Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Fancy ceiling above Starbuck's at Ibn Battuta mall

I wasn't going to write a blog post until I had more experience, but I reached the limit of what I can say in 140 character Twitter responses. Everyone has been sending me links to the Guardian article and the article in The Independent about the treatment of workers in Dubai. They come in the wake of an increasing flow of articles bashing Dubai. The New York Times article sort of broke the damn in terms of sensationalizing all of this I think. Just like the Desert Blogger, I've never seen cockroaches coming out of the faucets. ;-P The Desert Blogger has a good response to these articles.

I'm still new to the region so I can't speak definitively as a native, but I do know that the picture that is sketched is pretty biased and I think could be rightly called "bashing". As far as I can tell there is a crunch going on, just like everywhere else, and the government and businesses are trying to figure out what to keep and what to shut down. There are a lot of solid businesses and a lot of solid business people in Dubai and like anywhere else, consolidation and downsizing is taking its toll.

Having said that, the parking lots are not full of homeless foreigners and dumped cars. The mood is the same, if not maybe slightly more upbeat than the US or Japan these days. Instead of taking an hour and a half to get across town, it takes half an hour, instead of 3 days in advance reservations for the lounge/bar at The Address, it's 2 days and you can usually get a table at the nice restaurants with less than a hour wait now... usually. The real estate and development part of Dubai seems to be getting hit the hardest, but it looks the shipping and "the hub of the Middle East" parts of Dubai seem to be doing OK.

I don't want to appear like I'm defending human rights offenders. As a board member of Global Voices, WITNESS and a supporter of a number of Human Rights organizations, I spend a TON of time on human rights issues. We NEED to talk about human rights. However, human rights issues are resolved by understanding how and what kind of pressure to put on who in order to cause the change. While broad understanding of human rights is important, I don't find that sprinkling them on articles as part of a negative press pile-on is really, comparatively speaking, that productive.

The author of the article in The Independent defends his position and says that critics of his article are suffering from 'what-aboutery'. It's not a bad rebuttal, but I'm not sure the article was really intended to try to make things better for those oppressed workers, but rather just to piss on Dubai some more along with everyone else. I didn't see a "what you can do to help" button or mention anywhere in the article. Just a bunch of finger wagging.

In contrast, and as an example (and I'm sure some people will call this what-aboutery), if you look at the WITNESS coverage of the issue of slavery in rural Brazil, it's written as a call to action against this human rights violation.

Fixing human rights violations require people in that country or countries that have influence over that country to speak up. Shouting at people who don't really listen to you anyway, isn't very helpful. In fact in can be counter-productive. That's why Japan needs to speak up about Burma, the Chinese need to speak up about Africa and Americans about things like Guantanamo Bay.

Again, I'm not in favor of censorship, nor am I in favor of ignoring human rights violations. I'm just not super-supportive of not-very-constructive finger-wagging-because-it's-fashionable-right-now journalism. If you care, write about the people who are trying to fix the problems.

When I was in Israel and Palestine recently, I was impressed most by the Palestinians who were trying to cause change in Palestine and the Israelis who were trying to change the way Israelis think. In my 2005 thread about the Anti-Japan protests in China, what impressed me the most were the people who were reflective of their own society's problems after the discussion, not those criticizing their enemies.

I don't want to sound too defensive about Dubai or the Middle East in general, but one thing I've learned from my still brief time is that it's much more complicated than it appears. Just calling Muslim law and governance "medieval" and writing it off is ignorant. It's very different and isn't in sync with what many of us might think is "fair". They treat bounced checks and drug smuggling very seriously. Moving to the Middle East casually and assuming that everything should be just like home is dangerous and I wouldn't recommend it. However, I knew about the drug thing even before I visited and I learned about the "bounced checks land you in jail" thing on my first day.

In summary, I think that if you're looking for fast money or a "rags to riches" dream, I would recommend against going to Dubai. On the other hand, if you're looking for a safe place to park while you explore opportunities or culture in the Middle East, I think Dubai is fine, for now. The food is good, there are great people, the culture is diverse, most of the infrastructure works and the laws are, relatively speaking, friendly to foreigners compared to the rest of the region. That's why I moved there and so far I'm not regretting my decision.

UPDATE: Xeni posted this on Boing Boing and there is a thread of comments there.

UPDATE 2: A followup post.


Well, to be fair, any law based upon a religion is "medieval". It would be the same with a Christian theocracy. Theocracies are medieval. If that sounds intolerant, fine: I'm intolerant. I refuse to live in or do business with any society whose laws are based around any religion. I would also refuse to live in any country where it is illegal, as I understand it is in Dubai, to criticize the ruling family. Hell, that whole ruling family thing is enough to turn me away.

And the fact is that Dubai's bubble is built on the backs of workers who are lured there under false pretenses and then not allowed to leave. As one of the articles you linked to pointed out, the Indian Consulate registered the deaths of 971 Indian workers in one year, until they were told to stop counting. It seems unlikely to me that they are working under humane and safe conditions if that many are keeling over.

(I'm not talking about the Westerners who go over there because they think they're going to get rich quick; while their trouble is serious enough, they're still not in the position of the laborers and the lower foreign working class.)

I'm sure it's a fine place to hang out if you are a well-to-do expat -- and I'm sure that getting reservations at The Address in an hour must be a bonus -- but their treatment of their foreign workers is absolutely barbaric by anybody's standards.

That's not even mentioning the absurdity of their building practices; as a model of sustainability, Dubai makes Vegas look like the goddamn Biodome. That kind of excess has its charms, but the environmental damage will be considerable.

So, to sum up: medieval theocratic laws, documented outrageous abuse of foreign workers, almost proactively unsustainable building and development practices.

Sounds like an awesome place to be. :-)

I am certain that what you say is true, that you do not intend to be an apologist human rights offenders. But neither do you intend to criticize them. That would be illegal under the new Media Law, which imposes fines from 50k up to 1Million DHs ($13,600 to $272,000) for publishing information that criticizes the UAE. It would be most impolitic, if not illegal, for you to condemn any abuses by your new masters.

But perhaps there is no reason for you to be concerned. Your essay seems to agree with your masters, the problem is not that workers are treated like commodities, the problem is "unfair" news coverage of the workers' situation. Perhaps this is your own blind spot, you are a commodity too. Your Ministry of Foreign Affairs sold you to the UAE in an attempt to improve relations. Perhaps you should look outside your gilded cage. Human rights are not indexed to your difficulties getting a restaurant reservation.

There are two threads in these articles.

1 - The sky is falling and everyone is running away so fast that they're dumping their cars at the airport. My restaurant example is just to make a point that not everyone is fleeing for their lives.

2 - Human rights. I personally do not like to pontificate from a position of ignorance. I have noted the writing/issues about human rights but my approach would be to understand the system and devise a strategy to try to improve the situation before barging in based on a few articles in the main stream media.

Furthermore, I think mixing story #1 and story #2 is confusing. I apologize for mashing them into the same blog post.

"I personally do not like to pontificate from a position of ignorance."

In that case, I would urge you to take moral responsibility for that statement. Are you now benefitting directly from slavery or indentured servitude? Is the society in which you're living supported by slavery or indentured servitude?

Since fairly serious allegations that slavery is a real fact of life in Dubai have been raised by several reputable sources, it seems reasonable to suggest that shrugging and saying "I don't know" isn't really a defensible position, particularly when you are personally involved with the accused.

I don't say that to single you out - the reality is that Dubai is largely supported by the west, and as such we all have a responsibility to ensure that our actions are not directly or indirectly supporting these egregious human rights and environmental abuses.

It's not a journalist's responsibility to tell us how to do that, since it's a complicated thing, as you say. However, I would caution against the sort of "I haven't seen it so don't be so quick to judge" statements that you and Desert Blogger are making. People's lives are at stake here, and the damage that could be caused by waving the problems away is much greater than the damage of paying attention, even if there is a degree of over-stating the problem.

"In that case, I would urge you to take moral responsibility for that statement. Are you now benefitting directly from slavery or indentured servitude? Is the society in which you're living supported by slavery or indentured servitude?"

Blaine, would you think your society or in fact any of the G20 societies have not benefitted directly from slavery, historical or current? England in fact sold the slaves to the US just a few generations ago. Or how about wearing that pair of Nike's just a decade ago from the Vietnamese factories? Or those shiny pairs of iPods that were assembled in a factory where a workweek is excess of 100 hours and no vacation is given...

So we shouldn't criticize human rights abuses until we have a plan to fix them? Isn't raising awareness about the problem one of the first steps towards fixing it?

As for the economy from everything I've seen Dubai has been one of the worst hit by the economic crisis, and that's newsworthy. Your criticism seems to me to be equivalent to saying, ya the economy in the US is in trouble but people shouldn't write articles getting all worked up about it because there are pluses like cheap second hand luxury handbags.


>I refuse to live in or do business with any society whose laws are based around any religion.

like in USA, where you are living? President finishing by "In god we trust" and people in court swearing on a bible.

What is important in Joi's article is :

1. yes there are issues
2. yes some people left but not in the dramatic way that the articles expressed. (Hard numbers in the article would have been better. )
3. About human rights: how do I identify the issues and how do I help changing them.

@karl: Cute, but as I'm sure you're aware, those are remnants of an earlier time in my country's history. There's a vast difference between the vague deism of my country's founders and a system fundamentally based upon Sharia law. (Nor does an American have to swear on a Bible if he or she chooses not to; an alternate oath can be sworn.)

As Dubai's rulers don't strike me as the type to change their policies based upon unfavorable attention from the rest of the world, I'm not sure anything I do would have any effect upon those policies. I simply refuse to engage with them. They don't have anything that I want. I don't want money that comes from slave labor.

However, friends of friends have found themselves in very bad situations in Dubai due to a combination of Dubai's bizarre legal system and what I understand as being almost institutional racism there (though I can't speak to that myself). This is the only reason I bothered to take an interest in Dubai at all. And what I've heard from these people, aside from the content of the articles above, I find deeply distasteful

As far as fleeing expats are concerned, well...frankly, I don't care much about those people. There are always people who are happy to get wealthy off of totalitarian regimes, and it's hard for me to feel sympathy for them when it backfires on them. When you run with wolves, you get bit.

Good article. Unfortunately, everything Johann Hari writes has an element of 'finger waving' and an air of superiority. He sits on top of his high horse and writes anything that will generate page hits and discussions just to elevate his standing in the columnists pecking order; before the 2003 Iraq war, for example, he wrote that he thought the impending deaths of Iraqi civilian and military deaths will be worth it, but refrained from mentioning if coalition casualties should be tolerated. He has his own opinion, which everyone has, but he's in no way informed, nor (i'd imagine) does he care, especially about the plight of Israelis, Palestinians, Dubai foreign workers, gay rights, religious freedoms, and anything else he feels like criticising.

I think blogs like this, along with the desert blogger, offer a better understanding of the problem by pointing out the good and bad points (which every country and society has) and giving an honest and fair opinion on experience, not sound bites or sensationalist headlines.

Keep up the good work Joi, i'll be following oyur blog from now on.

All right, for a moment, let's forget the blatant human right violations, the awful ecological impact, the "limited" freedom of speech.

All this boom for what ? Shopping malls, Pizza Huts, Starbucks, Nando's and so on...
Why on hell should Middle East economical development take the form of the most extreme western corporate fake paradise. This place is void of sense, cultural identity, aspiration. Consume and show off. It's a kind of Arabic Singapore. This is globalisation in its most awful form.

If Dubai represents the progress, the future, it gives me suicidal ideas.

I don't understand your argument about "Dubai-bashing." Just because an article doesn't expressly try to make things better for Dubai's workers doesn't mean it's not valuable. Shedding light on an injustice IS a step towards making the situation better, even if they don't write about possible solutions. A journalist's job is to tell you what's going on. If that lady's situation is real, the article is doing its job.

By that rationale, all the investigative reports about torture in the Bush administration were just as unproductive or unimportant or whatever. Merely "Bush-bashing." And like Bush, if Dubai has serious problems then it is deserving of all the "bashing" that is coming to it. No one complains when people bash things they don't like, and "not offering a way for people to get involved" is not really a good criticism of an article if it tells the truth.

Another problem with your piece - okay, so maybe the parking lots aren't full of homeless expats. Even so, is there a debtor's prison system that is unfairly imprisoning more people thanks to the econ crunch? Does it leave people like this lady out in the street? Are there more like her even if the parking lots aren't full of them?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then who cares how long it takes a fairly well-off blogger to get into a good restaurant? That's like an LA socialite using his ability to get into Spago as a counterexample to the people living in tent cities outside Sacramento. Totally tone-deaf.

What matters here is this - is the Guardian article true? If it's not true, the Guardian should print a correction or retraction. If what he reported on is true, perhaps your experience in Dubai is incomplete or overly informed by how nice you have it there.


If you really believe the US is a theocracy on the scale of Dubai, I encourage you to:
1) Rent a bullhorn, if you don't own one already
2) Read the phrases below over and over at the top of your lungs in front of
a.) The White House or the US Capitol or pretty much anywhere in the USA
b.) A government building in Dubai
3) Record how fast you are arrested and for how long you are imprisoned. Compare.

The phrases are:
1.) There is no God and [Muhammad/Jesus] is not a prophet
2.) [Islam/Christianity] is false and wicked, [Christianity/Islam] is the one true faith
3.) The [President/Ruling Family] are wife-swapping, murderers
4.) Israel deserves international recognition

Give that a try, and then tell me which country seems more repressive to you.

You seem to be ignoring the serious ecological repercussions of choosing to live in Dubai. The Independent article claims that a Dubai resident has a carbon footprint more than double the size of that of an American resident. I'm not in a position to verify that statistic, but it seems reasonable given the amount of energy it must take to cool the temperature down to something livable and to convert the ocean into drinkable water.

I have little sympathy for Westerners who move to Dubai in search of a cushy lifestyle only to find it's not all it's cracked up to be, so the "airports-full-of-abandoned-cars" angle doesn't move me. It's the ecological impact I worry about. And, oh yes, the human rights abuses.

If a city is constantly held up as a glittering example of the best the Middle East has to offer, as Dubai has been, journalists have a responsibility to investigate whether this is the case. I'm glad some of them have started to do just that.

The issue in the article, for me, was not that there exists debtors prisons. While it does not seem wise in a modern credit-driven society, I can accept that different cultures might have different standards.

What is not OK, in any society, is to try a person for a crime without giving them the opportunity to defend themselves. Karen Andrews' husband was not even given a translator when he was sentenced to six months in prison. That is what is authoritarian. You have focused on bounced checks without addressing the core of the problem.

Furthermore, I don't agree that one should keep quiet if you don't have a solution. In the face of injustice, journalists shouldn't say anything unless they have all the answers? That doesn't sound like reporting to me. Countries like you described would not apply pressure without the awareness that such articles provide.

Yes. Agree that's bad. Interesting to note that I only got 4 comments from 2 people when I wrote about the 99% conviction rate in Japanese courts. Not sure why backward courts in the Middle East are more surprising than a modern government in Asia that chucks just about everyone who ends up in court in jail. See also the Japanese Greenpeace kids that tried to take a corruption case to court and ended up in jail instead. I know, I know, what-aboutery... but frustrating that no one seems very interested in human rights abuses in Japan, but seem so surprised and focused on issues in Dubai.

While reading the articles critical of Dubai, I felt like they were on some level about catering to inflating the West's collective ego by bashing Dubai. That said, I feel like the allegations of forced indentured servitude need to be investigated further.

It's a bit late so I'll write something more substantive later, but luckily I'm at an US-Arab media conference and I've chatted with a number of people about the human rights issues in the UAE and hope to have a slightly better understanding of news in the Middle East by the end of this meeting.

First of all, there is very little censorship about the issue. It's huge news. The strikes etc. make the front page of the news papers in the UAE, including the Arabic ones. The government is in negotiations/discussions with NGOs and the UN. Of course, it is important to keep the pressure going, but the UAE government is, possibly slower than what some might want, making changes to try to respond to the issues. I promise to write more about the human rights issues in the UAE once I have a well sourced and informed story.

I do take my carbon footprint and the ecological issues seriously. However, I think that it will be more effective to try to move the Middle East towards more concern for the ecology being a "local" than to "finger wag" from the outside. Your mileage may vary (YMMV).

I'm not against criticizing human rights abuses. In the blog post I'm just trying to balance the onslaught of Dubai bashing "because it's fashionable" news coming out. I've criticized CNN and Al Jazeera's "conflict driven journalism", I've spoken up about focusing on the decades of work in human rights in Burma instead of just focusing for a brief moment when the monks were arrested. I just think that opportunistic journalism isn't driven by the right motives and causing rifts where huge rifts already exists is cheap and not very productive. Why don't people link to, syndicate, blog about the human rights issues that were written about when Dubai was booming? There were plenty of articles. Why is it that the human rights issues only "surface" when people are writing about the demise of Dubai. I don't think the government or the local media has changed their attitude - it is just the sentiment of the global press.

I was at a conference recently where one young person talked about "slacktivism" - joining a facebook group about some issue and thinking you were an activist.

I moved to the Middle East to try to understand the culture so I could try to make a difference in promoting peace, human rights, Creative Commons and to increase my understanding of the culture. Yes, my carbon footprint has increased and yes, I end up feeling sympathetic to things that you may think shouldn't be sympathized with. However, my personal opinion is that I will have more impact on making the world a better place by being in the Middle East than by sitting in my house in Tokyo shaking my head at all of the news being reported from the region by reporters who fly in for a week or so.

The point of my post is that I think the main stream media is driven to write sensational articles to try to get "ink" and that writing the region off as a bunch of medieval extremists is not very helpful in making the world a better place or causing positive change.

I ask as a friend and a genuinely concerned person - if you want to move to the Middle East to make a difference, and I believe you do - why Dubai? Dubai is the capital of excess, the one place in the Middle East where the majority of residents aren't even native. Why not Beirut, Damascus, or Amman? Why not Manama or Muscat? To me, moving to Dubai to experience the Middle East is like moving to Chicago to experience the Midwest.


Dubai is a hub for the region. I spend about 90% of my time traveling and I will be going to all of the countries in the Middle East but will be constantly flying in and out of the region. Dubai has the most direct flights to the US and Asia, has relatively secure infrastructure and is a very convenient hub. I have relationships in Tunisia, Beirut, Doha, Cairo, Damascus, Bagdhad, Amman, Gaza, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Riyadh and an increasing number of places in the Middle East and I intend to be spending a great deal of time wandering around these places.

I actually have lived in Chicago and my lawyer is there in fact. It's very convenient when you're trying to travel in our out.

Each hub has a unique "hub culture" which will be interesting in itself, but it's from there that I will explore from, using the hub as a "base". Also, it's not the excess of Dubai that I'm interested in. It's the utility and the fact that for immigrants in my category it's very convenient.

All fair points, indeed. I almost forgot how much you travel!

I'm not particularly interested in the personal motive of the journalists who criticize the human rights or environmental crimes in Dubai. I'm interested in whether the things they describe are actually happening. If I hadn't read the Independent or Guardian or NYT articles, I would have no idea that it was even a possibility.

The magnitude of the alleged environmental and especially human abuse is such that people's piqued response that the authors are on a "high horse" seems a little ridiculous. Seriously, what does it matter, if people are living and dieing in slavery?

As for the argument that it isn't productive to remark on a problem until you understand the system entirely and have specific solutions to propose, I might be sympathetic if it was a widely known and agreed upon problem. But it isn't, and as others on this thread have pointed out, awareness is a necessary first step.

I celebrate the work of WITNESS in Brazil, and I agree that the most effective voices are internal ones, but all these things aren't zero-sum, they build on each other. I celebrate the journalists who are pointing fingers at the labour camps in Dubai, even if they are doing it out personal attention seeking.

The article was only designed to piss off Dubai? Who in Dubai? The Emiratis? The ex-pats? Heaven forbid they should be "pissed off." Why let any angry thoughts darken the eternal sunshine of their spotless minds? What about the hordes of guest-workers they exploit? Maybe they're pissed off because Dubai's reputation is threatened and that means they'll have no jobs, and thus face inevitable liquidation by their benevolent overseers, since it would be only fair to put them out of their misery. And of course, their relatives will be filled for the expense of putting them down.

I for one, had no idea how bad the guest workers had it in Dubai. Sure I could guess that they were underpaid and subject to spartan living conditions, but the conditions Hari described, if accurate, sound like those of a gulag, and that is simply unacceptable in a city as wealthy as Dubai.

The price of slavery for the the slave-owners is sleepless nights, eternal vigilance, and nagging guilt.

I'm sick of reading pieces that speak in vague, inoffensive generalities and talk about the need for reform. Their purpose is just to buy more time for the exploiters. The slavers know EXACTLY what they are doing. But they also know that it must never be discussed or called for what it is.

You know, I've been reading these articles about Dubai, and the only thing I found to be consistent is the abuse of (slavery actually) of foreign workers.

What struck me as odd though is that these men and women are forced to work there for slave wages, abused, and mistreated for what seems like nothing more then a paperwork dodge: their slave masters take their passports.

When I go through US customs they can snap a picture of me, take my fingerprint, and scan my passport. The level of technology in most recent modern passports is fairly insane, and it all came about in a very short amount of time. In fact, I can right now order a new passport from the government and get it in 24 hours if I really need it.

So my question, Joi, since you seem to be involved in many human rights organizations is this:

Why can someone still "lose" their passport?

It should be possible to create a UN mandate that no human shall ever be without their passport for more than 24 hours. If someone takes your passport, well you walk over to *any* embassy, say you lost it, and they have to look you up and make you one, then send the bill to your home country. Everything is standardized, all travelers are already in various systems, with enough effort passport theft slavery could be abolished with just some good technology.

Just a thought.

Yes. The passport-as-hostage thing seems like something solvable.

Hugh, I guess my point is that the human rights issues in the UAE have been widely reported are being widely discussed. The UN UPR report pointed out issues with human rights in the UAE and there is a widely reported back and forth going on right now.

So I'll concede that the issues in the UAE should be more widely reported and that people who care should know and try to do something about it.

I guess I'm just frustrated that people don't seem to care until it's served to them in a barrage of press about cockroaches in the pluming expensive cars dumped in parking lots.

The reason I, personally, don't rush to comment on something like the Japanese statistics is that they're well-known, not news, and I know of Japanese people who are involved and trying to change the Japanese system. (Since you asked.) The Dubai stuff is news to me.

Not sure why you are attacking this as a "recent wave" of Dubai-bashing when similar articles on the horrendous labor situation there have been getting published for years and years.

It's one thing to say "hey, you people shouldn't start whining about it only when rich Westerners also get bitten" or "the situation isn't exactly like those whiners claim it is"; it's another to just say "stop whining" and then get surprised when people start painting you as an apologist for the wealthy on top of the pile. You need to flesh out the statements you're making, and you need to make them with a little more self-awareness as a wealthy tech entrepreneur who doesn't hang out in laborer shantytowns from day to day.

Durf: To be honest, 90% of the messages that I received about Dubai were about the economy and the collapse of the market there, which I felt were exaggerated comparatively speaking. The human rights thing, which as you say has been reported for years, was in my view, old news. That's why my post here is skewed toward a rebuttal of the NYT piece talking about cockroaches coming out of the plumbing and the parking lots full of dumped cars.

However, it appears from the comments that people are much more interested in the human rights issues than the economic welfare of the rich. (Makes sense.)

But that's where the disconnect comes from. My post was focused on the wrong target.

Yes, and I think a more balanced (and much more favorable) picture of your views on the subject have come out in your comments. So that's going better. :-) But the "it's not that bad" tone in the original posts is what would set most people off, especially if they just came from reading a newspaper article that dedicated some of its column-inches to describing something close to slavery.

You wrote: "I was impressed most by the Palestinians who were trying to cause change in Palestine and the Israelis who were trying to change the way Israelis think."

Joi, what of Palestinians/Israelis trying to change the way Palestinians think? This could be simple omission, but in case it's not, this comment is very, very telling.

Both the Palestinians and the Israeli's were concerned about fighting extremism in their own cultures (at least the ones that I was impressed with) and less focused on trying to cause change on the other side. My point was just that it's more effective and impressive to fix your own problems than it is to try to fix other people's problems. While it is easier to point out problems in other people's policies and actions, I think trying to fix your own culture often works better.

this is a great discussion on a sensitive and complex subject.

there is no doubt that the legal and regulatory infrastructure in dubai and the gulf region is sorely lacking but some perspective is useful here.

the countries / city-states we are talking about here are unbelievably young (the uae was officially born in 1971) and have been growing at a rate unprecedented in the history of the world outside of china. managing that growth was always going to be a challenge. throw in the tiny and relatively uneducated indigenous population and the only surprise is that things haven't turned out much much worse. that dubai and abu dhabi and doha are held up as potential models for the wider middle east is testament to the local populations' willingness to welcome, listen to and learn from the outside world. it's also a testament to how depressing the rest of the middle eastern landscape is of course - politically, economically and culturally.
dubai neglected its soft infrastructure. it was too busy making money and piling on unsustainable debt. it got caught up in its own hubris during the bubble years. hopefully the precipitous slowdown will allow for a focus on development of its legal system. human rights, legal bankruptcy proceedings etc all need to be addressed.

the core issue here i think is the region's treatment of manual laborers. i have visited sonapur (translated as the land of gold) and labor camps as they are called here in other dubai neighborhoods. the reaction to these vast low rise complexes with shared kitchens and bathrooms will vary drastically depending on where you're coming from. if, like me, you're visiting from egypt where over half of cairo's population lives in informal (illegal) housing with no running water, sewage etc you might leave thinking reasonably well of the accommodation on offer. if you're visiting from a leafy middle class london neighborhood where your major quality of life grievances are the state of the tube and kids throwing up on your pavements when the pubs close, you may well come away horrified. it maybe be ethically questionable but economically this can be looked at as a case of economic betterment for people living in most of the world where squalor is real and unemployment rampant. you only have to look at remittance flows that travel to developing countries for the gulf to appreciate the economics. in many parts of the world, local governments are unable to provide basic care and opportunity for the people - the gulf is one of the few regions that opens it borders to these and almost anyone else willing to work.
having said that i think the local governments can improve on their enforcement on hygiene and maintenance laws that the 'labor camps' operate under.

having said all that, the middle men who lie about salaries etc in order to get people to travel to the gulf are obviously in the wrong and i think the real villains of stories like johann hari's. should the local (and home governments too) governments be doing more to crack down on this activity? of course they should and i hope we see more work done here. there are also cases where workers are paid late etc but i haven't seen any evidence that this is the rule rather than the exception.
still workers' rights (no matter what their occupation) need to be enshrined in the legal system. and the laws (like the passport confiscation example) need to then be implemented and enforced fairly.

i am skeptical that the uneconomical, unfair and inhumane stories hari says are really endemic to the system for one main reason. the demand for work in the gulf has continued to be strong over the last 3 or 4 decades. i find this difficult to square with the accused 'slavery'. this is especially true as many of the gulf's workers come from the same communities in developing countries. you would think word would get out that people were actually signing up for four years of slavery and enthusiasm to move here would peter out.
this is not an attempt at denial but it's an inconsistency in the argument that needs to addressed.

i don't think that society in dubai or anywhere esle in the region is a truly global model in its current form. respect for the rule of law, equality regardless of nationality and religion, freedom of expression etc are all sorely missing from these societies.
but they are young, they have come a long way and i am optimistic that they will continue to develop so that they do become increasingly important models for the region.

Thanks Joi for bravely putting up this post despite anticipating both criticism and plaudits. We are on the same page on the Dubai-bashing issue.

I won't add more to an already long-drawn exchange of conflicting views, except to share Afshin Molavi's succinct article (Financial Times) which discusses Dubai from a macro economic perspective:

Joi - commented on boing boing, but would enjoy a chance to speak with you more about dubai if you get the chance. Living here as well - do you have access to the email address that I leave above this reply? If not let me know. Through my work with one of the big five families here in the emirate, I have access to a number of workers who live in the 'labour camps'. (most of the men I've spoken to have nothing but good things to say about their time here in Dubai. The stories of poor conditions and slavery are largely inflated)

#28 - Avantcaire - THANK YOU. couldn't have said it better myself. I know one young man here from bangladesh who on his 'slave wages' is sending enough money home to feed, clothe, and build a gigantic house for his entire family.

There are definitly some squalid situations and rerpehensible conduct by recruiters and employers (see the chinese state construction company!) but thats a minority of possible examples.

General - I couldn't think of a better place to live in the Gulf Region. Even with the economic crisis - it's can still be a pretty amazing place. It will continue to grow and mature as a country.

(good examples are public transit, movements for recycling, increased environmental awareness)

Derek: I will email you. Very interested in learning more directly when I'm in Dubai.

For a larger look at the systemic problem inherent in migrant labour, here is a documentary called "Blood, Sweat and Tears" by Al Jazeera on the problem. It looks at the problem from when migrants are recruited all the way to when they get to the Gulf

"i am skeptical that the uneconomical, unfair and inhumane stories hari says are really endemic to the system (...)"

Then dear Avantcaire, why don't you read the Human Right Watch report on the subject, published in November 2006 ?

and Joi, are you really familiar with Johann Hari's work, to say that he possibly was "piss(ing) on Dubai some more along with everyone else"?
His work on the Congo War was far, far from human rights "sprinkling", Amnesty International even named him Newspaper Journalist of the Year in 2007 for it. Johann Hari travels and stays repeatedly in the areas he describes and takes quite some risks denouncing human rights abuses, taking positions against people who usually allow very little or no criticism at all, or kill critics…

Gaelle: He may be an amazing human rights reporter, and maybe it's more his editors to blame, but my post here was primarily intended to point out the exaggerated and excessive nature of the trend of writing about the demise of Dubai and how his article appear to me as part of this current frenzy.

hi gaelle,

thanks for the link. i am familiar with the report and agree with most of its recommendations.

i will point out though that calling the abuses endemic to the system based on a sample of 60 people might be overreaching.

but there is no doubt that some of the abuses (passport confiscations, etc) are prevalent in the system.

You are talking like a western expat, from the viewpoint of a wealthy expat, that article by Johann was about the slavery class which I can vouch to, it exists in every middle east country, and the poor things have no means of legal redressal.

Yes. I am talking like a western expat, because I'm still in the process of assimilating to Dubai and for now, that's what I am.

I will take this exchange as a signal to learn more about the human rights issues when I'm in Dubai next and follow up with a post about that once I feel qualified to write about it.

Hi Joi, hisashi buri!

I've spent some time in the Middle East and Asia, and was very struck by Hari's article about Dubai. I'd have to say I agree more with him than with you, on some fundamental points.

I get the sense that Dubai is not sustainable, that it is an entirely artificial creation that cannot survive, nor serve as a model for development. A lot of this is driven by geographical circumstances: there is a reason why there wasn't much there before the oil money, and partly by design: they've built a city without sidewalks, without public transport, without the possibilities for serendipitous encounters that really bring a city to life. Furthermore, they are approaching education as a business, and not really as a way to develop the potential of their citizens. I was struck by the irony that in Dubai's vaunted Internet City, you could not access websites in, or make phonecalls to, Israel, the one country in the region with a credible high tech sector!

Singapore, though superficially similar, is very different: the city is dense, public transport is extensive, people are encouraged to participate in street life and interact, cultural diversity is a cherished value, and education is considered a public good, of excellent quality, and equally available to all, including women. (Note: the high school with the highest admission rate to Ivy League colleges in the world is a PUBLIC school in Singapore!) Legal codes are based on British law, and efficiently and equitably enforced. Unlike Dubai, where Emiratis mostly stick to a government sinecure, and all the real work is done by outsiders, Singapore is run by Singaporeans.

Looking 15-25 years out, the Middle Eastern cities with the most potential to be role-models for development are not in the Gulf, but closer to the Mediterranean: Beirut, Damascus, and possibly Baghdad. (Tel Aviv and Amman are close too.) These places have all been around for thousands of years for a reason! All of them are dense, sustainable urban nuclei, with a cosmopolitan history. All of them have a modern history that prepares them for a transition to democracy: no monarchies, reduced role of religion in government, foundations of a welfare state, some familiarity with democratic institutions and relatively egalitarian income distribution. They have a large & well educated local professional class, focused on commerce, trade and finance. Try running that checklist past the Emirates.

These places may seem a bit scary now, but with the exception of the last 50 years, these have been the best places to live in the region for the past 2,000 years, and I'm certain that they will be again, when Dubai is crumbling.

Try asking some of your non-Emirati Arab friends where they're from, and I suspect that you'll find ties to those cities.

My feeling is that the "hub" aspect of Dubai is probably sustainable. The real estate bubble there is a recent thing. I think the FT article states it well:

To understand why Dubai will survive, it is important to understand its commercial geography. It is not solely an Arab state – demographically or commercially. It is a commercial and tourist hub for a region that encompasses the growing markets of south Asia, emerging Africa, oil-rich Russia and the Gulf states, Iran, central Asia and the Caucasus, Europe and China. And it works largely because of the heavy infrastructure investment made by Dubai’s rulers and the expatriate traders, service professionals, construction workers, bankers and techies who make up 90 per cent of the population.
Dubai was never, as one newspaper called it, “The Middle East’s economic powerhouse.” Rather, it was and remains a highly successful entrepôt in one of the richest and fastest-growing parts of the world. Like most entrepôts, it feeds from and fuels growth. Dubai companies, for example, have substantively improved east Africa’s transport infrastructure and DP World manages ports in 49 countries.
Though Dubai is racked by debt – $70bn of it – much of that comes from massive infrastructure projects that have positioned it well for the future. Infrastructure spending is old hat in Dubai. When Sheikh Rashid built the Jebel Ali port in 1979, to much criticism, he made a big bet – and won. Today, Jebel Ali helps place Dubai among the 10 largest container terminal port cities in the world. When Sheikh Rashid chose to take on a big loan in the late 1950s to dredge the Dubai creek to allow for larger ships, he was panned. It worked. The ships came, and so did the merchants. The pre-oil emirate grew and flourished.
The same can be said of its airports, airlines, telecommunications and broadband networks, metro system and expanded highways. There is no city within striking distance of challenging Dubai as a hub in a region that extends beyond the Arab world to 1.5bn people. Its airport is among the 10 busiest for international passenger traffic. It is also among the world’s top 15 air cargo hubs.
Dubai’s property bubble popped. Its hubris also (thankfully) popped. Its core business model, however, did not. Property corrections and over-leveraged state entities can be fixed. Becoming a poor environment for trade would be far more dangerous. When the world growth engine restarts, city-states such as Dubai will flourish. In the meantime, Dubai will serve as a vital, if somewhat clogged, artery in world trade. The battered but still battling hub city will rise again.

>> Moving to the Middle East casually and assuming that everything should be just like home is dangerous and I wouldn't recommend it.

So that's what you think people are doing, eh? I'e lived in the region for longer than your quick and temporary visit, and I agree with some of what you say.

On the other hand, as somebody who proclaims to be a human rights advocate I wonder if you think it's OK that the USA seems to be adopting the "Dubai Model" of indentured servitude -- and I'm not talking about the indentured servitude of the kinds of people you (and Thomas Friedman) hang out with when you come to the region -- the people you see digging ditches in Dubai, etc.

The USA has been incorporating a similar system under the H2B (non-agricultural) visa program, which includes: a.) employers partnering up with foreign recruiters who LIE to the recruits, b.) foreign temps "chained' to the employer the recruits them under threat of deportation, c.) holding passports, d.) non payment or paying less than promised, e.) deporting any workers who complain, f.) promising family visas but once the workers arrive telling them their families cannot come and they cannot stay any longer than the terms of their contract.

These are REAL issues, not faddish journalism, and they have broader implications in the current era of mass migration. Duabi is a canary in a coalmine for the way labor is being abused.

There are a lot fo things I admire about the Arab world and the Khaleej, but one thing we don't need to see is an apologist for a phenomenon that is becoming the new model for foreign labor recruitment in the US -- what I call "the Dubai model." We saw this with how labor was recruited from abroad after Katrina.

You should may more attention to the broader issue that was underscored by the article, and not come off as some neo-Liberal apologist for some of the more despicable practices in globalization. In this context, my comment really has little to do with Dubai or Dubai-bashing.

The apologists should understand that not all criticisms are based in ignorance or irrational judgments. We most certainly have a moral obligation to do what we can to embarrass those that abuse workers like they have been abused in the Khaleej (and in the USA for that matter) by siring this dirty laundry.

The only other think I have to say is that you're contrariness is not original. In fact, it has become a journalistic cliche to take unfashionable or "surprising" views on subjects, like sayign yur a human rights advocate and then telling people concerned about human rights to back off the criticism.

I hate to sound like a troll, but this shitck (and that's exactly what it is) is neither original nor helpful to the issue of workers rights, wherever these rights are violated.

So as a followup to this post, I will promise to write a more thoughtful and first-hand account of the human rights issues in Dubai. I've already started contacting people for my next trip to Dubai. My intent was not to belittle the broader human rights work and initiatives directed at Dubai, but rather to just express my opinion that there is a trend of Dubai bashing going on and that I don't find that blending the human rights issues in with this trend is a particularly constructive approach IMHO.

"hour, instead of 3 days in advance reservations for the lounge/bar at The Address, it's 2 days and you can usually get a table at the nice restaurants with less than a hour wait now... usually."

The fact that in the context of an article about how Bangladeshi workers are subjected to a form of indentured labour, their passports seized and made to work 14 hours a day in intense heat for a fraction of their promised salary, you're talk about posh restaurant reservations, pretty much shows where your priorities are.


Paul: Those comments were made in the context of the New York Times article ( ) which said things like: "With Dubai’s economy in free fall, newspapers have reported that more than 3,000 cars sit abandoned in the parking lot at the Dubai Airport" (I think that's the total number of cars abandoned in all of Dubai thru tho whole year. Not at the airport) or "Lurid rumors spread quickly: the Palm Jumeira, an artificial island that is one of this city’s trademark developments, is said to be sinking, and when you turn the faucets in the hotels built atop it, only cockroaches come out." (I've never heard these rumors.)

Reading the NYT article, there's no mention of restaurant reservations, so I'm not sure why you think the context matters; you were the one who, in the course of dealing with articles about sub-continent indentured labourers, thought it was a suitable topic to bring up. Anyhoo....

As far as Dubai "bashing" goes; perhaps I'm living in Bizarro World, but over the past decade, I recall being subjected to a deluge of sugary pseudo-advertorial media pap about the Dubai "miracle". Endless travel supplements cooing over the wonderful air-conditioned malls (I have no idea why people would go on holiday to go to a shopping mall, but I must be weird - I prefer old stuff, and can shop online any time), property journalists boring you to tears about how you can buy a personal island shaped like your own country/head/favourite animal, etc (hopefully they all bought a few and are now 40% down).

Now, after a mere three - THREE - critical articles about Dubai, the thin-skinned inhabitants of the city state are in a blogging and commenting frenzy, claiming that the Evil Western Media(tm) is biased against them. What is even more bizarre is that people like yourself, non-natives who haven't even lived there that long, seem to be getting offended on their behalf! I'm married to a Malaysian, like the country and have a spent a lot of time there, but would have no problem with Hari writing a similar article about its problems.

If anything sums up Dubai for me, it's the fact that they got the right-wing wife-beating alcoholic purveyor of racist jokes, Jim Davidson (, a man voted as the 20th Worst Briton, to run their comedy festival.


The issue about the restaurants etc. are in the context of the twitters and email that I received from people asking me if there were tumbleweeds on the streets and feeling pity for my choice to move into a deserted town based on the NYT article.

I recall being subjected to a deluge of sugary pseudo-advertorial media pap about the Dubai "miracle". Endless travel supplements cooing over the wonderful air-conditioned malls (I have no idea why people would go on holiday to go to a shopping mall, but I must be weird - I prefer old stuff, and can shop online any time), property journalists boring you to tears about how you can buy a personal island shaped like your own country/head/favourite animal, etc (hopefully they all bought a few and are now 40% down).
FWIW, those articles made me sick to and made me think twice about moving to Dubai.

I will concede, again, that the human rights issues should be reported on. However, writing off everyone in Dubai as willing beneficiaries of slave labor and somehow immoral is too much of a generalization. There are great people in Dubai doing real work and many if not most of the people in Dubai are concerned about and talking about the issue of the treatment of the workers. Dubai is 90% immigrants. UAE is 80% immigrants. The issue of the treatment of immigrants is not being swept under the rug and ignored, it can't be. Anyway, as I said, I'll investigate myself and write more when I have a more educated view.

And it's not just three articles... there are many. Here's another one from The Star ( ).

Paul makes an excellent point when he says we've been subjected to years of PR hack coverage of Dubai as this shining global metropolis in the desert. And I think the thrust of the article in the Independent that has apologists and Emiratis in a kerfuffle was about the bursting economic bubble. That bubble was inflated by years of media coverage that glossed over the issues that the Independent article put front and center FOR A CHANGE. Frankly there hasn't been enough coverage of the the racketeering and human trafficking that takes place. (Those are the two crimes committed when you lie to a laborer about wages, conditions and visa- status, and then, based on those lies, charge hm thousands of dollars and ship him to a construction site in the desert and take his passport away.)

And I would add to that that the media is essentially ignoring this global labor recruitment angle of this topic. Meanwhile, America is adopting the Dubai model in construction, marine construction and hurricane reconstruction. This phenomenon is so UNDER-COVERED that it's popping up in places like Pascagoula, Mississippi and along the Gulf coast of the USA right under the noses of Americans. (In the Pasacougla case: a Pascagoula sheriff's deputy started a labor-recruitment business for marine construction, partnered up with an Indian recruiter names Devon, with offices in Dubai, and brought over hundreds of Indian constructions workers to work in on-site labor camps in Mississippi and Texas for Signal International, lowered the workers promised wages and then detained rabble-rousers who complained using private security. This is happening because the media isn't covering this broader issue enough.)

I just thing, again, that your claims that Dubai is becoming a whipping boy is flat-out wrong when it comes to the horrible treatment of workers -- and not the clerks in your luxury hotel -- I'm talking about the people who build the hotel -- the people you cannot talk to because companies do not allow you into the housing accommodations where these workers are stacked in on-site mobile housing units -- and they aren't likely to talk to you anyway because they would risk being fired and deported for doing so. And this problem is spreading into America. So, yes, I think it deserved to be covered more.

I guess it's not so much the content of these articles, but rather the tone - standing outside a culture/country that you don't understand, writing from a position of xenophobia and moral superiority. I agree that these issues should be covered, but they should be written in a different tone. It's very much an emotional thing.

"FWIW, those articles made me sick to and made me think twice about moving to Dubai."

So between those articles and the labour issues, what made you move? I mean, honestly, the place seems horrendous - apart from the obvious financial benefits, what attracted you?

"There are great people in Dubai doing real work and many if not most of the people in Dubai are concerned about and talking about the issue of the treatment of the workers."

I find it very very hard to believe, certainly judging by the comments from current Dubai residents on the Independent website at Hari's article, that a majority of Dubai residents are troubled by the extreme social structure. And if not, they what exactly have this majority done about it so far? Can you point me to any sizeable Dubai body that fights for SEA immigrant workers' right? Or does "concerned and talking about" just refer to the occasional murmur at a dinner party at The Address?


Paul, I've written about why I moved to Dubai and the region here and here... but in a nutshell: In my work with Creative Commons, I realized that the Middle East and North Africa was a blind spot in my understanding and understanding. I decided to dedicate a substantial amount of my energy over the next few years trying to understand the people and the culture of the region. After looking at all of the possible locations to base myself to be close to all of the various countries, I decided that Dubai was the most functional as a hub. Comparatively speaking, it is the freest and most convenient place in the Middle East.

The bulk of my learning/work in the Middle East will be in countries outside of the UAE and I'll probably be spending a few months of the year there, but I find that it is a convenient and comfortable base.

My main community in Dubai are the Indian and Pakistani business people who have been in the region for decades, building and running the infrastructure for the IT and logistics businesses there.

I also also talking to various universities in Dubai and will be working on curriculum development and teaching locally as well.

Everyone that I've met in Dubai is concerned about the human rights issues. I'll concede some insensitivity on the human rights issues that my post may have reflected, but I think that you really don't have any idea what the majority of people in the UAE think about human rights.

I'd been meaning to do more first-person work in this area, but I was hoping to build a stronger network and make a bit more progress on my Arabic before I began my investigation, but thanks partially to this thread of comments, I'll try to make it one of the things I cover on my next trip back to Dubai.

The UN and HRW seems to cover the issue quite extensively and I'm reaching out to them now. I don't know the size of the organization but Mafiwasta that I linked to in the article itself seems reasonable.

I've also talked to several UAE journalists at the conference I'm attending now about the issue and they've agreed to introduce me to people and help me get up to speed.

So I'll write more once I have more context.


This article is shameful. You dismiss the human rights violations simply because The Independent wasn't helpful enough in the article? Are you kidding me, or are you just evil? The worker abuse going on over there is shameful to the entire world and the fact that you could just gloss it over is despicable.

When someone steals something in a market, there will be people pointing fingers and shouting "Thief Thief." Thanks to them other people will notice what's happening and some of them will run after the thief to stop him. I don't understand why you expect the finger-pointers to also go after the thief. It takes courage to point out the thief just as much as it takes courage for the hero to catch him and comprehend him. Sometimes it takes a lot of finger-pointing to grab the thief, especially if he's strong and fast. I look at it as a collaborative effort. There are many types of collaborators in big complicated issues like this, we can't expect the same person to focus on different actions at once. There are different specialists with different skills for different jobs.

I guess my point on this is that there has been a fair bit of reporting in the local UAE press about the human rights issues and there is activism and action on the ground. I am going to investigate to figure out if it is enough and see if I can help, but it feels like there are a bunch of people already running after the thief...

See some pictures of Dubai from real travellers:

a bbc documentary on dubai and labour camps - 6:10 in when the reporter is in his car talking about smuggling filming equipment in and secret government informers makes me laugh and makes me sick.

People in his country will believe that tripe!

Anyway, more 'slanted' views about the UAE.

Its far from perfect, but if you look at the MENA region, its a becon of hope.

Unfortunately, implementing rights for construction workers in Dubai now is pretty much a textbook definition of shutting the door once the horse has bolted. Property prices have plummeted 40% overnight - even in Ireland, where the price drop has been less over a greater period of time, the construction industry has been decimated.

And what will happen to these hundreds of thousands of unemployed SE Asian workers stranded in Dubai? Of course, they are entitled to absolutely no benefits - only the pampered locals get unemployment benefit. (Just like Singapore, these "economic miracles" are built on walking on the rights of others).

I don't think it's over the top to forecast that unless they are helped in some way, you could see mass riots there. Compared to that, Dubai might prefer the wrath of a tubby English journo. To quote Woody Allen: "Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point."


The question is whether looking at every fiber of a complex problem is, while attractive, practical when historically typical solution is to forcefully cut through the problem by intentionally ignoring unfavorable details and demonizing opponents.

The question aside, I think it's prudent to get off the track when the bullet train is coming your way. ;-)

When it comes to Human Rights Dubai is not much different than most cities on the planet, however the root cause lies somewhere else. The money. It attracts and it corrupts. OK, I did not like the arrogance, however I have seen so much fake in Dubai, but the question is where did that come from? I still like the place and would go back there again.

What a refreshing read - the post, that is, not the comments!

My views of Dubai’s socio-economic model were the reason why I decided to leave the city in late 2008, and to step out of the business I was involved with at the moment, which ironically had to do with promoting the image of the country in the international media.

In the link below I blog my reply to an online discussion forum initiated by Sultan Al Qassemi to discuss his recent response to Johann's article... and I let it all out:

My views of Dubai’s socio-economic model were the reason why I decided to leave the city in late 2008, and to step out of the business I was involved with at the moment, which ironically had to do with promoting the image of the country in the international media.

In the following link I blog my reply to an online discussion forum initiated by Sultan Al Qassemi about his recent response to Johann Hari's article... and I let it all out!

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