Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Great Unseen Middle

So Johann Hari kicked out a wee piece on Dubai in The Independent recently, and it has the Dubai blogosphere all abuzz. It's a hatchet job! He speaks truth to power! The cries oscillate between sweet vindication and salivating hate.

After reading the article myself, I was conflicted. On the one hand it is completely, undeniably, yellow journalism. It is so heavily one sided that it almost makes Michael Moore docs look positively even handed. It's not that what Johann says is not true, but that he lies through the sin of omission, and not in any small way. Those supporting the government or the status quo are portrayed as spittle flinging saps, or over-tanned Marie Antoinettes. It's like Hari is a modern day Robespierre totting up a list for the Committee of Public Safety.

On the other hand, the article itself is incredibly compelling, with a narrative that pulls you through close to 9,000 words at an impressive clip. He moves from one place to the next, meets person after person, recounts their words, states his approval or disapproval, and then it's on to the next bit. But in all that trotting about and jawing it up, Johann gets a story, but doesn't even come close to touching on the story. Between hanging out in Sonapur and, straight to the other extreme, sipping tea at the Burj, Johann Hari didn't really seem to have time to look at the great unmentioned middle - where the real story of Dubai can be found.

In all of the exposes, docs and investigations into the state of sub-continental workers in Dubai, it is as if a collective myopia has taken root. The construction boom in Dubai is not that old, less than a decade, really, and the companies going about slapping together buildings willy-nilly were, and are, acting no differently than dot com companies prior to 2001, and investment banks before last year. That is, it is a case of greed spurred on by the presence of a massive bubble.

In the case of any bubble, or historical gold rush, only some get rich. In this case, Dubai is no different. That said, not all of Dubai, nor even the large part of Dubai was part of this bubble.

Have you ever gone to St. Mary's Church? Because if you have, and managed to squeeze through the thousands who attend mass there daily, you will meet a cross section of almost every nationality in this city. I also mention St. Mary's, because it, and places like it in Dubai, don't seem to exist as far as the international media are concerned, yet it is there that you will meet real veteran expats, the kind who remember when the World Trade Centre was the only building between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and were there when Sheikh Zayed Road was a two lane pony trail stretching out into an endless desert. But it is also there that you won't meet the pampered western executive class, who long ago fled to the Dubai Marina or Jebel Ali.

You see, though I am a white westerner, and could easily have ended up as one of those insufferable bubbly sipping lot over in Jumeirah (not that I not already insufferable, mind) I had the great fortune of marrying into a sensible Indian family, a family that has lived in Dubai for 35 years. My wife's father worked for a government company for more than three decades, and in that time he raised his daughters, paid for their post-secondary education in Canada, and secured several flats and properties in India that he will soon head out to now that he has retired. He, like his brother, and his wife's sister's, have all raised their families here, worked to build comfortable lives, and have prepared themselves for retirement by buying property, building homes, and setting aside fixed deposits that will carry them through their retirements. They are a part of the very large middle class in Dubai, the kind you will run into by visiting St. Mary's, or one of the Hindu Temples. They are the real story, because it is they who have propped up the economies of numerous countries through massive remittances over the years, and it is their stories that truly underlie the "land-of-milk-and-honey" image Dubai has garnered voer the past two decades.

Dubai was and still is a place where those with some entrepreneurial spirit, brains, and a willingness to work can really better their own lot. Don't believe me? Well here is a tale that illustrates exactly what I mean.

There is a maid I know. Let's call her "Daisy." Daisy is not her real name, but for our purposes it will do. You see, a colleague of mine employs Daisy full time. She does not live with his family, and chooses to live elsewhere with her husband. She comes in the day time to clean my colleague's flat, wash the laundry, and prepare food for dinner. After finishing there, she heads off to babysit or clean for one or another client, all the while keeping tabs on the several part time maids she employs and schedules work for. For each party in the transaction, there is a real benefit to be had. My colleague and his wife both work, and need the help, while Daisy needs the job. Though Daisy's monthly wage, by mine or my colleague's standard, is not much, she supplements it with side jobs and through her side business. Relative my colleague and I, however, though her total income, all told, is probably only a quarter of what we earn, and we are by no means wealthy or even redolent, she is so far ahead of us that we can only envy her. Her house in her home country, and the massive property she has bought, as well as the additional flats she owns, and the staff she pays to help her family, are all funded through her actions here. Her children back home already have fully funded college accounts, and when she retires in a few years, her lifestyle will be of a level that I could only dream of. If and when I leave here, taking into account the cost of living and housing where I am from (Canada), I'll have enough for a decent down payment on a house, but that's about it. Sure I'll be debt free when I get back, which is a heck of a lot more than I can say of most of my friends and family, but I certainly won't be living the same life Daisy will.

The thing is, Daisy's story is not unique, not by a long shot. If you ask many NRIs (non-resident Indians) or Sri-Lankans here, they'll tell you that back home in their villages you can tell who is or is not working in the Gulf by the size and quality of their homes. A great many companies were started by NRIs here, and grew into major concerns. The Lulu's grocery and retail empire is one of those great success stories.

But you won't hear about that in The Guardian or The Independent. Those rags market tales of woe and social dissonance, and they market them well. You won't hear these stories in the Economist or Newsweek either, because those writers and editors are too busy popping into and out of the offices of CEOs and PR flaks.

In fact, you won't hear that story at all outside of Dubai, because it is a story that holds no interest for readers raised on tabloid media filled with sensational scandals. What would the headlines read? "Dubai middle class content in steady growth and prosperity"? Hardly has the same cachet as "The Dark Side of Dubai".

As they said in that movie, Johann, may the farce be with you.


  1. Exactly right James. As I said in my post on the subject, there are tens of thousands of hard working expats happily doing the right thing but they're ignored by western, particularly British, journalists who seek out the sensational.

  2. As is the nature of news??? Those very journalists work to attempt to affect change where it is deemed necessary. There is no need to report on "expats happily doing the right thing," as those expats will continue to do so - continue being happy - so why raise awareness? OK, we all know that the news media has been perverted to the extent that sensationalism has become some kind of Frankenstein's Monster (post lightning strike) but hey. The free market shall decide. BTW Jimmy O'Hearne - thanks for commenting on my site (Desert_Blogger). Your article is most refreshing. I'm adding a link to your page, via mine. Hope this is OK. Would be spiffing if you could return the favour. I'm at: http://desert-blogger.livejournal.com/
    Cheers - Jamie.

  3. You say that, yes, there's slavery, but there's also the middle class, people who came from non-western countries and earned great wealth in Dubai, enough to finance a good life for them and for their families.

    These middle-class Indians are also earning their wealth off the backs of the slaves. You see the two Dubais as separate in their economies, as you say, "[N]ot all of Dubai, nor even the large part of Dubai was part of this [construction-slavery boom]."

    Really? The construction industry accounted for 22.6% of the GDP of Dubai. 22.6% of the GDP! If that money were lost, the entire economy would collapse, as Dubai would not be able to support itself. 22% of the money flowing into everyone's pocket comes from the construction industry.

    Source: http://www.ameinfo.com/66981.html

    At 22%, your income, and therefore the income of your maid, is dependent on the work of those slaves.

    It doesn't matter how well off she becomes. She becomes well-off because the money wasn't spent on the slaves.

  4. The construction industry accounted for 22.6% of the GDP of Dubai. 22.6% of the GDP! If that money were lost, the entire economy would collapse, as Dubai would not be able to support itself. 22% of the money flowing into everyone's pocket comes from the construction industry.

    Really Harris? Gosh, with a credible source like that, who could argue?

    Dubai is a commercial and trading center that had a construction bubble. Not the other way around. The city was here before the recent boom, and will be here long after.

  5. I agree with you 100 % Mr House. Dubai is a great city, which like all great cities has some very serious problems, the magnitude of which were maliciously overblown by Hari's hateful tirade, which apparently is more motivated to gain attention and sell copies of the Independent rather than achieve anything tangible for the Asian workers of Dubai.

    Anyway, check Hari's latest offering - his apologistics for Somali pirates, which should tell you more about his sensationalistic non credibility rather than anything else.

  6. Well done James !
    Great piece and a true account of how everything in Dubai is relative. The seemingly poor are not so poor back home in their village !! Absolutely true.
    I wrote a short comment on desert blogger before seeing your link and it reflects exaclty what you are saying here.
    Dubai is certainly not as bad or even as good as the various media paints it but a mix and match somewhere in between.

  7. Everyone who lives here knows that the labourers who have built Dubai (and are building Abu Dhabi) are treated abominably. Show me someone who says otherwise, and I will show you a liar.

    So what if there is a booming non-western middle class? So what if there is some people have the opportunity to show enterprise and advance themselve? It doesnt make the lives of the labourers and et al one jot better.

    What seems to have happened in this whole debate is that the main point in the Independent article (ie. the exploitation of the workers by unscruplous bosses) has been hijacked by everything from "the west is jelous of our prosperity" to "not all westerners behave like twats". Classic case of playing the man, instead of the ball.

    Its undeniable that the labourers are treated poorly. What makes it even more sickening is that it probably wouldnt cost a whole lot to improve their livelihoods at least a little. Especially for a country which is properous enough that every other car is a Mercedes or a BMW.

    All articles like yours do by telling us all what a wonderful place Dubai is, is maintain the status quo. But purhaps that is your intention?

  8. Superb essay, James. Thanks for giving us your perspective on Dubai.

  9. Well Mr Anonymous (April 14 3:24am) if you dont like the way Dubai is you can always LEAVE !!!
    There is no debate.
    James's blog is a true and acurate account of how Dubai really is - not the media hype created by a reporter trying to make a name for himself.

    Remember Mr Anonymous, this is not Europe and it will never be Europe. That is why people like us come to places like this to get away from the Politically Correct Bull****.

    I suppose you call these workers "slaves" and yet they flock here in their thousands of their own free will. Why? well it's because here they can earn at least ten times what they can earn in their own country if they can find a job at all back home. Everything is relative.

    When you are sat in your fancy villa or luxury flat just remember that it is because people like you come here that they need these construction workers to build your homes.

    I trust your conscience feels more at ease having spoken out, so you wont feel so bad having your Friday brunch in a 5 star hotel knowing your maid has done your cleaning and laundry so you can just relax. And you wont feel so bad when a petrol station attendant fills up your expensive car or the guy packs your shopping bags in the supermarket and carries them out to your car where you paid another guy 15 Dirhams to wash it while you are shopping because you are too lazy to do it yourself.

    Open your eyes, this is the world that YOU have chosen to live in.

  10. Yes Batman, and all this makes the plight of the labourers and their sub-human working and living conditions ok...

    I suggest u look up the Panarama Report on You Tube. Just to get an idea how good the labourers really have it. But then its probably all just more politically correct bull**** isnt it?

  11. Mr Anonymous, I watched the entire Panorama report on the 7th of April when I downloaded it from BBC I-Player.

    As the program showed only 2 labour camps out of thousands I would hardly call it objective.

    Also if you recall one of the labourers was quoted as saying that he was unable to buy furniture for his parents house or a piece of land or put his cousin through college which is what most of them are normally able to do.

    How many pieces of land in your home country do you buy with your salary? How many distant relatives do you put through college? And did you furnish your parents house? None of the above? EXACTLY!

    As I said before it is all relative and if you believe everything you see on TV then you are yet another sheep following the flock.

    There is good and bad everywhere. Dubai is no different and it is not all bad. Dubai is a land of opportunity. That's why you are here isn't it? Well that's why they are here too.

    If you would really like to change the living conditions for the labourers that you saw on TV then why not let a few move in with you. They could use your bathroom and kitchen.

    Go on.... Put your money where your mouth is !!!

  12. I noticed another point which the panorama documentary never even bothered to touch upon. Both of these labour camps they visited were for construction.

    I guess this must be a balanced view of how asian expats are treated, because everybody knows the service industry is staffed *entirely* by locals and westerners.

    Oh. Wait.

    The service industry is easily as big as the construction industry in terms of manpower, and the majority of these employees don't live in labour camps, they live in satwa, karama etc.

    Okay, so they live in partitioned apartments with a dozen other people, but that's rent prices, not employers trying to cram people together.

    And before you try to attack me personally, saying that I must be a westerner (I am, english actually) and on a huge fat salary... no. I earn about the same as I would earn in a full-time retail or bar job in the UK (which is about all I'd get, being 24, fresh out of university). And half of that gets sent back home every month to pay off my student loan and credit card, and to help look after my mother who can't work full-time any more.

  13. Well observed Cole, yes they were both construction companies camps as that was the angle of attack for the journalist.

    A lot of service companies also house their workforce in labour camps. This includes all the hotel staff. The point is that not all labour camps are like the two portrayed on Panorama.

    For Example, I visited the labour camp that housed the workforce of Kerzner the construction company building the Atlantis. Quite honestly I would of had no qualms about staying there myself. The place was clean and tidy but they still had 4 or 6 men per room. The camp had cleaning staff and kitchen staff and recreation facilities. The food from the canteen was top notch indian/asian dishes which I had the pleasure of sampling on several occasions, it included meat, vegetables, rice and bread. The workforce was indeed taken care of.

    It aint all bad matey.

    Well done for helping your Mum, sounds like you have your feet firmly on the ground.

  14. To Slow Reader, Batman, and Cole -

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate your supportive tone.

    To Daniel Harris and the Anonymouses -

    I'm sorry I can't see this issue from your perspective. By the fervency of your tone, and the ardency of your comments, I can sense that the issue is far too close to your hearts for the detached perspective I prefer.

  15. The example you mentioned of Indian-run businesses is typical and restricted to Indian people and their mentality only. Everywhere I've been within and outside India, I've seen Indians value long-term stability over short-term gain. My dad and mom worked their asses off for decades so that they could send me and my brother for education abroad. When I went abroad, I was quite literally shocked to see the attitude of the Europeans, in that they spend everything they earn (sometimes more than what they earn) without any meaningful savings. Sure, they have the advantage that they live in a country where if they don't earn, they get minimum living allowance from the govt. But in the developing world, the fear of not having any support once you lose your job, or in the event of a political or economic turmoil, stirs people on. So you will hardly ever find a lazy or un-resourceful Indian.

    Now, on to the story of Daisy. EVERY household in India employs a Daisy. If you have a pukka house in India, you have a Daisy. That is not slavery, it is very much a norm. It is the easiest and most standard way for women from the vast urban poor section of Indian society to earn a living. These women are NOT slaves, they are not employed against their wishes, not even against their demands and always at time-slots they choose. These are independent women, who have families and are very proud of what they do. The one who works in my house brings her daughter with her after school so that she also learns how to clean a house, dishes etc. The idea of such a form of domestic help is quite novel to the European, but it is prevalent in each and every developing country in the world, from Brazil & Ecuador to India & Indonesia. So don't try to portray it as if it is a very unique redeeming feature of Dubai. Yes, these women don't get paid that much, but they have a lot of self-respect and their employers also treat them with respect.

    Some houses also have maids who live and work full-time in people's homes. In most cases these are boys and girls in the age-groups of 10-18. It may sound like its child labour, but let me elucidate on the dynamics of the situation. These kids are sent to cities to find work and earn money by their families in villages. The best way to do so is to find yourself a host, who will take care of you food, clothing, housing, security AND eduation. In return you work as domestic help, take kids for occasional walks etc. They never enter into an agreement if they don't like the employer, or at a wage which they don't like, and they always have a local contact to whom they can report if the employer abuses them in any way. They get monthly time-off to visit their family and its a relationship which works both ways. It is NOT equivalent to slavery, and it is much much better than kids working in factories, tea stalls, restaurants, roadside vendor shops or just simply begging on streets.

    I know most of what I wrote has nothing to do with Dubai or your article, but it is an example of how one can deal with laborers and workers from the lower echelons of society.