Photo above: octal, Feature photo: Joi

Slave labor, oblivious expats, environmental collapse. Is this the real Dubai?

Slow to the punch, I was recently directed to an article from The Independent published in April of this year: The dark side of Dubai.

It’s the story of a failed experiment in city/utopia building, where the global economic crisis has emptied malls and hotels and halted nearly all construction — this in a city that gave rise to the oft-repeated (and oft-debunked) factoid that it employees a quarter of the world’s construction cranes.

According to the article, Dubai has failed not only economically, but also socially. Emiratis (who make up just 5% of the population) are educated up to the PhD level at no cost, while armies of impoverished foreign laborers live in bondage and lack clean drinking water. Anyone who raises a critical voice is deported (expats), financially ruined (Emiratis), or imprisoned (foreign workers).

Jaw Dropped

It’s a shocking account. And it’s almost too much to believe.

I’ll admit my immediate reaction leaned toward skepticism. Part of it is that — to me — Johann Hari’s writing comes off scripted, the neatly framed and overly witty words of someone who knew what he wanted to write before he stepped off the plane.

And part of it is that I simply hope the picture he paints isn’t accurate.

* A slave labor system where South Asian construction workers and East African housekeepers are lured to Dubai by third-party recruiters, only to have their passports confiscated, promised wages halved or withheld, and every waking hour conscripted.

* A body of expats that delight in the hedonism the socioeconomic order allows them, living with a constant buzz on and complaining that there are too many Indians throwing themselves in front of their SUVs in a last-ditch effort to escape the system.

* An ocean — Dubai’s biggest tourist draw — darkened with raw sewage as the delicate, super-arid environment begins to collapse under the weight of forced modernity.

Please tell me these caricatures were lifted from some sci-fi dystopia, not the streets of reality.

Speak Up

Matador Abroad’s Tim Patterson already put out a call for on-the-ground voices from Dubai. I’d like to renew that invitation — though, if The Independent‘s article is any indication, those voices will probably need to be “recently-left-the-ground.”

Have you traveled to or lived in Dubai? How does your experience square with The Independent‘s exposé of the city’s “dark side“?

Speak up in the comments, or email me directly at hal[at]matadornetwork[dot]com to discuss telling your story in a Trips feature.