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.
Human Trafficking & Modern-day Slavery
United Arab Emirates (UAE) [ Country-by-Country Reports ]
The United Arab Emirates [map] is a federation of sheikhdoms located in SE Arabia, on the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. The federation consists of seven sheikhdoms: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Qaiwain. The city of Abu Dhabi in Abu Dhabi is the capital. The UAE has an open economy with a high per capita income and a sizable annual trade surplus. Its wealth is based on oil and gas output (about 30% of GDP), and the fortunes of the economy fluctuate with the prices of those commodities. Since the discovery of oil in the UAE more than 30 years ago, the UAE has undergone a profound transformation from an impoverished region of small desert principalities to a modern state with a high standard of living.
The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) is a destination country for women trafficked primarily from South, Southeast, and East Asia, the former Soviet Union, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, and East Africa, for the purpose of sexual exploitation. A far smaller number of men, women, and teenage children were trafficked to the U.A.E. to work as forced laborers. Some South Asian and East African boys were trafficked into the country and forced to work as camel jockeys. Some were sold by their parents to traffickers, and others were brought into the U.A.E. by their parents. A large number of foreign women were lured into the U.A.E. under false pretenses and subsequently forced into sexual servitude, primarily by criminals of their own countries. Personal observations by U.S. Government officials and video and photographic evidence indicated the continued use of trafficked children as camel jockeys. There were instances of child camel jockey victims who were reportedly starved to make them light, abused physically and sexually, denied education and health care, and subjected to harsh living and working conditions. Some boys as young as 6 months old were reportedly kidnapped or sold to traffickers and raised to become camel jockeys. Some were injured seriously during races and training sessions, and one child died after being trampled by the camel he was riding. Some victims trafficked for labor exploitation endured harsh living and working conditions and were subjected to debt bondage, passport withholding, and physical and sexual abuse.
The U.A.E. Government does not collect statistics on persons trafficked into the country, making it difficult to assess its efforts to combat the problem. Widely varying reports, mostly from NGOs, international organizations, and source countries, estimated the number of trafficking victims in the U.A.E. to be from a few thousand to tens of thousands. Regarding foreign child camel jockeys, the U.A.E. Government estimated there were from 1,200 to 2,700 such children in the U.A.E., while a respected Pakistani human rights NGO active in the U.A.E. estimated 5,000 to 6,000. The U.A.E. Government has taken several steps that may lead to potentially positive outcomes, such as requiring children from source countries to have their own passports, and collaborating with UNICEF and source-country governments to develop a plan for documenting and safely repatriating all underage camel jockeys.
The Government of the U.A.E. does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. Despite sustained engagement from the U.S. Government, NGOs, and international organizations over the last two years, the U.A.E. Government has failed to take significant action to address its trafficking problems and to protect victims. The U.A.E. Government needs to enact and enforce a comprehensive trafficking law that criminalizes all forms of trafficking and provides for protection of trafficking victims. The government should also institute systematic screening measures to identify trafficking victims among the thousands of foreign women arrested and deported each year for involvement in prostitution. The government should take immediate steps to rescue and care for the many foreign children trafficked to the U.A.E. as camel jockeys, repatriating them through responsible channels if appropriate. The government should also take much stronger steps to investigate, prosecute, and convict those responsible for trafficking these children to the U.A.E. - U.S. State Dept Trafficking in Persons Report, June, 2005
Full report posted here