The Best Of What’s Going On In MENA

The National | Dubai's Dirty Facts

You do not have to spend much time in the Emirate of Dubai to understand how it came to be seen as the most liberal city in the Persian Gulf region. The hordes of Russian and Chinese prostitutes who lurk in its hotels, bars and back alleys, without a peep from the police, provide you with one clue. The availability of top-shelf alcohol at the airport duty-free shop provides another. The image Dubai presents to the world is that of a bustling, cosmopolitan centre of commerce and trade. The ruling Al Maktoum family, in alliance with local entrepreneurs, has carefully cultivated this image through clever public relations efforts, such as their ongoing "Dubai, City of Gold" campaign. This is in turn helping raise the profile of the United Arab Emirates -- the federation of seven small hereditary monarchies to which Dubai belongs. Dubai's commercial energy is undeniable. It is now the world's fifth largest importer of diamonds, for example -- only the United States, Hong Kong, Israel and Switzerland import more. The City of Gold's reputation, however, is starting to tarnish. The latest blow to Dubai's good name came in the form of Building Towers, Cheating Workers, a meticulously researched 71-page report issued this month by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The report documents how the UAE fails to uphold the rights of the expatriate labourers who work in the country's construction industry. The HRW report observes that "foreigners constitute 95% of the workforce in the UAE, and as of 2005, there were 2,738,000 migrant workers in the country. The roughly 20% of migrant workers who are employed in construction are overwhelmingly men from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, many of them illiterate and from impoverished rural communities." That is to say they are ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous UAE businessmen -- especially those who back Dubai's world-famous mega-projects. The HRW report goes on to observe that these construction workers usually receive about US$175 per month on arrival in the UAE. That is after having paid a recruitment agency (likely in cahoots with a UAE developer) perhaps US$2,000 to US$3,000 to arrange a work visa. Because many workers are in debt to their employers for these upfront costs -- and because they are unable to change employers once inside the country -- their status amounts to a form of involuntary servitude. Some workers have tried to go on strike, but organized resistance is difficult: Forming a labour union is against the law. Hundreds of these men die every year in unexplained construction accidents. Few of these accidents are even reported to authorities. Instead, the bodies are simply shipped back to South Asia. As HRW's report makes clear, the UAE federal government systematically turns a blind eye to the abuses endured by workers. "For example," the report says, "having made a point of passing a law that bans both local recruitment agencies and local employers from charging workers any fee in connection with the recruitment or employment process, it has made little effort to punish recruiting agents who persist in making these charges, or the employers who are complicit."
In response to the report, the prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, reportedly ordered the labour minister to enforce the country's labour laws. But it remains to be seen whether anything will come of it. In the meantime, much of the UAE establishment remains in a state of denial. The Gulf News, Dubai's main daily English-language paper, attacked the report as "sensationalist and without substantiated evidence," "not fair" and "shallow, biased and inaccurate." The News was relatively restrained. A HRW report released earlier this year about poor labour conditions faced by expatriate workers in Arab states caused the UAE political elite to leap the length of its chain. UAE Labour Minister Ali bin Abdullah Al Kaabi went so far as to brand HRW "insane and illogical" for doubting things were less than perfect in his country. One of his deputies charged the report was a "deliberate unjustifiable attack." And Lieutenant-General Dhahi Khalfan, Dubai's police chief, rushed out to assure the world it could safely ignore HRW's claims. The group "does not have any proof to substantiate their accusations," he said -- ignoring HRW's track record of careful research. HRW should remember what every good fighter-pilot knows -- "When you start receiving flak, you know you are over the target." Judging by the reaction of people in the UAE, HRW has scored a direct hit. Let's hope HRW keeps up the pressure.