The Future as Dubai

I’m having a peaceful evening in my hotel in Dubai. The Al Manzil, built in a pleasant faux-Arab style, is close to the kilometer-high (give or take) Burj Khalifa, and right across the road from the entrance to the very new Old Town (it opened three years ago,) a lovely contraption of high-end Arabic architecture, fountains, shops, five star hotels and restaurants. This being Friday, a friend and I spent the day at the Marine Beach, a two-year old neighborhood of forty-story residential and hotel towers fronting one of the two palm-shaped peninsulas, close to a virtual ski slope. I was there to enjoy the eye candy with my toes in the water and a cold beer in my hand. When they trade their abayahs for bikinis, the local girls are ravishing.

It’s only my second time in the Gulf, and I’m fascinated. At first, it seemed to me merely a mirage of luxury built on oil, sand and a sea of debt (Abu Dhabi had to bail Dubai out with a cool 40 billion a couple of years back.) But, as I’m discovering, there’s far more to it than that. Consider immigration.

Europeans and Americans are transfixed by the fear of immigrants. A few boatloads of exhausted, fearful refugees from North Africa are enough to get the Italians and the French to threaten to abrogate one of Europe’s proudest achievement, the Schengen Agreement guaranteeing border-control free travel across much of the EU.  In France, laws have been passed stigmatising French citizens who choose to dress according to their Muslim religious beliefs. Those Europeans who seek to stem the tide of racism are becoming targets for attack – and not just by thugs.

Three days ago near Brussels, my son, off to demonstrate against the despicable treatment of illegal immigrants in Belgium, saw a young man he’d ridden with beaten to a pulp by the police. His crime? Speaking French to a Flemish policeman wanting to check his papers. So far, interior minister Annemarie Turtleboom sees no reason to investigate. In the US, anti-immigrant hysteria propels extremist Republicans to power in statehouses across the nation, and right into Congress. Large minorities believe that America’s first non-white president is a Muslim, or foreign-born – at any rate, that his presidency is illegitimate.

Racist ideas are on the rise throughout the West. Xenophobia is sending far-right parties ever closer to the levers of power. A toxic blanket of fear of the Other is settling across Europe and America. The contrast to the United Arab Emirates couldn’t be greater. Over 80% of the population here are reported to be foreign. There are Thais, Filipinos, Americans, various Indians, Pashtuns, Bengalis, Nepalis, Iranians, Brits, Russians, Eritreans, Germans, French, sundry Afghans, Baluchis, Egyptians, Palestinians, Sudanese, Punjabis, and dozens more. In this mass of people, the occasional emirati in white dishdasha or black abayah seems exotic. Everybody gets on.  Everyone is terribly polite with one another. There is little crime and fewer ethnic tensions.

What makes it work? A simple deal. You can come here to work and play. You’ll pay no taxes, have to arrange your own medical and social insurance, and depend on your own wits. In return, you are asked one thing only: to shut up. No politics allowed.

What that means in practice is no criticism of the local rules – and rulers. As a result, the local papers are terrible. But everyone has access to the web. And apart from porn and gambling sites, the only pages that are blocked are unflattering stories about the rulers. The convulsions in Syria, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere get abundant coverage online and on TV. The developments in Tunisia and Egypt are eagerly discussed. This is no police state.

The foreigners don’t mind their lack of rights. They’re too busy working, shopping and playing. Even the laborers seem to like it here. I was speaking to a crew planting trees in the sand next to a recently completed “road” in Abu Dhabi (a mere 6 lanes wide,) all dark-skinned men from Pakistan’s southern Sind province. One spoke English and translated. Labouring all day in the hot sun looked like hell and, sweating profusely in my light tropical suit, I said so. They burst out laughing. “Wait for the summer!” (it was a mere 40 Celsius). Then they extolled Dubai’s benefits. Here, they could make far more money than they could dream of in their impoverished home villages. Their laborer’s camp out in the sands was spartan, but it had a clinic and a canteen. There was  a TV in every barrack, with Pakistani and Indian channels. The Indian channels were preferred. Pretty actresses singing in suggestive clothing, a staple of Indian cinema, is a big no-no on Pakistani TV.

And there was no politics here, one added approvingly, to vigorous nods from the others. Karachi, Sind’s (and Pakistan’s) biggest city, is a broiling cauldron of ethnic and political hatreds that frequently explode into pitched battles that can leave dozens of bodies in their wake. Life back home was not just hard, it was dangerous. Whereas here? After living expenses, they had enough to feed the family back home, buy them a TV, send the kids to school, and put something aside to fly home every year or two. Perhaps they could save enough to build a house for their retirement. Didn’t they get exploited by their employer, I asked? They protested vigorously. Sure, they would love a raise, who wouldn’t? But he was all right. They conceded some employers are rotten apples, but the system is now so well developed that employers’ reputations quickly get back to the Sindhi hinterland, and bad ones find it hard to recruit new staff.

Higher up the pay scale, a foreigner’s quality of life quickly becomes outstanding.  There are foreigners everywhere, at every level of society, even in leading government positions.  My client at Abu Dhabi’s environment agency, an Iranian, reports to an Australian woman, who reports to an Indian department head, and so on. The police are mostly Egyptian. The education system, the healthcare system, the sovereign wealth funds, even the army – foreigners everywhere.

The locals don’t seem to mind either. There’s been little of the revolutionary fervor that has swept the rest of the Arab world. And there is no open xenophobia. Emiratis get the benefit of all that foreign labour and expertise, and that pays for great cities, outstanding infrastructure, a high quality of life and a generous social security system. Sure, Abu Dhabi has oil. But there’s little of it in Dubai, and life there is even more pleasant. That’s why I’m in the city for the weekend.

The secret of that intercultural success? Simple. Keep a very clear line between citizens and foreigners. Being Emirati brings huge privileges. The cradle-to-grave welfare system is nothing compared that that which exists in Scandinavia. Foreigners, who have no right to any of it, are welcome to live here their whole lives, if they have an income. But they will remain foreigners to their death.  So will their children, and their grandchildren.

In Europe and America, of course, things are different. Access to the welfare state comes with residency rights, not citizenship. So, ineluctably, when Europeans or Americans see an immigrant, they think “welfare scrounger”, not “hard worker.” They see competition for expensive rights, not useful additions to their labor forces. Add in the fear of terrorism, et voila. At no time since the end of the Second World War has the threat of racism been as potent in the West as it is today.

It’s facile to put it all down to swimming on a sea of oil. Apart from Norway, every other big oil producing country suffers in ways big and small from the resource curse (see Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Angola, Equatorial Guinea etc.) The Emirates put their oil money to good use – and all without the slightest whiff of democracy.

Emiratis have been lucky with their rulers so far. Despite their success, the lack of democracy puts them at risk, and not just if the economic climate were to go sour. The “bad emperor” curse is an ever-present danger. However, I’m told that the ruling families are aware of this. There are apparently ongoing debates to select the crown princes and ministers so as to keep the mad, bad and dangerous away from positions of power (for an example of a seriously psychopathic ruling family member, check out Sheikh Issa’s pastimes on YouTube. Apparently, he’s now stewing in a tent in the desert, prevented from coming back to Abu Dhabi as punishment for his crimes). Time will tell if that’s good enough.

Despite their lack of democracy, the United Arab Emirates have stumbled across a magic formula for immigrant-citizen harmony.  There’s something there for us to learn. Perhaps we in the West, too, should throw open our borders and let the huddled masses come. Just don’t give them the same rights as citizens.

Dubai guest workers photo by Charles Fred. Published under a Creative Common license.


  1. A well sought out and reasoned comment – for a first visit.
    Should be printed in major European newspapwers – but I am afraid as not being politicaly in the mainstream they will not do it.
    Knowing the UAE since over 35 years, watching the astounding developments there – laughed off as impossible by outsiders at the start – there is someting countries in Europe could learn – but as it would mean a complete upheaval of cherished traditions, – economically, socially, financially – and as the old world does not have the resources (oil) to play with for their “indigeneous” people, it will not and cannot happen.Pity.

  2. Der Bericht beschreibt sehr anschaulich das Phänomen der “guest workers” in den GCC Ländern. Die meisten Emirate würden nicht funktionieren ohne die flinken Hände an Airports, in Hotels oder im Straßenbau. Hoch qualifizierte Expatriate Kräfte gibt es in Krankenhäusern, Logistik-Firmen und im Dienstleistungsbereich . Das Modell funktioniert also …
    Trotzdem bin ich nicht der Meinung , dass dieses Modell auf Europa übertragbar ist. “Physisches Aufenthaltsrecht ohne Mitgestaltungsrechte” sind kein Ansatz, der auf Dauer funktioniert. So gesehen, haben auch die versklavten Baumwoll-Pflanzer der Vor-Bürgerkriegszeit in den Südstaaten der USA von einer gewissen “Offenheit gegenüber Fremden” profitiert. Schließlich wurden die Sklaven, die einen wesentlichen Faktor im Reichtum der Südstaaten darstellten, gut genährt, gehegt, gepflegt und zumindest nicht systematisch gemobbt. Kaum einer wird aber auf die Idee kommen, dass die deutsche “Xenophobia” mit Blick auf die “Erfolgsgeschichte” der Sklaverei in den USA auf den Prüfstand gestellt werden sollte.
    Vergessen wir bitte nicht, dass Fremde – und auch fremde Investoren – in den Emiraten im allgemeinen gegenüber der Regierung und heimischen Investoren einen schwachen Stand haben. Während emiratische Sprösslinge mit ihren getunten Zweirädern ihr eigenes und das Leben Dritter mit Raserei auf den Highways aufs Spiel setzen können, weil eine staatliche Versicherung ihnen nach einem Unfall ein neues Vehikel vor die Tür stellt, kann der pakistanische Guest Worker froh sein, einen Platz in den überfüllten Bussen in die Außenbezirke zu bekommen. Expats haben kaum Rechte und in einem Rechtsstreit gegen Emiratis ziehen sie selbst in strafrechtlich relevanten Fällen regelmäßig den kürzeren.
    Summa summarum: Durch den enormen Ölreichtum sind die GCC Staaten schneller reich geworden, als ihnen gut tut. Sie sind sicher nicht als “police states” zu sehen, aber es sind schlecht organisierte Oligarchien, in denen Rechte nicht durchweg gegeben und auch nicht einklagbar sind. Eine Zeit der “Aufklärung” und Immanuel Kant hat es dort nie gegeben, sie wären aber bitter nötig. Man muss noch mehr hinter die Kulissen schauen, als dies im Rahmen eines touristischen Aufenthaltes möglich ist und wird feststellen, dass Geld zwar nicht stinkt, aber eben doch nur eine Facette von Erfolg – gesellschaftlichem, humanitärem und persönlichen – ist. Gemäss einer so umfassend verstandenen Erfolgsdefinition haben viele Staaten in der Golfregion noch einen weiten Weg vor sich …

  3. In the interest of broadening the debate, Dr Goehler, I shall answer in English. You make three points. First, that the Gulf States, under a glittering oil-financed surface, remain badly run autocracies suffering from a lack of Enlightenment-grounded institutions. I cannot comment about any GCC member state bar two of the UAE emirates. But as I allude to in my piece, oil alone does not explain their success. It is easy to pump the black stuff out of the ground and fill swiss bank accounts, and that is what many oil producers seem to be doing. Abu Dhabi is investing its money more sensibly, and Dubai seems to have achieved first-world living standards for much of its population, native and foreign, without benefiting from a resource play. Dubai’s ease may be debt-fuelled, but so are the welfare states of Europe.

    Of course, as you point out, these standards of living are not available to all of the foreign population. UAE labourers and other unskilled workers do indeed have a much lower quality of life and few legal rights. I’ll come to the rights issue later. But comparing the living standards of Pakistani labourers with those of European professionals working in the UAE – or even of unskilled labourers in Germany – is comparing apples and oranges. What matters is whether their standard of living is higher than it is in Pakistan. Having lived and worked in that country, I have little doubts that labouring in the UAE is, for many millions, preferable to scratching a living from a tiny plot of exhausted land, even if the salary seems pitiful to us. Your comparison of this situation to antebellum slavery is disingenuous. Despite occasional abuses, UAE labourers have the choice of going home. They are paid a salary, given three meals a day, and have a place to sleep. If they want to give this life up and go home, they can. And some do: the sheer number of flights to the subcontinent from Dubai and Abu Dhabi testifies to the huge number of people who travel back and forth.

    The issus of legal rights is a much more serious one, but needs to be differentiated. The police can be brutal, and the criminal justice system is primitive. You are right to point out that in a dispute with an Emirati, a foreigner often draws the shorter straw. When a European gets caught up in this, worldwide headlines result. But I am not convinced that this problem is entirely absent in our justice systems. As you are surely aware, your chances of going to jail for a given crime rises steeply in the US if you happen to have black skin, or in Belgium if you happen to be of Moroccan origin . Away from criminal and civil justice, however, the situation does not appear so dire. Corporate and commercial law, while not up to European standards, seems to be of high enough quality to attract serious foreign investment. According to World Bank rankings, it’s easier to do business in the UAE than in EU member states such as Greece, Poland or even Italy. Dubai is positioning itself as a trading and financial hub between the Arab world, Iran, South Asia and Africa. It would not have had the success it has had if its commercial legal system was capricious and irrational.

    Finally, you are of course right that we cannot import the UAE model of native/foreigner cohabitation to Europe or the US. For better or worse, these countries have over many decades developed a migration framework which awards social rights to individuals when they receive residency, not when they receive citizenship. But this does not mean we cannot learn some lessons, and the fact remains that native/foreigner tensions in the UAE seem far less politically potent than they are in the West.


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