Sheik accused in camel jockey abuse plot
By JANET PATTON
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Sheik Mohammed, one of the richest horse buyers in Kentucky and the world, has been implicated in the slave trade of child camel jockeys by a cable TV news program.
A report aired this week on HBO's Real Sports includes footage of appalling living conditions at camel-training camps and alleges that boy camel jockeys -- some as young as 3 -- are kidnapped or sold into slavery, starved, beaten and raped. The report links the abuses to Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.
Sheik Mohammed is the crown prince of Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates. He also serves as defense minister for the UAE.
No representative of the Maktoum organization would comment on the report. Sheik Mohammed owns two horse farms in the Bluegrass -- Raceland in Paris and Darley at Jonabell in Lexington; no one from the farms would respond publicly.
And an e-mail sent Friday afternoon to Sheik Mohammed from his official Web site was not answered.
The report, which HBO says was filmed in the UAE, is not specific about the locations of the camps featured. Some appear to be in Abu Dhabi, which is also in the UAE. The report lays the responsibility for these atrocities at the feet of ''the rulers of the United Arab Emirates I the sheiks.''
But it focuses on only one member of any UAE royal family: Sheik Mohammed. At least some of the boy jockeys shown are allegedly at the Dubai camel track, which is owned and run by the Maktoum family.
The report calls the track ''the playground of the crown prince'' and contrasts the boys' hovels with the treatment of Sheik Mohammed's horses and camels.
HBO correspondent Bernard Goldberg said on the report that HBO received a letter from unnamed UAE officials who said that they were ''shocked that this is happening'' and that they ''are adamantly against it.''
The UAE, a confederation of Arab states, in 1993 banned the use of jockeys under the age of 15 or under 45 kilograms (99 pounds); in 2002, it reiterated the ban.
Greg Sullivan, chief spokesman for the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, said State Department officials have urged the UAE to aggressively crack down on the trafficking of underage camel jockeys and are looking into the allegations raised in the HBO documentary.
''If the allegations prove true, the U.S. will use that information to further engage the United Arab Emirates government on that issue,'' he said.
Sullivan said that the State Department asked HBO to provide the names of the underage children featured in the documentary, but HBO declined to provide the information.
The State Department's 2004 Trafficking in Persons Report said the UAE government has made ''substantial efforts'' to crack down on the trafficking of children for camel jockey work, but Sullivan said the practice still exists as ''a form of human slavery.''
State Department officials have urged the UAE to impose a minimum age of 18 for camel jockeys.
Sheik Mohammed and other members of the Maktoum family have long been fixtures at the thoroughbred auctions at Keeneland. Under the royal blue silks of Godolphin, the family racing stable, the Maktoums have run horses in the biggest races in Europe and the United States, including the Kentucky Derby. The Maktoums annually hold the richest race in the world -- the Dubai World Cup at Nad Al Sheba -- and they fly the best horses and trainers there to compete.
Kiaran McLaughlin, a Lexington native who now trains horses in New York, spent a decade working for the Maktoums in Dubai. He said on Friday that he and other horse workers were well-treated.
McLaughlin said that he trained within half a mile of the camels but never saw any abuse or signs of child slavery. ''I don't know about that. I can tell you that I lived there and loved it,'' McLaughlin said.
''I can promise you Sheik Mohammed did not abuse any children,'' he said.
Members of the racing press, including a Herald-Leader photographer and reporter, were invited to Dubai in 1999 and given a tour of the country. While there, they saw tiny jockeys who appeared much younger than 15.
And Anti-Slavery International, a human rights group, in June 2004 released photos that they said were taken in Dubai showing child jockeys; they accused the UAE of keeping the boys in brutal conditions.
Kentuckians Marci and Todd Boston lived in Dubai for years. Todd Boston moved to Dubai in 1995 to work as a blacksmith for Sheik Mohammed. His wife joined him in 1996; Marci left in 2000; Todd left in 2002.
They always said that they loved their time in Dubai, thought of it as a second home, and meant to return someday.
But the Bostons said Friday they are very disturbed by the HBO report, and in retrospect by what they saw in Dubai.
They remember child camel jockeys.
''You kind of knew about it. You knew about the little kids,'' Todd Boston said, but they never heard about sexual abuse or beatings.
But based on the way he saw Arabs treat adult workers from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, he said, he isn't surprised by the allegations of child abuse.
The HBO report said many of the child jockeys were from slums in those countries.
Marci Boston said that she heard rumors at the time that the boys were ''taken'' from poor homes in South Asia, but that she never imagined the conditions they were living in while in Dubai.
Todd Boston said that in the morning as he went to the horse track he would wait as the camels crossed the road to their track.
''There would be a pickup truck following them with little bitty kids in the back, with little helmets on, waving,'' Boston said.
The Bostons are haunted by the memory of one green-eyed boy, about 4 years old they think, who they saw at the camel market wearing a helmet.
The boy stared at them as if he were ''desperate for love,'' Todd Boston said. They have no idea what happened to him.
''This is a double-edged sword. I worked for Sheik Mohammed and I respect him very much, but on the other side, I am just horrified by this,'' he said.
''I expect to hear from Sheik Mohammed. We need explanations,'' Marci Boston said. ''I'm so angry. We were there -- we saw the kids riding camels. I don't have a doubt about it.''
Under the enlightened despotism of its Crown Prince and CEO, 56 year old Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Rhode Island sized Emirate of Dubai has become the new global icon of imagineered urbanism. Although often compared to Las Vegas, Orlando, Hong Kong or Singapore, the sheikhdom is more like their collective summation - a pastiche of the big, the bad and the ugly. It is not just a hybrid but a chimera - the offspring of the lascivious coupling of the cyclopean fantasies of Barnum, Eiffel, Disney, Spielberg, Jerde, Wynn, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Multibillionaire Sheikh Mo - as he's affectionately known to Dubai's expats - not only collects thoroughbreds (the world's largest stable) and super-yachts, but also seems to have imprinted Robert Venturi's cult Learning from Las Vegas in the same way that more pious Muslims have memorized the Koran. Under his leadership the coastal desert has become a huge circuit board into which the elite of transnational engineering firms and retail developers are invited to plug high-tech clusters, entertainment zones, artificial islands, 'cities within cities' - whatever is the latest fad in urban capitalism. The same phantasmagoric but generic Lego blocks, of course, can be found in dozens of aspiring cities these days but Sheikh Mo has a distinctive and inviolable criterion - everything must be 'world class', by which he means number one in The Guinness Book of Records. Thus Dubai is building the world's largest theme park, the biggest mall, the highest building, and the first underwater hotel, among other firsts.
Sheikh Mo's architectural megalomania, although reminiscent of Albert Speer and his patron, is not irrational. Having 'learned from Las Vegas,' he understands that if Dubai wants to become the luxury consumer paradise of the Middle East and South Asia (its officially defined 'home market' of 1.6 billion), it must ceaselessly strive for excess. From this standpoint, the city's monstrous caricature of futurism is simply shrewd marketing. Its owners love it when designers and urbanists anoint it as the cutting edge. Architect George Katodrytis wrote, 'Dubai may be considered the emerging prototype for the 21st century: prosthetic and nomadic oases presented as isolated cities that extend out over the land and sea.' Moreover Dubai can count on the peak-oil epoch to cover the costs of these hyperboles. Each time you spend $40 to fill your tank, you are helping to irrigate Sheik Mo's oasis.
Precisely because Dubai is rapidly pumping the last of its own modest endowment of oil, it has opted to become the postmodern 'city of nets' - as Bertolt Brecht called his fictional boomtown of Mahagonny - where the super-profits of oil are to be reinvested in Arabia's one truly inexhaustible natural resource, sand. (Indeed, mega-projects in Dubai are usually measured by volumes of sand moved, 1 billion cubic feet in the case of 'The World').
Al Qaida and the war on terrorism deserve some of the credit for this boom. Since 9/11 many Middle Eastern investors, fearing possible lawsuits or sanctions, have pulled up stakes in the west. According to Salman bin Dasmal of Dubai Holdings, the Saudis alone have repatriated one third of their trillion-dollar overseas portfolio. The sheikhs are bringing it back home, and last year the Saudis were believed to have ploughed at least $7 billion into Dubai's sand castles.
Another aqueduct of oil wealth flows from the neighbouring Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The two statelets dominate the United Arab Emirates - a quasi-nation thrown together by Sheikh Mo's father and the ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1971 to fend off threats from Marxists in Oman and, later, Islamists in Iran. Today Dubai's security is guaranteed by the American nuclear super-carriers usually berthed at the port of Jebel Ali. Indeed the city-state aggressively promotes itself as the ultimate elite 'Green Zone' in an increasingly turbulent and dangerous region.
Meanwhile as increasing numbers of experts warn that the age of cheap oil is passing, the al-Maktoum clan can count on a torrent of nervous oil revenue seeking a friendly and stable haven. When outsiders question the sustainability of the current boom, Dubai officials point out that their new Mecca is being built on equity, not debt.
Since a watershed 2003 decision to open unrestricted freehold ownership to foreigners, wealthy Europeans and Asians have rushed to become part of the Dubai bubble. A beachfront in one of the 'Palms' or, better yet, a private island in 'The World' now has the cachet of St Tropez or Grand Cayman. The old colonial masters lead the pack, as Brit expats and investors have become the biggest cheerleaders for Sheikh Mo's dreamworld - David Beckham owns a beach and Rod Stewart an island (rumoured, in fact, to be named Great Britain).
An indentured, invisible majority
The utopian character of Dubai, it must be emphasised, is no mirage. Even more than Singapore or Texas, the city-state really is an apotheosis of neo-liberal values. On the one hand it provides investors with a comfortable, western-style property rights regime, including freehold ownership that is unique in the region. Included with the package is a broad tolerance of booze, recreational drugs, halter tops, and other foreign vices formally proscribed by Islamic law. (When expats extol Dubai's unique 'openness', it is this freedom to carouse - not to organise unions or publish critical opinions - that they are usually praising.)
On the other hand, Dubai, together with its Emirate neighbours, has achieved the state of the art in the disenfranchisement of labour. Trade unions, strikes and agitators are illegal and 99 percent of the private sector workforce are easily deportable non-citizens. Indeed the deep thinkers at the American Enterprise and Cato institutes must salivate when they contemplate the system of classes and entitlements in Dubai.
At the top of the social pyramid, of course, are the al-Maktoums and their cousins who own every lucrative grain of sand in the sheikhdom. Next, the native 15 percent of the population - whose uniform of privilege is the traditional white dishdash - constitutes a leisure class whose obedience to the dynasty is subsidised by income transfers, free education and government jobs. A step below are the pampered mercenaries - 150,000 or so British expats, along with other European, Lebanese and Indian managers and professionals, who take full advantage of their air-conditioned affluence and two months of overseas leave every summer.
However, South Asian contract labourers, legally bound to a single employer and subject to totalitarian social controls, make up the great mass of the population. Dubai lifestyles are attended by vast numbers of Filipina, Sri Lankan and Indian maids, while the building boom is carried on the shoulders of an army of Pakistanis and Indians working 12-hour shifts, six and half days a week, in the blast-furnace desert heat. Dubai, like its neighbours, flouts ILO labour regulations and refuses to adopt the international Migrant Workers Convention. Human Rights Watch in 2003 accused the Emirates of building prosperity on 'forced labour'. Indeed, as the Independent recently emphasised in an exposé on Dubai, 'The labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British.'
'Like their impoverished forefathers,' the paper continued, 'today's Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the United Arab Emirates. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them.'
In addition to being super-exploited, Dubai's helots are also expected to be generally invisible. The bleak work camps on the city's outskirts where labourers are crowded six, eight, even 12 to a room are not part of the official tourist image of a city of luxury without slums or poverty. In a recent visit, even the United Arab Emirates' minister of labour was reported to be profoundly shocked by the squalid, almost unbearable conditions in a remote work camp maintained by a large construction contractor. Yet when the labourers attempted to form a union to win back pay and improve living conditions, they were promptly arrested.
Paradise, however, has even darker corners than the indentured labour camps. The Russian girls at the elegant hotel bar are but the glamorous facade of a sinister sex trade built on kidnapping, slavery and sadistic violence. Dubai - any of the hipper guidebooks will advise - is the 'Bangkok of the Middle East', populated by thousands of Russian, Armenian, Indian and Iranian prostitutes controlled by various transnational gangs and mafias. (The city, conveniently, is also a world centre for money laundering with an estimated 10 percent of real estate changing hands in cash-only transactions.)
Sheikh Mo and his thoroughly modern regime, of course, disavow any connection to this burgeoning red-light industry although insiders know that the women are essential to keeping all those five-star hotels full of European and Arab businessmen. But the sheikh himself has been personally linked to Dubai's most scandalous vice: child slavery.
Camel racing is a local passion in the Emirates, and in June 2004 Anti-Slavery International released photos of preschool-age child jockeys in Dubai. HBO Real Sports simultaneously reported that the jockeys, 'some as young as three - are kidnapped or sold into slavery, starved, beaten and raped'. Some of the tiny jockeys were shown at a Dubai camel track owned by the al-Maktoums.
The Lexington Herald-Leader - a newspaper in Kentucky, where Sheikh Mo has two large thoroughbred farms - confirmed parts of the HBO story in an interview with a local blacksmith who had worked for the crown prince in Dubai. He reported seeing 'little bitty kids' as young as four astride racing camels. Camel trainers claim that the children's shrieks of terror spur the animals to a faster effort.
Sheikh Mo, who fancies himself a prophet of modernisation, likes to impress visitors with clever proverbs and heavy aphorisms. A favourite: 'Anyone who does not attempt to change the future will stay a captive of the past.' Yet the future that he is building in Dubai, to the applause of billionaires and transnational corporations everywhere, looks like nothing so much as a nightmare of the past - Walt Disney meets Albert Speer on the shores of Araby.