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Jimmy Leach

Jimmy Leach was once editorial director for digital for The Independent.

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In defence of Dubai

Posted by Jimmy Leach
  • Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 01:23 pm

Johann Hari's article on The Dark Side of Dubai has elicited quite a reaction, to say the least.

I was in Dubai recently to jabber at a conference and came across rather a different picture, as you do in the world of conferences, and a number of those I met there have come back to me and defended the place, often rather passionately. This is the response of one contact there. it's also worth reading:

It reads like a collection of Dubai clichés with the author having made up his mind on the story before he went.  Like all clichés there is an element of truth to them but they are not the full story. I’m not saying the accounts aren’t true, I’m sure they are, but if you use the examples of a minority to illustrate that of the majority that’s pretty weak journalism. (It’s not as bad as the ridiculously glossy “its paradise”Piers Morgan documentary which tried the same trick but to draw the opposite conclusion).
 
Take his first interviewee, Karen, with her husband in prison because of debt, is that common? Not really, the big story in UAE is people leaving the country with thousands of dollars worth of debts - we’ve had six at in our workplace abscond this month. Most people who run up large debts don’t get imprisoned but in a country which is not a liberal democracy justice when it catches up with you, can be harsh and when only a minority get caught it seems arbitrary. If you live in Dubai you know not being able to pay your debts is a criminal offence here. It’s a sad story but I have to admit I have limited sympathy when expats break the big rules and get the punishment everyone knew they could receive.


Now the labour issue is a big one for the UAE. The story first emerged in the British press maybe four or five years ago and it keeps resurfacing because the problem never goes away. It seems like every now and then a features editor barks out “get me the dark side of Dubai story, we’ve not run that for a bit”. And a UK based journalist who hasn’t covered the story before (or probably spent much time out of north London) is trotted over to write the story. Whenever you read an article on this the journalist writes like he’s the first one to discover the well-documented problem, that this is something unique in the world (do you ever read the dark side of Doha or Delhi where construction conditions are similar?) - that the conditions of the worst are typical of the majority and that things aren’t changing.
 
I know that conditions range greatly from bloody hard to horrendous with most people experiencing something in the middle. It is not true that the worst endured by migrant labour is typical and some of the scare stories about the number of deaths are nonsense. One branch of the UAE government is working to improve conditions while another faction pushes to keep costs cheap. The most active branch is the PR department which furiously tries to keep everything hidden. They’ve just appointed a new PR company, after the BBC ran a piece this week they’ve called a press conference on worker’s rights today.
 
Things had been improving in the past two years for workers but that may change now there is a far larger surplus of people wanting work. I suspect older labour camps will be abandoned but wages will drop as that is the trend we are anecdotally seeing. Construction in the UAE will remain labour intensive and investment in modern plant to substitute for labour will cease.

Out of ignorance I can’t comment on how common people being forced to work here is – I’ve never had a worker say that to be but that’s not the type of conversations we’ve had. A big part of the story that always seems to be missed is if there is people trafficking then the workers governments must be complicit as they value the remittances they send back. I gather that the home countries negotiate their citizens’ minimum wage and often approved agents in the visa treaty allowing guest workers to come. Chinese make 25% more than Bangladeshis as the Bangladesh government undercuts the market in the need for remittances while the Chinese want to keep skilled labour at home.
 
Conditions for many have been getting better, British journalists don’t seem to believe this but anyone in construction can tell you that. All the large contractors have shiny new camps built or under construction but if they are the same quality as their luxury flats the toilets will over flow and it will smell of shit there too. When almost half the world lives on less that a dollar a day there will always be people who are willing to do back breaking labour in extreme heat and dangerous conditions to support their loved ones. I don’t see the collapse of the construction market as a humanitarian triumph, the knock on impact for the families and villages in poverty supported by remittances won’t be pretty.
 
The fact is workers aren’t slaves – they travel away from their camps on their day off, you meet them in the shops, they come over to smile and play with the kids, you can chat with them about cricket, I’ve played football in labour camps. Poverty is always more shocking when you have something in common and what stops workers running away from hard lives you wouldn’t wish on your enemies is that they need the money
 
The Guardian
got this angle the other day

That’s a new story for the UK, The Indy column isn’t
 
Going on with the article, I must say I find Emiratis friendly so I’m surprised at the response he feels he had. I wonder if he was a little culturally insensitive? There’s ways you talk to Emiratis and there’s ways you broach a difficult subject if you want to discuss it. And drawing conclusions about British expats from a visit to Double Deckers is like drawing conclusions on Australians from a visit to the Shepherd’s Bush walkabout. It appears that the author wants to picture everyone who lives in Dubai as being an easily to characterise unpleasant stereotype - unless they are gay. The aloof, materialistic Arab, the drunken, ignorant Brit, the downtrodden, poor Asian etc. Something the reader can recognise in their own prejudices and nod their head to.
 
I can’t see why the endless fascination with Dubai from the UK press can draw so many column inches yet so rarely produce something new. Can’t say I think much of that columnist anyway. I prefer
Mark Steel, Jeremy Warner - and Robert Fisk of course. 


Comments

torpidai wrote:
Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 12:41 pm (UTC)
If ever you need a different perspective on somewhere, give me 24 hours notice, full travel costs and a minimum daily wage, enough rope to gag the wife... :)
matgb wrote:
Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 01:11 pm (UTC)
Jimmy, is there a chance you could remove the inline font=black style? It'll still display as black on your area, but one of the biggest advantages of LJ as a platform is the ability to override styles--pale backgrounds give me a headache, so I read most in my style, which needs light coloured text.

Also? D'you need to crosspost everything? It's best not to duplicate content, and identical posts on both your blog and the editors blog is duplication--a link from here to the main post there is more acceptable.
jleach wrote:
Thursday, 9 April 2009 at 01:22 pm (UTC)
I should fiddle with the text more - I'll have a look. Aplogies.

I cross-post because the feed to the front page of the Independent is made up of a friend's feed from me. the editor's blog is really the primary one, this is just to show willing. But you're right, a link would be better and save some faffing, too.
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