Dubai bashing and 'what-aboutery': Joi Ito

(Image: Joi Ito). Blogger, photographer, tech investor, WoW guild overlord, Creative Commons CEO, and periodic Boing Boing Video guest star Joi Ito recently became a part-time resident of Dubai. I've followed his explorations of that city-state with much interest, and have been wondering what he thinks about the current flood of negative news coverage of Dubai amid the econopocalypse. Last week, for instance, I blogged this piece by Johann Hari in the UK Independent which opens with a vignette about a European expat living in her car, and proceeds to paint a really dark picture of what life is like there now. Joi has written a blog post which isn't solely a response to that piece, but more a reaction what seems to be a broader backlash in the press -- a backlash Joi feels is not fair or reality-based. A snip from his post:

I'm still new to the region so I can't speak definitively as a native, but I do know that the picture that is sketched is pretty biased and I think could be rightly called "bashing". As far as I can tell there is a crunch going on, just like everywhere else, and the government and businesses are trying to figure out what to keep and what to shut down. There are a lot of solid businesses and a lot of solid business people in Dubai and like anywhere else, consolidation and downsizing is taking its toll.

Having said that, the parking lots are not full of homeless foreigners and dumped cars. The mood is the same, if not maybe slightly more upbeat than the US or Japan these days. Instead of taking an hour and a half to get across town, it takes half an hour, instead of 3 days in advance reservations for the lounge/bar at The Address, it's 2 days and you can usually get a table at the nice restaurants with less than a hour wait now... usually. The real estate and development part of Dubai seems to be getting hit the hardest, but it looks the shipping and "the hub of the Middle East" parts of Dubai seem to be doing OK.

I don't want to appear like I'm defending human rights offenders. As a board member of Global Voices, WITNESS and a supporter of a number of Human Rights organizations, I spend a TON of time on human rights issues. We NEED to talk about human rights. However, human rights issues are resolved by understanding how and what kind of pressure to put on who in order to cause the change. While broad understanding of human rights is important, I don't find that sprinkling them on articles as part of a negative press pile-on is really, comparatively speaking, that productive.

Dubai bashing and 'what-aboutery' (Joi Ito)

You may also want to read this "Dubai Bashing" post on Desert Blogger.


  1. The Doctor Who Easter special that just aired, “Planet of the Dead,” was filmed partly in Dubai.

    I seem to recall hearing that there were some protests over the use of Dubai back when it was being filmed.

  2. I don’t want to appear like I’m defending human rights offenders.

    Goodness, no.

    However, human rights issues are resolved by understanding how and what kind of pressure to put on who in order to cause the change.

    Human rights issues are resolved by not investing in fundamentally unsustainable ways of life that can only be powered by slavery and exploitation. The economic collapse isn’t some act of god that came out of nowhere. It’s not a momentary glitch in the system. It is a systemic collapse of denial in the face of reality. The people can’t pay back their mortgages. The oil isn’t coming out of the ground as easily. The wealth doesn’t exist. It never did, and the paper that said otherwise was worthless all along. And after all is said and done, it still takes X Joules to desalinate a liter of water.

    Dubai was founded on denial to a greater degree than any other city. The only way to maintain that illusion will be to flog the slaves harder. Dubai is as incompatible with human rights as the the economy of the C.S.A.

  3. The second paragraph you excerpted is really awful. Okay, so the parking lots aren’t full of homeless expats. Even so, is there a debtor’s prison system that is unfairly imprisoning lots of people? Does it leave people like this lady out in the street? Are there more like her even if the parking lots aren’t full of them?

    And if the answer to any of those questions is yes, then who the eff cares about how long it takes you to get a reservation at a swanky restaurant? Like that’s somehow an indicator that everything’s hunky dory? Using that as a counterexample in the same paragraph seems to me completely blind to the whole of the situation.

    This is like someone noting that the economic crisis is not that bad because it takes less time to get into Spago while people are living in tent cities in Sacramento. It just seems very…dismissive. I don’t know.

    Normally Joi Ito is so thoughtful about these sorts of things but I really didn’t like the taste that article left in my mouth. Tasted like the cake Joi wants to let me eat.

    Going deeper into Ito’s article, his main issue with the article seems to be that it’s exposing this very bad thing without offering a place where readers can pitch in to help change it. It’s “fingerwagging.” So shedding light on something readers might not know about is somehow bad because the author didn’t offer a way for people to get involved? He writes off articles like that as “Dubai bashing.” If Dubai sucks a lot, it deserves bashing, whether there’s a constructive solution offered or not. By that rationale a big chunk the articles Cory posts about the RIAA are simply “RIAA-bashing,” or the myriad stories about Bush/Cheney crimes are just “Bush-bashing” because they don’t link to political activism sites.

  4. Unfortunately, legitimate criticisms and prejudices don’t always come in separate packages. I don’t think that the schadenfreude-bath is going to do much to help indentured foreign workers or other oppressed groups. Where was the media spotlight when the money was flowing freely?

  5. #3 has it right. The main point in the Hari article is that whatever prosperity, be it real or not, Dubai has achieved has been on the backs of virtual slaves.

    “a state of subjection like that of a slave: He was kept in slavery by drugs.”, 3rd definition.

    Nari also draws attention to people who are trapped in Dubai as a consequence of opaque government proceedings and questionable financial maneuvers.

    Rick York

  6. #6 – I imagine the media spotlight was in the same place it was when it was avoiding Wall St’s problems. Do you mean to imply that the media’s silence during the boom nullifies anything they write about now?

    If the Guardian article is true, it shouldn’t make a difference whether the author wrote anything about it in the past. Even if there’s some schadenfreude in it, the light it sheds on the situation makes it worthy on its own.

    What matters is whether the article is true. If it is, then it really shouldn’t matter if there’s schadenfreude or if Nari ignored Dubai until now. Shouldn’t the focus be on fixing things now, or are we just going to be stubborn about it?

    1. Marcelo,

      I haven’t really observed anyone trying to fix the situation, now or then. Just bemoaning it, gloating about it or using it to fuel existing prejudices. What would you propose to do about it?

  7. What Ito’s response boils down to: everything looks fine from up here. No cockroaches coming out of my faucet! And, of course, “what-about”-ing quite a lot himself, without actually saying those two words (and while touting his human rights cred).

    He’s dead wrong about what he refers to as “not-very-constructive finger-wagging-because-it’s-fashionable-right-now journalism.” Apartheid didn’t end in South Africa because a bunch of well-meaning folks sat around holding hands and singing Kumbaya. It ended because people pulled their money out.

  8. However, human rights issues are resolved by understanding how and what kind of pressure to put on who in order to cause the change. While broad understanding of human rights is important, I don’t find that sprinkling them on articles as part of a negative press pile-on is really, comparatively speaking, that productive.
    What? And this is a person speaking in international forums about *human rights*??

    The only way human rights issues have *ever* been resolved is through adamant and loud protesting and civil disobedience. The people being oppressed stand up and demand the right. The government signs it into law to avoid total social breakdown or further economic loss.

    When one is discussing the political climate of a country, it is important to bring in other perspectives. An article about tourism is most certainly going to have a section dealing with the economic climate, as well as information about the government, and local customs, and things to watch out for.

    One thing to watch out for – that’s right, the way the country treats their women. And prisoners.

    Dubai is an *extremely young* city, and the first truly modern megalopolis being born in the middle east. (Note: I said *modern* in the sense of everything being built from the ground-up.) Give it a hundred years, and it will look more like what you’d expect a megalopolis to look like: a more obvious mix of class and status.

    There’s *way* too much infrastructure and wealth for this place to ever get any smaller. Why should it?

  9. Where was the media spotlight when the money was flowing freely?

    Deflected by all the glitter.

  10. Antinous – I don’t know what the solution is. I just don’t like the idea that unless you’re writing about solutions that you’re doing something negative. Sometimes negativity is necessary, and sunshine on a problem should always be appreciated. Like I said before, what matters is if the article is accurate. If it is, I don’t care if it fuels existing prejudices.

    I would point to the spotlighting of Bush-era rendition and torture programs. Many of the people who wrote those articles were specifically trying to piss on the Bush administration, reinforce existing prejudices against Bush, etc and most of them didn’t write about the people trying to stop the torture or offer ways that ordinary citizens could help. That doesn’t take anything away from the quality of or the importance of their reporting. The same goes here. Whatever prejudices Nari is trying to reinforce, whatever bemoaning or negativity he’s generating, none of that should take away from the article if it’s true.

    The point is that for all the complaining Ito is doing about the Guardian article not being very proactive or constructive, in his response he sure seems like he cares more about his reservation at The Address than he does about indentured servitude or debtor’s prisons. Asking me what I think the solution is doesn’t change the fact that Ito doesn’t even seem to think there needs to be one right now because he can get good reservations more easily.

  11. I have some trouble reconciling this with earlier posts I’ve read by Mr. Ito. Have any of you folks checked him out for body-snatchers or Insects From Shaggai? He sounds more like the reincarnation of Marie Antoinnette than the technophilic copyfighter I’ve read before.

    It’s my understanding that publishing, even to a blog, negative opinions about the UAE might have undesirable repurcussions. I suspect this may be a factor as well.

  12. Mark T, kind of like “you don’t rock the boat if you’re sitting in it” .. and the people that own the boat can have you put to death?

  13. nahh, he’s just there, on the ground and it’s not an abstract thing at all to him since it isn’t. Which means he takes to the normal human propensity to try to make things work – somehow – because the price of failure is hideous to all involved. Even the currently oppressed. What’s worse than rotting in debtor’s prison with no hope? Knowing the unpaid guards just walked away with the keys.

    As for being afraid of speaking one’s mind when at the mercy of autocrats; consider that enraging them not only gets your head chopped off, it also precludes any hope of you staying in the game to change things. I love throwing bricks from safe outside. I’d be playing a vastly different game if I were in Dubai. Cowardice? Practicality? Or diplomacy?

  14. There’s *way* too much infrastructure and wealth for this place to ever get any smaller. Why should it?

    See Detroit.

  15. I don’t want to sound too defensive about Dubai or the Middle East in general

    That’s exactly how you sound, Joi.

    Just calling Muslim law and governance “medieval” and writing it off is ignorant. It’s very different and isn’t in sync with what many of us might think is “fair”. They treat bounced checks and drug smuggling very seriously.

    I don’t even call what’s happening in Dubai “Muslim governance”. Like Real Communism, the Real Islamic State is more an ideal than a reality.

    If I had to actually list the countries in the world that would deserve to be called “Islamic states”, the United Arab Emirates, and many of the Middle-Eastern Arab states, would be at the bottom.

    I mean, I’ll admit it. I’m a Malaysian, and we have pretty restrictive media laws, very racist politicians, an incredibly bad reputation in how we treat our foreign workers (one that, in my opinion, is deserved), and human rights issues up the wazoo.

    I stay (and not emigrate) because this is my home, and there are people and places here who are important to me, and I would like to make things better for people here.

    That’s my damn excuse, Joi. What’s yours? Wanting to explore the Middle East from a safe place?

  16. America prospered on the backs of slaves and human rights’ abuses. America still violates human rights laws all of the time. American casino Wall Street economy is unsustainable and American corporations are gross polluters of the natural environment. Forget Kyoto, right?

    Dubai is fucked up. Yes. Point the mirrors at yourselves also: Global capitalism, Anglo-American imperialism and warmonger policies are pretty fucked up, racist, and destructive also.

    If ANY country in the world knows about slavery: it is the U.S. What is NAFTA? What is the FTA? What is “everything is made in China”? Is this not slave labor also?

    The entire world needs a changing…

  17. So first of all, for those of you who didn’t get it yet, I live in Dubai.

    I am not “afraid” to write about human rights issues in Dubai. In fact, most people aren’t. It’s on the front page of the major newspapers and is one of the hot topics. The UN and the UAE government are going back and forth about it and it is moving forward. I intend to write about this more once I’ve talked to the various organizations and people involved so I don’t write something ignorant. (The Open Net Initiative has some good comparative statistics. UAE is clearly not the best, but overall, the political censorship isn’t as bad as in many countries in the Middle East.)

    So let me add a bit more nuance to my position about writing about human rights issues… I guess, it’s not that you shouldn’t write about something unless there is a solution. I just don’t think that many of the journalists writing about the human rights issues in the context of articles making fun of a region really CARE about those people, but are just using them to get ink. I also feel like those people who then use those stories to judge the region also don’t really give a shit.

    I guess that if I felt the journalist really cared about the people, I’d be more supportive and sympathetic.

  18. I disagree that if you have no suggestion on how to fix it, you should not talk about any problem. Sometimes you just need to highlight the problem because people are not aware of it. Look at the responses and add a post-script to your own article, summarizing all the good ideas. Unlike Boing Boing, newspapers usually do not do this. They write an article, put it up, and that’s it.

    However I do agree that there has been too much Dubai bashing, for instance saying that “Dubai is built by slave labour”. Despite globalization, people are different, societies are not the same, societal values varies. However much you may want them to adopt your values, try to look at it from their point of view. They believe they are right, and they want you to adopt their values. The only thing you can do is to agree to disagree.

    If the people in Dubai decides that debtors should be thrown in jail, it’s their perogative. Who are we to write their laws for them? There is nothing we can do, or should do, to change their laws. But there are other things we can do. For instance, take up a collection and help to pay off their debts so that they can leave the country.

    If the employers withold the workers’ passports so that they cannot leave the country, their own embassy can help them. By issuing them new passports when they report it stolen by their own employers.

    If recruiting agents are spinning unrealistic tales of riches to be obtained in foreign countries, you can spread your own counter propaganda. Sponsor TV programs about those workers who were tricked and cheated of their wages. It could be a documentary, or it could be a fictional story. The point is to get this shown in the workers’ country of origin. Perhaps you could find a local politician looking for a worthy issue. Get their support, and pitch the show to the local TV stations.

    BTW: low wages does not always equate to slave labour. For instance, say the normal wage rate in your country is $10/hour. If you off-shore your manufacturing to a foreign country, and they pay their workers $2/hour, it is not exploitation if those same workers would normally be getting $1/hour (or nothing at all because there is no job). It is not kindness to pull those jobs and cause the $2/hour workers to drop to $1/hour, or nothing at all if they don’t find another job. Yes, I am talking about China and India.

  19. #24 Joi

    “I guess that if I felt the journalist really cared about the people, I’d be more supportive and sympathetic.”

    Wait…so if the journalist cares about human rights violations or poor conditions then we should all get on the bandwagon…but if they are just doing it because it is their job or to get paid then we shouldn’t?

    Isn’t truth…truth?

    I don’t think the article written by Johann Hari that is referenced above is in any way making fun of Dubai…but instead holding up a very unpleasant looking glass to conditions that should be carefully examined.

    Some other things you say like:

    “AE is clearly not the best, but overall, the political censorship isn’t as bad as in many countries in the Middle East.”

    Well that’s okay then…at least it isn’t as bad as many countries in the Middle East.

    I mean I don’t understand your point of view and I think what other’s might have issue with in your previous statements is that it really sounds like you are an apologist for them.

  20. We NEED to talk about human rights. However, human rights issues are resolved by understanding how and what kind of pressure to put on who in order to cause the change. While broad understanding of human rights is important, I don’t find that sprinkling them on articles as part of a negative press pile-on is really, comparatively speaking, that productive.

    What part of trying to do something effective do you define as being an apologist? As far as I can see, he’s suggesting that we do something that works instead of just noisy breast-beating and self-righteous scorn.

  21. agraham999 #24 – I guess I’m just frustrated by the fact that when I’m trying to get the word about about human rights issues in Japan and the rest of the world, I usually get a big yawn, but when the press decide to go on a bashing run against a country which is much further away, Muslim and comparatively small, everyone suddenly gets interested. My post on the 99% conviction rating in Japan ( ) got two commenters and the Japanese Greenpeace kids who got chunked in jail for trying to take a corruption case to court has gotten almost no ink from the main stream media. ( ).

    I’m not trying to defend the UAE or the human rights violations there… I’m just trying to say that the media pile-on against Dubai is… a media pile-on. There are more important, and in my view, and more actionable human rights violations to focus your energy on if you have the time. The sensationalist reporting masquerading as human rights works doesn’t do justice to the more serious work being done by the people who really care.

    Now that I live in Dubai and am in closer proximity to the issues there, I will doing my own homework and hopefully, eventually, my own writing and actions on the issue. So believe me, I’m not trying to take any pressure off of the government on these issues. But my point was a broader one about reporting trends in general – the nuance which has been lost in the detail I think.

  22. When the “detail” involves worker abuse that has been going on for decades, then quite frankly whatever “nuance” you’re trying to get across about journalistic approaches deserves to get lost.

    This is not the issue of the day that’s getting hyped all of a sudden in April 2009. Go to your favorite news site and do a few searches; you’ll find articles on exactly the same sort of thuggery going back for years and years.

    That you’ve got your eyes open and are willing to learn about the situation is great. But don’t try to spin this as a problem with journalists, or at least take on the problem with journalists entirely apart from the rot at the bottom of the labor pyramid in your newly adopted home.

  23. Ok, I’ll bite.

    First, that potential injustices have existed in the past or exist in the present in this or in other locales has little, if any, bearing on the issue at hand. Whether the conviction rate is 45% or 85% or 90% in Japan is simply not relevant to whether there are people being held in conditions tantamount to slavery.

    Second, how “informed” does one have to be to understand that these practices in Dubai are wrong? Was it necessary to propose “solutions” to the problem of slavery in the United States? No, it was necessary to free the slaves, now, unconditionally, and we’ll move forward once that is done.

    The case you cite in Japan is one where more information is actually required to assess whether the system is truly unjust. Perhaps only 1% of the people arrested are prosecuted–as an outsider, I have no idea. But how much more data do I really need about Dubai’s culture or economy to know that slavery is just plain universally wrong?

    Finally, a salient difference between Japan and Dubai is that in Japan, one won’t go to jail (I presume) for protesting or speaking ill of the government. No one in Japan fears a knock at his door by government agents for speaking his mind. In Dubai, dissent is not tolerated. Whether other countries in the Middle East are more or less totalitarian than Dubai matters little.

    I don’t get exercised about Japan because it is a democratic nation of laws, and the mechanisms exist for self-correction. I get angry about Dubai because no such mechanism exists for the oppressed. Worse still, those who can speak out don’t appear to give a damn.

  24. Having two comment threads is confusing, but I’m going to bring some of the stuff I posted on my blog here for context:

    The human rights issues in the UAE have been widely reported are being widely discussed. The UN UPR report pointed out issues with human rights in the UAE and there is a widely reported back and forth going on right now.

    So I’ll concede that the issues in the UAE should be more widely reported and that people who care should know and try to do something about it.

    To be honest, 90% of the messages that I received about Dubai were about the economy and the collapse of the market there, which I felt were exaggerated comparatively speaking. The human rights thing, which as you say has been reported for years, was in my view, old news. That’s why my post here is skewed toward a rebuttal of the NYT piece talking about cockroaches coming out of the plumbing and the parking lots full of dumped cars.

    However, it appears from the comments that people are much more interested in the human rights issues than the economic welfare of the rich. (Makes sense.)

    But that’s where the disconnect comes from. My post was focused on a different target.

  25. I don’t know… I saw some of the merit of what was being said until you said that [at least part of] your criteria for criticism is whether or not you feel the other writers are are being genuine – “really care” – in their concern for human rights or what they’re writing about.

    How exactly does one see into another person’s soul, as it were?

    As for Japan… living here myself… the conviction rate is so high because, as you noted, confessions are almost always gotten beforehand. Otherwise a prosecutor wouldn’t go to court. Wouldn’t do to actually “lose.” Face wouldn’t allow it. And as much as I think Japanese ‘research’ whaling is absolute BS, those two did apparently trespass and steal stuff. Civil disobedience only really works if you take the punishment – a la the Birmingham Jail.

  26. Joi,

    Thanks for saying it. That article was an extremely slanted and biased view of Dubai.

    A few points:

    #22 – Its a nation where the laws have roots in Sharia – they’re constructed on interpretations of the Prophet Mohammed’s words and teachings.

    Everyone -Debtors prison may seem like a bad thing but there are three types of people in prison for debt default:

    1) people who intentionally ripped off banks and lenders with the intent to flee and never come back to Dubai
    2) people who lived wildly outside their means, racked up thousand upon thousands of dollars in debt and were suddenly suprised when they couldnt service that debt due to a pay cut, job loss, or crushing weight of the loans.
    3) people who were living inside their means responsibly and were laid off, or owned a business that went belly-up and can’t afford to repay the loan.

    Here’s the catch: Once you complete your 3-6 months in prison, your slate is cleared. The underwriters of the loans cover the loss.

    About human rights abuse:

    Some places are bad. There are companies who have taken advantage of their labourers. Recruiters who have lied, etc. That will happen anywhere in the world. ANYWHERE.

    The truth is, for all it’s shortcomings – Dubai is doing some fantastic things for the region, and the workers who come here to send money home. They make 3-5 times as much here as they would back home. I had reservations about it when I first arrived, but I know and work with many foreign labourers and they’re almost all glad to be here.

    They’re trying here, and some of the things that happen are pretty ridiculous. But by and large, its actually western expats doing most of the silly, irresponsible, and damaging actions.

  27. A bit off-topic, but on the Japan issue. The confessions thing is partially true. However, of the half dozen or so cases against the government that I’ve testified we’ve never won… even when the evidence was overwhelmingly in our favor.

    Also, you’re just buying the bullshit in the main stream media about the Greenpeace story. They prosecution was ready to go against the whalers and the evidence was acquired as part of a coordinated effort involving a number of whistle-blowers on the inside.

  28. We’re avoiding the point.

    So WHAT if it’s a pile-on? That has nothing to do with whether Dubai deserves criticism or not.

    I’m frequently annoyed by novelistic journalism too, but the Independent article also contains quite a bit of substantive discussion. The matter of it being popular or unpopular to criticize Dubai at the moment is complete hand-waving, as is the matter of there being other human rights violators in the world. One could equally argue that I shouldn’t be criticizing Cult 2.0s here in the U.S. because there are animists literally killing children they believe to be posessed elsewhere in the world. The Chinese government uses this same form of misdirection to deflect its own human rights criticism.

    You’re upset that your articles about human rights violations in Japan are being ignored, Joi? Good. You should be. You need to keep researching them, writing them, and trying to get the word out, even if no one ever listens to you. It’s called fighting the good fight.

    What has us rankled is that you’ve defended your new homeland against an attack article in a manner that doesn’t address any of the substance of the attack.

    (I’d also appreciate it we could stop conflating Sharia law with the tribal laws of nomadic herdsmen, but that’s a completely different matter.)

  29. Joi,
    If you’re in Dubai, how are you on Boing Boing? Have Etisalat finally unblocked it?
    Only asking coz I’m relocating to Dubai at the end of the month, and after the freedoms of London, I’m not overly happy about coming back.

  30. Joi’s comments about “bashing” make him sound like someone who doesn’t want his beautiful mind troubled by inconvenient facts. I guess it gets in the way of pondering important issues like restaurant reservations.

    Oh, but now he “concedes” that it’s legitimate to report atrocious abuses of human rights. That’s big of you, especially considering it might inconvenience someone powerful.

  31. 4 million gallons of water to keep a golf course green in the middle of the desert and a system of virtual slavery used to keep their magic economy afloat are my real problem with Dubai. Nothing in Joi’s response allayed that feeling.

  32. Space Toast #35: I don’t disagree that human rights issues in the UAE should be reported nor do I believe they don’t exist. I just do not think that the Hari article was balanced or particularly effective tactically. You have my word that I will talk to locals as well as Human Rights Watch and write something about this as soon as I feel comfortable with my information.

    #36: Herdict seems to show that no one has reported Boing Boing being blocked in The UAE.

  33. My views of Dubai’s socio-economic model were the reason why I decided to leave the city in late 2008, where I worked, ironically, promoting the image of the country in the international media.

    In the a recent blogpost I let it all out through my reply to an online discussion forum initiated by Sultan Al Qassemi to about his recent response to Johann Hari’s article:

  34. I’ve read many articles about the huge labor controversy in Dubai and it is very upsetting, but all of the reading leaves you to an end. It never says what can be done to prevent these unfortunate people from being exploited. Does anyone know what ordinary people like me can do?

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