Saturday, 9 May 2009
Who is building Dubai?
Physically, migrant workers from South Asia, who represent 80% of the work force. Dubai has been dependent on them since oil was found in the 1960’s, up until the 2000’s.
What do the migrant workers generally experience in Dubai?
They experience quite appalling hardships to be quite honest. As soon as they arrive their passports will be confiscated, their visa cost will be added onto their expenses, their contract will be ripped up, and they will get paid half of what they were expected to be paid. They essentially find themselves in a condition of debt bondage. They find themselves completely dependent upon their employers for food, for healthcare; so if that employer chooses not to treat them properly they find themselves in dire straits.
Can you describe some of the problems the migrant workers face?
The biggest problem they face is that if their employer doesn’t treat them properly, if their employer doesn’t pay their wages for months at a time for example, there is nothing they can do about it; they would have to make a complaint to a ministry of labour, which is completely inefficient. Therefore any grievances they have, the system is not set up to deal with them at all. And when the situation gets as bad as their not been paid, they do have food, their accommodation is unsanitary, they are left with no options what so over. They are abandoned by everyone, all of the time.
Do you think the labour situation in Dubai, represents a new form of slavery for the twenty first century?
I absolutely do believe that. Slavery has been misconceived ever since it was abolished. We talk about slavery as something that is based on ownership, but that’s from a model that’s centuries old, when states used to monitor and regulate it. Slavery is about control, and it’s always been about control. Ownership used to be a way of affecting control, it’s no longer because it’s illegal. So when you take the factors together to what happens to the migrant workers in Dubai, the fact that employer-ship is tied to one employer, that there are no trade unions, that striking is banned, and the debt bondage they are in, collectively without a doubt in my mind, represents a form of control that is a form of slavery.
Has progress been made in recent years?
The government in Dubai talks a lot. It pledges a lot, and sets out initiatives, they have their photos taken and so on. Though the facts on the ground would indicate that things have actually got worse. The United Arab Diram is tied to the US Dollar. With the US Dollar falling so low, real wages went down, also inflation started to become a factor in the UAE even though it never has been before. So their real wages were dropping and dropping and dropping, which actually led to an upsurge in worker protests. The government dealt with those like it deals with most things; incompetently or violently. It deported people and jailed people, and all these people were asking for was a fair wage to live on. So the situation has got worse not better, despite the governments claims.
How are tourists visiting Dubai not aware of these circumstances?
I think if you look closely then you see the problems in Dubai. A questioning individual might ask to know more about the problems visible in Dubai, but somebody in Dubai for a week who is experiencing a five star experience doesn’t want to know that there might be problems, people don’t want to feel burdened or guilty on holiday. Tourists don’t want to ask questions that might lead them to answers that would suggest that they should not be there.
Some people aren’t always aware there are these issues concerning the exploitation of migrant workers in Dubai. If they are aware, then they should take a look at themselves. I don’t want to make judgements. I know people who go to Dubai, and they are good, hardworking, honest individuals… But you could draw a parallel with people who had gone on holiday to apartheid South Africa.
The question remains though is how do we raise awareness that there is systematic racial discrimination going on in Dubai and the rest of the UAE.
This is a question about sustainability. During my trip in Dubai constantly people would mention that in 2008 Dubai became a sustainable city. I didn’t see this from an environmental perspective. I didn’t see this from a social or cultural perspective, hence the treatment of migrant workers, and the polarities between rich and poor. Nor did I see this from an economic standpoint. That’s not really a question, but could you comment?
Often what I say to people is if you think of Dubai as a company rather than a state, its a lot easier to explain what goes on there…. And as a company, as a brand, as a project; what ever you want to call it; It got a little fat on its own greed. And like any company that behaves like that, it’s going to go bust if it doesn’t exercise some responsibility in the way it operates. That’s what’s happening in Dubai. Dubai is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable from an economic standpoint, from a social standpoint. Its sustainable politically, but only by means of force. The notion that it’s environmentally sustainable is ludicrous. I mean the amount of desalination that goes on there, that actually results in serious harm to the gulf. I think people in Dubai are the highest users per capita of water in the world. Plus I dread to think about the amount of petrol that is being pumped out of the place. So that’s a preposterous notion. It’s simple not sustainable and it’s not being sustained.
I thought Dubai was less of a city in the traditional sense, and more of a collection of stranded assets, gated communities and isolated architectural events that refer more to globalized economic forces as opposed to localized interests. Do you think a civilization has been created in Dubai? Can a civilization be created there?
I don’t think they’ve created a civilization, and I don’t think they’re on their way to creating one. The whole place is based on racial discrimination, whether the government will admit that or not. So if the civilization they’re trying to create is a social one then they’ve failed. If they’re trying to create a civilization of business, again it harks back to the idea of Dubai not really being a state, but been more of a company run for private gain. If they’re trying to create this global brand, this global city based around tourism… then I’m not sure how you can do that properly without having the proper social foundations in place.
I would like you to touch upon the topic of tourism and the tourist a little bit more. I personally felt Dubai existed for the tourist, that it was built for tourists, which I feel is unprecedented in human history. I mean tourists in the literal sense, and tourists on a different level; a city of refugees, floating populations, business travellers, people on temporary contracts and visa’s etcetera. Do you think this represents the future?
I think you’re quite right to say that the city was conceived and designed for tourists. Does that represent a model for future cities? I don’t believe so. The majority of people don’t go back to places that pop up over night. I think once people start to see the reality of Dubai, and the cruelty involved in building it and maintaining it; tourists will generally walk away from it. It doesn’t really have anything to offer but shopping and hotels, and there are places that do that better, and there are places that will continue to do that cheaper than Dubai
Do you think Dubai is the future? Do you think it represents the future of urbanism?
I really hope Dubai is not the future. I think Dubai represents the worst excesses of capitalism, with none of the checks and balances we associate with a democracy. If Dubai is the future then we are all in for bad times ahead.
I don’t know what exactly they are trying to achieve. When the Sheik talks about how Dubai is the future; who does he intend to live in this future, who’s going to work there, and what are they going to do? Right now it’s a mess; it’s a miss management on an appalling scale. I’m not sure exactly what the Sheiks vision is for Dubai. The question is; can a desert state built for the tourist be the future of urbanism? I’m guessing not. He may achieve it one day, but it’s not a future I would like to be in.
Can you describe the social mix In Dubai.
The people who live in Dubai represent one of the most complex and diverse mixes of people anywhere. There are approximately 200 different nationalities that live in Dubai. The people come from all over the world. This mix of population can really be broken down into two different communities; the first one is the Emiratis who are the original indigenous population of Dubai, and the second major group is the expat community. The largest group amongst the expatriate community is from South Asia, especially India.
What factors have brought global attention to Dubai?
Dubai has grown to become a global city. The reasons for people coming here can be traced within the global context of free trade, cheaper air travel in recent years, the free-ing up of visa restrictions; basically globalization. There are always opportunities here, plus there are no taxes, which makes it a very attractive place to come to. This is not just specific to Dubai though; internationally in recent years we have witnessed the mass movements of people from rural areas into cities in search of new opportunities, people moving across borders from country to country who are not grounded in any locality. If you look at the residents of the city, that the majority of the people that live here are not permanent citizens, it is a transient population. People come here to experience the modern marvels that have been created in Dubai; whether it be an indoor ski slope, or group of man made islands, or a rotating hotel. In addition to this you can buy almost anything you want.
Another reason as to why people are interested in Dubai, has to do with the crisis of the ‘Dubai Ports World’ that happened about 3 years ago. A major Dubai company acquired the rights to control 6 US ports, and that created a political storm in the United States, and Congress was generally opposed to it, and so Dubai has become a recognizable name in the US and around the world, as a major emerging city.
Can you expand on the importance of shopping in Dubai?
For people who live in Dubai, perhaps the centre of activity is the shopping mall. There are now 45 malls here, shopping has become a major activity, the city is like a giant shopping mall in itself. This has two sides to it. The shopping mall is where tourists spend a lot of time, and for people who live in the city, the shopping mall has become the public place of congregation. It is the most experienced public space in the city. The reason for this is the lack of actual investment in real public places outside of the private shopping mall. If you live in Dubai, there are hardly any other public spaces to go and meet people.
In this sense Dubai is not radically different to other cities around the world, where shopping malls have become primary public spaces. To understand the significance of the shopping mall in Dubai, we have to keep in mind the changing image of the public space globally. Many cities invested in creating artificial environments for people that are safe, consistent, clean and generally pleasant to be in. Like many citizens in cities across the world, people in Dubai have become primarily consumers, there has certainly been a shift in recent years from being a citizen of a country to becoming a consumer of the world.
What does this say about human activity around the world? That people are living in gated compounds and environments and when they want to interact with other people they get in their car and drive to a mall or theme-park, without ever really interacting with nature?
The city has always been a place that represents civilization, and its importance has relied on the premise of interaction with other people. The interesting thing about Dubai is that this interaction is extremely limited. So the question remains; is Dubai really a city? I’ll give you an example; I’ve lived in this compound for 7 years, there is no social life here, there is no real community, I don’t know my neighbours, they don’t know me. People live here to do there job, they don’t live here to be part of a community. It’s transient; people live here for a few years and then move on.
The interaction with nature here is equally as problematic, as you look around there is less and less nature that you can authentically experience. The front beach areas in Dubai have become private beach areas, managed and run by hotel resorts. Unless you are a guest at one of the luxury hotels you cannot get onto the beaches. There is not much public beach that is left.
The fact that your missing these two essential things as a resident of Dubai; both interaction with other people, and interaction with nature it says something about a new kind of city, a new kind of urban life, in which much of our life is encapsulated within enclosed environments whether its your apartment or villa, car or shopping mall, office, or restaurant. There is very little authentic urban experience left.
Could you describe Dubai as an urban format.
Dubai is a fascinating city, and a lot of people would not guess so in the sense that it is a planned city. The first master plan of Dubai happened in 1959, and it has been planned since then in a really visionary way. The only problem is that these plans have not been finished to their end, so a lot of the city feels half finished. At the beginning of the 21st century, Dubai is a strange city, because it’s a fragmented. The fragments and pieces of the city are really well organized, but there is no coherence as a whole. In that sense it presents a problematic city of the 21st century, built out of nowhere in the middle of nowhere, that will be difficult to sustain in the future.
Do you see Dubai’s urban format as unique, or do you think it represents a new urban format that is taking shape in cities around the world?
Dubai is a generic city, in the sense that well rehearsed urban theories and urban plans are being executed. It is very similar to other cities that have been emerging in the last 10 years. So in that sense it lacks historical uniqueness. I think what makes it fascinating is the speed and type of decision making that its leaders have applied here. The city is certainly changing on a yearly basis.
How important has the tourist been in shaping Dubai?
To look at the geographic location of Dubai, it really is a fantastic place, and it’s always been a place of transit, whether with traders, business travellers, desert nomads or tourists, people arrive here on route to somewhere else, but lately Dubai has been a final destination for many individuals. Projections say that by 2010, 15 million tourists will visit Dubai, which is an incredible amount of visitors. Its interesting to note the geographical location of Dubai, in-between the two emirates of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Dubai’s coast is about 45 kilometres in length in-between the two other Emirates, which is not very long. But with Dubai’s new prosthetic extensions been built out into the water such as ‘The World’, and the ‘Palm Islands’, that coastline of 45 kilometres has now expanded to 2000 kilometres. This interface of land and water, will become an enormous line of resorts, and hotels and hotel villas.
Dubai really does have this ephemerality. Nobody actually knows the living population of Dubai. On the other hand nobody can really predict that lifespan, and sustainability of such developments, on again something ephemeral which is tourist, whether they are here for 1 day or 1 month, they are considered temporary in Dubai. In a fascinating way the contemporary tourist trade here, fits very well with the history of Dubai. It is a nomadic city, and has always been a nomadic city.
How significant is the process of theming in the construction of Dubai’s built landscape?
Because the city is so new, and if you study the recent history of the city, you will come across archive photographs from the 50’s and 60’s when Dubai was just a small fishing village. It was not until the late 80’s, long after the discovery of oil, that the city expanded into becoming more modernized and westernized. For the contemporary traveller the city is a very interesting place to arrive, because one expects to find an identity, one expects to find the Arab city. When you arrive in Dubai at the beginning of the 21st Century, there is really very little history to see. What the city has managed to do in an amazing way, more than the theming of Las Vegas, is to re-enact its lost identity, by introducing anything that has been relevant in the Arab world in terms of history, whether this is the traditional village, souk or street bazaar, or a kind of re-enactment of Orientalist paintings. This can be an interesting way to inject a lost nomadic identity in the city ready made for touristic consumption. Dubai offers what a European or American expects to see in an Arab city. It is selling back to the west its own invented fictional imagings of Arabia depicted in Orientalist paintings. It is selling very well. For a Western tourist this Arabian identity constructed in developments throughout the city, is a really critical point of engaging with a locality.
One of the ambitions of the city is to make Dubai the capital of the world by the year 2050. It has to become a very global, a very international city in order to achieve this goal. The borrowing of theming from Venice and California and so on became a very fascinating political decision that is interfacing with an urban master plan solution. Given the global condition in the 21st century, of the tourist and investor who can built across the world without any limitations, somehow Dubai found this unique formula to attract both investors and buyers to consume this global vision that anything is architecturally possible.
Are there problems with Dubai’s built landscape and infrastructure, and if so how can they be resolved?
There are problems, not because of lack of planning, but because of the city’s inability in being able to adapt and change its plans. The city has been making decisions too fast in such a way that the city’s infrastructure has been unable to adjust. As they say ‘you built it and they come’ of course they build it and they do come, but then there are issues of congestion, and increased energy and water demands that become issues.
Where does Dubai currently stand on sustainability?
Development takes place here for investors and not necessarily for the end user. Because of this, the immediate and sensitive issue of sustainability is not addressed, partially because it will add an extra cost to the construction of a project. This means the initial investment for the investor will be higher, even though the running cost from solar power for example, would be lower for the end user. For an investor who is interested in building a property, selling it and making a profit quickly, is generally not interested in environmental sustainability. It is unfortunate that the city has developed without been sustainable but the government is becoming more sensitive towards this issue as people within the city are demanding that changes be made. We will achieve environmental sustainability, seen as in this part of the world we get more sunshine than anywhere else, that we can utilize, and convert into solar energy.
Where do you see Dubai in the future?
It’s a very interesting question. Certainly in the last 10 years, Dubai has placed a lot of emphasis on positioning itself as a global centre, and has had to be very flexible in changing its political decisions. The projection of its future, through a city of fantasy, of architectural renderings, in the middle of nowhere; it will sell itself as a utopian futuristic hybrid of West and East. Dubai uses the internet to communicate its imagery. I call this satellite urbanism; all of these amazing projects currently in development, people can view as drawings and simulations on the internet. Dubai really is a 21st Century Internet city in that sense. Dubai has managed to be one of the most spoken about places in the world.