Monday, 6 October 2008

War resumes on the National front

Oh what a capital cock-up.

The National, owned and edited in Abu Dhabi, has had to print a retraction of a story that ran on the front page of its Business section, claiming that Dubai house prices fell 16 per cent. The story was particularly timely as it ran on the first day of Cityscape. Unfortunately, that meant it was particularly high profile coverage. Is that the smell of sweat and fear, and the sounds of clashing drums, cymbals and rolling heads, in The National's offices? Sources tell us that Dubai Inc has "gone mental" over the story, especially as it comes at a time where question marks have been placed over the city's ability to maintain its real estate market in light of the global economic crisis.

Here is the retraction:

In today’s edition, The National incorrectly cited a report by Colliers International as saying that Dubai house prices fell by 16 per cent in the second quarter. Colliers actually said the rate of growth in prices slowed to 16 per cent in the second quarter from 43 per cent in the previous quarter. The National also incorrectly quoted the regional director of Colliers International, Ian Albert, as saying that prices had fallen. He said that the rate of growth had slowed. The National regrets the errors.

Regrets the error? I'll bet it does. Expect to see a number of fawning "Dubai is good" stories over the next few weeks until the fuss dies down, and The National can return to its familiar Dubai-bashing ways.


Desert Orchid said...

Sources tell us that Dubai Inc has "gone mental".
Is this news?
Dubai Inc IS mental.....

Anonymous said...

Every single new business reporter ever has made an error like that. It's embarassing, atrocius, amateur and the business ed should have caught it. And the front page eds really should have been giving the Colliers report a quick look themselves before putting a story like that on the front.

But any journo who honestly remembers his first few weeks on a biz desk would cringe with forgiveness.

Anonymous said...

The reporter will probably get promoted knowing the UAE

Anonymous said...

Indeed, every single business reporter has made an error like that - 'slow down' and 'fall' are easily confused.

The first commentator obviously hasn't read The National newspaper, which is already easily the best publication from the Gulf or Middle East.

It's a new paper so should be allowed some teething problems.

Anonymous said...


Hardly a new reporter. Angela used to be the editor on Construction Week.

Do I get a prize for linking this story to ITP???

Anonymous said...

Fake news stories, fake islands, fake country, fake growth figures, fake journalists.

Welcome to Dubai.

Anonymous said...

Just though I'd post this so you lot can understand what real journalism is - now back to your pr lunch...

The sun is setting and its dying rays cast triangles of light on to the bodies of the Indian workers. Two are washing themselves, scooping water from tubs in a small yard next to the labour camp's toilets. Others queue for their turn. One man stands stamping his feet in a bucket, turned into a human washing machine. The heat is suffocating and the sandy wind whips our faces. The sprinkles of water from men drying their clothes fall like welcome summer rain.

All around, a city of labour camps stretches out in the middle of the Arabian desert, a jumble of low, concrete barracks, corrugated iron, chicken-mesh walls, barbed wire, scrap metal, empty paint cans, rusted machinery and thousands of men with tired and gloomy faces.

I have left Dubai's spiralling towers, man-made islands and mega-malls behind and driven through the desert to the outskirts of the neighbouring city of Abu Dhabi. Turn right before the Zaha Hadid bridge, and a few hundred metres takes you to the heart of Mousafah, a ghetto-like neighbourhood of camps hidden away from the eyes of tourists. It is just one of many areas around the Gulf set aside for an army of labourers building the icons of architecture that are mushrooming all over the region.

Behind the showers, in a yard paved with metal sheets, a line of men stands silently in front of grease-blackened pans, preparing their dinner. Sweat rolls down their heads and necks, their soaked shirts stuck to their backs. A heavy smell of spices and body odour fills the air.

Next to a heap of rubbish, a man holds a plate containing his meal: a few chillies, an onion and three tomatoes, to be fried with spices and eaten with a piece of bread.

In a neighbouring camp, a group of Pakistani workers from north and south Waziristan sit exhaustedly sipping tea while one of them cooks outside. In the middle of the cramped room in which 10 men sleep, one worker in a filthy robe sits on the floor grinding garlic and onions with a mortar and pestle while staring into the void.

Hamidullah, a thin Afghan from Maydan, a village on the outskirts of Kabul, tells me: "I spent five years in Iran and one year here, and one year here feels like 10 years. When I left Afghanistan I thought I would be back in a few months, but now I don't know when I will be back." Another worker on a bunk bed next to him adds: "He called his home yesterday and they told him that three people from his village were killed in fighting. This is why we are here."

Hamidullah earns around 450 dirhams (£70) a month as a construction worker.

How is life, I ask.

"What life? We have no life here. We are prisoners. We wake up at five, arrive to work at seven and are back at the camp at nine in the evening, day in and day out."

Outside in the yard, another man sits on a chair made of salvaged wood, in front of a broken mirror, a plastic sheet wrapped around his neck, while the camp barber trims his thick beard. Despite the air of misery, tonight is a night of celebration. One of the men is back from a two-week break in his home village in Pakistan, bringing with him a big sack of rice, and is cooking pilau rice with meat. Rice is affordable at weekends only: already wretched incomes have been eroded by the weak dollar and rising food prices. "Life is worse now," one worker told me. "Before, we could get by on 140 dirhams [£22] a month; now we need 320 to 350."

The dozen or so men sit on newspapers advertising luxury watches, mobile phones and high-rise towers. When three plastic trays arrive, filled with yellowish rice and tiny cubes of meat, each offers the rare shreds of meat to his neighbours.

All of these men are part of a huge scam that is helping the construction boom in the Gulf. Like hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, they each paid more than £1,000 to employment agents in India and Pakistan. They were promised double the wages they are actually getting, plus plane tickets to visit their families once a year, but none of the men in the room had actually read their contract. Only two of them knew how to read.

"They lied to us," a worker with a long beard says. "They told us lies to bring us here. Some of us sold their land; others took big loans to come and work here."

Once they arrive in the United Arab Emirates, migrant workers are treated little better than cattle, with no access to healthcare and many other basic rights. The company that sponsors them holds on to their passports - and often a month or two of their wages to make sure that they keep working. And for this some will earn just 400 dirhams (£62) a month.

A group of construction engineers told me, with no apparent shame, that if a worker becomes too ill to work he will be sent home after a few days. "They are the cheapest commodity here. Steel, concrete, everything is up, but workers are the same."

As they eat, the men talk more about their lives. "My shift is eight hours and two overtime, but in reality we work 18 hours," one says. "The supervisors treat us like animals. I don't know if the owners [of the company] know."

"There is no war, and the police treat us well," another chips in, "but the salary is not good."

"That man hasn't been home for four years," says Ahmad, the chef for the night, pointing at a well-built young man. "He has no money to pay for the flight."

A steel worker says he doesn't know who is supposed to pay for his ticket back home. At the recruiting agency they told him it would be the construction company - but he didn't get anything in writing.

One experienced worker with spectacles and a prayer cap on his head tells me that things are much better than they used to be. Five years ago, when he first came, the company gave him nothing. There was no air conditioning in the room and sometimes no electricity. "Now, they give AC to each room and a mattress for each worker."

Immigrant workers have no right to form unions, but that didn't stop strikes and riots spreading across the region recently - something unheard of few years ago. Elsewhere in Mousafah, I encounter one of the very few illegal unions, where workers have established a form of underground insurance scheme, based on the tribal structure back home. "When we come here," one member of the scheme tells me, "we register with our tribal elders, and when one of us is injured and is sent home, or dies, the elders collect 30 dirhams from each of us and send the money home to his family."

In a way, the men at Mousafah are the lucky ones. Down in the Diera quarter of old Dubai, where many of the city's illegal workers live, 20 men are often crammed into one small room.

UN agencies estimate that there are up to 300,000 illegal workers in the emirates.

On another hot evening, hundreds of men congregate in filthy alleyways at the end of a day's work, sipping tea and sitting on broken chairs. One man rests his back on the handles of his pushcart, silently eating his dinner next to a huge pile of garbage.

In one of the houses, a man is hanging his laundry over the kitchen sink, a reeking smell coming from a nearby toilet. Next door, men lie on the floor. They tell me they are all illegal and they are scared and that I have to leave.

Outside, a fistfight breaks out between Pakistani workers and Sri Lankans.

The alleyways are dotted with sweatshops, where Indian men stay until late at night, bending over small tables sewing on beads.

A couple of miles away, the slave market becomes more ugly. Outside a glitzy hotel, with a marble and glass facade, dozens of prostitutes congregate according to their ethnic groups: Asians to the right, next to them Africans, and, on the left, blondes from the former Soviet Union. There are some Arab women. Iranians, I am told, are in great demand. They charge much higher prices and are found only in luxury hotels.

Like the rest of the Gulf region, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are being built by expat workers. They are strictly segregated, and a hierarchy worthy of previous centuries prevails.

At the top, floating around in their black or white robes, are the locals with their oil money. Immaculate and pampered, they own everything. Outside the "free zones", where the rules are looser, no one can start a business in the UAE without a partner from the emirates, who often does nothing apart from lending his name. No one can get a work permit without a local sponsor.

Under the locals come the western foreigners, the experts and advisers, making double the salaries they make back home, all tax free. Beneath them are the Arabs - Lebanese and Palestinians, Egyptians and Syrians. What unites these groups is a mixture of pretension and racism.

"Unrealistic things happen to your mind when you come here," a Lebanese woman who frequently visits Dubai tells me as she drives her new black SUV. "Suddenly, you can make $5,000 [£2,800] a month. You can get credit so easy, you buy the car of your dreams, you shop and you think it's a great bargain; when you go to dinner, you go to a hotel ... nowhere else can you live like this."

Down at the base of the pyramid are the labourers, waiters, hotel employees and unskilled workers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Philippines and beyond. They move deferentially around the huge malls, cafes, bars and restaurants, bowing down and calling people sir and madam. In the middle of the day, during the hottest hours, you can see them sleeping in public gardens under trees, or on the marble floors of the Dubai Mosque, on benches or pieces of cardboard on side streets. These are the victims of the racism that is not only flourishing in the UAE but is increasingly being exported to the rest of the Middle East. Sometimes it reminds you of the American south in the 1930s.

One evening in Abu Dhabi, I have dinner with my friend Ali, a charming Iraqi engineer whom I have known for two decades. After the meal, as his wife serves saffron-flavoured tea, he pushes back his chair and lights a cigar. We talk about stock markets, investment and the Middle East, and then the issue of race comes up.

"We will never use the new metro if it's not segregated," he tells me, referring to the state-of-the-art underground system being built in neighbouring Dubai. "We will never sit next to Indians and Pakistanis with their smell," his wife explains.

Not for the first time, I am told that while the immigrant workers are living in appalling conditions, they would be even worse off back home - as if poverty in one place can justify exploitation in the other.

"We need slaves," my friend says. "We need slaves to build monuments. Look who built the pyramids - they were slaves."

Sharla Musabih, a human rights campaigner who runs the City of Hope shelter for abused women, is familiar with such sentiments. "Once you get rich on the back of the poor," she says, "it's not easy to let go of that lifestyle. They are devaluing human beings," she says. "The workers might eat once a day back home, but they have their family around them, they have respect. They are not asking for a room in a hotel - all they are asking for is respect for their humanity."

Towards the end of another day, on a fabulous sandy beach near the Dubai marina, the waves wash calmly over the beautiful sand. A couple are paragliding over the blue sea; on the new islands, gigantic concrete structures stand like spaceships. As tourists laze on the beach, Filipino, Indian and Pakistani workers, stand silently watching from a dune, cut off from the holidaymakers by an invisible wall.

Behind them rise more brand-new towers.

"It's a Green Zone mentality," a young Arab working in IT tells me. "People come to make money. They live in bubbles. They all want to make as much money as possible and leave."

Back at the Mousafah camps, a Pakistani worker walks me through his neighbourhood. On both sides of the dusty lane stand concrete barracks and the familiar detritus: raw sewage, garbage, scrap metal. A man washes his car, and in a cage chickens flutter up and down.

We enter one of the rooms, flip-flops piled by the door.

Inside, a steelworker gets a pile of papers from a plastic envelope and shoves them into my lap. He is suing the company that employed him for unpaid wages. "I've been going to court for three months, and every time I go they tell me to come in two weeks." His friends nod their heads. "Last time the [company] lawyer told me, 'I am in the law here - you will not get anything."

Economically, Dubai has progressed a lot in the past 10 years, but socially it has stayed behind," says Musabih. "Labour conditions are like America in the 19th century - but that's not acceptable in the 21st century."

Anonymous said...

That kind of thing 'almost happens' all the time, all over the world, because reporters basically can't do maths and don't pay attention.

Editors need to pick up on those kinds of mistakes.

The National is a good paper but it does make some horrific howlers (getting people's job titles and ranks totally wrong seems to happen quite a bit).

Anonymous said...


ITP are crap

Anonymous said...

Timely retraction:

"...rate of growth in prices slowed to 16 per cent in the second quarter from 43 per cent in the previous quarter."

Therefore can we please have some quantifiable evidence and figures for this, considering that the original OpEd inside the Notional was quick to deconstruct the previous figures.

Global stocks tumbling. Foreign investors legging it. Billions wiped off Gulf bourses.

Dubai Inc: "Ooh, let's build a bigger tower shall we?"

Lies, Lies... and statistics.

To anon 16.33: I really, really do hope you are being sarcastic.

Anonymous said...

09:57 is a real masterpiece of journalism: breaking news! a new, previously unreported angle on an old story! a new, difficult to crack source (city of hope!)

lets list off the tired cliches:

- contrast the gleaming, futuristic buildings with the poorly-paid laborers who build them? done

- reveal the "pyramid" heirachy of natioanlities - Emirati, Western, Arab, Sub-continent? done

- Mention Emiratis in their gleaming whie robes? done

this story mentions nothing new, does not reveal the people or companies behind the problem, proposes no solution, explains nothing as to how the situation came about.

you could earn a pretty steady freelance income writing a piece like this every couple of weeks for the foreign press, but it's not great journalism.

and a small nit-pick - if you drive from dubai to abu dhabi and turn right just before the brige, you end up in the ocean, not musaffah.

Anonymous said...

Well said 13:20.

And where is Diera?

Anonymous said...

This was a better written version of the same tired old story - see below...

As an aside those Top Shop, Next... shirts, shoes... are cheap because of exploited labour. Just because Dubai is closer to the exploitation, does not make it any worse.

Morality has nothing to do with geography - although it does seem to make it easier for UK-based journalists to practice double standards.

Observer article below:

Before I arrive in Dubai, I meet 'Clare' on an expat website who insists I visit her at her home in the Meadows, a housing development in the city's suburbs - 'to give you an idea of how so many people get misled into thinking they are in Milton Keynes'. Half an hour in a taxi later, past the skyscrapers, and the construction sites, and the six-lane highways, and minibuses of Indian and Pakistani workers being shuttled from one project to another, I'm in a straight-out-of-a-David-Lynch-film picture-perfect suburban road lined with picture-perfect suburban villas.

And there's Clare. 'That's what I wanted you to see!' she says before I'm even out of the car. 'Look at that.' I'm looking at a wheelie bin and not really understanding her point. 'People see the wheelie bin and they think it's all familiar, and normal, and therefore nothing bad can happen. Ha!'

The Meadows is a gated enclave with a uniformed security guard and lush green landscaping, and Clare is a British expatriate wife whose husband is a contractor. To all intents, they're living what looks very much like the good life: there's a pool in the back garden, year-round sun, and in the living room Sky News is on.

'Oh yes, it looks good, doesn't it? But we've all made a pact with the devil to be here. You get the tax-free salary, but in return you have to give up all your rights. There's no accountability, no transparency, no rule of law. There's no legislative body. Very few employment rights. It looks like a modern country, but it takes more than a few skyscrapers to create one of those. Scratch the surface and it's a different story. And if you're a silly young girlie who gets into trouble, then forget it.'

There's a particular silly young girlie Clare is referring to: Michelle Palmer, a 36-year-old advertising executive who in July this year was arrested for allegedly having sex on a beach with Vince Acors, a 34-year-old visiting company director from Kent.

It's been a tabloid sensation. Palmer's 'Bridget Jones' lifestyle endlessly examined; at least a dozen conflicting versions of the story printed - they did have sex, they didn't have sex, Palmer may or may not have waved her shoe and called the policeman 'a fucking Muslim' - the case comes to court this week and the prosecution is said to have concrete DNA evidence to prove they didn't have sex, but beyond that, almost nothing is certain other than the fact that, if convicted, they both face up to six years in jail.

And whatever the verdict, Palmer has already lost her job - with the publishers ITP which produces Time Out Dubai and whose chairman is Andrew Neil; but then there's no such thing as unfair dismissal in the United Arab Emirates - and been mauled in the press. The Daily Mail is in strict accordance with sharia law on this point: it's the woman's shame.

In Dubai, it's shocked the local population and split the expat community between those who feel sympathy and those who think she deserves nothing less than a stoning.

'What I can't believe,' says Clare, 'is the amount of venom directed towards her. The reaction here has been unbelievable. I think people are under such pressure. They know it's not the dream. And they need a scapegoat. The fact is that if you can ascribe blame to someone else's misfortune, then you are indemnifying yourself against it happening to you.'

There are a lot of Brits in Dubai. A lot of people that it, or something similar, could have happened to. People who don't much want to contemplate how the judicial system works (at best haphazardly, at worst unequally), or how long you can be detained without trial (months at a time) or what the British embassy will do to help you (not a lot). In the past year, 230 Britons have found themselves imprisoned for offences ranging from driving under the influence to bouncing a cheque.

It's a minimum four-year term if any trace of drugs is found on you: the Radio One DJ Grooverider, caught with 2.16g of cannabis, spent 10 months inside before being pardoned two weeks ago, and Cat Le-Huy, a producer with Endemol, spent three weeks in jail without being charged, for possession of Melatonin - jetlag pills.

The Palmer-Acors case is about much more than any of this, though. It's exposed the very contradiction that has made modern Dubai what it is: a tolerant haven in an intolerant region. And it's the tension between the two Dubais: the socially conservative society whose penal code is based on sharia; and the other Dubai, the increasingly visible Dubai, whose numbers are growing with every fresh planeload of people who land at the airport and wear crop tops to the mall and drink shooters in the bars.

It's to Dubai's enormous credit that these two halves have so far been accommodated side by side, but the strain has started to tell. When I visited last week, it was Ramadan and the restrictions in Dubai are far harsher than in any other Arab country I've visited. Eating and drinking during daylight hours is illegal; even for non-Muslims, having a sip of water can mean a jail sentence. I got the timing of my trip all wrong. I'd wanted to check out the Friday 'brunch' scene, all-day boozeathons which provided the setting for the Palmer-Acors romance, and I email the editor of an English language newspaper in a panic.

'Don't worry,' he emails back. 'You'll see plenty.' And it's true: I can't drink coffee at the Starbucks next to my hotel, food is only served in a curtained-off enclave, and the clubs are closed - a DJ called Michael Robert describes the usual scene as 'like Ibiza but minus the drugs, the fights and the aggro'. But after 7.30pm, all across the city, in any number of bars, it's like downtown Croydon at closing time on a Friday night.

At Long's Bar, it's a crush of short skirts and spaghetti straps - alcohol is illegal if you're a local, and practically a social obligation if you're not. And afterwards, a local journalist takes me on a tour of 'the dark side', taking in a hooker bar in a four-star chain hotel. Prostitution is illegal, but absolutely blatant - every shape, size, nationality, ethnicity and possible aesthetic taste catered for.

But then, somehow Dubai manages to be all things to all people. It's capitalism's ultimate expression: the land of opportunity, the most developed city in the Middle East, a free port. It's ruled absolutely by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and is a constituent part of the UAE, a federation of seven emirates, including, down the road, immensely oil-rich Abu Dhabi, whose ruling family has just bought Manchester City. Dubai, on the other hand, never had much oil; it's been forced to develop in other ways, to provide whatever is needed, and it's done so more quickly and successfully than anyone could anticipate. It knows what the rest of the world wants and has built it before anyone else has even realised.

Alexander McNabb, a PR executive and the writer of a blog called Fake Plastic Souks, arrived 15 years ago, when 'it was still a village, a strange and very foreign place'. It was the entrepĂ´t of the Gulf and its R'n'R facility, where oilmen came to relax - they knew the rules and relished the freedom. It's this that's changed. There are now 100,000 Brits living and working in Dubai. And last year 1.1m UK tourists visited - despite summer temperatures of 50C plus, it's now the second most popular long-haul destination after Florida. And the ways in which the city is changing are in many ways a reflection of Britain itself.

Now, says McNabb, 'you drive your western car to your western office. At the weekends you go to the western hotels and have your western buffets and western-style beach club, and it's quite easy to ignore the fact that you're abroad.'

He's right. It is easy. It's four days before I hear any actual Arabic. Most remarkably of all the remarkable things about Dubai is that it's occupied almost entirely by foreigners: native Emiratis make up barely 20 per cent of the population. They're a minority in their own country.

When I meet Sultan Al-Qassemi, a businessman and journalist, he points out that the Emiratis are handling this rather better than the British would. 'Can you imagine? It's the equivalent of there being 55m foreigners in Britain, and just 5m of you. It's a unique case, and I think we deserve extra credit for the way we are handling it. The country is completely open. It is a utopia! Anyone can come here! We are one of the most tolerant countries in the world. And all this has happened in a single generation. Thirty years ago, it was desert.'

He sends me down the road, to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding and I arrive in time for iftar - the breaking of the fast. There's a group of expats and we're given dates and water, and then platters of home-cooked food are brought while young Emiratis tell us about their culture. It's fascinating: they're so friendly, and articulate and welcoming. 'It's so difficult to meet Emiratis, to talk to them. In a year, I haven't properly met one,' a British woman named Paula tells me.

Khulooda, a bright and sparky 21-year-old in a fringed abaya, tells me she's studying marketing and tourism. She thinks people maybe need to do a little more research about the country before they arrive. That maybe people should wear more appropriate clothing when they go to the mall. That Palmer and Acors should have known better. I think maybe she's right. And I hope, for her sake, that she goes into some other industry instead.

A decade ago, who had even heard of going on holiday in Dubai? But what Dubai has proved is that if you build it, they will come. For if there's one thing Dubai can do, it's build: one third of the world's cranes are here at any one time, most of them directly outside of my hotel window. I try and count them but give up at 70. The highest is perched a kilometre up in the air, on the top of the Burj Dubai, already the tallest building in the world, and it's not yet finished. Next month, the biggest shopping mall in the world will open, the Mall of Arabia, and shortly you'll be able to fly into the world's biggest airport - six runways and the size of Hong Kong island. What's more, if you stay in your hotel, you need never even know you're in an autocratic Islamic state where it's illegal to hold your wife's hand in public, or be gay, or found with 0.003g of cannabis - less than a grain of sugar - on the sole of your shoe, as Keith Brown was, a youth worker from the West Midlands who was sentenced to four years in jail.

But the hotels are wonderful. And even the Observer's modest budget runs to a five-star number. I'm on the 35th floor, with vertiginous views down, vertiginous views up. It's slightly queasy-making, more so after I talk to Chris Davidson, a Gulf political expert based at Durham University.

Two of the 9/11 hijackers were from the UAE, he tells me. And every weekday, the malls are full of able-bodied young men simply hanging out. 'They're the first generation who've had this cradle-to-grave security, who receive a house from the government and money to get married, who've not known hardship or what it is not to have air conditioning. How are they reacting to what they see happening to their country? And if something did happen here, tourism would collapse overnight. Real estate would collapse. Dubai is so fragile. It's the result of a global boom and it's never properly been put to the test.'

Economically, nobody's sure how it will weather the global crisis. The region is awash with ever-increasing petrodollars, but Dubai's construction projects are highly leveraged. And culturally, tourism is Dubai's great unmentionable can of worms, its fault line. A blogger, who'll only identify herself as Secret Dubai, tells me Dubai's marketing machine has deliberately created 'the false sense of westernness, of a trashy holiday resort'. And, according to Davidson, it's reached 'a critical mass. Previously people were corralled into five-star enclaves; what the Palmer-Acors case shows is that they're starting to leak out.'

The week I visit, Atlantis opens - a mega resort owned by Sol Kerzner, the South African who gave the world Sun City. It's a vast pink edifice that looks like something Katie Price might design, built on an artificial island shaped like a palm tree.

It's actually only one of three palms under construction, which together will add 520km of beaches to Dubai's coastline, and where the Beckhams are alleged to have 'bought' a villa, along with Rio Ferdinand and Michael Owen. It's all PR, but then nowhere in the world wants the Beckhams to love it as much as Dubai. It's more of a WAG than almost any other place on earth: flashy, artificially enhanced, desperate to please, all things to all people.

I tour the resort and dutifully write down the stats: $1.5bn to build,1,539 rooms, a Nobu and a Locatelli restaurant, a $25,000-a-night suite, 65,000 marine animals, a 1.4km beach.

Do you think most tourists even know it's Ramadan, I ask.

'That's a good question,' says the PR, a South African. 'I think they receive information at the airport.'

Actually, they don't, I say. We ponder this for a moment, and then she tells me about what a wonderful life she's had since she moved there.

Back in the Meadows, Clare invites me to an expat ladies' coffee morning. It's not an obvious place to go and meet a hotbed of radical malcontents. The lawns are neat, the communal pool still inviting. And yet... Nobody's managing to save. Rents are sky high: £45,000 a year for a modest villa, paid in advance. And you can't move jobs: your visa is sponsored by your employer.

Jane says: 'If I knew now what I knew then, I just wouldn't have come.' She's spent months and months trying to get her daughter with mild ADHD into any sort of school. Laura bought a house, in a 'lovely, quiet, very green development' and the road in front of it has just been torn up to build a six-lane highway. And Rebecca, who's lived in Dubai for 13 years, tells story after story of the Dubai-dream-gone-wrong.

'People just don't know what they're getting themselves into,' she says. 'There's no social infrastructure, no safety net, nothing.' You don't even have to do anything wrong; a bad case of bad luck is enough. She puts me in touch with Richard, a twinkly fortysomething who came to Dubai as a salesman with a multinational company. 'And then, in one month, I had a car accident, lost my job, and my marriage fell apart.'

Richard fell behind on his car payments, his bank loans, his credit cards. 'Everybody lives beyond their means here. It's all front. It's like Dubai - a totally false appearance to what it actually is.' He was charged by the police with defaulting on his loans and his passport was confiscated. 'So I couldn't get another job and I couldn't pay the debt, and I couldn't leave the country... and to cut a very long story short, I got 12 months.'

It's quite a story. He's only been out two weeks, but he's still managing just about to smile. But not even the judges are Emiratis: they're on short-stay visas like everyone else, and the only thing he had going in his favour, he says, is that he wasn't Asian. 'Tons of them are in for practically nothing: jaywalking or owing £10.'

All over Dubai you see construction workers outside in the searing heat. They're the ones building Dubai - they live in what are openly called 'labour camps', have very often paid hundreds of dollars to an agency for a visa and are trapped for years until they've paid off the debt. The 7,500 workers on the Burj Dubai are paid $7.50 a day; unskilled ones $4. It's how globalisation works, of course. We get to buy our cheap Primark tops because in a factory far, far away somebody isn't paid very much to make them. But in Dubai, you see it every time you step outside.

Nick McGeehan, founder of an organisation called Mafiwasta, tells me it's more than that. 'The difference is that the salaries paid in sweatshops in foreign countries reflect the economic weakness of that country. Furthermore, the people who work in them go home to their families at night.'

He was an oil contractor but was so appalled at the plight of these workers that he set up Mafiwasta and is attempting to make a legal case that the UAE government is complicit in these workers' enslavement. He forwards an email to me he's recently received from an Indian recruitment agent. She's trying to help 133 men she sent to Dubai to fulfil a contract who haven't been paid, whose passports have been confiscated, who are not just living in inhumane, insanitary conditions but had been denied even basic necessities such as drinking water.

'It's very unusual for an agent to come forward, and even more so to have one who actually cares about what happens to the workers,' says McGeehan. The only recourse, he tells her, is to get it in the newspapers...

Both Secret Dubai and Chris Davidson have fallen foul of the UAE's censorship laws. The Secret Dubai blog, winner of a Webby award, is blocked - along with My Space, Flickr and Friends Reunited - and Davidson's recently published book Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success was, like Harry Potter, banned, although the ban has now been lifted.

Mostly though, the authorities rely on editors to self-censor - an even more effective weapon. 'I defy a journalist who has been here a few months, who has got their child into a school, to rock the boat,' says Davidson. I interview a high-profile Emirati academic, and later he rings me up and says: 'You're not going to write anything... critical, are you? Our culture is different from yours, you see. But I didn't say anything negative, did I?'

He points me, as several others do, toward Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates university, and possibly the most outspoken person in the country. 'He says really quite remarkable things,' the other academic tells me. 'And he gets away with it. It's very surprising.'

Maybe he's fearless. Or maybe it is, as he says, that others need to be braver. 'We have to have more accountability of the government, more criticism of the policies. More talk about our future and where we are going. Dubai is an amazing place. We are so much further ahead than the rest of the Middle East, but we can't be first on social indicators and last on political ones... It's an embarrassment.'

Even more than that, he says, the place needs to take a long, hard look at itself. Because in 2015, he estimates, Emiratis will make up 10 per cent of the population. And in 2025, at the same rate of growth, zero per cent. 'At the moment when we have everything, we're in danger of losing it all - our very identity.'

I don't go out of my way to track Palmer and Acors down. The case is being heard this week so it's a particularly sensitive time for them. And anyway, they're not really the story. They were drunk and foolish and they might pay an exceedingly high price for their actions, but more than anything else they're simply fallout from an ideological schism that is not of their making.

I don't look for them, but almost everyone I meet is acquainted with one or both of them. Palmer has been in hiding for the past two months, reportedly suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. And Acors? He's there in Long's Bar when I visit. In fact, he's not just in the same bar, he's standing drinking with the same group of friends.

I'm all set to question him, but his friends take me aside: 'He's just an ordinary bloke. He won't talk to you. Just leave him alone.' So I do. It's true, he's just an ordinary bloke. In an extraordinary place. At precisely the wrong moment in time.

Anonymous said...

The story at 09.57 offers absolutely nothing that hasn't been said by the local papers years ago. I know, because I've published these stories before. Back in around 2005 or so this might have been considered groundbreaking, but now it's just old. None of the local papers publish this kind of thing anymore because it simply isn't news.

Desert Orchid said...

Come on guys, the labourers vs rich residents may not be new, or news, but it is great feature fodder. And the more that the UAE engages with the west (Man City, Formula One, etc) the more the spotlight should be and will be turned onto their home patch.
After all, the west gets its fair share of criticism in the international media - Loutish Brits, US gangs, endemic racism, etc.
The massive difference is that other countries' domestic political and social agenda is not driven by comments in foreign media. Dubai, in particular, only makes improvements when criticism is made.
Following the sex on the beach case, my bet is on a re-think of the co-habitation laws.

Anonymous said...

the story @ 16:13 is far more interesting, but still full of some unbelievably lazy journalism:

"The highest is perched a kilometre up in the air, on the top of the Burj Dubai"

- The Burj Dubai is 700 metres high. So only off by a third...

"And in 2025, at the same rate of growth, zero per cent"

- I'd like to understand the maths that says not a single Emirati will live in the UAE in less than 20 years.

"The Secret Dubai blog, winner of a Webby award, is blocked - along with My Space"

- MySpace is not blocked. How fucking hard is it to check these things?

"The region is awash with ever-increasing petrodollars, but Dubai's construction projects are highly leveraged"

- Construction here is actually extremely under-leveraged (thats what the petro-dollars do). Almost every big developer is state backed, and the state is flush with cash.

"almost nothing is certain other than the fact that, if convicted, they both face up to six years in jail."

- Its more like six months, with a maximum of two years, yeah?

Its a better than average story, but still amazing how an Observer journo parachuted in can get so many simple things wrong.

Anonymous said...

Observer piece was poor - Cadwalldr isn't a great journalist. She does good puff-piece interviews but not much else

The Guardian piece was much better and came from a far more respected source...

And while this might be an 'old' story in Dubai the conditions still exist. The worker's Bantustans, filled with exploited labourers, set in stone by the racism of the host nation and indifference of the ex-pat professional class, are still there in huge numbers.

One of the key historical roles of the media has been to rein in the abuse of power. So those of you stating that journalists should be looking at the power structures that support this exploitation why aren't you getting on and doing that? Why aren't you blogging/publishing etc?

The Western media, based outside the UAE, also have the complete freedom to publish what they want. They won't be denied visas, denied payment by employers, put in prison, forced out of their homes, be intimidated by security forces or expelled from the country they work in.

Dubai is heavily reliant on image building - so these kind of attacks by the Western press may hopefully do the job that UAE media have failed at. Let's hope that soon this 'old' story is a 'none' story - fair wages, free association, legal unions etc.

Finally, the Western press has a long record of exposing exploitation by the big companies such as Top Shop etc - many of those companies have been forced to change their practices. In the UK everyone from the tabs to the qualities has been involved as well as BBC, Sky News, ITN.

Anonymous said...

Today's Guardian Online -

""Dubai is long used to defying normal behaviour: this tiny country, one of the seven states of the United Arab Emirates, has an economy second in size only to regional giant Saudi Arabia, even though it has relatively little oil.""

Dubai is not a country, it is an emirate.

I shant go into the details, a simple google search will explain all

tut tut Mr Black

Anonymous said...

I agree that the labourer issue is great feature fodder, but to hold the article up as an example of cutting edge journalism, as this was by the original poster, is simply incorrect.

Anonymous said... Good to see Michelle is still the contact for sales. ITP are so hopeless.

Anonymous said...

Well, as long as she can get 1 telephone call a week and access to a messenger, she'd probably still be flogging sponsorships for the CID Awards had she not been fired!!! Hahahaha. Lov ya Jason!