Dubai, according to the conventional wisdom, is a bust. The International Monetary Fund predicts that economic growth in the United Arab Emirates as a whole will be lower in 2009 than in the last five years; the Dubai government has borrowed billions of dollars from Abu Dhabi to bail out its banks; the government of the Indian state of Kerala reports over 500,000 return migrants from Dubai due to the crisis; property prices have dropped faster than anywhere else in the world; and hotel rates have been slashed in order to lure tourists. The first months of 2009 saw a plethora of articles in the international press about Dubai’s demise, to the extent that local bloggers began describing a trend of “Dubai bashing” and the UAE government drafted a law to forbid reporting about the economic downturn. Stories about cranes abandoned at construction sites or tales of expatriates reduced to living in their cars are now commonplace. The impact of the economic downturn was immediately palpable during my visit in early spring — at the airport there were only a handful of people in the taxi line; Sheikh Zayed Road, the main thoroughfare that is usually clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic, was nearly empty; and hotel rooms near the Dubai Marina cost less than half the going rate in 2007.

There was, however, evidence of many new buildings and shopping centers filling what used to be empty lots along Sheikh Zayed Road. My Pakistani taxi driver spoke in Hindi about a decline in customers, but also pointed out some of the more notable buildings under construction. He also described the 2,000-square foot house with an ocean view he was building for his family on the outskirts of Karachi. He had cut back the pace of construction because of financial worries, but he had no immediate plans to leave the UAE, even though he was sharing a cramped room with two other men in the downtown Deira neighborhood. My driver’s comments raised questions about the impact of the economic crisis on other working- and middle-class South Asians who live neither in posh high-rises nor in labor camps, but populate the streets, shops, offices and modest apartments of the city. Neither the articles about Dubai’s bust nor the defensive responses to them have covered this population, which is probably the largest in the emirate.

South Asian communities residing in the city are concentrated in the downtown neighborhoods of Bur Dubai, Karama and Deira — far removed from the glitzy high-rises and hotels of Sheikh Zayed Road and the Marina. Gautam and his wife Reshma, two of my closest interlocutors, live in a humble one-bedroom apartment in Bur Dubai and have been in Dubai for over ten years. Gautam works in information technology for a government-owned company and Reshma gave up a position as a bookkeeper when their son was born six years ago. I asked them how their friends and colleagues were being impacted by the recession. “They have been asking people to take four-day weeks, but thankfully it has not hit my department,” he said. “The rents are going down a lot. Our old building is back where we could afford it now. Even though this apartment has not gone down, they have not raised the rent for next year at all.” While some people were losing their jobs or thinking about going back home to India, Gautam and Reshma suggested that such precariousness and transience has always been normal.

Gautam and Reshma are middle-class Indians who have weathered both Dubai’s “boom” and its “bust,” and their experiences reveal a great deal about daily life in a city that continues to be a primary location for South Asian migration. In many accounts of the city, Dubai is described as a Disneyworld, a Las Vegas in the Arabian Desert, a plastic Arabia, an evil paradise, the Singapore of the Middle East, a Middle Eastern Miami, a dreamscape and the kingdom of bling, to name but a few appellations. All of these descriptions intimate a place that is fantasy not reality, lacking in enduring character and built upon a mixture of hope and greed. Dubai is seen as a place without soul or culture, a mirage. What is normal life, then, and for whom is it normal, in this mirage of a city? Dubai’s fleeting qualities seem to preclude such an inquiry, particularly in the case of South Asian migrants, who are tied to temporary work visas and defined by the government as “guest workers.” At both the zenith of Dubai’s highs and the depth of its lows, however, a constant, enduring characteristic of the daily lives of middle-class South Asians was the ephemeral and transitory nature of their existence. It was normal and it was life. In fact, for many middle-class South Asians, Dubai’s boom intensified the uncertainty of their futures in the city, while its supposed bust has meant a return to a normalcy that exists within, and not despite of, their tenuous positions in the United Arab Emirates.

Expatriates…and Expatriates

On my first trip to Dubai in 2004, Gautam picked me up in his red Toyota Corolla and took me out to see the newly constructed Burj al-Arab from the vantage point of the closest public beach. “You and your husband would have a great life here in Dubai with your American passports,” he told me as he drove from Bur Dubai down Jumeira Beach Road, pointing out the fancy malls and large villas populated by Western expatriates. “They give you everything if you are an American — a good salary, nice accommodations, even a car and driver! You would be living very well. You really should come.” When I asked if he was able to live well and send money back to his family in India because life was so good for expatriates, Gautam said, “No, not Indians. We don’t have that kind of employment. But you are an American. You would love it here.”

As I learned on that first trip to Dubai, the passport a foreign resident holds, along with the color of his or her skin, determines the life one can lead in Dubai, even for those who are well educated, speak fluent English or Arabic, and obtain highly skilled or managerial positions. In addition, the kafala system of sponsorship, in which migrants are governed by a individual citizen sponsor (kafil) instead of through a centralized state apparatus, adds to the uncertainties that migrants in the Gulf states face, making it extremely difficult for people like Gautam to change their working conditions and quality of life. In 2004 Gautam was working an odd schedule in which he alternated between regular daytime to graveyard shifts every week, and he usually slept during the day. He had planned to join his family in India, where they were spending the summer, but his leave kept getting delayed. His managers gave other employees priority in leave time. So Gautam, being Indian and a more recent hire, was stuck with a very difficult schedule and had no idea when he would see his family. This job was his second in Dubai, and despite the challenges, it was a big step up from the one he arrived to do in the early 1990s.

Gautam’s story is important precisely because it does not stand out as markedly different from the stories of other Indian migrants and their families in Dubai. In fact, middle- and working-class Indians are the quintessential Dubai residents — there are over 1.5 million Indians in the United Arab Emirates today; they are the largest national group in the country, and with other South Asians make up the majority of the work force; and over two thirds of the Indian population in Dubai resides in rented apartments, mostly in the densely populated city center. [1] While classified as temporary by the Emirati government, Indian communities in Dubai are quite established and certain areas in the city center, like Bur Dubai, Deira and Karama, have housed South Asian businesses and South Asian migrants for over a century. Though they have no access to citizenship and are dependent on work permits or on working family members, many Indians in Dubai know no other home because they were born and raised in the emirate. Still, their residency is just as tenuous as those who have just arrived. Unfortunately, the depictions of Dubai by academics, human rights organizations and news sources tend to present a city populated not by middle classes but rather by wealthy Arab and Western expatriates and exploited laborers. [2] Located at neither extreme, middle-class Indians both benefit from and are adversely affected by their positions as perpetual foreigners in the Gulf.

Like Gautam, other South Asians spoke to me of the economic advantages, cultural resources and freedoms from the pressures of extended family that they enjoyed in Dubai, while they also recounted difficulties posed by the sponsorship system under which they worked. They shared experiences of racism and inequality, of unexpected changes to their job descriptions after arrival in the UAE and of other uncertainties they had to navigate on a daily basis. Many had arrived in Dubai through networks of middlemen running private employment agencies who recruited them for jobs that promised several times the salary they were making in India. [3] And like Gautam, most people paid thousands of dollars up front and arrived to find that their actual salaries were much less than promised. Because migrant work visas are tied to a kafil, there is little standardization or government intervention in migrant employment. Most employers still hold on to their employees’ passports, even though the UAE government has recently made that practice illegal. Thus migrants are faced with the experience of being trapped in their jobs and with the feeling that they could be deported at any time. In addition, if employees leave their jobs before their contract — usually one to three years — is up, they are put on a black list that bars them from employment for six months, forcing them to return to India at their own expense and look for employment from there. Unlike most Europeans and North Americans, South Asians need a visa even to enter the UAE as tourists, so they cannot stay in the country unless they are employed or are a dependent of someone who has employment. Additionally, employers usually pay South Asians about half of what they pay Westerners for the same jobs, without offering the perks of free housing, schooling for children, cars and other accoutrements that Westerners routinely enjoy. Thus, South Asians consistently struggle at the bottom of a hierarchy of migration and employment in Dubai. They have little job security and deal with great financial strain at practically any skill level or rank, whether they are office clerks or executives. The logic behind this system of employment, which also disadvantages other Asian, Arab and African groups, is that migrants are temporary and are remitting their earnings. Therefore, they should be paid according to the standard of living in their home countries, since they make more money in the Gulf than they would at home and also take money away from the Emirati economy.

The reality for many expatriates in Dubai is quite the opposite, however. While remittances by UAE Indians total over $2 billion per year through official banks (and even more through unofficial streams), and while most Indians earn more than they could in India, their remittances are a very small percentage of their earnings. Because they have to rent their own apartments, pay for their children’s schooling, buy their own cars, and live without paid child care or housecleaning, most Indians in Dubai spend the majority of their income inside the UAE. Western expatriates, by contrast, can save significant amounts of money in just a few short years in the Gulf. Thus, during the economic boom in Dubai in 2006, when newspapers in the US and Britain were running stories of expatriates who hit it big in the UAE, Indian middle-class families in the Bur Dubai neighborhood were struggling more than usual because of increased competition and inflation.

Whose Boom? Whose Bust?

While the tourism, financial and construction boom was happening on the outskirts of Dubai — “New Dubai,” as some have begun to call it — the Indian-dominated downtown neighborhoods of Bur Dubai, Deira and Karama remained mostly untouched by the Emirate’s fast-paced growth. Instead of enjoying higher salaries, better housing and more savings, South Asians in these areas were struggling with the changes taking place in their own lives. Rents were going up, small businesses were closing and promotions were rare. Gautam’s family was forced to move from their three-bedroom flat in the centrally located Meena Bazaar area of Bur Dubai to a tiny apartment behind a brothel, because their landlord suddenly doubled the rent. Gautam took up home computer repair on the weekends to supplement his salary. South Asians watched their employers hire a stream of white Europeans, North Americans, Australians and South Africans, instead of promoting existing South Asian staff, as companies strove to Westernize their public face in an attempt to become more globally competitive. Those who owned their own businesses were also struggling to keep up with the multinational and government-owned companies that were taking over many sectors in Dubai.

In 2006, Gautam was sending home much less than before, despite working more than ever. He and Reshma were feeling a lot of pressure from family members in India, who assumed they were rich and wondered why the remittances had dwindled. Yet they still continued their weekly Friday outings with their son to Pizza Hut and the arcade in Karama’s Lamcy Plaza mall. One aspect of expatriate living they enjoyed was the consumption of goods available in Dubai, even if it was limited to eating out once a week or walking around in the mall. In spite of stories from people who had given up family-run companies for salaried positions, who were struggling with marital difficulties and depression, who had faced racism at work and in the grocery stores, malls and restaurants they frequented and who were unsure about how long they were willing to stay in Dubai, many South Asians still chose Dubai over other locations. [4] They faced new challenges in Dubai’s boom, which they were mostly left out of, but these challenges were an extension of the uncertainties around which they lived their lives. Even though Dubai’s bust has posed difficulties for some as building contracts dry up and businesses downsize, migration from India continues at a rapid pace. Between October 2008 and March 2009, over 400,000 visas from India were canceled, but over 650,000 new ones were issued.

For Gautam and his family, and for others in similar situations, certain aspects of life have become much more bearable. Gautam is no longer worried about not meeting the rent. He is even considering trading in his red Corolla for a four-wheel drive vehicle because many wealthier expatriates who are leaving Dubai are trying to unload their cars at low prices. An extended family living in a one-room flat in Gautam’s ill-maintained building just purchased a brand new freehold apartment on the Palm Jumeirah with their life savings because housing prices have dropped so much since 2008. But Gautam has no idea if his job will survive the downturn. “What happens will happen,” he said. “There’s no reason to get upset about it.” It was back to normal life.

The multiple truths within which migrants live are not exceptional to Dubai, nor are they new to the Gulf. [5] The experiences of the Indian middle class are built upon decades of living both day to day and within firmly rooted Indian communities. The less wealthy Indian-dominated neighborhoods of Dubai — those that are ignored in the literature and considered “exotic” by wealthier residents — are highly important “places where everyday life is taking place,” even as they are marked by a lack of permanence. [6] While the guests at the five-star hotels and the guest workers of the labor camps have captured the global media’s attention to date, they are not the entirety of the city, and they are not markers of a two-dimensional form of globalization. Dubai is not a non-place without culture or a city of smoke and mirrors. The anthropologist’s project is one of narrating the ordinariness of a place. Perhaps it is time to address the ephemerality of Dubai not as fantasy or obscenity, but rather as a quite normal aspect of life for South Asian migrants, the true “street” in this United Arab Emirate.


[1] See Yasser Elsheshtawy, “Transitory Sites: Mapping Dubai’s ‘Forgotten’ Urban Spaces,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32/4 (2008).
[2] See, for example, Mike Davis, “Fear and Money in Dubai,” New Left Review 41(2006).
[3] For more on India-Gulf labor migration, see John Willoughby, Ambivalent Anxieties of the South Asian-Gulf Labor Exchange, American University Department of Economics Working Paper Series (2006).
[4] For more on racial consciousness and consumer subjectivities among Indians in Dubai, see Neha Vora, “Producing Diasporas and Globalization: Indian Middle-Class Migrants in Dubai,” Anthropological Quarterly 81/2 (2008).
[5] See, for example, Susan Bibler Coutin, Nation of Emigrants (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007) and Karen Leonard, “South Asian Workers in the Gulf: Jockeying for Places,” in Richard Warren Perry and Bill Maurer, eds., Globalization Under Construction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
[6] Elsheshtawy, p. 968.

How to cite this article:

Neha Vora "The Precarious Existence of Dubai’s Indian Middle Class," Middle East Report 252 (Fall 2009).

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