Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Lessons from Dubai.

Following the BBC Panorama broadcast yesterday, on the shame that is Dubai's horrific treatment of migrant construction labour, my attention has been drawn to the recent Independent Newspaper articles [thanks Willie!] and various UAE blog posts.

Links/exerpts are at the end of this post.

Thankfully, here in sunny Muscat we mostly avoided the excesses of the UAE's Sin City. Now, the Dubai experience dealing with the aftermath of their excesses should provide a dramatic lesson for Oman on many fronts: real estate, environment, expats, bankrupcy law, debt, tourists, wealth, Government, and the old adage: "If it seems too good to be true, it usually is".

Take the status of their housing development market, with Arabian Business reporting that 70% of expat owned real estate in the UAE is in 'negative equity', with swathes of buildings incomplete and likely to stay that way. Not to mention the ridiculous excesses exemplified by the Atlantis Hotel, Burj, and The World's empty artificial islands.

Recently, too many Omani had come to believe (like many around the world) that the way to wealth was easy: through speculation in shares, property and land; by being allowed to be a minority partner in some Government development; by being Mr.5% for some foreign company; or by effectively taxing the income stream of the expats you could sponsor. Money was swilling around the country as oil prices exploded and the Government spent large on big industrial and oil infrastructure projects.

Perhaps now there can be a return to sensibility: That wealth should be gained through professionalism, hard work and true value creation. That education is important because of the skills and knowledge it brings and not because it is supposed to provide a magic piece of paper that gives an automatic right to sit behind a desk reading the papers all day. That borrowing beyond your means to consume and speculate is unwise. And to be wary of hubris.

And that just because others have treated people horribly and inhumanely in the past [USA - slaves, UK - Indians, Japan - Koreans], or still do so now [China - Tibet, Pakistan, Dubai - NRIs ...], doesn't make it OK for us to do the same. Truthfully decribing a criticism as hypocritical doesn't mean the criticism isn't true. We can and should be better than that.

An expat minimum wage and enforcement of decent terms and conditions is needed here urgently, not just because it's humane, but because we have to meet the number 1 challenge of this country - unemployment/under employment and a huge ratio of under 18 to working age people. Aluminium plants may be another cleaver way to export artifially cheap gas, but they don't actually provide jobs for very many people.

Oman must convert itself from an economy based on industrialisation, hydrocarbons and cheap labour to a service based economy with Omanis serving Omanis, and doing so with efficiency and professionalism (Government included). Having an endless supply of cheap, low-skill imported labour halts the effective Omanisation of the service industry, and legislating 'job types' or compulsory Omanisation % is highly inefficient and ineffective.

The comments section on the Johann Hari OpEd piece is a story in itself, and generally binary (either totally disagree/totally agree]. The emotion, vitriol and back story evident in some of the comments made is incredible. Especially defensive are those comments from Emirati and Dubai western expats, who are somewhat pilloried in the article.

Check these links out.

The Desert Blogger.
The strange world of Middle East media:

The Panorama appreciation society
Posted by desert_blogger
Monday, 6 April 2009 at 06:55 pm

It can de difficult to express just how frustrating it is, now and again, to be a journalist in a region that lacks so many basic facets of personal liberty. I'm both deliriously happy, and a little ashamed, to read the synopsis of Panorama: Slumdogs and Millionaires, which will be screened by the BBC in the UK in two hours time, for the highly respected, international current affairs show has chosen to gather its tanks on the lawns of Dubai's migrant labour market.

I'm happy, because, like hundreds of thousands across Dubai, I walk in the shadows of the labourers from the Indian sub-continent (almost) everyday, and while I can't begin to claim to know their way of life, I know of the impossible situation that these men face. I know of their exploitation, while being acutely aware of the glamorous reputation that Dubai manages to convey on the world stage - what Panorama's Ben Anderson calls, "one of the greatest PR triumphs of the past 20 years."

And this too is the source of my shame. As a journalist in Dubai predominantly covering the construction industry, should it not be my job to write the story that Ben Anderson will have the privilege of telling in two hours time? Well, yes, it is. So do we? Well, yes, we do.

Last July, I wrote and we published this article, passionately supportive of the introduction of a minimum wage for Dubai's oversea's labour force. ...

And yesterday a long, 9000 word article by Johann Hari in Independent: Comment has been drawing lots of attention in the UAE bloggosphere, either attacked as a biased hatchet job, or praised as an honest view of the real and deep problems of the giant fake plastic Ponzi-scheme built on the bones of exploited NRIs and a sea of sewerage that is Dubai, or perhaps more reasonably a bit of both. But its a nice (albeit one-sided) story, apparently full of actual interviews and quotes.

The dark side of Dubai

Dubai was meant to be a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La, a glittering monument to Arab enterprise and western capitalism. But as hard times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an uglier story is emerging. Johann Hari reports...


I say. I can't stand it. She sighs with relief and says: "This is the most terrible place! I hate it! I was here for months before I realised – everything in Dubai is fake. Everything you see. The trees are fake, the workers' contracts are fake, the islands are fake, the smiles are fake – even the water is fake!" But she is trapped, she says. She got into debt to come here, and she is stuck for three years: an old story now. "I think Dubai is like an oasis. It is an illusion, not real. You think you have seen water in the distance, but you get close and you only get a mouthful of sand."

As she says this, another customer enters. She forces her face into the broad, empty Dubai smile and says: "And how may I help you tonight, sir?"

And the new UAE media law is a worry. We always knew recession and unemployment leads to fascism I guess...
MiddleEast Blog

The government has already taken steps to control media coverage of the crisis with a new draft media law, which would make it a criminal offence to “damage the country’s reputation or economy”. The new law could see those reporting about the crisis faced with fines of up to 1 million dirhams (around £190,000).

Last month Humaid bin Dimas, a spokesman for Dubai’s Labor Ministry, refused to confirm, deny or comment on local newspaper reports that 1,500 work visas were being cancelled every day.

“At the moment there is a readiness to believe the worst,” said Simon Williams, HSBC bank’s chief economist in Dubai. “And the limits on data make it difficult to counter the rumours.”


  1. UD, a couple of points. You are one of the better bloggers on the 'net & certainly one of the best from Oman. But a couple of themes that run around are either (a) too optimistic (b) carefully crafted to avoid negative (official) feedback.

    Methinks that it is only (and only) the strong hand of law (at the topmost power echelons of the country, where even the ministers think twice, say once) that we are where we are, and not somewhere alongside Dubai. We used to call it ultra-conservatism, caution turned out good. Even a matter as mundane as not following the Saudi govt in matters of moon-sighting (for Muslim religious holidays, SA being the nexus of Muslims) & instead the local moon-sighting committee viewing the moon on their own and making their own decisions, even such mundane matters point to the idea of 'think before you act'.

    But the attractions Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait, their flashiness, the throwing money around, the queues at the border of cars exitting Oman, they make it hard for the 'upper-management' of the country to resist freehold property projects, sprawling resorts. Glad to see that we've been able to resist 'em till now.

    The labor force issue is entirely different...

    May the Force be with us! :)


  2. Mr Dragon,

    Just a quick thanks for the Desert_Blogger link. I'm adding a permanent link to your most excellently-written Muscat musings. Hope you can return the favour.
    I'm at
    Cheers, Jamie.

  3. Ref. imported labor to the Gulf living in what most Westerners regard as sub-standard conditions: Well, it's great that this subject is being covered a bit by mainstream media. Last night, al Jazeera in English covered a situation in Doha of migrant laborers who had not been paid for 4 months. So, it's great to see a bit more transparency. There's a long way to go, but still. Keep up the good work UD.
    From The MET Office.

  4. hehhhe! That just wonderfully ticked my funnybone!

    Mr. Dragon! Hehhe!




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