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.