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Gulf return
April 24, 2012 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Emirati history would be incomplete without acknowledging the contribution of the country’s imported labour. Without them, the Emirates would not exist the way it does, nor possess the opulence or infrastructure it flouts.

If the million-odd expatriates who dominate the labour class were to leave, the Emirates would stop breathing – buildings would remain incomplete, garbage on the streets, gardens untended, paperwork unfiled. It is not just that the economy would collapse; it would stagnate and wither. Expatriates engulf the Emirates, making up around 80 percent of the population. Southasians represent 50 to 60 percent of the expatriate demographic, becoming the largest majority. This puts Emiratis in a peculiar predicament: so reliant on foreign labour, they have become minorities on their own soil. Anger is inevitable, even resentment, especially among the younger generation of UAE citizens, who perceive an invasion. ‘If you don’t move your car, I will get you deported,’ a friend’s uncle was told by an Emirati. The uncle might have scoffed privately – ‘Ridiculous!’ – but he did move his car.

Oldie but interesting via the very awesome The State.
posted by latkes (20 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Still can't understand why the US is backing these lazy, decadent assholes over the Iranians. We already gave the gifts of Iraq and Afghanistan to Iran, might as well make nice with them, they're clearly going places.
posted by indubitable at 8:41 PM on April 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


Without them, the Emirates would not exist the way it does, nor possess the opulence or infrastructure it flouts.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
posted by Scientist at 8:55 PM on April 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


Indubitable: Well, because the Iranians still refer to the US as "the great Satan", while the Emirates provide occasional discounts on gas. There've actually been a number of attempts by the State Dept. to change that, but Iranian revolution was so explicitly anti-American, it's very hard for them to reverse that while the revolution is still vivid in memory.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:59 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also: Iran is a large, powerful, highly militarised state that can frankly take or leave the friendship of the USA. The UAE is small and knows that it would need the support of the USA if it were ever attacked. So the USA can rely on the UAE's friendship in a way that it could never rely on Iran.

Incidentally, this sort of thing is a fundamental colonialist strategy. If you look at Britain's record in Africa, Asia and the Middle East you can see that they generally preferred supporting strong leaders from weak tribes, people who were powerful enough to get things done but vulnerable when challenged. It made the appointees respect British interests in the region.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:31 PM on April 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Why has the idea that the US should befriend Iran become cool to some people?

Didn't Iran violently destroy its progressive movement? Isn't Iran supporting Assad right now? One can go on and on.

Oh yeah, because that suggestion spites Israel

As for the article, from the American point of view, it strikes me as a bit rich for Americans to look down on the gulf states because they exploit immigrant laborers who are at risk of deportation and are made to feel unwelcome despite their necessary and valuable contribution to the economy.
posted by knoyers at 10:16 PM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting article.

I always feel guilty about flying through UAE (either Abu Dhabi - where I flew threw 2 days ago, or Dubai). I live in East Africa and as such the UAE is pretty much my only reasonable option when it comes to getting to certain parts of Asia. I detest giving any money to these airlines and after leaving the airport only a couple of times in that country, have made a personal resolution to never do so again, if I can at all avoid it.

The first thing that strikes you as you begin to leave the airports there is the completely artificial opulence that has been manufactured, everywhere. From the ceiling tiles to the bathroom fixtures. As you begin to juxtapose such things with the complete wasteland that the place is situated in, it becomes even more fraudulent in its existence. You realize that everything, everything is imported. Not just the people, but even the water, the cool air, anything you might consume or otherwise utilize. Sand and heat are pretty much the only things that could exist naturally there.

And then, as you get into the cities, you start to get a vague sense of that which lies underneath. You can get a pretty sickening deep dive education of what it is just by browsing some of the stuff already on Metafilter about it. The author glazes over it in short order:

To be fair, some journalists have filed hard-hitting stories about the country, reporting about the plight of stranded labourers or the burgeoning cultural frustrations between citizens and expatriates.


But actually being there, you can sense it, palpably, in the air, and more poignantly in every interaction with almost everyone you come into contact with (because, frankly, you don't come into contact with the Arabs if they can at all avoid it). Its pretty simple - they are either an imported person who at best has a meager job that is better than they could find in their home country, or at worse staying there not of their own accord. I sense that for many more than a foreign visitor like myself would be lead to believe, the latter is true. After all:

If the million-odd expatriates who dominate the labour class were to leave, the Emirates would stop breathing

You think the rich Arabs don't know this?

There's a reason Halliburton and their ilk are moving their global headquarters to UAE. There's a reason most (read: 90%+) of the conflict minerals (read: gold) in central and east Africa get trafficked through Dubai.

Its a bad place where bad things go on to perpetuate a bad cycle, and I don't like it.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:34 PM on April 24, 2012 [12 favorites]


As for the article, from the American point of view, it strikes me as a bit rich for Americans to look down on the gulf states because they exploit immigrant laborers who are at risk of deportation and are made to feel unwelcome despite their necessary and valuable contribution to the economy.

Especially when the American government recruits them to come to the country, then illegally charges them exorbitant "recruiting fees" (like more than a year's salary - workers take out loans to pay the fees so they come and work) to be deducted from their wages. Which are a fraction of the wages promised them. And then illegally confiscates their passports so they can't leave the country, despite the conditions of their work. But that's okay, since they live in free worker housing, often less than a dozen to a room. Which is nice, except when there are water shortages, in a desert.
I have been in Abu Dhabi for 14 months. I paid 150,000 Pakistani rupees [US$1,747 in recruitment fees to an agent] for a visa back home. At home, my agent said I would make 700 dirhams [US$191] in basic salary. The agent told me I would work in a processing plant, packaging bottled water, but when I arrived, I was made to sign a new contract, to work as a construction worker, at a lower salary of 525 dirhams [US$143].

It’s a very difficult job, long hours [and] hard work. In the morning, we start [from the labor camp] at 6 a.m., and start work at seven. We get a half-hour break, and return back here at 8 pm. There is no arrangement for cold water; we have to come to the central area. The boss will ask us, “why are you going to the water so many times?”, so we can’t go too often.

My company pays a food allowance of 125 dirhams [US$34]. But we need a minimum of 200 dirhams [US$54] for even simple food. Because of inflation, even 300 [US$81] might not be enough for good food. We just eat dal, vegetables. We cannot eat meat, just two or three times per month. There are two kitchens for the whole company, [about] 50 or 60 employees. Our accommodation looks good, but we are living [in rooms with] between 14 and 16 people per room.

Most of the people who work for my company have the same problems. If I knew that I had to do this work, I would never have come here for this.

- A Pakistani guest worker, quoted in the recent Human Rights Watch report on the Saadiyat Island project (which is a UAE government project).
It's like slavery, except you get the slaves to take out loans to come and work.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:50 PM on April 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


I don't think anyone who hasn't spent some time in the UAE can really fathom what it's like. And even if you do spend time here, realities are very carefully segregated. And I know a lot of people are thinking "Well, it's not like realities aren't segregated in the US/Europe/elsewhere in the world," but the fact is, the UAE is simply a class apart. I am told that other Gulf countries are similar. That's a lot easier to believe, given many of the geographical and historical similarities.

I find it interesting that the writer says "Gulf return" is a positive term. In Pakistan, we're more likely to say "Dubai-return" or "Dubai-palat (palat meaning 'turned back' or 'return'" and it is a term used with casual disdain, usually. The implications are along the lines of "people with a lot of money that they earned too quickly, who don't really know what to do with it and therefore are spending it in the glaringly ostentatious ways that are typical of the Gulf." I'm sure there's some envy in the pejorative, but mostly not.

The writer talks about his family. And it's a familiar story. He touches on impermanence being built in. And it is. Work permits are for three years (now two, I believe). Never more than that. Laws for expats and citizens are different. e.g. The fine for killing an Emirati in a traffic accident is three times as much as for killing a non-Emirati. Non-citizens can never own property, only lease it long-term in designated areas, or short-term from any Emirati wanting to rent out. Utilities are heavily subsidized for Emiratis.

In short, there are constant reminders that one does not belong. There are no easy, inexpensive ways to learn Arabic. Enrolling expat kids in the public schools is nigh impossible, although there are some seats held for native Arabic speaking expats.

Emiratis will routinely jump queues and be accommodated. I was standing in the express lane at the supermarket one Friday night. Utter madness at the checkout line, so I was glad there was an express lane. Everyone in the lane had fewer than 10 items. Most of us had 2 or 3. Random Emirati guy walks up to the clerk, from the front of the register, and proceeds to purchase mobile phone credit. The clerk does not even suggest to him that he should stand in line. I was second in line at that point, so I said "Why don't you go stand in line like everyone else?" Practically everyone in the line was brown-skinned, interspersed with some 'people of pallor'. The gentleman just looked at me, a look of considerable confusion on his face. Then he said "Why would I stand in that long line for this one thing?" And then he walked away. The guy at the register never said a thing. The rest of us grumbled, and sighed, and learned one more lesson.

Another time, I went to pay a traffic fine. Actually, I had to go to the traffic fines office to get a paper that said I didn't need to pay a fine, because I had come out of a grocery store to find a big dent in my properly parked car, and the police officer had to be called because you have to have a paper from the police to get the car fixed and so I had to take the paper from the police officer to get the paper from the traffic fines office. It was April or so, so temperatures were above 100F some days. I had my 4-year-old son with me. I walk in to a smallish room, with three rows of bus-terminal chairs. I was the only woman there. The others were all brown-skinned folk, with a couple of expat Arabic speakers (I would guess Lebanese or Syrian, possibly Jordanian). There were some empty seats, but none where there were two together. In Pakistani etiquette (and remember, most of these people were Pakistani), if you see a woman in need of a seat, you move over so that there is an empty seat between you and her. No one in the room moved, not even to give me space to squeeze by them into one of the empty chairs. About fifteen minutes later, an Emirati woman walks in. Every single man there stood up to offer her a chair. I had been frustrated before; the memory of that seemingly synchronized movement still gets me worked up. But there was nothing to be done. So I learned another lesson.

The writer sounds nostalgic about Abu Dhabi. I wonder at people who can so totally blind themselves to their own second-class status. It never ceases to shock me how many of them just take it for granted. And people do.

I stopped applying for jobs once I realized that I would always get paid less than a third of what someone from more desirable parts of the world would. People have suggested to me that I simply note on my CV that my degree is from the US and erase my ten years of teaching experience, since teaching in Pakistan counts against me here. They look at me like I'm nuts when I tell them I can't dishonour my career that way (totally aside from the questionable wisdom of lying on a job application).

It's a tough country. One that demands that you lock questions of conscience up in a box while you live here, because you will never have the right to be an agent of change. You don't belong here, anyway.
posted by bardophile at 2:56 AM on April 25, 2012 [107 favorites]


There's a reason Halliburton and their ilk are moving their global headquarters to UAE. There's a reason most (read: 90%+) of the conflict minerals (read: gold) in central and east Africa get trafficked through Dubai.
In Misha Glenny's book on the new global crime networks he talks about the role of the Gulf states. He has a fair bit on Dawood Ibrahim, erstwhile Mumbai crime boss and strongly implicated in the 1993 bomb atacks there, who has been running his operations from Dubai for decades, as one example of the convenient haven they provide.
posted by Abiezer at 3:33 AM on April 25, 2012


allkindsoftime: "Sand and heat are pretty much the only things that could exist naturally there."
And, you know, people. (And desert pumpkins.) What is today the UAE has been settled for a long time.
posted by brokkr at 4:36 AM on April 25, 2012


People of pallor?! I'm totally stealing that.

Seriously though, thanks for your perspective bardophile. I've applied to the gulf before, never sure what I'd do if I actually got the job.
posted by BinGregory at 5:30 AM on April 25, 2012


What is today the UAE has been settled for a long time.

In a manner of speaking. Settlements have been pretty impermanent, and more importantly, extremely sparse. The reason that 75% of the population is expat is not that there's been a pogrom of indigenous folk; it's that there are so few indigenous folk to begin with.
posted by bardophile at 5:55 AM on April 25, 2012


People have suggested to me that I simply note on my CV that my degree is from the US and erase my ten years of teaching experience, since teaching in Pakistan counts against me here.

I have some African-American colleagues here in Dubai who've noted how differently they're treated as soon as people realise that they're American (high status) rather than African (low status). We also had a client that got angry because the British expert he'd paid for turned out to be of Nigerian extraction rather than white.

The class stratification is also very real. On a day to day basis, I only see working class people when they're actually working. I've actually been to labour camps here because when I was in high school we'd go and bet on the cock fights, but the vast majority of Western expats haven't. I can go months without seeing labourers do anything other than their jobs.
Sure, there are expensive and cheap bars and restaurants everywhere, but I wouldn't have the first idea where the labourers actually eat, buy food, whatever. I've never interacted with any of them socially.

I actually know quite a few Emiratis socially, but that is also unusual for an expat. It's only because I had some Emirati friends from when I went to school here and they introduced me to the others, it's a fairly closed society to get into if you don't know anyone.
posted by atrazine at 6:00 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seconding atrazine, apparently there is a racial/nationality-based hierarchy where Brits come first, other white people next, followed by the rest of the world. Even among the Arabs there is a hierarchy; there is one followed by the airlines like Emirates and their flight attendants. People from the Indian sub-continent are treated poorly unless you have money. Emiratis are completely above the law. All of the foregoing is widely known. However, what is often not known is that the UAE is also deeply sectarian. A friend of mine who is a Sunni Muslim was looking for a job there six months ago was told that their name was 'too Shi'a' and since the [Israeli/American/Saudi] build-up to war with Iran began and the Arab Spring came to Bahrain, no Shi'a Muslim can get a good job in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

Bardic or atrazine, does the latter ring true?
posted by Azaadistani at 7:40 AM on April 25, 2012


Azaadistani,

Yes. Since the events of the last year in Bahrain, they've gotten a lot more antsy about that. I wouldn't say that no Shia can get a good job in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but the authorities have been a lot more reluctant with their work visas than they were before. It's especially true in government jobs. This isn't totally new though, Shia have never been able to get the passes needed to work in the oil fields.

Also, the general privilege of Emiratis aside, Emirati society is not monolithic. All Emiratis have a document called a 'family book' which documents their descent, there are differences between tribes and various seniorities within the tribes. A large number of Emiratis are of Persian or Pakistani descent, including some of the very wealthiest 'Emirati' businessmen in Dubai but they're still considered Not Arab, and that can make a difference. Many government jobs are patronage appointments and being an Emirati from a disfavoured family in a government job is a recipe for poor promotion prospects.

What looks like an absolute monarchy is behind the scenes an extremely complicated system where the extended ruling family and the senior members of the non-ruling tribes are frequently consulted on public affairs.

The racial class system in general is Emirati > Western* > Subcontinent
(*) As far as many Emiratis are concerned, the whiter the better, and the further West in Europe the better. So Western Europe > Eastern Europe, North > South. The British still think they're at the top, but that opinion is hardly limited to British expats...

It's also not absolute. Long time expats (like me) with good connections and friendships with influential Emirati families don't have anything to fear from some upstart nobody without a powerful family behind him, no matter what his nationality might be.
posted by atrazine at 8:39 AM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh yeah, because that suggestion spites Israel

Please tell me more about your amazing psychic powers.
posted by Phalene at 8:39 AM on April 25, 2012


Oh, and where Other Arabs come on the hierarchy depends as well. Khalijis (other Gulf countries) are with the Emiratis. Otherwise it depends on education level. If you were to rank people by GDP / capita of their home country you'd have a pretty good idea of it.
posted by atrazine at 8:42 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've heard of the racial totem pole thing (indeed, been told that there's some further intra-racial lining up in that Muslims from South Asia are treated slightly better than Hindus; I personally don't have an opinion on this one), but discrimination against Shias is new development; haven't heard that one before. Thanks for sharing, all.
posted by the cydonian at 11:03 PM on April 25, 2012


White American in Dubai: What's here is what's everywhere: privilege, prejudice, abuse of laborers, disdain for immigrants, etc. I can live with a thought that there's more of all that here, though I'll laugh at anyone who tries to tell me there aren't heaping stacks of that stuff in the SF Bay Area, which is the area I left to come here, and other parts of the word. Credible reports suggest those sorts of attitudes are not unprecedented in India, too!!! Shocking, right?

I'm not quite over the moon about DXB for any number reasons, fundamentally because it can feel like there's more veneer than wood. I'm less over the moon about professionally employed expats anywhere going on about how f'd up their place of residence is. The author's father could have stayed and watched his mango tree grow.

At least the prostitutes on Mankhool Road are open about what they're doing.

What else?

"Segregated realities?" Yeah; it tends to feel like I'm living in Dubindia. And in Dubindia, non-Indians are often enough second-class citizens, rarely get a straight answer or get told things that are true, turn out to be true. Seems not unprecedented that given the opportunity, people leap at the opportunity to treat people the way they loathe people with more power treating them.

From the article: "....multiple nationalities responsible for giving the Emirates the tick-tock precision it boasts." No question about the "multiple nationalities," though "tick-tock precision" is ludicrous. "It will be soon, inshallah," is real common here and it's just as common for expats from all over to take that approach.

Speaking of expats, a considerable percentage of western expats strike a few of us as vile: shallow, greedy, judgmental, taking an I'm-special-because-I-have-money approach. A British friend here who's also disgusted by most of the westerners commented, "The British people here are not the sort of people I spend time with in London."

(In case you're wondering, he made the move because he was with the same company for 26 years, got divorced and felt like he needed a big change, to cut the chain to his desk. He'll be gone from the UAE in less than a year." Me? Hideous job market back home and there's a lot to be said for not living under a bridge.)

Oh, the Emeratis. Creatures of their environment, their norms since they were born, etc., I reckon.
posted by ambient2 at 11:13 PM on April 26, 2012


Yeah; it tends to feel like I'm living in Dubindia. And in Dubindia, non-Indians are often enough second-class citizens, rarely get a straight answer or get told things that are true, turn out to be true.

For sure there is a not a hierarchy which is universally accepted. A highly educated, high caste Indian may defer to Emiratis to avoid trouble, but there is no doubt in their mind who is the "real" superior.

A British friend here who's also disgusted by most of the westerners commented, "The British people here are not the sort of people I spend time with in London."

A faux Irish pub in Dubai on a Thursday night is a deeply disturbing place to be. The most repulsive specimens of humanity come out of their hiding places. Luckily the crash sent a lot of the grosser specimens involved in the "property" business scuttling back to ruining London for the owners of green Mini Coopers or whatever they were doing before.
posted by atrazine at 9:00 AM on April 27, 2012


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