Saturday, 9 May 2009

Interview with Nicholas McGeehan.

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.

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