An Oasis of Privilege
When I was a child (read: 16), I exhausted my tolerance for fake pop-up cities playing The Sims. Ever since, I’ve entertained few whims to visit any, meaning the United Arab Emirates – the federation housing Dubai, Abu Dhabi and five other principalities – has been low on my to-do list. Quite a few girls I know call the place home, and snippets of their glittering lives spent in its futuristic shopping centres and gravity-defying hotels occasionally filter into my social media streams. Although it looks incredible, it’s never really seemed like my scene – and not just because I lack the lipstick and high-heel skills required to work as an Emirates flight attendant.
When my dad was contracted to work in Abu Dhabi for six months, his stories of the place continued to sap my interest. A Filipino saleswoman based in Dubai fell pregnant to a co-worker, so flew home to have an abortion. Two weeks later, she returned to the UAE and was rushed to hospital with severe bleeding. This alerted doctors to the procedure she had undergone in the Philippines, as well as the fact she’d had sex out of wedlock. It was reported to the authorities, and she was handed a jail term followed by deportation. A local man peddled 10 Tramadol tablets – a prescription painkiller readily available in Australia. It’s a banned drug in the UAE – he got life imprisonment.
But despite my misgivings, when Dad offered to shout me a trip to visit him, I naturally gave in.
“Pack sensibly,” he had said, knowing my penchant for breaking Victoria Beckham’s number one rule of fashion and having both my tits and legs out at the same time. “No shoulders or knees.”
So there I was, dressed like a grandma and munching on free peanuts as I bemusedly watched a fellow passenger squirm uncomfortably at the Arabic tribute to Allah that opens the Royal Brunei in-flight demonstration. When the safety instructions finished, she leaned across the aisle towards me and whispered loudly, “Are they going to repeat that in ENGLISH?”
“They just did,” I informed her pleasantly. She scowled.
Admittedly, English was not the first language of whoever had just spoken over the intercom, nor perhaps was it the second, but I took sadistic pleasure in this woman’s dissatisfaction. She knew it was the price she was going to have pay in order to clip clop through designer stores in an air-conditioned desert.
I landed in Dubai at 1am on July 17 – the middle of Ramadan, meaning no food, drink, gum or cigarettes between 4am and sunset. Knowing how torturous I would find this, Dad whisked me to his hotel and fed me some Suhoor – a lavish breakfast spread of meats, dips and dessert – to keep me going until nighttime. After crashing for a couple of hours, we went for a drive up to Ras Al-Khaimah, another emirate near the border of Oman. The UAE is not a country for walking, and the cities aren’t optimised for pedestrians. It’s just too hot, and even winding down the car windows for a snatch of fresh air results in an instant breakout of sweat.
The roads were bleak, bleached and fascinating, dotted with camels, goats and shops selling everything from caged canaries to guns. Whenever we drew close to a city, the contrast in architecture rising out of the sand was immense: impressive government monoliths alternating with what looked like bombed-out housing-commission flats.
“Who lives in those?” I asked.
“Workers,” said Dad.
Workers – mostly desperately impoverished men and women from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines – flock to the UAE for the promise of a better life, often leaving their families behind for decades at a time. They do menial work six days a week in temperatures as high as 50 degrees in exchange for 100AED a day (35AUD), food and accommodation in worker villages so isolated and questionable that even a visit is met with disgusted incredulity by Emiraties and ex-pats alike. There, they are squished in groups of up to eight into dormitories with no WiFi and usually no dining areas, meaning the meals they get must be eaten on the floor.
Stories of these workers being exploited by their companies and employers are rife. Some have their passports taken off them; some are not properly paid; some are grossly mistreated – beaten, doused in boiling water and worse. If they have the courage to get through all the red tape involved with lodging a complaint, they will usually just be fired.
The weirdest thing is that just over fifty years ago, the region was a British protectorate only occupied by fishermen and goat and camel herders. But then oil was discovered, and all its direct wealth went straight to the local tribal leaders. Those leaders don’t drive goats or camels anymore: they drive Lamborghinis and Ferraris. Ever since the UAE was declared a country in 1971, the fledgling nation has sought to build up its infrastructure and provide a future beyond oil, and its sovereign wealth and lack of personal income tax has been a major draw card for anyone looking to ride its coattails.
As a result, the country is a melting pot of cultures with a caste system that is very much alive. The indigenous Emiraties – most of who seem to think they are entitled to privilege as a birth right – are at the top, with westerners following not too far behind. It may seem racist, but it’s a reality. For the same job, there may be five different pay scales depending on an employee’s race. Even the roads in some areas are elevated three levels above the ground so that the cream of society can drive around without having to be subject to sights of workers and their trucks doing labor down below.
On my last night in the UAE, I went to a cocktail party in Abu Dhabi hosted by an ex-pat from the States with a heart of gold. Nearly all his guests were white – American, Australian, British, South African and Zimbabwean. The one girl who wasn’t, a smart, well-travelled Kenyan, told me she loved living in the UAE. She listed her favourite activities as indoor skiing, indoor skydiving and going to the gym.
“The Sheik of Dubai is such a go-getter,” she told me. “He will see things and say, ‘We need that! We need one of those!’ The atmosphere here – the feeling in the air – is amazing. Everyone is so cosmopolitan, so open minded.”
I had trouble believing this last statement. A few weeks ago, my dad and an Indian man had entered a lift operated by an attendant. The attendant only greeted my dad. Dad wanted to go to the eighth floor; the Indian to the fourth. Despite it being far easier to drop his passengers in ascending order, the attendant went to the eighth floor first.
Appalled, my dad recounted this story to some of the people at the party.
“I kind of like that about this place,” one said in response.
I’m not sure I’ll ever come back.