The Apartheid Bubble in the Desert

By Tom Angotti

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Part Two in a series on urban apartheids.

Las Vegas, Walt Disney World and Miami rolled into one and then jacked up on steroids. That’s Dubai, the maximum enclave and theme park of global capitalism. Its monumental malls, skyscrapers and millionaire condos loudly announce this brash newcomer to the global competition for the most ostentatious city in the world. It proves that with enough money it is possible to build and commodify anything and everything, even in a desert. After the global financial bubble burst, the Dubai miracle is slowly deflating, but the city still survives, for now, on the enormous stash of wealthy oil barons and the compulsive extravagance of the superrich around the world.

While Dubai was built as urban spectacle, the majority of the city’s population work long hours and live in cramped quarters, invisible to the millions of well-heeled visitors. Invisible are the workers who built the city. Invisible are the stifling, overcrowded barracks and trailers where the taxi drivers, waiters and hotel staff that run the city live. Ninety percent of Dubai’s population are immigrant workers with temporary visas and limited rights. They come from India, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, the Philippines, China, Eastern Europe, Africa and beyond. Their stories make this giant bubble filled with real estate also one of the most unique and dreadful apartheid cities of the twenty-first century.

The Invisible Majority

Muhammad, a taxi driver from Pakistan, says he’s been working in Dubai for five years but still lives in a room with ten men. He says he is fortunate to live in the old center of the city in a small enclave of immigrant workers. He sends most of his earnings to his family in Pakistan because as low as his pay is, it’s more than he can make at home.

Most Dubai workers, unlike Muhammad, live Spartan lives in isolated company-owned barracks, trailer camps and exurban satellites far from services. They often work fourteen-hour days without benefits. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a collection of seven feudal enclaves including Dubai, is run by privileged clans and has actively blocked union organizing and deported protesting strikers. Among the most exploited are immigrant minors, women and sex workers, the least visible of the victims in a society that has a veneer of austere behavior but a hidden culture of vice.

A 2006 Human Rights Watch study found that some 500,000 construction workers in the UAE were earning wages about one-tenth of the average wage. The workers, mostly South Asian men, usually have to pay exorbitant fees to recruiters, which is contrary to law but rarely prosecuted. The employers keep workers’ passports for months to ensure they will not quit. The study also reported widespread anecdotal evidence of high rates of injury and death in the construction sector, where most builders are private companies whose practices are not well regulated. Even the official lowball fatality figures are troubling, with dozens of construction-related deaths recorded every year.

Thus, there is an abundance of human misery in Dubai though it is one of the most opulent urban enclaves in the world and an extraordinary example of urban apartheid.

From Oases to Megamalls

Until a couple of decades ago, Dubai was a desert town occupied by Bedouin traders. Over the last two decades it has grown into a metropolitan area with 1.2 million people from over 100 nations. While Dubai has little oil, its next-door UAE neighbor Abu Dhabi has graciously supplied the capital from its oil profits to build Dubai’s new cathedral in the desert. The city is also one of the largest shipping and air hubs in the Middle East.

The Wafi Center mall, one of the largest in the city, is a Middle Eastern theme park and luxury casbah. Its extra-strength modern and post-modern designs include eclectic elements resembling parts of pyramids, giant temple pillars and a classical Greek façade. One section of the mall is supposed to look like a traditional souk, or Arab marketplace. But unlike the average souk, it is strictly for European travelers and the elite, a giant boutique with soaps, spices, carpets and clothes from just about every country in the Middle East (except Israel). Absent are the gritty hallways, dirt floors, busy vendors and open bins of spices and foods—the soul of the souk. The sterile souk at the Wafi Center has polished interiors, perfect order and shrink-wrapped incense at premium prices.

The Mall of the Emirates literally tops all the malls in Dubai. Its indoor ski slope reaches far above the shopping floors. The fully-enclosed winter land is the whitest bubble within the giant Dubai bubble. It is the clearest response to the question, “If you had billions of dollars, what is the most unlikely and costly environment you could create in the middle of the desert?”

Then there is the row of skyscrapers by starchitects from all over the world, lined up in a row to produce a skyline profile with little behind or around it. It includes a twin replica of New York City’s Chrysler Building and the tallest tower in the world. It is an alley to awe, but there’s no city there, no street life, no public spaces, no people in sight.

How Unsustainable Can a City Get?

Dubai’s ski slope, skyscrapers, golf courses and swanky resorts add up to an energy-intensive city with probably one of the largest carbon footprints in the world. This is perhaps fitting since the sponsor is one of the biggest purveyors of non-renewable energy in the world. The typical building turns sand into concrete and uses air-conditioning and elevators. The huge energy demand of the malls and skyscrapers means bigger heat islands in an already overheated environment. Though oil prices are presently low, they are not likely to remain that way forever and maintenance costs may soon make building maintenance difficult.

Dubai is also profligate when it comes to water use. You would think that the high cost of desalinizing and recycling the water in this desert outpost would have caused some restraint among the city’s planners. Not so. There are enough golf courses to host the top international tournaments. The major hotels have luxurious swimming pools. The swank Atlantis hotel has indoor fishbowls with whale sharks and other deep sea creatures. And the water requirements for maintaining the richly landscaped patios of the rich and famous are huge.

Not to worry, though. Dubai’s sponsors are also deep believers in sustainability! The Dubai Municipality is a co-sponsor with the United Nations Center for Human Settlements (Habitat) of the Dubai International Award for Best Practices to Improve the Living Environment. While propaganda for the award claims that “The smallest practices can make a difference,” the city’s rulers appear to have set out to prove just the opposite.

The Planning Disasters

Dubai’s claims to sustainability and planning are blatantly mocked by its practice. The meticulous and monumental planning that went into building the city’s monumental core lacked one important ingredient—a sustainable transportation system. Each mall and megastructure is served by a minimal road network. A giant expressway cuts through the center of the linear city but is fed by narrow local roads. Traffic jams are common throughout the day even though most residents—the immigrant workers—do not own cars. The most predictable yet unforeseen tie-up occurs on the single narrow road leading to the Palm Island, built in the shape of a palm on landfill in the ocean. The island was built to create new waterfront real estate opportunities. Palm Island’s condos sell for millions and the luxurious Atlantis hotel there charges up to $15,000 a night for a room. Like so many planning disasters before it, Palm Island looks neat from a helicopter but down on the ground people are sitting in traffic. To remedy this situation, Dubai is now building a monorail onto the island.

There are also very few sidewalks in the city. Pedestrians face death when they dash across the highways and hug slim shoulders. Bicycling is also a risky undertaking in this environment and, though the land is flat, there are no protected bikeways.

To partially correct the transportation situation, Dubai is now building an urban rail system. Since it doesn’t have to deal with the messy business of unions, oversight or participatory processes, it is set to be done in a span of just four years. The government has also announced intentions to build a 348-mile bikeway and pedestrian network. But there are still no public spaces or green oases for the majority of Dubai’s population, who cannot afford a membership in a golf club and have little time for the beach. If the new transportation infrastructure is completed—in the current financial climate and given the low price of crude oil, the pedestrian and bicycle networks are by no means a certainty—it will mainly serve the needs of Dubai’s visitors and major employers, not the majority of its residents.

And after the Crash?

According to a recent report in the Guardian of London, half of all construction projects in the UAE are on hold. With declining employment and wages in the wealthier nations, tourism is down. Workers are returning to their home countries where they face shrinking opportunities, compounded by the loss to the local economies of their remitted wages from the UAE. The professional and elite workers are also on their way home. The Guardian reports that the relatively privileged among the foreign workers are leaving their Mercedes-Benzes parked on residential streets and at the airport with the keys inside because there are not enough people in their income bracket left to buy them. The gilded condos bought on speculation can’t be sold and lots of new ones sit half completed. Office and hotel vacancies are increasing. The question now is how long the bubble built by cheap petroleum, concentrated wealth and global capitalist profligacy can last and whether Dubai’s ruling clan can some day be recognized for the best practice of deconstructing apartheid and building a sustainable and just city.

Tom Angotti teaches at Hunter College, City University of New York, and during his sabbatical year is doing research and writing about urban enclaves and urban agriculture.

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