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Immigrant Views of Dubai, the ‘World’s Fastest Growing City’

Posted on Feb 18, 2014

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The official airline of the United Arab Emirates offers the promise “Fly Emirates, Hello Tomorrow.” It is an apt suggestion given how futuristic the UAE’s main city, Dubai, appears. Gleaming glass towers punctuate the desert skyline, evoking a mirage rather than reality. The city’s ubiquitous malls are lined with shiny marble floors, mood lighting, and every global designer brand a shopaholic could dream of. Foodies find heaven in Dubai’s restaurant scene, which features a plethora of the world’s best cuisines from Singapore street food to prized South African steaks and everything in between. Verdant golf courses defy the desert heat, attracting the world’s top international players. And an indoor ski slope artificially maintains subzero temperatures, offering residents nature-defying diversions. Myriad populations from South Asia, the Philippines, Britain and Russia mingle with apparent ease. Dubai is a city oozing with glamour and wealth, offering a seductive model of capitalist achievement.

The Gulf Arab city achieved its current form in just a few short decades. The story of the city’s rapid evolution is a dramatic product of forces involving immigration, labor, capital and the singular vision of its wealthy monarch, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, referred to by locals as simply “Sheikh Mo.”

While native Emiratis comprise less than 20 percent of the city’s population, Indians are a whopping 53 percent and other South Asians are 22 percent. This demographic breakdown strongly hints at the role that South Asian immigrant labor has played in the city’s phenomenal growth.


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My own parents are among the hundreds of thousands of Indian citizens who migrated to Dubai looking for a better life. I was born and raised in a place to which I did not belong, but which I nonetheless took for granted was my home. When I left Dubai in 1991 to pursue a college education in the United States, the city of my birth was wholly unremarkable in terms of infrastructure, commercial centers and tourist attractions.

In just the past 20 years, Dubai transformed itself from a minor trade hub into an internationally renowned commercial center, attracting transnational businesses and boasting the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. It has also marketed itself as an attractive tourist destination, particularly for the world’s wealthy elite and their disposable incomes. One of Dubai’s main events is its annual “Shopping Festival”—akin to the U.S.’ holiday shopping season.

But the city has a dark underbelly that includes harsh treatment of its immigrant labor force and an intolerance for criticism. Human Rights Watch’s 2014 report on the United Arab Emirates succinctly summarizes some of the problems:

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) continues to crack down on freedom of expression and association. The authorities are arbitrarily detaining scores of individuals they suspect of links to domestic and international Islamist groups. A court convicted 69 dissidents in July after a manifestly unfair trial, in which evidence emerged of systematic torture at state security facilities. The UAE made no reforms to a system that facilitates the forced labor of migrant workers. Plans to ameliorate conditions for female domestic workers fall short of the standards outlined in the convention on domestic workers that the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted in 2012.

The recent controversial imprisonment of a Sri Lankan born U.S. citizen, Shezanne Cassim, over a parody video posted online dramatically illustrates the arbitrary nature of Dubai’s law enforcement. Cassim was raised in Dubai in the 1980s and moved to the U.S. at age 16, just as I did. He eventually became a U.S. citizen, but then returned to Dubai to work, becoming part of the million-plus workforce of South Asians.

His YouTube video parodying Dubai’s youth attracted the attention of the authorities, who deemed it a threat to the UAE’s national security. Cassim was incarcerated for nine months in a maximum security prison, and released only recently after his family hired a PR firm to publicize his case. The movement to “Free Shez” attracted support from such prominent celebrities as Will Ferrell, and threatened to derail some of the momentum of Dubai’s growing tourist industry.

Carefully navigating the fine line between strict laws and lax enforcement, Indian immigrants in particular offer a unique window into Dubai’s stunning development. Ties between India and the UAE go back centuries, particularly with respect to trade, a common colonial master (Britain) and two-way migration. But, depending upon age, aspiration and socioeconomic status, Indians vary wildly in their opinions of Dubai.

I spoke with several middle- and working-class Indians who call the city their home, for better or worse. In order to protect their identities, I have changed the names of all those I interviewed. Sanjay is a professional who moved to Dubai from India before the UAE formally became a country. But, because he was not originally from Dubai, Sanjay remains an Indian citizen despite his decades of living and working in the city he thinks of as home. In fact, he reminisced that at the time he moved to Dubai, it did not even appear on most maps.

One important incentive for his working and living as an immigrant for so many years has been the ability to save money. Dubai and the other Emirates do not have income or even sales tax. But, most importantly, Sanjay always wanted to start his own firm—something he was able to do in a city like Dubai. Still, he told me, “It took eight years for my company to begin making any profits. It was a very long struggle. It wasn’t easy.”

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