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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 December 2006, 16:23 GMT
A Pakistani laments Dubai
The BBC Urdu service's Masud Alam returns to live in Pakistan after 15 years abroad. A holiday on the way gives food for thought.

Departing London was easier than I imagined.

Dubai port
Labourers' wages have not been revised in more than a decade

Partly because I was too groggy leaving home at 6.30 am to entertain any kind of emotions.

And also, since friends, acquaintances and near-strangers had said their farewells with such fervour and persistence, staying back any longer was out of the question.

At the entrance to Gatwick airport, there was nothing and no one to look back on except the taxi driver who dropped us there, and nothing to look forward to except the clichéd promise of airline hospitality and the vague hope of finding a couch in the departure lounge to catch a wink.

I found it dispiriting to be holidaying in a place where the people who feed, drive, and generally look after me don't even earn enough to maintain their dignity as a human being

Wife counted the luggage pieces every 10 steps or so, each time asking me to check if I still had the passports and tickets in the maroon wallet I was holding in my left hand.

Kids, too, walked in a dazed state and followed her various instructions without complaining, which was remarkable because they are neither used to listening - owing to the earpieces filling their young heads with pop music nearly all the time - nor complying with parental advice without a moan.

Hideous and expensive

I had obviously over-estimated the tantrums of the daughter, the apparent introspective state of the son and the increasingly unstable mood of the wife during the last few weeks in London.

Otherwise I would not have booked a short holiday in Dubai on our way to Islamabad.

It was meant to cheer us up and to ease our descent back into the womb of the motherland. It turned out to be anything but....

One aspect that hasn't changed in all these years is Dubai's fixation on 'quality expatriates' - a euphemism for White Europeans, or the rich and famous, or, in particular, the rich and famous White Europeans.

I have lived in Dubai before but now it seems like it was ages ago.

Then, it used to be a small, clean, quiet and prosperous place.

It is now as hideous, noisy, crowded and obscenely expensive as so many other cities.

Dubai has always wanted to be something different from what it is.

It metamorphosed from a tiny fishing village to a modern city, then a shoppers' paradise, a playground for the rich, a tourist's haven and a lot more in just over half a century.

But in the process, the place is beginning to look more like a huge exhibition of assorted real estate development than a place to live and grow in.

Dubai was under construction 15 ago. It is even more so now.

The city's skyline is made up of cranes.

Hundreds, possibly thousands of these monster machines are working day and night every which way you look.

'Quality expatriates'

And for every crane there is a brigade of trucks, earthmoving equipment and mobile electricity generators, clogging up the already crowded streets.

There is an excellent network of roads and bridges, but the fancy cars capable of doing 300km an hour can merely crawl at 3km an hour for most of the day.

Dubai port
Dubai has always wanted to be something different every time

The traffic issue is so bad it has not avoided the notice of the authorities.

Dubai is now building a network of underground railways which may eventually ease the congestion on the roads.

But for the moment it has meant more disruptions and detours, resulting in nightmarish delays to commuters.

One aspect that hasn't changed in all these years is Dubai's fixation on 'quality expatriates' - a euphemism for White Europeans, or the rich and famous, or, in particular, the rich and famous White Europeans.

I used to work for a newspaper here that paid different salaries to employees of similar qualifications and work experience, based on their ethnic origin.

Whites topped the list, followed by Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, the Filipinos, the Bangladeshis...

This bias seems to be more institutionalised now.

Visa restrictions continue to be relaxed for westerners and keep getting tougher for the nationals of the Third World.


All the new urban developments are aimed at White executives (there's hardly any other kind of Whites here) and moneyed Arabs.

The Asians, who make up the entire labour force that builds these fancy structures, are still the worst-paid workers, forced to live in out-of-town labour camps, away from their loved ones for years at a stretch because they cannot afford to travel back home or bring their families to live in Dubai.

Masud Alam
Masud hoped to cheer up the family, but no such luck

A recent newspaper survey found that the labourers' pay and benefits packages have not been revised in more than a decade whereas the cost of living has doubled or trebled in sectors like housing, healthcare and utilities.

The middle income group is doing only slightly better.

The city is generous enough to allow property ownership rights (on leasehold) to people with money, but chooses not to notice the white collar workers who are being evicted from low-cost public sector housing estates to make room for more upmarket developments.

They are also being squeezed out of the rental market in the private sector faster than they can send their families back to their home countries.

It is probably just me, but I found it dispiriting to be holidaying in a place where the people who feed, drive, and generally look after me don't even earn enough to maintain their dignity as a human being.

But apparently they get enough dirhams to feed their families back home, and that is what makes them go on living a life of exploitation, servitude, despair and hope.

I would rather holiday in South Africa. I hear apartheid is a thing of the past there.

This debate is now closed. Here is a selection of your views

I was visiting Dubai for a conference a few weeks back. I could not stop myself from wondering how people were living in such a messy place with noise and traffic. And the huge disparity between worker class and the highly compensated executive elites. Travelling by taxi can be worse as you end up paying three times the actual amount due to slow traffic. And then you just cross Dubai and go to Sharjah, you will find the enormity of difference in living standards. Dubai, though trying to be an ultra modern city, is far from developing into a place worth living with your family.
Shamas-ur-Rehman Toor, Singapore

Outstanding writer, great observation, the exact truth.
Iftikhar Haq, USA

I totally agree with Mr Alam's comments. The situation is the same in the other little states in the gulf. Some years ago, I was offered a position in UAE at the same time as one in Africa. I chose the African offer as human rights in that African country are better respected than in UAE.
Tareq Raza, Australia

I still don't understand why one would want to give up living in a first world country and live in third world squalor. It's horrible there, especially in the Indian subcontinent!
Anand, USA

Exploitation of the majority of migrant workers in this region is rampant and a disgrace to most civilised and fair minded human beings. Islam forbids exploitation and for this kind of thing to happen in rich Muslim countries is an abomination and a stain on the Arab character.
Bin Hadd, GB

A very nice article and forthrightly honest. Mr. Alam's sense of justice shines through. I hope to read more of his work and wish him and his family well on his unique journey.
Rommel Singh Dhadha, USA

I think things are slowly changing. Last week India signed labour agreements with some Gulf countries. It is not only in the interest of India and would work both ways.
Ajith , India

Mr Alam's article on injustice is an excellent challenge to individuals all over the world to consider the ways in which we ourselves may be contributing to injustice and oppression. However, let's not pretend that severe injustice doesn't also happen within our own countries, wherever that may be, or that everyone in the third-world wants to trade for a life in the first world (I don't).
Jennifer Johnson, Thailand

Hope one day the city will live up to its slogan Dubai- The city that cares
Sreejith, UAE

Masud Alam laments the low wages and poor conditions experienced by foreign labourers in Dubai. However, Mr Alam as much as anyone, should be aware that those workers are there by choice and earning a small fortune compared to any job they could find back home. Quite likely, there are no jobs back home! Are foreign workers better off or worse off for being able to secure a highly sought-after job in Dubai? Going by the observations of Mr Alam, one would think not. Perhaps Dubai should legislate to ensure foreign labourers are paid, say, what a British worker would expect. Such a law would greatly reduce the number of viable projects and people employed. Moreover, no longer with a wage advantage, workers from poor countries would then be in direct competition with educated workers from wealthier countries. Mr Alam presumes that those people employed to serve the wealthy of Dubai lack dignity because they earn so much less than the people they serve or indeed, what someone might earn in the UK. I wonder whether the workers themselves would agree with him?
Greg, Australia

Remember no one is pointing a gun to workers to come to work here.
Sharifa Hamad, UAE

While Dubai claims to be making strides in the world, racial integration is one area where they are behind most developed and developing societies in the world.
Devkant Somani, Mumbai, India

Sad but so true. Dubai tries to paint a happy picture but there are just inequalities everywhere. The pay scale based on ethnic origin is particularly true in any job level. It's particularly obvious in the secretarial positions. Highly qualified Asians will most certainly get 2,500 dirhams (about $680) on average per month, while European and other nationals are offered a minimum of 5,000 dirhams.
Cheryl Binones, UAE

Such disparity has been common not only in the Middle East but also in the Far East. Complaining is not enough and one has to fight for his rights so that the government will enact legislation which will enable the workers to earn the same wages irrespective of race.
Tom de Sousa, Hong Kong

I've been to Dubai twice in 2006. I suppose I am the kind of "western executive" mentioned in this article. I saw the construction sites where many people from Pakistan and India were working hard, in the hot weather. Being Irish, I thought of Irish workers in the past who worked hard on New York skyscrapers and UK motorways and tunnels, away from their home and often in harsh conditions. So, unlike the writer here, I saw people who were there by choice and who were earning money to support themselves and their families. And I saw the many cranes as signs of progress, not as "monster machines". I admire Dubai for its ambition. They are building a city where before there was only sand, and in the process providing work for so many thousands of people. And unlike the writer here, I did meet Asian people who seemed to be doing very comfortably (in the IT business).
Mark, USA

We have lived in Dubai for six years and while it's far from perfect - where is ? - it's not quite as bleak and miserable as Mr Alam complains. Let's hear what he and his kids have to say about Islamabad after a couple of weeks there.
Jack Hill, UAE

With the global balance of power tilting in India's favour one can only hope its citizens will begin to find fortune at home and not somewhere in the lonely desert.
Dylan D'Souza, Canada

There is certainly a modicum of truth in this article. However, it certainly does not tell the whole truth. There are millions of Asian workers who live and work in the Arabian Gulf states and who enjoy a standard of living much better than anything their compatriots back home can hope for. Additionally, South Asian communities in the region consist not only of blue collar menial workers but also affluent merchants and traders who have played an instrumental role in the economic and financial development of trading cities like Dubai and Bahrain, as well as thousands of highly skilled professionals such as doctors and accountants. Perhaps the author of this article would benefit from a little wider exposure to the South Asian communities in the Gulf, many of whom do not fit the stereotype of the exploited and discriminated community that he portrays them as.
Suhail Shafi , Buffalo, NY

It's a great article which shows and points out the discrimination and servitude that people from the Third world countries have to go through to provide food and shelter for their loved ones.
Maruf, USA

Thank you for an interesting article. I will not judge whether that system is good or bad. Instead, I would like to point out that this is not just about Dubai. The whole world is like this. Because of cheap labour with standards far from those "western" (and it really does not matter that this labour is not in the same place as we are) we can experience such living in luxury.
Jaroslav Apolenar, Czech Republic

Why did the writer leave Pakistan to go and live in the UK? It is possible that the workers in Dubai left their own countries for the same reason?
Steve, Pakistan

I grew up in Dubai until 1995 and on a visit there in 2001, I remember going to a bar which had a sign saying no Indians or Pakistanis allowed!

This racial apartheid would remain till the time Asians keep living on such meagre pays to avoid total hunger at home. But with the rising prosperity in the rest of Asia and the falling fertility rates, there would be lesser incentives for the Asians to move to Dubai to make a living. Perhaps then things would change.
Ahmad R. Shahid, London/UK

This is indeed a great column and very touching observations. I would request the author of this column to write also about his views and feelings after he has spent so time in Pakistan. It would be interesting to see how a family feels when it gets back to its homeland after spending several years in Europe; is it easy for them to settle down? and specially what does their children feel about this re-migration?
Ahmed Kamal, Sweden

I remember seeing the expression on the face this South Asian man, who was a toilet room attendant working in Kuwait airport. It was bleak, devoid of emotion, and empty. Your article sums up how he must feel, and what drives him to stay away from his loved ones. I only wish more people in India, Pakistan and other Bangladesh read such articles, at least people who are getting by without much hardship won't leave their established lives for a life of drudgery in the middle east, or for that matter in most western countries
Shantanu Mukherjee, India

The analysis is spot on. The Dubai dream for thousands of South Asian migrants becomes a nightmare after spending a few months there. The workers and labourers are underpaid and treated almost like slaves. Draconic rules exist. For example the employer takes the passport away from the immigrant worker. Hopefully, with the economies of South Asian countries improving and booming in the coming years, the workers will not have to slave in other countries to make a decent living.
Subbu Ramanathan, Indian, USA

The entire gulf region has grown on the sweat and blood of third world labourers who are paid atrociously low wages - some of them have to wait for 4-5 months before they are paid. There is a high level of suicides amongst such labourers, but nothing gets reported. The discrimination in offices is outrageous and frustrating. It is shocking that Dubai is being seen as a shining beacon when the truth is it has only grown to this level because it has discriminated on poor people...making thousands of lives miserable and wretched.
Peter Walters, Milton Keynes

Your article is ill conceived, lacks depth and is premature. I would highlight that competitiveness of Dubai has made pay scales fairly equal with many Asian expats in senior and strategic positions commanding competitive salaries. Globalisation drives this issue not 'quality' euphemism. Now that you are returning to your own country, you might highlight the gross and indecent inequalities and educate your readers about it. What beguiles me is the irresponsible manner in which journalists have painted Dubai with their particular brand of criticism, simpleton statistics without much substance and comparison. Exploitation was far worse not so long ago (pre 2nd and 1st World War) in the country that you worked in recently and across the Atlantic. Certainly, the many expats from Asia would not have to be here if their own countries could provide for them. You have also missed the point the many tens of billions of Dollars that are repatriated which sustains millions and provides a far more promising future. Your article has done a gross injustice to your country men and to the many that who have made their livelihood, a possibility that would not exit in their own countries. UAE has applied much change towards improving the conditions of employment and is taking major and rapid steps and I am confident that the present leadership has the vision and the goodwill to implement on an ongoing basis.>Mehboob Hamza, UAE

Excellent article! A very important but often ignored issue has been taken up by Mr Alam. The poor South Asian labourers have been long exploited in the rich Middle East cities. They have been regularly harassed by their employers; in many cases their passports are taken away and they work under duress. What's more unfortunate is that their own nations' embassies have done little to upheld the basic human rights of these poor people.
Antara Majumdar, India


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