Surprisingly, what first strikes one upon landing in Dubai is not the skyscrapers going up at a dizzying pace. It is the sheer bustle of humanity.

Even in the wee hours of the morning, when larger airports like Heathrow would be fairly empty, Dubai International, or DXB as it is known to admiring locals, is thronged with thousands of tourists, businesspeople and migrant workers, a diverse array of people with equally diverse agendas, all knocking at the doors to the most famously booming city-state in the Persian Gulf. Travelers arriving at the main terminal usually meander for the better part of ten minutes through its convoluted bowels before being deposited in one of two processing organs. The first and literally higher of these is an elegant atrium organized into about 40 orderly queues leading to passport control counters manned by men and women wearing the Emirati national dress. Holders of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) passports, as well as Americans, Canadians, Europeans and citizens of a few other affluent nations, proceed directly there. At the bottom of an escalator a short distance before the atrium is a grimmer, tighter reservoir for passengers who had to apply for a visa before flying to Dubai. Here, citizens of South Asian, African and non-GCC Arab countries, as well as China and the former Soviet Union, contend with an unchanneled crowd for the privilege of receiving an entry stamp and being permitted to wait above, with the beautiful people, for final recognition of their right to enter the United Arab Emirates.

The mundane experience of Dubai passport control is instructive at a time when many are bedazzled by the speed at which capital, commodities and people whoosh around the globe, making it seem, as Thomas Friedman believes, that “the world is flat.” For all the triumphalist fixation on flows and mobility, the jagged edges of a more archaic order, carved into the grid of nationality, endure. The Gulf states, notoriously stereotyped as “tribes with flags” and countries without history, have long been places where the powerful have forgotten about history’s vexing tendency to bind them into an ethical and political relationship with the less powerful. This tendency to forget history—the legacies of power, of territories cut up into nation-states and of unsentimental economic calculations—lives on in contemporary accounts of the Gulf’s staggering prosperity.

There is no better example than Dubai. According to Friedman, Dubai is “where we should want the Arab world to go,” a place that, though “not without its warts,” embodies the narrative of globalization as progress. [1] In this reading, Dubai is a self-effacing pupil, the West a wise tutor and the rest of the Arab world a willfully ignorant problem child. From the left, Mike Davis tells us that Dubai is no model at all. Rather, it is a horror show, exemplifying the coarseness of hyper-capitalism. Reading the global economy through a Marxist lens, he says that in Dubai “all the arduous…stages of commercial evolution have been telescoped or short-circuited to embrace the ‘perfected’ synthesis of shopping, entertainment and architectural spectacle, on the most pharaonic scale.” [2] The most visible (or superficial) aspects of Dubai have become the focus of so much polemic that the political economy has become invisible. Globalization has made all that is solid, such as national borders and the constraints they impose, melt into air.

The Dubai Spectacle Demystified

Capital enters Dubai and disappears—or, in what amounts to the same thing, it is reborn in phantasmagorical form. Those who possess capital can expect non-interference from the state. They enter the city as lords of a frontier where the rules are checked at the border. Capital and its owners become, in the term of political scientist James Scott, “illegible,” where legibility is the necessary condition for centralized control. [3]

The state in Dubai began cultivating an image as the business-friendly emirate from very early on. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the ruler provided tax and rent incentives to Iranian merchants escaping the Qajar shah’s new import duties—probably the city’s first case of capital flight. Between Dubai’s founding in the 1830s and its incorporation into the UAE at independence in 1971, it was a backwater sitting along the sea routes connecting Iran, Iraq and India, as well as the ports of Zanzibar and Aden. Even a subsistence income was not always assured for the population, as in the 1930s, when the twin blights of the Great Depression and the collapse of the pearling economy owing to the invention of Japanese cultured pearls caused mass starvation and nearly wiped out the village. With a combination of cynicism and foresight, in 1938 Dubai’s ruler Sa‘id bin Maktoum allied himself with, and fused the state to, the merchant class.

The stakes became much higher in the 1970s, as a number of events of global consequence began to integrate the UAE more thoroughly into the world economy. Oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958 and in Dubai in 1969. By 1971, Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahayan, who had deposed his brother Shakhbout as president of the UAE in 1966, had nationalized the UAE oil industry. The Dubai economy expanded sevenfold between 1968 and 1973. [4] The 1973 OPEC embargo initiated a boom across the Gulf, and brought a windfall of revenues into Iraq and Iran as well. Two years later, the civil war in Lebanon began, sending that country into a precipitous decline as a center of banking, high finance and tourism in the Middle East. Islamist politics shook the region, toppling the Shah and nearly doing the same to the Al Saud in 1979. The Soviet Union entered a protracted and catastrophic engagement in Afghanistan in the same year, and then Iraq and Iran went to war in 1980.

These events were behind the great reversal of Dubai’s fortunes. Before the 1970s, trade in the village was largely limited to re-export of petty commodities like watches, house appliances and gold. After the oil boom and the ensuing events, Dubai became a veritable island of stability in an ocean of political turmoil. By the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and neoliberal restructuring in India and various African nations was guiding the capital “freed” from these countries, increasingly, to Dubai. [5] More capital—financial and human—arrived by way of Iraq, owing to that country’s hideous experiences since 1991.

It was not a coincidence, therefore, that Dubai commenced an ambitious campaign to revolutionize the cityscape under Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum in the early 1990s. Cash unmoored and trying to conceal itself from collapsing or restructuring states tends to go in the direction of real estate. The city was like a tabula rasa onto which massive buildings, wild, themed architecture and clusters of free trade zones could be etched, creating the visible city of business-friendly Dubai. Speculation and money laundering, as well as legitimate rent, fueled the boom. [6] Capital and the state reaffirmed the agreement of 1938 — non-interference of the latter in the movement and workings of the former. The agreement was made easier by the fact that the state itself, in the person of Sheikh Muhammad, became an enormous stakeholder in the private sector.

The Invisible City

If capital is illegible in Dubai, other migrants to the city—the ones who build the visible city—are all too “legible” and all too manipulated. With the construction boom of the 1990s came hundreds of thousands of migrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and further afield in Southeast Asia. [7] All these migrants, clearly visualized and regulated by the state as “guest workers,” are restricted in their off hours to the invisible parts of the city. This might be neoliberalism’s central irony: Categorical simplification and visibility for the purposes of control result in invisibility in the moral sense.

The Sonapoor labor camp, where most of the migrant workers are housed, lies outside the main city limits, about a ten-minute drive from Dayra, in the eastern part of the city. The landmark at the outer edge of the visible city is the al‑Mulla center, which, having been built in 1979, is the city’s oldest shopping mall. Al-Mulla is now considered a gateway of sorts, past which no respectable European or local Arab person would venture. Perhaps aware of this, the workers have given the camp an unrespectable name. “Sonapoor is a very bad word,” said my guide, adding that it is Malayalam (the language commonly spoken in the Indian state of Kerala) for a woman’s sexual organ. In fact, the camp’s name is a Hindi term meaning “city of gold.” My guide, who is not from Kerala, may have been honestly mistaken. Yet his belief about this word’s meaning, as well as its real meaning, encompasses the range of sentiments that workers feel for Dubai. For many Pakistanis and other South Asians preparing to emigrate to Dubai, the place is very much a dream city where fortunes can be made instantly, ending years of penury in the home country. And yet, it is also undeniable that the actual experience of the city can be painful and darkly ironic. [8]

Squat buildings mark the spot where we turned off the main, paved road and drove along unpaved roads crowded with men in the uniforms of different companies, returning from or going to their shifts. Large buses emptied their human contents and were refilled. We passed a couple of camps. “That one is al‑Habtour,” said my guide, naming a Dubai construction firm. “That one is al-‘Abbar.” These are both large companies, with uncooperative security personnel and, presumably, stricter surveillance of workers. They are too dangerous to attempt entry. We turned off and reached our destination. The guard was not even at the security kiosk. We proceeded into a walled compound, past communal toilets. There were six or seven bedrooms on either side of the compound, a communal kitchen and a TV area with easy chairs and sofas.

The bedroom we entered, which has two single and two bunk beds, is about 40 square feet. It has its own kitchen and toilet, a relative luxury at labor camps, as well as a TV connected to a satellite dish and a stereo box. We were greeted heartily by an Arab worker, who offered us tea. “This is a very good room, relative to other worker accommodations” both at this company and at others, said my guide. Usually, a room like this houses 20 workers, but this one houses only four. Our host, Ma’moun, [9] has been in Dubai a little over three years. He found out about the job from an agent in his home country. For approximately $655, he obtained a visa and paid his airfare, with the company paying for the remaining expenses. Every three years, he is required to renew the visa, at a rate of about $260. Every two years, he gets two months’ paid vacation, and the company allows trips home for emergencies. The company took his passport, but gives it back to him when he needs to travel. His monthly salary is $300, paid always in cash. Sometimes he does not get paid for one or two months, sometimes longer.

In the UAE, the owner of the construction company, who is Emirati (sometimes in partnership with an expatriate), is called the kafil (sponsor), in Ma’moun’s case a small construction company with 25 or 30 workers. Ma’moun and my guide described it as a relatively “good” company. Normally, however, working for such a small employer would put the worker at a relative disadvantage. When it comes to non-payment of workers and substandard accommodations, smaller companies, as opposed to the ‘Abbars and the Habtours, are disproportionately the worst offenders. What does Ma’moun want to get out of Dubai? “I don’t have a big, definite goal. I dream step by step (ahlam daraja fi daraja).” He doesn’t know how long he wants to stay in Dubai. He is here indefinitely.

The second worker, Hamid, is from Pakistan. Unlike Ma’moun, who is a site supervisor, Hamid works in construction. He himself paid the labor agent in Islamabad for travel and visa, at a total of 130,000 Pakistani rupees ($2,138). When he arrived in Dubai, the company took his passport and a $272 deposit. In Arabic, the deposit is called ta’min, or insurance, for it insures that Hamid does not “abscond.” Absconding was a big problem, especially in emirates such as Sharja, “where the accommodations are much worse, because they are not under the scrutiny from international organizations the same way that Dubai is,” as someone else familiar with the workers’ movement told me. Hamid’s monthly salary is $163 per month, and he works about 48 hours a week plus about 2-3 hours overtime every week, which increases his income to about $218. Whereas the government requires that the sponsor pay for accommodations and electricity (and this company does seem to follow the rules), workers are required to pay for food and cooking gas. In Hamid’s case, this leaves him with a net monthly income of $136, all of which goes to his family in Pakistan.

There is a canteen at the camp, or “company accommodation,” to use the sponsors’ euphemism, “but it is very expensive,” said Ma’moun. It is pricier than Spinney’s or Carrefour, two European chains that can be found in the stylish shopping malls on the other side of the city. “If a carton of milk costs three dirhams at Spinney’s, it will cost three and a half here,” said my guide. “But the workers have no choice. The canteen has a monopoly.”

“There is a much worse company,” he continued, naming a firm in nearby Sharja, where the 35 workers—all of them illegal—are sleeping on the roofs for the heat. There is no plumbing, no electricity, no food and no work. The partners in the company were an Emirati sheikh and a Lebanese-Canadian. They dumped the company when it went bankrupt, and left the workers hanging out to dry. The sponsor has not returned their passports for two years and owes them about $68,075. About ten workers went to their embassies to get replacement papers, and have left the UAE.

The third worker, Ahmad, an elderly Pakistani, has been with the company for 15 years. He told the same story about how he found the job in Dubai. “Work in Pakistan was too little, and the government does not care about its people. I used to make less than $2 per month. How can you live on that? How can you support a family?” His working conditions are the same as those of the other workers, though, since they are younger and newer here, they might be shocked to discover that building a nest egg in the Gulf might take a good deal longer than they expected. How many of them comprehend that being a migrant can last longer than settlement in their home country? “The agencies lie,“ said Ahmad of the labor recruiters in Pakistan. “They say, ‘Go to Dubai. The work is easy; the life is easy. You will do light work like lifting crates. Small work, little work.’” The workers, illiterate in Arabic and English, sign contracts that they cannot read, he claimed. The companies, added my guide, use this as a pretext to escape responsibility when workers make complaints. “The Dubai government is good, better than the Pakistani government,” says Ahmad. “It cares more about workers. But the companies are not good.”

Below the Surface

On the one hand, workers such as Ma’moun, Hamid and Ahmad live in a remote part of the city, which until only recently consisted of far humbler, often improvised dwellings. To most Emiratis and wealthier expatriates, these workers do not exist, either physically or in the moral sense. One need only note the similar position of domestic servants in the UAE, also predominantly South and Southeast Asian. Domestics are permitted into intimate parts of locals’ houses&mdsah;bedrooms and kitchens—that are not open to other outsiders. The reason is that exposure of private areas within the household only matters when social equals or superiors are involved. Social subordinates, such as children and domestics, are not to be feared because their opinions are not socially admissible. This social position is reflected, as well, in the local (and expatriate) practice of referring to domestics, who are always adults, as “tea boy” or “house girl.”

Construction workers are similarly invisible. Such invisibility may explain why the denial of workers’ human rights, as recorded in meticulous detail by a 2006 Human Rights Watch report, is routinely minimized, if even acknowledged, by Emiratis. Abuses, which the local English-language press also covers pretty well, are for locals merely “a few isolated incidents,” as one Emirati told me. Organizations like Human Rights Watch are also often considered part of a US plot to shame and subdue the Arab world. As another Emirati told me: “When you look at the Arab world, who is the only one doing anything [forward-looking and modern]? Only Dubai! The Americans can’t stand an Arab country [succeeding].” Better, then, to focus on the aesthetically pleasing aspects of the city and look away from, as Thomas Friedman puts it, “the warts.”

Looked at from another perspective, however, workers such as Ma’moun, Ahmad and Hamid are all too visible, if visibility is a condition for the merchant-state’s ability to control workers. Their passports are expropriated the moment a company hires them. After this, they are warehoused in closely watched camps, sorted into wage categories that seem to parallel their nationalities and shipped from these “company accommodations” to their work sites in cramped company buses, their only means of transportation outside the camps. The merchant-state’s knowledge of them—their country of origin, their health, their capacity for work, the extent of their geographical mobility within the boundaries of the state—is thorough and sufficient to the task of control.

None of this is to say that Dubai or the UAE are peculiar in their exploitation of migrant workers or in the use of nationality, ethnicity and even race to categorize and manipulate the workers. One sees exactly the same arbitrary discrimination and selective imposition of “legibility” on various groups in the supposedly advanced countries of Europe and North America, including in the backlash among many Americans against “illegal immigrants” from Latin America. And much worse than the Emiratis’ resistance to supranational oversight of workers’ rights can occur under the rubric of national sovereignty.

The point is simply that the world is not flat. Accounts of Dubai as either a beacon for the Arab world, or, alternatively, a laboratory of capitalist phantasmagoria ignore the persistence of national identity and boundaries, and their intersection with exploitation and class, as a means of rendering the world quite jagged. These accounts neglect how nationality and class continue to determine the level of mobility that a group or an individual has in the global economy. In both liberal and Marxist narratives, the power of capital pours forth unencumbered from the center to the periphery, either dragging the latter along the road of progress, or utterly flattening it and imposing the center’s civilization. Both stories are insensitive to the concrete ways in which the local and the global interact.

Accounts of Dubai should scratch below the surface of the literally visible city to hit the less obvious but, from the state’s perspective, equally visible parts of the city. The organization of labor and the expropriation of standardized workers’ rights, the contraband coursing through the ports and the astounding buildings that present a futuristic vision while concealing their sources of financing are all logical elaborations on the original pact of 1938. They also represent the fruits of a rather prescient strategic choice that has situated Dubai as banker, developer and launderer for the wealth of the restructuring and collapsing world surrounding it.

Author’s Note: Thanks to the International Programs at the University of Iowa and the Stanley Foundation for funding part of a research trip to Dubai in December 2006 and January 2007. Thanks also to members of the Department of Anthropology at Yale University, especially Kamari Clark and Annie Harper, for a stimulating discussion which inspired much of this paper.


[1] Thomas Friedman, “Dubai and Dunces,” New York Times, March 15, 2006.

[2] Mike Davis, “Fear and Money in Dubai,” New Left Review 41 (September-October 2006), p. 54.

[3] See James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

[4] Rosemarie Said Zahlan, The Origins of the United Arab Emirates: A Political and Social History of the Trucial States (London: Macmillan, 1978), p. 185.

[5] P. Sainath, “Net Worth of India’s Billionaires Soars,” Counterpunch, November 26–27, 2005; Roland Marchal, “Dubai: Global City and Transnational Hub,” in Madawi al‑Rasheed, ed., Transnational Connections and the Arab Gulf (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 93–110.

[6] Observer, February 13, 2005.

[7] Human Rights Watch, Building Towers, Cheating Workers: Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the United Arab Emirates (New York, November 2006), p. 25.

[8] Thanks to Annie Harper and Smriti Srinivas for an illuminating discussion.

[9] All workers’ names are pseudonyms.

How to cite this article:

Ahmed Kanna "Dubai in a Jagged World," Middle East Report 243 (Summer 2007).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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