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Travels in hyper-reality – two weeks in Dubai

In the June edition of New Internationalist, Bob Hurst writes on ‘inequality’ and explains that a country’s ecological impact may not relate so much to its wealth as its inequality – as in the case of the US and the UAE:

‘The two countries with the greatest per capita ecological impact are the UAE and the US, with ecological footprints of 9.5 and 9. 4 global hectares per person.’

This is compared to a sustainable footprint of 2.1. Reading this, I was reminded of my first and last visit to Dubai – a place where under most circumstances I would never visit. However, in December 2007, I was invited by a family member to visit them in Dubai and since it was a free holiday, I accepted. Dubai was everything I had heard, and worse.  

Arriving at Dubai airport you are first met by a huge red sign: WELCOME TO TOMORROW.    My thoughts were ‘if this is the future, maybe I should bow out right now!’ Everything was huge – the airport, the duty-free shop, the immigration hall – endless freeways, glass skyscrapers reaching to the sky, and more cranes per square metre than any other city (well, it seems that way). This was hyper reality in its most perfect form – a paradise of fakers. By coincidence I woke on my first day to find I had no voice. Lost and speechless in this material world I was taken to another Dubai phenomena, the gigantic mall – what else do you do in Dubai? The Ibn Battutu Mall, named after the famous explorer. The mall is divided into six sectors, China, India,  Egypt, Tunisia, Persia and Turkey. My first thought was: what happened to Morocco, where Ibn Battutu was born? We entered at the India section, avoiding Starbucks on the way, sat and had very expensive but cosy chocolate cakes and skinny lattes. Beside us was a life-size papier mâché elephant that looked hideous with its top encased in a wooden canopy which reached the ceiling. The whole mall was scattered with these giant-size replicas.

I stayed in a huge gated estate where every single house is exactly the same design and colour –the only difference is the size. There are artificial lakes with ducks and beautiful flowers on the side, swimming pools for every block and private ones for those who can afford it. Each house has at least one huge silver-grey 4X4 parked in the driveway and Hummers are everywhere. My hosts informed me fairly quickly that they intend to buy one. I must have looked horrified, as they made the excuse that driving was so dangerous only a Hummer would protect them from death and destruction on the road. I actually found the driving quite stress-free. 

My throat slowly got better enough for me to have a long conversation with Maria (not her real name), the maid from the Philippines. Maria had been in Dubai for three months. Before that she spent just over two years in Saudi Arabia, one of 25 maids for a high official. The whole time she was there she never went out on her own and whatever she needed to buy was bought by the driver. She worked seven days a week, sometimes up to 16 hours a day. She got the job through an agent in Manila and had to hand her passport over to her employers on arrival. Maria was lucky in that her employers were ‘good’ people, and she used to get extra tips from relatives of the family, but the other maids were beaten. She was spoken to in Arabic – which she did not understand – from the first day. But her madam would not speak to her in English, so she spent the first few weeks in fear, trying to figure out what she was supposed to be doing until she eventually learned the language. There are many cases of employers and family members raping maids and of course there is nothing they can do as they would get beaten and end up being deported. Apparently fewer and fewer Filipino women are going to Saudi Arabia to work.

Maria had tried to ask permission to leave a number of times to visit her children and finally she was allowed to leave on the understanding she would return after two weeks. She never did and instead found a job in Dubai, again via an agent.

Maria is a single parent with three children who are looked after by her mother in Manila. She works as an attendant, six days a week for 13 hours a day. With travel time, she is lucky to get four or five hours’ sleep a night. On her day off, she works where I was staying and is saving up to get a small business concession which will give her some extra dirhams. Things are much better here and she is happier as she can dress as she likes and is free to go where she wants, as well as take on extra work and business. After only three months she had the chance to become a supervisor and earn more money to send home.

Maria stays in a room owned by a Filipino man, which she shares with 12 other people plus the landlord. The beds are single bunk beds with two people sharing each bed for 300 dirhams per month. If you do not have your wits about you and are not strong, you could end up having to sleep with the landlord. She shares a bed with her friend.
I really liked Maria. She is completely focused on her goal – which is to earn as much money as she can to pay for her children to attend private school so they can go to university. ‘Inshallah I will eventually return to the Philippines and start my own business.’

Dubai is a material world built on very cheap labour and oil. It’s all very gaudy and glitzy with Disney-like castles, fountains and buildings in the shape of boats, estates in the shape of palm trees and the ultimate home for the super rich – a little piece of a fake world in the middle of the sea. You can smell the money in the air where it forces itself down, stamping on the poverty of the hired help from Pakistan, the Philippines and other far off lands. The contrast between those that have and have not is as stark as anywhere in the world. The difference with Dubai is those that have not, are ALL from across the Asian continent. They have no status except as paid labour and can be sacked at anytime and forced to leave immediately. They are often harassed by the police, as well as employers, and women especially are vulnerable to abuse from employers who themselves are contract workers, but with the difference that they live in gated communities such as the one I stayed in.  

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