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Dubai, a desert apartheid

By Jared Sacks

The glittering city-state of Dubai is the modern Babylon of global capitalism, with one of the highest economic growth rates and per capita incomes in the world. Boasting two of the largest malls, the largest man-made island, the tallest building, and the only self-proclaimed seven-star hotel in the world, it is Las Vegas, Times Square, Wall Street and Miami Beach all rolled into one.

A convergence of immigrant labourers from all over the world has toiled to build the best (and most extravagant) things possible.

Ethos of progress
The surprisingly unspectacular Dubai Museum extols the “wondrous business insight” of the Emirate’s rulers in creating free trade zones, opening up Dubai to investment and building a world-class city from the desert sand.

Dubai’s oligarchical rulers are reverently labelled “CEOs of Dubai Inc”: the quintessential free-market success story which has turned the state into a massive for-profit company. “Brand Dubai” proclaims that liberal capitalism makes progress inevitable.

Most Emiratis defend their brand through and through. As the prime beneficiaries of Dubai Inc, they are paid spin-doctors for the regime.

The rhetoric of Emirati nationals — reminiscent of supporters of South Africa’s National Party during the height of apartheid — defend this highly seductive ethos of progress through cheap nationalistic propaganda, which pretends that abuses of the system are non-existent or individual aberrations.

Towards a 21st century apartheid?
The region/state most commonly compared to apartheid South Africa is Israel/Palestine. This comparison makes sense given the systematic approach by the Israeli state towards separating Israeli citizens from Palestinians. But another, more neoliberal oriented example of an apartheid capitalism, one that is nearly all pervasive and totalitarian, is the city-state of Dubai.

Dubai’s visitors are so dazzled by the display of wealth and opulence, they likely assume the shiny, modern glass and metallic wonderland has been built by “lucky” labourers who have everything they could want.

Yet hidden from view are the sprawling labour camps (not unlike apartheid SA’s migrant worker hostels) housing hundreds of thousands of Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan and Filipino workers and maids. You won’t find them on tourist maps or while using public transport: migrant workers must rely only on corporate transport that ferries them between camp and construction sites. Anglo-American Corporation can only look with envy at this unlimited source of non-unionised workers.

The migrant worker camps do not officially segregate people by race or nationality, but rather through a complex system of unregulated (though state sanctioned) corporate controlled worker housing. Workers live eight to a room, rotating beds according to work shifts. Subsisting on slave wages while their bosses hold their passports “in trust”, workers cannot seek alternative jobs or accommodation. As workers are highly indebted to their labour brokers, this is a modern-day version of indentured servitude.

Dubai’s corporate apartheid, unlike apartheid SA’s state-led version, empowers the private sector to engineer the social confines of segregation. It is South African apartheid streamlined for the new neoliberal world order — something that must offer comfort to Dubai’s large white South African ex-pat population.

Dubai’s “success story” is what happens when the concept of national citizenship is taken to its logical conclusion within the context of global free-market capitalism. Until recently, Dubai had less than half a million inhabitants. Today, Dubai’s population has sky-rocketed to more than 8 million people according to official estimates (although critics say the population has contracted since 2008).

About 90% of Dubai’s residents are immigrants who — due to strict regulations against naturalisation — lack citizenship and permanent residency in the UAE. Local laws allowing for extreme discrimination of non-citizens, reserve the best jobs for Emiratis. Further job reservation practices rank immigrants: those from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the West and South Africa rank first, followed by other Arab immigrants who fill service-sector jobs, while those from India, the Philippines, Pakistan and Sri Lanka primarily employed as construction workers and cleaners rank last.

Non-citizens face deportation, eviction or imprisonment without due process for minor offenses including falling into debt, protesting, speaking out against the government, or otherwise “hurting Dubai’s economy” and reputation. Additionally, Dubai Inc can sue for damages against any individual or organisation which has hurt the country’s ability to make a profit.

State censorship coupled with self-censorship keeps Dubai’s apartheid under wraps, while the selective distribution of freedoms compartmentalised in access restricted free-trade zones contributes to the psychological separatism of Dubai’s population.

Without recourse to the justice system, those at the bottom rung of the geopolitical ladder face precarious conditions which can turn deadly — as in the case of the poor worker tortured by the UAE Prince Sheikh Issa bin Zayed. A public YouTube video has led to no serious response by government authority.

A Dubai spring?
Given the rebellious regional mood, one might expect Dubai’s oppressed 90% majority to take to the streets.

Dubai, however, is not Tunisia or Egypt. Neither is it Yemen, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. In these countries the protesters were mostly citizens united by a common enemy in the state.

Instead, Dubai is a society of division, where citizens and higher-level immigrants from the GCC and Europe enjoy lavish benefits at the expense of the majority. For others, fear of reprisals and deportation bars any serious opposition.

The huge immigrant worker underclass building Dubai’s skyscrapers from the ground up simply do not count: they have no social connection to other classes, are themselves separated by lack of shared languages, and are temporary workers in the city-state. They live a bare life and are barred from organising, forming trade unions, social clubs or other spaces of grassroots networking that would make rebellion possible. The recent contraction of Dubai’s economy, which forced oil-rich neighbour Abu Dhabi to bail out the city-state to the tune of $10 billion, lead not to rebellion but rather to mass deportations and exodus of affected workers.

United action is nearly impossible under such conditions, with one recent exception: while building “Tower of Babel”, the 818m Burj Khalifa, tens of thousands of workers downed tools, emboldening a solidarity wildcat strike by construction workers at the Dubai airport in one of the first instances of significant mass action against their slave working conditions. Yet, despite winning some minor concessions and slightly improved working conditions, the action led back to repression, arrests and deportation.

There is, however, hope that springtime may eventually come to Dubai. Any apartheid system based on migrant workers cannot continue unchallenged forever. The worker underclass, who are at the moment mere guests, cannot remain temporary forever. Reported clandestine union meetings will spread and workers will find ways to organise within their restricted social spaces planting the seeds of a wider rebellion.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions did not happen out of nowhere. Nor did the Zapatista uprising in Mexico or the liberation struggle in South Africa. The momentum for these rebellions was built over decades of struggle.

Dubai’s excluded workers will need to do the same. Perhaps 15 years from now, as Dubai returns to an economic crisis, the people will rise up to demand, among other material needs, dignified citizenship. As such rebellions for dignity tell us, “a person cannot be illegal. A person is a person where ever they may find themselves”.

Much of the information in this article comes from discussion with a few unnamed people living in Dubai. They were willing to speak to these issues on a condition of anonymity. Jared Sacks is a Cape Town-based activist working with community-based social movements. He is also the director of Children of South Africa.


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  1. Robard Robard 29 September 2011

    Describing it as apartheid is analytically obtuse. What you are selling as discriminatory job reservation is plausibly more a function of the fact that third world nations don’t have surplus engineers like the west but do have surplus labourers. The treatment is based on socio-economic status of jobs and exploitability of the ignorant, not race. This is proved by some cases a while back of white South Africans going over there as teachers and au pairs and likewise having their passports confiscated and wages withheld.

    Fingering the likes of Anglo American for apartheid is particularly obtuse, since job reservation was championed by the communist party in South Africa long before apartheid came into being. Big business interests opposed the apartheid government exactly because job reservation made labour more expensive and because the segregationist ideals of apartheid policy would have resulted in black labour becoming ultimately unavailable where it was needed. It was liberals who provided the economic argument against apartheid, prompting Verwoerd to proclaim “rather poor and segregated than rich and integrated” and it was capitalism that prevailed when the NP as early as the 70’s effectively abandoned its homelands policy.

  2. Oscar Oscar 29 September 2011

    So, uh, Jared, have you actually been to Dubai……………..?

  3. Jeff Jeff 29 September 2011

    What you don’t mention is that – unlike in SA apartheid – the suffering classes come to Dubai completely voluntarily. Some may have been suckered into bad circumstances, but surely many know in advance from returnee’s stories what it’s really like to work there – yet still go in order to earn money.

  4. Chris2.0 Chris2.0 29 September 2011

    Just what were you trying to achieve with the following sentence?

    “something that must offer comfort to Dubai’s large white South African ex-pat population.”

  5. Justice Justice 29 September 2011

    Thank you for sharing. Horrific stories of abuse of workers continue to pour out of Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The absence of a free media ensures that the world never get to know what’s happening there. In the few instances when information has tricked out, the accounts have been horrific. People have to assume much more atrocities are taking place inside that Babylon. I guess most of these victims endure it because they are there for short periods of time. But then, their employers can decide when they can leave. Horrible!

  6. ian ian 30 September 2011

    i’m pretty sure that soon one of the more rabid commentators will admonish you for daring to apply the term apartheid to another country..mustn’t cheapen the word which to some stands for slavery, rape and killing for 400 hundred years..

  7. John Patson John Patson 30 September 2011

    You soften apartheid with this analysis. The base of apartheid was institutionalised racism — there were laws which said where you could live, travel, work, go to school and who you could marry according to race.
    In Dubai none of this applies.
    The labour compounds you describe are more the result of labour recruiting norms in counties like India, Bangladesh and The Philipines, (where similar compounds exist near all major construction projects) than Dubai’s legal system.
    Sure, it is a strange city, made up of expatriates lured by tax free salaries but before rushing there check out the cost of living. In recent years it has been higher than in London or Paris — €900a month for a 30m2 studio flat is common.

  8. Gavin Gavin 30 September 2011

    This is a pretty lightweight analysis. If the author is going to make accusations, he should provide examples, and proof, of what he claims is going on.
    Under apartheid, your status was defined by skin colour. In the UAE, it is quite possible for someone of Indian, Pakistani, African or any other ethnic background, to build a succesful life. This is why the country continues to attract people from all over the world.
    The chief restriction is that you can’t eventually become a citizen.Hardly a burden, when many people use their time there to build wealth for themselves and their families, before returning home.

  9. goolam.dawood goolam.dawood 30 September 2011

    That’s not an adequate description of apartheid, because if it is, it perfectly describes the system of global capitalism that defines the “progress” of the modern age and the entrenched wealth of the Western nations. If Dubai is an apartheid state, judging by the G8 nations and their control over global markets, the world is living in a state of apartheid! Its hard for neo-liberals to own up to .. but this is what’s commonly called CLASS STRUGGLE. You’re actually describing the system of economics and politics, our very own DA would like to use to transform SA and has already established in the Western Cape. Forest from trees dude!

  10. Jared Sacks Jared Sacks 30 September 2011

    Hi all, thanks for you comments.

    Just to clarify on a few points:

    1) Yes I’ve been to Dubai which is why I wrote this article

    2) The term apartheid does not necessarily mean racial apartheid or discrimination based on skin colour. Israeli apartheid is a case in point.

    3) In this article, I am using the term apartheid to denote physical, economic and institutional separation of populations by their places of origin (which means, in a practical sense, their race as well). In Dubai, all of this is the case. There are, of course, exceptions such as a token millionaire mogul from India living amongst wealthy Arabs and Westerners. However, this does not, in my opinion, take away from the analysis. It also doesn’t water down the atrociousness of Verwood, etc but just makes linkages in the continuity of various forms of segregation and discrimination throughout the world.

    4) There is much analysis here in South Africa that claims that our society remains an apartheid or apartheid-like society despite the fact that it is no longer institutionalised through racial discrimination. This is most evident here in Cape Town which is one of the most racially and economically segregated cities in the world.

    Hope this will add to the discussion.

  11. Robard Robard 30 September 2011

    ian – Already done that – see first comment. The problem is that this analysis doesn’t make sense, neither from a left wing nor a right wing perspective. Job reservation is something that is imposed on businesses by politicians. Never mind that in this instance we are supposed to believe that brown people are reserving jobs for white people at the expense of other brown people, why would a business voluntarily practise job reservation? It just isn’t plausible that Dubai businessmen or even their government would artificially raise the price at which, say, engineers can be had by voluntarily granting a monopoly to white people at the exclusion of their co-religionists.

    As for apartheid being a byword for slavery and exploitation, it might surprise you that the concept was first championed in South Africa by liberal missionaries who wanted to protect natives against what they saw as the depredations of capitalistic modernity. This was taken up by Afrikaner theologians as a way out of the bind of perpetual racial conflict and the threat of annihilation, a means for ensuring “naasbestaan in geregtigheid” (a just co-existence).

    Using apartheid in this way, as a filter for viewing all and every injustice in the world amounts to no more than empty sloganeering and rather obscures the way in which history really unfolded. Because we so easily assume that we are better and know better than those who have gone before we condemn ourselves to repeating their mistakes.

  12. Robard Robard 30 September 2011

    So Jared, can’t you think of any legitimate, practical reasons why people might be separated by places of origin, not to mention the remote possibility that a Pakistani might positively loath having to share lodgings with an Indian?

    Ps. Who is this Verwood fellow and how do you know that he was so very atrocious?

  13. DonQuixote DonQuixote 1 October 2011

    Flaccid. Nothing new that the world has not known for some time.

    Also, IIRC, only Emiratis can stake a majority ownership in companies based in Dubai. Can someone confirm if this still exists?

  14. Narain Narain 1 October 2011

    – Don Quixote: free zones such as Dubai Media City, Jebel Ali Free Zone & Dubai International Financial Centre offer 100% foreign ownership is various (though not all) sectors which has enabled many multi-nationals to establish wholly owned subsidiaries in Dubai.

    – Jared: far more than a few “token” Indian millionaires have done very well for themselves and while there are a number of points in your original post and followup in the comments that are valid statements like this one (point 3 in your comments followup) really grate and undermine your credibility.

  15. gert gert 1 October 2011

    People’s general knowledge of our history (or any history) astounds me. It is usually
    made up of sound bites that lodge in their minds as fact; communicated ad nauseam
    by the government of the day to obtain predetermined outcomes. The “glorious”
    ANC history of is a perfect example.
    @jeff- the “suffering classes” of apartheid SA VOLUNTARILY streamed into the country
    in their millions from every conceivable african country. They would then expatriate
    the money and return to the country. Again and again and again. Coupled with medical
    care on par with europe, this explains the explosion in their population size.
    Apartheids intent was good and pure. It was informed by global events of the day. Greed
    turned it into a cheap labour abuse system.
    @jared- “no longer institutionalised racism”- where have you been? The country is no
    different from 50years ago. Its just done a tit-for-tat. In fact its worse today.
    @ian- “slavery, rape and killing for 400years”. That’s ill-informed and racist. The
    Dutch settlers detested slavery and were in great battles with Britain over this. What rape?
    Call it racism, but most wouldn’t touch the indigenous with gloves. Statistics and
    historical record contradict this “killings” myth. The dutch were pious, religious people who
    only protected themselves against the English and African. Remember the Battle of Blood River?
    In fact as far as “slavery, rape and killings” are concerned, this country has never…

  16. Eric Engelbrecht Eric Engelbrecht 2 October 2011

    I am a bit perplexed by this article. Instead of being a true activist analysis of the Dubai situation, it is merely a degenirate repeat of neo-liberal statements that have been around for a while. Indeed the references are out of date and do not acknowledge the present situation.
    The issue of human traficking is what the labour market is all about. Throughout South East Asia “labour agencies” tour the villages and poorer area promising them riches in Dubai / UAE. The poor pay these agents thousands of Dollars to get jobs, sometimes the whole village contributes. The agents in turn pass them onto the companies in the UAE. (it is illegal in UAE to pay a company to get you a job, so this all takes place off shore.)
    Kerala in southern India, with the longest serving democratically elected communist party government, is wealthy due to the money sent home by ex-pat workers.
    The labour agents are the ones who are the worst exploiters, charging high interest and using cruel debt collection methods. They operate within the laws of the local state and are well tolerated by the ruling party. The going rate for a labourer position was equivalent to 2.5 times the gross income, almost US $ 6 000.00. Yet people in abject poverty still make the choice to go.
    On an aside, the Labour Law in the UAE is not a bad law, while it does not allow for collective bargaining has a number of good provisions for the protection of workers, unfortunately policing is rare and exploitation flourishes.

  17. Rory Rory 2 October 2011

    Jared,this is yet another bit of media sensationalism,grabbing headlines without reality.The reality is that these workers come here voluntarily to lift themselves out of their poverty in their home countries.I have worked here for 30 years and some of our employees from these countries have been here for just as long,and would surely not do so if the conditions are that desparate as you portray.
    Furhermore they generally are aware of the circumstances and conditions of the country through their relatives and media exposure.To state that all workers live 8 to a room and rotate beds is a sweeping generalisation.
    I agree that some of the conditions are not the best ,but have you seen the conditions where they come from.Not all of the workers live as you portray and perhaps you should come and see for yourself.
    There are plenty of cases of workers who came here and are now very succesful and wealthy business people
    You as a journalist are expected to provide balanced reporting

  18. ian ian 3 October 2011

    gert, not sure you got the context of my comment…(nor you Robard) was a dig at the commentators on this site who usually respond with drivel along those lines should anyone i: suggest there were worse things than apartheid ii: suggest the previously disadvantaged get on with it now iii: not come across as shameful..

  19. Acuteabby Acuteabby 3 October 2011

    Did someone just say “WHAT RAPE”?
    umm I’m sorry.. But there’s a whole race that materialized When the Brits and the Dutch landed.. They are called the Coloureds.
    So what do you mean by , “They wouldn’t touch a native with gloves.”

  20. Robard Robard 3 October 2011

    @ian – you’re right, I misunderstood.

    @acuteabby – The Dutch miscegenated to a noticeable extent only with their Asiatic slaves, the offspring of which were married into the Afrikaner population. Other Coloureds are offspring mostly of sailors and English soldiers stationed at the Cape. That is why Afrikaners and Coloureds have so few surnames in common. Even ostensibly Afrikaans surnames, such as Hendrikse and Oliphant are not found amongst Afrikaners at all. Also, many of those who are described today as Coloureds are actually descendants of the rather light-skinned Hottentots.

  21. Joe Joe 21 October 2011

    Interesting article.

    As I read it I feared that you ran the risk of having readers miss the point with the way you compare the Dubai situation to apartheid, and a glance at some comments confirms this.

    Of course, I can’t take your word for it that this is an accurate portrayal of Dubai Inc., but one is left with a sense that, Dubai Inc., as you describe it, epitomises successful neo-liberalism. While official discourse holds that everyone is entitled (and encouraged) to be rich and own something profitable, the mechanics of the system lends itself to a vastly stratified society. Exploitation is easy when you don’t view the people you exploit as equals.

  22. Zach Zach 27 October 2011

    I worked for a Dubai multinational. I spent a month in the GCC and then started working in Egypt. What the writer is saying here is essentially true. In my view it has nothing to do with Apartheid. It is simply slavery. The camps are real, I even found them in Oman. In Oman I also found that a lot of higher skills came from India ie medical people and they live a good life as long as it lasts.

    It is good that somebody is taking this up. Believe me, it is slavery and nobody dares to say so.

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