old stolen passport is worthless. Employee’s who’s employer is holding their passport can just go to their embassy and report it. If they cannot afford the fare back, their embassy could pay for it; which is a debt to their own government, which they can slowly pay off once they arrive home.

  49. “Does this mean that I can go to America or any other western country, run up a debt of a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and when I can’t pay it, just leave the country and go home?”

    ah, yup.

  50. @45. And just where do you think those fascists came from ? Given the Libertarian ideal of a basically unregulated free market mixed with human nature and that’s exactly what you get.

    The first ones who make it to the top of the heap make with the “wealth, avarice, and cloaked fascism” as they lord it over everyone else. Social Darwinism at its “finest” – it’s the inevitable outcome of unrestrained, laissez-faire capitalism.

  51. #58 cwcd.. y r cllss… f y’d rd th lnkd rtcl y’d rls tht th rbs r n f th mst rcst ppls n ths plnt… jst wtnss th wy thy trt thrs… nd bsltly ht ths rcst rbs nd ths wh sck p t thm bcs f th l nd mny thy hv…

    1. manicbassman,

      You can’t seriously believe that you could get away with that. Take a week off.

  52. They went there lead by their own greed. Avarice seldom gets rewarded so well. They deserved what they got.

  53. White South Africa had existed back in the Apartheid years if Mr Gandhi had come here in the 1950s then they would be a one man one vote in Dubai. Even if you are born in the UAE there are no birth rights and you remain a foreigner, and you are treated like a slave in this country. Its hard to imagine apartheid still exists in the 20th century.

    Freedom For All

Comments are closed.