Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

When I wrote my post about Dubai bashing, I was responding mostly to email and twitters from friends who had read the New York Times article and others asking me, "Are you alright in Dubai? I hear there are cockroaches coming out of the faucets and that the airport is full of dumped cars." I would have to reply saying, "I'm fine." It seemed like the rate of negative press about Dubai was increasing and that there was an aggressively negative tone and lack of context in the reporting.

In my blog post, I focused more on sending a message to my friends saying, "I'm fine. The demise of Dubai is exaggerated." I linked to an article which, among other criticisms of Dubai, reported on the mistreatment of migrant workers in the UAE.

There has been a outpouring of criticism about my blog post, some from my closest friends, criticizing me about glossing over the human rights issue as if they weren't important. I still believe that the article by Hari is unfairly negative in tone and lacks context. However, I do apologize for any implication that human rights in not a serious issue.

I have read the Human Rights Watch report, Building Towers, Cheating Workers - Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the United Arab Emirates which was very informative. I am in touch with various people and will focus some attention on gathering first-hand information about the issue. I promise to write something about this as soon as I feel I am informed enough to have an reasonably accurate view. My personal opinion is that in order to be effective, I need to understand the context, including the situation on the government side, before taking a strong stand.

I've spent a great deal of my life involved in activism - calling ministers liars on TV, marching in the streets with megaphones and protesting and arguing every government policy in Japan that I felt strongly about. I'm not afraid to take a stand on issues I believe are wrong.

It's just that I've learned over the years that strategy, context and an understanding of the situation on the recipient side of the message you are trying to send is essential in causing change. Thoughtful and persistent pressure by organizations like Human Rights Watch, combined with contextual local activism is, in my view, the foundation for positive long-term change and I will pledge to try to find a way that I can contribute to improving the human rights situation in the UAE, as well as every other location I have the ability to affect.


Good on you Joi.

There are different forms of activism and lots of people are taking care of the screaming/shouting/protesting bit already. Every problem worth solving is worth attacking from different angles....

I think everyone has to be realistic about what life outside a relatively small number of wealthy democratic countries is like and how hard it is to change anything. We can be very naive.

Hopefully by understanding better what happens in most of the world, we will learn to fully cherish the fortunate position some of us are in.

When I read your last post, I had a mixed reaction; if I hadn't known you personally I would have been really taken aback, but because I do know you and the kind of person you are, the things you said explicitly here were implicit to me.

One of the things I admire most about you is your willingness to take the time to genuinely understand something, and then to take even more time to fix things that you think don't work well systemically.

I'm glad you took the time to write this for people who don't know you well.

Looking at the figures from Wikipedia, there are 241,740 native Dubaians, while there are 288,000 people in collective labour camps of "unknown" nationality (predominantly Asian) alone.

And that's not counting the estimated 700,000 Asians who do not live in labour camps, but presumably many of whom are menial or manual labourers as well.

I would love to know what plans either the government or public bodies there have in the case of a prolonged economic downturn. Do they even have one, or - like those who invested in property there - did they think the bean feast would go on forever?


The thing about these articles that most disturbed me wasn't any particular anecdote. It was the reaction of well-off foreigners in Dubai. What disturbed me most was people making money through this structure, admitting the facts are basically true, while telling the world to shut up about what's going on, true or not.

If the facts are false, then I want to know. If the facts are true, then it is the specific responsibility of the top rungs of foreign workers and investors -- the people who Dubai was designed and built for -- to highlight what's going on and to do something about it.

Shouldn't that go for people living in six-star luxury in Dubai just as much for people living in six-star luxury in rural Brazil?

Which articles do you mean? My blog posts or the news stories?

I was referring to the articles you cited, Joi. The unified backlash by comfortable foreigners in Dubai is striking. More often than not, it isn't a backlash against falsehood, but rather against "negativity." Which was actually the central critique of Hari's article -- that people living in comfort within this particular system were conspicuously hostile to any criticism of that system.

In the comments on Hari's article, there are British residents of Dubai openly defending the occasional slave as "liquid labor." To me, that's the really frightening thing. Maybe certain anecdotes are true, maybe exaggerated. But there are people are openly, proudly arguing -- even if true, so what? Your initial post about this read as a more mildly worded version.

jb: So there is a nuance I guess I'd like to point out. I do think it's terrible for people in a society to ignore and defend things like human rights abuses and people defending the privilege and position should be challenged.

I think that some of us are reacting against something else. There is a tone of xenophobia and moral superiority in all reporting about the Arab world ranging from the stereotypes in motion pictures to news stories. The tone is insulting. I think you can say the same thing more directly without these overtones. The Human Rights Watch reports and bulletins are very good about this. They are tough, direct but neutral in terms of tone.

Personally, I was reacting mostly to this tone as well as the lack of context.

I'm going to blog more about racial stereotypes later, but here's an interesting video that shows the way Arabs are depicted in Western movies which is quite interesting when you see it all together like this. ( )

Side note to your comments on protesting...Question: Why did you call ministers liars on TV? Were they busted for wrong doing or are you calling all religion a lie?


That should have said "all kinds of reporting" not "all reporting"

A local reaction to the "Dark side of Dubai article"

On a side note - the article has accomplished at least two good things, in retrospect, I wonder if that might have been the writer's intent:

1) Everyone here, whether they like or hate the article is talking about it. It has raised awareness of the issue
2) The government has responded. Today one of the heads of the police force said they will begin inspection of the camps (one particular development company is responsible for the worst of the labour camps) Also the camps are being opened to the media in the next few days to see the conditions in ALL of the camps, not just the few that were highlighted. From personal and first hand experience I know that they are not as bad as made out to be. (Standards are low by my western ideals, but to a working asian, they are quite comfortable. This is first hand account.)

Addressing a point earlier in your post Joi - you've nailed a very important point. If there is a problem here (or in any arab country), the most effective way to solve it is gentle, firm, diplomatic persuasion. The concept of 'face' trancends many cultures and if you want help with an issue screaming and throwing a tantrum will often times create more road blocks for you than if you had just politely asked for assistance. It's called Wasta here (influence). You can get more done through back channels and being polite and respectful than if you are demonstrating in the street.

Anyway, It's been quite a show so far here on the ground. In my opinion, there's one human rights issue that is slightly more pressing and depressing than the workers' situations in a few of the camps...

I hope you won't worry too much about the wisdom of your latest move. Dubai isn't going to dry into dust and blow away with the desert wind. If it does, it's likely such a thing would be caused by a calamity you couldn't escape no matter where you went.

Regarding human rights, I'm afraid I can't speak very intelligently on the issue. I would note, however, that the last five times I've been in India, I have noticed that the working conditions in Dubai are well publicized there. Most people in India (even in remotest Bihar) know full well what the issues in Dubai are, regardless of caste or education. Yet, they still keep going there for work. Harsh.

"There is a tone of xenophobia and moral superiority in all reporting about the Arab world ranging from the stereotypes in motion pictures to news stories."

But in Hari's case, he's spends most of the article criticising _his own fellow countrymen_ for their attitudes in Dubai.


Paul: I just re-read the article, but I don't get the same impression. Interesting how we can get very different views from the same article. :-) Anyway, per Derek's comment above. It's possible that the article will end up having a net-positive effect, regardless of the tone.

I think that if this ends up making more information available to local media like The National, we will probably get some substantive coverage soon.

Another reasoned post (good to see) but I don't think you should be apologizing. Hari should be apologizing for a story that was biased, wasn't balanced, wasn't well-researched, was full of historical and factual errors, and was wildly exaggerated. His editor should not have defended it. A good editor would not have published a story by a journalist who admits (in the story!) that he hates the place he's writing about. With such strong emotions, it's impossible to be objectivity and provide balance - very good reasons for pulling Hari off the story and putting a smarter and more ethical journalist such as Robert Fisk on to it.

Joi your blog posts and comments are spot on. As a business owner that benefits from Dubai's excellent investment environment and someone that spends a fair amount of time in the Emirate, Hari's article struck me as grossly ill-researched and borderline offensive.

In the run up to my first post-crunch trip to Dubai this year, I came across a barrage of negative press combined with greatly exaggerated stories of lay-offs, overflooding carparks, real estate collapse from visitors and friends in Dubai. I was very apprehensive about my trip, to say the least. What I found back then, and in the two ensuing trips, was a toned down Dubai, but certainly not a dying one.

I have many friends of various nationalities who have been living and working in Dubai, and they will all unanimously tell you that what is happening now is a definite positive for the Emirate.

There is a clear distinction between expats that moved there 7 or more years ago, who have worked hard and seen the city grow exponentially, who were there before non-nationals were eligible for bank loans and who drove second hand cars and had reasonable rent apartments on the 'other' side of the creek, well before the Marina and JBR popped up - these are the people who have a sense of loyalty, almost belonging, to the city. And they're the ones fighting for the place to survive the crisis...

Then there's the other type of expat. The ones that saw a greedy opportunity to fly in, live in a five bedroom villa with two maids a nanny and a driver, go for after work champagne cocktails in their latest model Porsches, all of which is beyond their salaries, thanks to bank loans and credit cards. Oh and while the bank manager's signing that loan, why not buy a few properties at ridiculously inflated prices to let out. Oh and by the way, they never bothered asking about their legal standing in what is, for all intents and purposes, a foreign country. Just because there's a Marks and Spencer's and a Waitrose does not make this England! What sane person does that? I have little sympathy here...

I do have a lot of sympathy for all those who have lost jobs. As an entrepreneur, I also have sympathy for the business owners who have to make those tough calls. Dubai is not unique there though and that's the bottom line.

How Hari's article jumps topics is highly amusing though! One minute we're talking about the credit crunch, next thing you know it's the land of opportunity for gay Saudi men! Huh?!

The human rights side of Dubai is always the fallback. Not to fall into the What-aboutery trap, but it shows a certain lack of punchline in the original thought process when journalists revert to this. The fallback topic to the fallback topic is young jockeys used in camel racing. Not to belittle either topic, there are wheels in motion that are working (albeit slowly) on addressing both issues.

I have a history of militancy myself, and I heartily subscribe to the last two paragraphs of this post. The brand of activism I was used to, I now realize, assumes that the activist's job is to raise an issue, which then party politics will follow up on and somehow mediate. This assumption is false, though it may have been correct at some point and for some countries, including my own. Like you, Joi, I feel the responsibility to check my facts and put myself in the position of my counterpart when taking a stand. I appreciate that this attitude can look too soft or even ambiguous, to activists of the more traditional type. I can't help it. The world is complex, not clear-cut. It's either live with it, or give up any hope to propitiating change.

^ Not only that, but in many cases around the world, throwing a tantrum or protesting publicly will often alienate anyone who is in the position to help, or would want to help you advance the cause.

I find many Arab ideals share many commonalities with East Asian ideals; quiet diplomacy will get you miles further than causing a scene.

Well written blog, I do have much sympathy for all those who have lost jobs either. Dubai is not unique enough.


People of Dubai are very bad and Inshallah Dubai bad people will finished in a few year. Aameen

What amazes me is the ignorance of people! As someone who has lived both in the East and west and who stays abreast of HR issues, it amazes me that people can villify, singularly, labour camps in otherwise wealthy Dubai. Labour camps of all sorts is an international problem!! Do people reading the Times in cosy Britain not realize that in every major city; London, to York all the way to Edinburgh and Dublin not realize there are sex slaves behind many blacked out windows in places guised as 'massage parlours'? Many of these are young ladies (and some lads) who were going for promised jobs in modelling or waitressing, or receptionist work in the media hyped west! Being young (often as young as 14) and vulnerable they are full of optimism and hope. They then get smuggled in by major rings who have deals with some authorities in Britain (and every other Western country) and are drugged up and raped repeatedly until all semblance of their former self is gone. They are literally demoralized, afraid and controlled. Even if they theoretically could walk out of the 'massage parlour' at any time, they are so controlled, shaken, and ripped of their humanity that they don't have the courage, the will, or even much memory of the life they had before. They are also, by then, addicted completely (which begun by force) and they only live for their next hit.
Then let's talk about the Chinese. They also import many sex slaves in addition to raping Africa of its natural resources whilst financing some of the most brutal genocides ever encountered in Africa. They also sell and barter their own into the sex trade and adoption agencies.
The US has one of the largest human trafficking rings in the world, in addition to how they treat their labourers ( illegal immigrants are expendable slaves to them ), as well as how they treat anyone who tries to reveal the top dogs involved in these lucrative businesses ('Homeland Security,' Guantamo Bay, Father's Rights groups which are really pedophile rings, wars based on greed and the list goes on and on.)
There is not one country that is innocent of these sorts of abuses! However, one could say that the Western countries actually own more blame, because we live in wealthy nations and have the time and intelligence to stop the abuses occuring all around us in our own nations, as we are of the privileged 1/3 of the world population that is not starving.
Now, I realize this post is much more harsh than Joi tried to communicate initially, but I think what he was trying to say was keep it all in perspective! Let's sort out the people that are living in sub-human slavery conditions in our own countries first, and then, and ONLY then, do we have the right to point the finger at any one else.

I'm coming to this debate a little bit late - sorry, Joi :) - but I wanted to suggest a few practical places to look specifically from a human rights perspective on the migrant workers issue...

--> here's a site specifically about workers' rights in the UAE (not just in Dubai):
--> a guide to the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers:
--> here's who's signed the Convention and who's actually ratified it so far: (UAE has not)
--> here's the text of the Convention in Arabic:
--> the Colombo Process is an association of the governments of the countries of origin of migrant workers in Asia, and grew to include the countries of destination:
--> and finally, I'd be interested to see if this debate has also sparked off on local UAE sites - it's great that your posts sparked off a debate among ex-pats and internationally, here and on boingboing, but these debates need to happen locally too and within the business community to have a more lasting impact.

^ I would agree and point out that human trafficking / sex slavery is a much bigger problem (Human Rights) than the mistreatment of labourers.

There are thousands of prostitutes in Dubai, many of them compelled to work against their will. Prostitution is 'illegal' yet ignored by the government - there's bars of certain reputations that are chiefly hangouts for prostitutes and johns.

Many maids are also in a simliar situation, being forced to give favours as part of their work.

Don't get me wrong - the practice of prostitution is fine and dandy, but forcing women into that line of work, holding them captive and beating them for not earning enough is shameful.

Interestingly enough, this subject is comnig to the attention of the press now - the government has even set up a tip/help line for women who are trapped and need rescuing.

Joi - Having been to Dubai in the past year and Manama, Bahrain twice I have to say my experience in the middle east was FANTASTIC. I roamed freely about the streets much as I would here in Tulsa. ~Gerald Buckley