Dubai: Intrigue and Injustice


    An interview with author Mike Davis.


    Photo: Dubai skyline. Interview by Stefan Christoff for Tadamon!

Dubai is famed internationally for lifestyles and modern monuments etched by extreme wealth, a city state in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that has become an unlikely hub for international finance. In a region bombarded by the chaos of the U.S.-driven ‘war on terror’, Dubai a small city state located on the edge of Iran and Iraq has become a city of glamor and glitz, a striking paradox that has enchanted many around the world.

Dubai’s shining exterior is quickly becoming world famous, including a series of three-hundred constructed islands mapping out the shape of world, an indoor ski mountain in the boiling temperatures of the Persian Gulf and the soon to be completed Burj Dubai, now the tallest man made structure in the world.

Behind Dubai’s famous monuments are many striking contradictions, most strikingly the massive non-citizen work force that is estimated at close to one-million people, laborers mainly from South Asia who work in conditions that multiple human rights organizations have condemned. In recent years the conditions facing non-citizen workers have begun to catch attention internationally.

As a city state, Dubai offers little possibility for democratic rights, as labor unions and political protest are outlawed and foreign workers are offered no possibility for citizenship. Dubai’s political and economic system is tightly controlled by a ruling monarchy, who have built what author and commentator Mike Davis has called a Sinister Paradise. Tadamon! spoke with Mike Davis on the contemporary contradictions surrounding Dubai today.

Stefan Christoff: Interested in hearing about your perspectives and ideas on Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). First let’s focus on Dubai as an international city in relation to international financial markets, a city which some commentators have labeled a dream city of capitalism. Can you talk about the importance on understanding Dubai’s role in the international economy from a critical perspective?

Mike Davis: Dubai is the capital of an alternate planetary existence for the rich and the very rich. Dubai stands at the intersection of oil rich lands and an almost infinite supply of very cheap labor from South Asia. Although there have been other instant cities in world history, St. Petersburg is an example, never before has there been a plan to build what could be described as a utopian capitalist city.

Half the property and business in Dubai is owed by a single family, in Dubai there are no legal trade unions or electoral processes. Dubai is a city in which every effort is made to build attractive platforms for foreign investors, from media and telecommunications sectors to international financial firms. Every effort has been made to build an attractive city for rich foreigners, including gated communities that advertise supreme lifestyles.

Instead of having any national or city-wide policies, Dubai has created different rights and regulations for different gated enclaves. Within the Internet city for example you have more or less freedom on the Internet but not in the rest of Dubai, or within the financial district you have rules equivalent to the London Stock Exchange. In history there has never been a similar project to build a literally utopian place for international financial markets.

In two-hundred to two-hundred-fifty years of industrial capitalism there isn’t a similar example. Dubai has this ability due to enormous financial resources which leverage this incredible project, in which the ruling family in Dubai has taken what they perceive to be the best features from Singapore, Hong Kong, Disneyland and Las Vegas, literally turning sand into gold with the help of oil profits.

Stefan Christoff: In speaking about Dubai as a utopia for international financial markets, geographically Dubai is literally at the crossroads of the U.S.-driven international ‘war on terror’, located near to Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Dubai as an international hub of financial markets is ingrained with geographical contradictions as a city that in reality is surrounded by war and conflict on all sides. Can you explain your thoughts on Dubai in this context?

Mike Davis: In a society where the vast majority of the workforce are non-citizens, without the right to vote, many who work regularly in incredibly dangerous conditions and within a region where tens-of-millions of people are disenfranchised economically, you would think that such a spectacle of wealth would become a target.

Dubai’s paradox is how it’s possible to sustain such a symbol of luxury on the doorstep of the majority of people in the Middle East who are disenfranchised today. In a way the answer to this question is Dubai’s secrete. Dubai has found a way to make itself indispensable to almost all the powers in the region, for the Iranian government it’s an offshore financial resource, to the U.S. military Dubai is a critical zone for the navy and intelligence services operating in the region.

Ultimately this indispensability of Dubai is also extends to the people who might in other circumstances be flying planes into Dubai’s towers, who have their own financial reasons to leave alone what might seem to be an incredibly offensive display of extreme wealth in the Arab world.

Stefan Christoff: In speaking about the economics of Dubai can you address Dubai’s historical relationship to external powers in the Middle East and the contemporary relationship between Dubai and U.S. military operations in the Middle East?

Mike Davis: It’s critical to highlight that the United Arab Emirates emerged as a state from the last axis of British imperial power in the Middle East, as a response to revolutionary nationalism in the surrounding region in the 1970’s, particularly the uprising in Oman. As a state the United Arab Emirates owes itself to the realities of the Cold War and the legacy of the British influence in the Middle East.

Ever since the civil-war in Lebanon throughout the 1980’s, Dubai has thrived by reproducing some of Beirut’s pre-civil war role as a center for enterprise and luxury in the region.

However Dubai has developed under strange and unprecedented conditions of being both an ally of the U.S. in the region, providing port facilities to the U.S. for example but also becoming indispensable to other powers in the region, all with unique and particular reasons to leave Dubai alone or to support the regime in Dubai. It’s not possible to fully understand these contradictions relating to Dubai without fully understanding the role of the underground economy plays in Dubai, particularly money laundering.

Stefan Christoff: You have spoken about Dubai’s critical role in the Middle East but also wondering your ideas on Dubai’s role more internationally in regards to China, South Asia and Africa. In this context could you talk about Dubai’s critical role within international finance and how Dubai’s role within international financial markets is critical to it’s identity as a city.

Mike Davis: First it should be mentioned that Dubai has many competitors, including Dubai’s sister city Abu Dhabi, but also Singapore and Hong Kong. However Dubai’s comparative advantage is an ability to really adapt so flexibly to the needs of foreign investors, particularly Saudi Arabia, while maintaining maximum security politically.

Economics in Dubai have changed dramatically since 9/11 as the U.S. Administration realized that putting all their economic and political investments in Saudi Arabia was potentially dangerous. Also since the 1970’s the Gulf countries learned from their bad experience in knowing that basing the economy on vast oil profits only could mean that with quick changes to oil markets their economies could be left with nothing.

Dubai is the product of a long range investment project and Dubai has been particularly skilled perhaps if not brilliant in this regard. However it must be highlighted that this economic plan doesn’t ensure jobs for people within the region, as Dubai has utilized a plantation strategy invented by the British and then copied by the U.S., now being implemented in Dubai. Through diversifying the workforce with non-citizens, Dubai has a labor force to maintain the city but ensures that this population in the future isn’t able to have a say in Dubai’s future or have the ability to struggle for equal rights.

Stefan Christoff: In speaking about Dubai’s labor force can you outline in more detail the realities of Dubai as a place where the vast majority of the population and workforce aren’t citizens and also provide any other similar examples internationally to Dubai’s economics and political reality?

Mike Davis: A good comparison internationally is Singapore where you have essentially had a monopoly on power, held within a small circle, for a long period of time. This authoritarian power has ensured high levels of international investment and built Singapore into a wealthy city state.

However with Dubai there are more political variables at play than in a place like Singapore, more political interests and more competing political powers. An advantage for Dubai is the lack of serious political competition, as there is one family that rules, an absolute monarchy that has now furthered a grip on power through adopting a contemporary model of corporate organization.

Dubai’s ruling family re-doubles their own business interests at every level, so each of the main administrators, equivalent to cabinet ministers in other countries, also functions as CEOs of the dynasties various business operations. Enormous advantages are given to expatriates and the middle class immigrants who serve as the professional or technical elites in Dubai. Finally Dubai has harnessed an ability to tap into a seemingly endless supply of exploitable labor from South Asia.

In India there is major economic desperation throughout the country, especially for farmers many who have committed suicide in recent years. This economic desperation in South Asia has been harnessed by Dubai as an opportunity for cheap labor.

This economic plan worked almost perfectly until 2004 at which time Dubai began to experience the first signs of labor unrest. This growing unrest built towards larger protests in 2006 staged by workers building Burj Dubai, what will be the tallest building the world.

Stefan Christoff: Concerning labor in Dubai in your article extensive article on Dubai, Sinister Paradise, you write that, “Dubai, together with its emirate neighbors, has achieved the state of the art in the disenfranchisement of labor. Trade unions, strikes, and agitators are illegal, and 99% of the private-sector workforce are easily deportable non-citizens. Indeed, the deep thinkers at the American Enterprise and Cato institutes must salivate when they contemplate the system of classes and entitlements in Dubai.” So regarding this passage can you provide more details concerning labor conditions in Dubai?

Mike Davis: Now the above outlines the theory behind Dubai’s labor policies, however labor has showed that it is capable of fighting and organizing in Dubai. Labor organizing is driven by desperate labor conditions that many visitors to Dubai don’t see or willingly ignore. It is estimated that upwards of one-million foreigner workers are currently in Dubai, living in conditions that multiple human rights organizations have condemned.

Hundreds-of-thousands of foreign workers live in camps, often without air conditioning, who are bused each morning to construction sites at which these workers are doing some of the hardest manual labor in the world with temperatures at times reaching 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Dubai is widely accused of covering up high numbers of workers deaths on these massive construction sites, including the Burj Dubai tower currently under construction.

Despite Dubai’s friendly face and openness to western vices, people who travel to Dubai to do independent research on the conditions of workers are often deported from the country. Last year an Indian-American academic researcher who wanted to study the labor conditions for foreign workers in Dubai was detained within twenty-four hours upon arrival then deported.

Despite efforts to hide these conditions by authorities in Dubai the realities that workers face are becoming increasingly known internationally. Dubai has also become one of the largest centers of the sex industry in the Middle East, the entire region, which is underground and you can be certain the working conditions aren’t just.

Stefan Christoff: Often in reporting on the Middle East, the interconnectedness of the entire region isn’t addressed, the connection between the occupation in Palestine and the ongoing turmoil in Lebanon, the ongoing occupation in Iraq and U.S. support for Israel and of course Dubai as a capitalist financial hub in the region. Wondering if you could speak about the importance of Dubai as a regional actor, as a regional player in the Middle East?

Mike Davis: Dubai’s rise occurred in tandem to Beirut’s decline. After the civil-war in Lebanon took a major toll, a certain financial role in the Middle East became available. All gulf city states also act with the incredible advantage of playing the role as a safe haven for oil revenue in the absence of internal political turmoil and until recently their ability to control a foreign labor force.

Certainly Doha, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi have enormous ambitions as well, however Dubai created specific conditions that created confidence with international business. Dubai is the first city state to define its national identity around shopping, as Dubai has turned its annual shopping festival into the equivalent of a national day. Currently Dubai’s economy is based on its role as an international port, tourism and being a key international financial hub. Dubai now is competing also with Mumbai as a broader eastern financial hub.

However all of Dubai’s roles today and future ambitions can only be achieved if the current paradoxes sustain themselves, from the conditions facing the non-citizen work forces, to Dubai’s strange stability in a region famous for intense instability. Dubai’s ambitions given these factors are incredibly vulnerable.

Mike Davis is a writer-activist who lives in San Diego, California. Davis is the author of fifteen books including “City of Quartz” and Planet of Slums — an investigation of global urban poverty.


Thanks to the two of you for laying this out. I’ve been reading about this “miracle,” and in an unbelievable twist, have read some comments that use this as an antidote to Muslim-bashing, i.e., “See, the Arabs CAN create and build.” In other words, the “Arabs” can be as successful at capitalism as the west.” Which has to be described in a word other than irony, some geometric form of irony. Good god!

There’s something similar going on in China, I read recently. Not so much the tall buildings and resorts, but economic enclaves, where people both live and work (mainly electronics, I think, but perhaps other forms of consumer goods), but where there are two kinds of incomes – the big bucks and the little bucks.

Mr. Davis, thanks for your work. In particular, “Late Victorian Holocausts” so educated and affected me that I really couldn’t stand to read it all at one time. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you to research it.

Comment by catherine — July 4th, 2008 @ 12:12 PM

I’ve lived in Dubai for 15 years and can testify to the things that Davies writes about. Dubai is a place that thrives on racism, sexism, and classicism. Far from keeping such things in check, Dubai happily tolerates them as signs of ‘progress.’ It is a soulless and artificial society that is devoid of any history or culture. Like the specter of Jacob Marley, let Dubai show the west the horrors of unfettered capitalism should they continue on the path.

Comment by Mel — December 23rd, 2008 @ 11:58 AM

How about the state security department in dubai police that is arrsting foreign investors just to empty their pockets and then deports them? Dubai is a big fat lie, there are no righs for anyone here. Dubai sheikh mohammed loves it when they lie to him about how great he is… in reality his entire family is robbing everyone. You will see within a decade there will be no sheikhs here

Comment by Dubai Resident — December 26th, 2008 @ 9:07 AM

As a UAE national with PhD in law I have to admit that Sheikh Mohamed has failed to put in place a transparent judiciary and has concentrated more on self PR by anouncing unrealistic projects and reading clever lines which secures his own ego problem. His family members treat the society like animals… they steal from foreign businessmen, threaten them, and some times using the famous state security even arrests them to reach their commercial goals.
it s sad that sheikh mohammed’ s brother in law sheikh hasher maktoum has stolen a multi billin dollar bussiness from a foreign investor just because he is related to sheikh mohammed. We have no human rights here, the judiciary is as corrupt as real estate, finance, immigration…. dubai is crashing

Comment by Dubai Resident — January 3rd, 2009 @ 7:56 AM

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