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.