From The Sunday Times
July 12, 2009
Sordid reality behind Dubai's gilded facade
Click to view image: 'photo 1'
Construction halted, westerners jailed for adultery - but prostitutes do well
Andrew Blair says he will pick me up from outside my sleaze-bucket of a hotel, give it 20 minutes or so, got some work to finish off. He has a job again, contracts apparently “coming out of his ears”, which is good, because until recently he had earned a certain notoriety for not having a job and, more to the point, for the manner in which he went about finding a new one. He drove around Dubai, back in January this year, from the plug-ugly creek to the plug-ugly marina, in his white Porsche, with a sign in the back window saying he wanted a job; vroom vroom he went, gizza job. Scratch scratch scratch went the keys and coins along the side of his car whenever it was parked up.
Such conspicuous flaunting of vulgar affluence seems to me entirely appropriate for this foul city — especially when combined with an admission of desperation and hopelessness, that scrawled sign and telephone number in his rear window. Fur coat and no knickers, etc. But, unaccountably, the local expats found it all a little contemptible and the journalists — none of whom possessed Ferraris — sniggered long and loud in print, out of exquisite Schadenfreude. Just look at this idiot on his uppers, was the subtext. But the ploy worked, and Andrew is once again in gainful employment as a construction project manager, and therefore can remain in this country where they deport you if you’re skint, so who’s laughing now? Not Andrew, as it happens. The whole episode, he says, made him think, made him change his ways. Those first two years out here in this dusty and scorched semi-reclaimed desert were enormous fun: huge tax-free income, palatial apartment — “the crème de la crème” — silent or monosyllabic servants, all that sex (a city containing 8,000 air hostesses can’t be bad), the fast cars, the alcohol.
But he’s a changed man, he says; that epic, shallow, soul-destroying materialism and vulgarity now leave him cold. Being out of work for a while left him a little bruised but a better person, understanding that money and consumer durables are not everything. A changed man. Although not that changed, I notice, as the white Porsche pulls up.
“Why did you leave Britain?” I ask him, slung well below sea level in the bucket seat as we cruise the baked streets past the filthy, crumbling apartment blocks where the Bangladeshi slave labourers live or die, 10 or 12 to a room, and then into the hideous bling of downtown Dubai, a vast architectural experiment conducted by, seemingly, Albert Speer and Victoria Beckham. One skyscraper appears to be gilded in gold leaf, another looks like the birthday cake of a spoilt five-year-old brat — and all of them trying desperately to be taller, flashier, more grotesque than the one next door.
“Well, you know,” he says, in a soft Scottish burr, “I think it was the immigration more than anything else.”
“But Andrew, you’re an immigrant now…”
He looks astonished at this, as if the notion had never occurred, then says: “Yes! Ironic, I suppose. But the difference is, I’m a wanted immigrant.”
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Up to a point. In truth, needed more than wanted. As one local put it: “We are fed up of westerners who come here thinking they deserve an easy meal ticket. You were nothing in the West, so you came here for the houses and cars you could never get back home, you stole through taking out excessive finance that is not justified by you [sic] salaries. Then when you cannot pay you run, this is theft born out of greed and arrogance.
“Anyway despite all of this you still disrespect our cultural and religious values with your behaviour, dress and conduct in our malls and on our beaches and comments about us our race and our religion. You spend all your time critizising [sic] our laws, society and systems. Yet, you could never have the lifestyle you have here back in your system. You people are no longer welcome, please go and pollute somewhere else.”
That was the message posted by a disgruntled Emirati on an expat website recently, and, as a description of the British, South African, Australian and eastern-European workers now living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it has a certain truth about it. The Emiratis are a minority within their own country, the UAE, and an even smaller minority within Dubai, the most populous city of the UAE, where they number about 20% of the population.
On the other hand, it seems a bit rich coming from an Emirati, the inhabitant of a country that lucked into oil money about 43 years ago and is now utterly dependent on foreign labour for its current, unsustainable prosperity — the ranks of the skilled and talented working class from Europe, who come here and run their absurd, extravagant and now faltering construction projects, and the traders and the dealers.
The British expats I spoke to believed, without exception, that the Emiratis are utterly useless, corrupt and indolent, and, according to several, some British managers are leaving rather than abide by a new law that requires them to employ a certain percentage of Arabs on every job. They’re simply not up to it, they say. As it is, the locals make up less than one-fifth of the total UAE population, the westerners roughly half that amount. The majority population in Dubai is the criminally low-paid, enchained, abused, dispossessed peasantry from south Asia.
The Europeans work long hours, mind — you could not really call it an “easy meal ticket”: 12- and 14-hour days and not much in the way of holidays. But there was, until recently, an unspoken quid pro quo: listen, you soft, decadent westerners, you can have your salary income-tax-free, providing you don’t lose your job, obviously (in which case we’ll deport you and you’ll lose everything you own). You can have your big apartments, providing you don’t default on the payments when times are hard, in which case we’ll put you in prison — there ain’t no bankruptcy get-out clauses here, inshallah. Owing money to people is a crime. You can swan around in your flash cars and hang out at the malls, just as if you were in Maidstone or Cottbus or Pretoria. You can dress like you were at a stag-party pub crawl in Prague, or like an infidel whore on the make, and we’ll grit our teeth and smoke our hubba-bubba pipes and look the other way. You can even have that other stuff you seem to like so much, the relentless, enervating fornicating, the stuff Allah really dislikes; we will turn a blind eye to the legion upon legion of addled post-Soviet whores in your horrible Brit-style pubs, nightclubs and wine bars, the cheap babes from the ’stans. Just keep the money pouring in, please: keep building those gargantuan hotels and facilitating those loans for us.
But this long-standing deal may be in the process of disintegrating. The credit crunch hit Dubai badly, and it is clinging to its despised but less feckless neighbour, Abu Dhabi, for a very large bail-out. Troubled state-backed firms owe British companies more than £400m. The plush apartment complexes down at the marina are half-empty, investment has collapsed and property prices with it — house prices are down by as much as 50% and are predicted to fall by another 20%. It is almost impossible to put a precise figure on the rate of the collapse, because, according to one estate agent, there is no market. Nobody is buying, nobody is renting; there is no new business. An estimated £335 billion of projects have been halted or are on hold. And it is predicted that the population could decline by 17.1% by the end of the year, so things will not be getting better too quickly.
The depression in Dubai makes our own look like a vague afterthought, because nowhere else in the world was unregulated and unfettered capitalism and a belief in perpetually rising property prices embraced with quite so much ardour as here. And it seems, as a consequence, that since the crash the locals are in recriminatory mood: if you’re going to bring us a depression, they seem to be saying, then you can clear off and, in the meantime, behave like dignified human beings rather than dragging us down into your gutter. The sex thing has been bothering them particularly.
Mohammed is an Emirati who owns a big dive shop a hundred miles across the burning sand to the east of Dubai, at Khawr Fakkan, in the slightly more conservative province of Sharjah. Khawr Fakkan, circled by stark and beautiful mountains, is on the Gulf of Oman and there is good diving to be had, plenty of tourists. Mohammed is a divorcee and he employed young western babes and chicks to run his business, because working in a dive centre is a sort of halfway house between backpacking and the real world for a certain sort of young postgrad western chick. Roxanne Hillier worked for him: young, blonde, pretty and half South African, with an English dad called Freddie. Roxanne’s in the rather bleak Khawr Fakkan prison right now, and will be for the next few months, following an unsuccessful appeal against her sentence in late June. Would you like to hear what she did to get herself there?
It was about 2am when the old bill arrived. Mohammed had been filling up the 80 or so oxygen tanks he needed for the next morning’s dive; Roxanne had returned from the last dive of the day, helped out for a bit, then, exhausted, took a nap in an anteroom. Outside, Mohammed heard a disturbance, so he went down to check it out.
“It was local people, gathered around the door to the dive centre,” he told me. “They were angry, saying, ‘Who have you got in there? You’ve got a woman in there, haven’t you?’ I told them, ‘No, no, the dive centre is closed.’ They said to me, ‘Where is the key?’ Later the police arrived. I told them there was nobody there, but they took my key and opened the door and searched the place and that’s when they found Roxanne.” The two of them were carted off to Khawr Fakkan prison (separate cells, natch) and held on remand for a week until the case came to court. Did you have sex with Roxanne, I ask Mohammed. “No, no, no, never!” Did you kiss her? “No, of course not. It is not true. It is all a misunderstanding.”
Well, as regards the first denial, we don’t have to take Mohammed’s word for it, because the Sharjah judicial authorities were kind enough to check the whole business out for themselves. They stripped Roxanne Hillier bare and invaded her with swabs and scrapes; a little bit of Mohammed’s DNA found inside her would have hugely increased the eventual sentence. As it was, she received a sentence of three months for the crime of being alone in the same building as a man who was not her husband. She didn’t know this was the sentence, because the court proceedings were conducted in Arabic and therefore she could not put her case across, either. It was later they told her what had been decided. Mohammed got a couple of weeks on the same charge.
I take a cab to the beach, Jumeirah beach, and spend 3 minutes watching sarcomas grow on the semi-naked expats strung out across the sand under flimsy shades, E-number-flavoured Slush Puppies to hand, their eyes closed against the vicious glare, their bodies porky and immobile. It is 46C out here, unendurable — this is the country where you should never go outside. Thirty miles or so across the water is Iran, where they are probably not stripping off for the beach. Behind the beach is a dusty freeway and a hospital for people with bad kidneys. It was this beach upon which the British woman Michelle Palmer performed an ill-advised act of fellatio upon a chap she had just met — Vince Acors, from Bromley — and ended up doing three months in the local nick as a consequence. I just hope it was a shade cooler when Michelle went to work.
Vince did a lot of interviews bragging about the women he’d had sex with in Dubai when he got out. Reading the interviews, you feel Vince may have been the last person in the world you should ever give a blow job to on a beach. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Bromley say, or Downham.
Then there are the adultery cases that are stacking up. Such as Marnie Pearce, 40, sentenced to six months initially (three months plus a £600 fine and deportation after appeal) for an unproven adulterous relationship with a man she insists was just a friend: she was already separated from her husband. And the case of Sally Antia, whom the police swooped on as she emerged with a male friend from a Dubai hotel in the early hours of the morning — two months in prison reduced to six weeks on appeal. You get the feeling that the Emiratis are feeling vindictive right now.
Nor is it just sex: the Dubai authorities are getting a bit twitchy about all sorts of western behaviour when it impinges directly upon them. An Australian immigrant, Darren O’Mullane, had just finished a 14-hour shift as a nurse at a Dubai hospital and was driving home when he was badly cut up by another driver who swerved in front of him. When he finally overtook this clown, he — again, ill-advisedly, as it turned out — stuck one finger up in fury. Just one finger. Three weeks in prison, lost everything — house, car, the lot. He told me the whole process had been devastating, not least having to apologise to the idiot driver who was, as bad luck would have it, a UAE police official. “I am fed up with foreigners not respecting the rules and our culture,” the puffed-up medieval official told the local Arab media later. You can tell a lot about a country from a quick look at its policemen going about their business. In Dubai they appear strutting, arrogant and faintly ludicrous, the sort of policemen you might have seen in a pre-war Third World fascist theocracy. That is not too far removed from a description of Dubai today.
The Rattlesnake bar at the Metropolitan Hotel Dubai at 10pm, just before the Filipino dance band comes on, is the place to be; this is where the Islamic blind eye is at its most consciously, calculatedly, unseeing. The whores outnumber the punters by about two to one, and that’s only the lucky whores actually inside the place. There’s a phalanx of about 30 of them crowded just inside the door, just standing and watching, possessed of insufficient money to buy drinks. Another 40 or so are working the rooms, their buoyant pre-recession breasts rubbing up against some happy but bewildered surveyor from Daventry, or project manager from Glasgow, or engineer from Düsseldorf. Outside, 40 or 50 more sit at tables, or stroll arm in arm along the pathways, begging western men to take them inside. These girls are almost exclusively Russian — but not from Moscow or St Petersburg, or even Kiev. They are Russians from the de-Russified ’stans, drawn here by the lack of work for people of their ethnic origin in Almaty, Dushanbe, Tashkent, Samarkand. They are a remarkable phenomenon. I will bet that right now, in a village halfway up the Andes, or in a yurt just south of Ulan Bator, Mongolia, or somewhere down a long broad river in Sarawak, Borneo, Svetlana and Olga and Zinaida are sidling up to the local menfolk, offering them a bit of vigorous glasnost and perestroika for £30 an hour.
Iliana, a pretty chemical blonde in her twenties from Uzbekistan, is telling me who she would deign to sleep with for money. “English, good. Scottish, better. Irish, good. German, okay. But no f***ing blacks and no f***ing Arabs.” No locals? “Arabs?” she asks, outraged. “No Arabs.”
“What if they paid you 20,000 dirhams [nearly £3,500]?”
“Oh, well, then, yes, sure,” she says, laughing.
None of the Russian girls will sleep with black people or Arabs, not even Luba from Turkmenistan, who is a little older and a little brighter and a little more circumspect. There were lots of West African girls in this bar not so long ago, but the Russkies forced them out. The refusal to have anything to do with the Emiratis is not confined to the sex workers: every taxi driver I spoke to — almost all of them Pakistani — said they would refuse to pick up an Arab. Why? “Because they are arrogant scum,” one driver told me. Nobody wants anything to do with the Emiratis.
Luba worked in a travel agency in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, but the money was appalling and she needed to put her son through university, so she came here. As we talk I notice her still working, trying, over my shoulder, to catch the eye of someone who might actually pay her for her time. She hates her work — most of the girls hate their work — but not Iliana. “I like f***ing men,” she says cheerfully, and disappears, presumably to meet a client. Luba looks like she will not be so lucky tonight, which is a shame, because I like her, although she’s quite fervently racist, as they all are. As everyone here in Dubai is, here in this lovely little melting pot, all these races gathered together, loathing one another.
At midnight I make to leave but am stopped by Keri, who is a very attractive young lady from Almaty in Kazakhstan. She hangs onto my jacket because she has found something very attractive to admire in me, too. This is gratifying, if you’re me. “So lovely, so lovely,” she says, holding the thing in her hands, turning it over and over, “I haven’t seen one like it.”
I blush a little and clear my throat.
“Um, it’s a Bic,” I tell her.
“Bic? What is this Bic?” she says shaking her pretty head, still stroking it.
“A lighter. Its name is, you know, Bic. I think they’re, er, French.”
“Aah,” she says, kohl-heavy eyes flashing. “So you have been to France, yes?”
“No — I mean, yes, um, I’ve been to France. But you can get these lighters in England too!”
“Really?” She says, entranced.
“Er, yes. In Sainsbury’s. Or a corner shop. For about 70 pence.”
I give her the lighter and skedaddle, back to my hotel room. She is less pleased with the lighter now that she possesses it.
My interview at the
Islamic Information Center is a brief, uncomfortable experience, albeit conducted with exquisite politeness and civility (on their part, at least). This is a propaganda arm of the government, or more properly a state-run evangelistic Islamic operation aimed at westerners, situated in a lock-up shop in a frowzy sector of downtown Dubai. What happens is this:
I sip water (they were out of beer) and ask a question like — hey, have you seen all those whores down at the Rattlesnake? Isn’t that against the law? And then the five berobed interviewees talk among themselves at great length in Arabic and eventually one of them explains to me very courteously, with a shy smile and an apology, why they won’t answer the question. Not their responsibility, you see. This happens seven or eight times, and eventually the interview is terminated. After many handshakes I am sent on my way with a copy of a little book about how Jesus Christ was quite a nice man but totally useless, if we’re being honest. One of the men, Wael Osman, sort of agrees that the economic downturn has made relations between Emiratis and their western Gastarbeiter a little more tingly, a little more fraught, and concurred that while the government turned a blind eye to all sorts of westerner shenanigans, this was becoming harder to do of late. But when I say “agrees” and “concurred”, I mean that I said this stuff and he smiled a little and in a very vague sort of way nodded his head. The man I should be speaking to was the chief of police, they said, but sadly he was away receiving a medal in Djibouti.
I didn’t really have a chance to get on to the main topic, the stuff about Dubai that really, truly offends — and indeed should offend Islamic sensibilities. I don’t mean Luba and Iliana, although the traffic in Russian prostitutes is brutal and violent. I don’t mean the westerners in their Porsches, or the authoritarian nature of this place and complete and utter lack of democracy, or the vile architecture and unbounded materialism, or the prosecution of women for the crime of standing near men. I don’t even mean the mass rounding-up and prosecution of homosexuals, who are summarily imprisoned and — the government has suggested — may face hormone treatment in order to make them, uh, “better”; this is a Sodom where sodomy carries a 10-year stretch. All of that stuff makes Dubai a fairly foul place to be, but compared to Dubai’s real crimes, they are as nothing.
Maz, a Pakistani from Lahore, drives a taxi for a living (he won’t pick up Emiratis, of course). He lives in a room in the grim suburb of Al Quoz, a room costing £700 a month that he shares with six other Pakistanis. His passport has been taken from him in case he nicks the car he is driving. He cannot get home, he hasn’t the money or, indeed, the passport. Maz, though, is one of the lucky ones, very near the top of the hierarchy of Third World workers induced to come to this country by the promise of large wages — wages that are rarely forthcoming. Maz at least gets paid, even if all the money goes on rent.
The bar staff are also near the top of this hierarchy. Mostly Roman Catholic Goans, they get looked after by the hotels and even get a chance to visit their families once a year or so. I spoke to one barman to glean a bit more detail about his living conditions, but an Emirati overseer barked something out and the man ceased talking to me. But at least the hotels provide their staff with accommodation, even if it is in dormitories.
t is the construction workers, the labourers — the Bangladeshis, the Tamils, the Filipinos, the Somalians, the Chinese — who are the real scandal of Dubai. Hundreds of thousands of them lured again by the promise of large wages, stripped of their passports, their contracts rarely honoured — some have gone months without being paid, some have even paid just to be there. They cannot go home. They hunker down in cramped, squalid apartments in Sonapur and Al Quoz. This is Dubai as a slave state. There were serious riots recently in the Chinese quarter: the workers finally had enough of criminally low wages — 500 dirhams, or about £83 a month — and continual mistreatment. The Chinese embassy got involved. Worse still are the conditions of the south-Asian workers, the construction men and the maids, effectively imprisoned in this country, abused by their employers, scrabbling around in sometimes 50C heat to earn enough to pay the rent on their shared accommodation. The Indians rioted too last year, but were forced back to work by water cannon. In the year 2005 alone, the Indian consulate estimated that 971 of its nationals died in Dubai, from construction site accidents, heat exhaustion and — increasingly — suicide. The figure for suicides the next year alone was more than 100. The Emiratis were, to give them credit, appalled by this figure, so they asked the consulate to stop collating the statistics. In October 2007 a construction-work strike resulted in 4,000 migrant workers being flung in jail and then deported. In 2006 the campaigning charity Human Rights Watch detailed the “serious” abuses of workers’ rights — the wages withheld, the high rates of injury and death with “little assurance” of medical care, the passports confiscated, the wages either criminally low or never paid. The UAE had done “little or nothing” to address the problem. You get the picture?
Local human-rights activists, when they raise their concerns, tend to receive a visit from the secret police; some have had their rights to practise as lawyers stripped from them.
Andrew Blair, he of the Porsche, is a project manager for construction work. He believes the condition of the labourers is appalling, unforgivable, almost beyond belief. I suggest to him that in his position, he could ensure that the contracts went out to firms that treated their workers fairly. He thinks about this for a moment. “Um, well I don’t care about it that much,” he says.
He is not a bad person, Andrew, and my suggestion is probably a little naive. He is, at least, conflicted. He acknowledges the issue and can comprehend that it is an evil. But that’s what you sign up to when you buy property in Dubai, or go there to work, or to stay in one of its bling hotels. You sign up to all that stuff you condone it.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed my taxi ride back to the airport with Tariq, the taxi driver from Peshawar (he won’t pick up Emiratis); to see that towering skyscape left behind in a cloud of desert dust. Paris Hilton had just flown in to do something pointless in a mall. When that happens, you just have to get the hell out.
where the money comes from
GDP in 2007: £23 billion
Construction/ Real estate: 22.6%
Financial Services: 11%
Dubai’s foreign debt is well over 100% of its GDP
Project manager, Construction: £57,576
Project manager, IT: £38,438
IT manager: £33,891
Construction worker: ± £993
Politics and human rights
1 No suffrage
2 Political parties illegal
3 Freedom of association and expression curtailed
The UAE refuses to sign the following treaties:
4 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
5 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
6 Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families
7 Convention against Torture
Crime and punishment
8 Death penalty by firing squad for several offences
9 Death penalty by stoning for adultery
Population (Inc Migrants)
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