23 February 2010
We’ve heard the stories and we’ve seen the pictures. The Dubai skyline is massive, and it popped up nearly overnight. Of course, we’ve also seen the most recent update: Dubai is totally broke. While that doesn’t mean a whole lot for the 500,000 Emirati who are actually citizens, the other 5.5 million Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants most definitely feel the crunch. While the superficial Dubai is all glitz and glamour - the world’s tallest building, the world’s biggest hotel, the world’s largest indoor ski slope, an entire island development made to look like the World, every western chain from Applebee’s to TGI Friday’s - the underbelly of the city is built entirely on the back of overtly oppressed foreigners.
Beyond the tall buildings that line Sheik Zayed Road, nothing really passes two or three stories. While the gargantuan air-conditioned shopping malls are deserted, the street markets selling cheap toys made in China, imitation name brands and a seemingly endless supply of trendy scarves. The market for kid’s goods is huge, as five million of the 5.5 million immigrants are men with families back at home. They’re only allowed to leave every 14 to 18 months for 2 or 3 weeks (this after working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week non-stop for those 14 to 18 months) and when they go, they bring piles of goodies home to their families.
While the history of Dubai is fascinating - it’s growth from a tiny nothing town in the middle of a sandy desert to one of the World’s largest transport and shipment hubs - the real story lies in the otherworldly, archaic, humanitarian crisis that is the near indentured servitude faced by a majority of the population. Just 500,000 people control the lives and livelihoods of ten times that number of residents and as the economy tanks, the question becomes: what happens to them? They have no protections at all. No retirement packages, no guaranteed flight home, no recourse for wrongful firing. It’s pure, unbated, unregulated, un-unionized capitalism and it serves as strong evidence for what happens when we let the invisible hand sort everything out. Be careful America. We don’t want to be next.