Welcome to the future in Dubai

Mike Davis on the future nightmare that is Dubai.

Decadent fun! The world’s largest shopping mall, theme park, hotel, basically everything is the largest. Ok, so the laws completely change depending on which “district” you’re in:

Other cities in the region, of course, have free-trade zones and high-tech clusters, but only Dubai has allowed each enclave to operate under regulatory and legal bubble-domes tailored to the specific needs of foreign capital and expat professionals. ‘Carving out lucrative niches with their own special rules’, claims the [I]Financial Times[/I], ‘has been at the heart of Dubai’s development strategy’. [40] Thus press censorship (flagrant in the rest of Dubai) is largely suspended inside Media City, while internet access (regulated for content elsewhere) is absolutely unfettered inside Internet City. The uae has permitted Dubai to set up ‘an entirely separate, Western-based commercial system for its financial district that would do business in dollars, and in English’. Although not without ensuing controversy, Dubai even imported British financial regulators and retired judges to bolster confidence that dfix plays by the same rules as Zurich, London and New York. [41] Meanwhile, to promote the sell-off of Palm Jumeirah mansions and the private islands that make up the ‘island world’, al-Maktoum in May 2002 announced a ‘freehold revolution’, unique in the region, that allows foreigners to buy luxury property outright and not just as a 99-year lease. [42]

And it’s built on slave labor:

An indentured, invisible majority

Dubai, together with its emirate neighbors, has achieved the state of the art in the disenfranchisement of labour. In a country that only abolished slavery in 1963, trade unions, most strikes and all agitators are illegal, and 99 per cent of the private-sector workforce are immediately deportable non-citizens. Indeed, the deep thinkers at the American Enterprise and Cato Institutes must salivate when they contemplate the system of classes and entitlements in Dubai.

At the top of the social pyramid, of course, are the al-Maktoums and their cousins who own every lucrative grain of sand in the sheikhdom. Next, the native 15 per cent of the population (many of them originally Arab-speakers from southern Iran) constitutes a leisure class whose uniform of privilege is the traditional white dishdash. Their obedience to the dynasty is rewarded by income transfers, free education, subsidized homes and government jobs. A step below are the pampered mercenaries: more than 100,000 British expatriates (another 100,000 uk citizens own second homes or condos in Dubai), along with other European, Lebanese, Iranian and Indian managers and professionals, who take full advantage of their air-conditioned affluence and two months of overseas leave every summer. The Brits, led by David Beckham (who owns a beach) and Rod Stewart (who owns an island), are probably the biggest cheerleaders for al-Maktoum’s paradise, and many of them luxuriate in a social world that recalls the lost splendour of gin-and-tonics at Raffles and white mischief in Simla’s bungalows. Dubai is expert at catering to colonial nostalgia. [44]

The city-state is also a miniature Raj in a more important and notorious aspect. The great mass of the population are South Asian contract labourers, legally bound to a single employer and subject to totalitarian social controls. Dubai’s luxury lifestyles are attended by vast numbers of Filipina, Sri Lankan and Indian maids, while the building boom (which employs fully one-quarter of the workforce) is carried on the shoulders of an army of poorly paid Pakistanis and Indians, the largest contingent from Kerala, working twelve-hour shifts, six and a half days a week, in the asphalt-melting desert heat.

Dubai, like its neighbours, flouts ilo labour regulations and refuses to adopt the international Migrant Workers Convention. Human Rights Watch in 2003 accused the Emirates of building prosperity on ‘forced labour’. Indeed, as the [I]Independent[/I] recently emphasized, ‘the labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British.’ ‘Like their impoverished forefathers’, the London paper continued, ‘today’s Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the United Arab Emirates. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them.’ [45]

In addition to being super-exploited, Dubai’s helots—like the proletariat in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—are also expected to be generally invisible. The local press (the uae ranks a dismal 137th on the global Press Freedom Index) is restrained from reporting on migrant workers, exploitative working conditions, and prostitution. Likewise, ‘Asian labourers are banned from the glitzy shopping malls, new golf courses and smart restaurants.’ [46] Nor are the bleak work camps on the city’s outskirts—where labourers are crowded six, eight, even twelve to a room, often without air-conditioning or functioning toilets—part of the official tourist image of a city of luxury, without poverty or slums. [47] In a recent visit, even the uae Minister of Labour was reported to be shocked by the squalid, almost unbearable conditions in a remote work camp maintained by a large construction contractor. Yet when the labourers attempted to form a union to win back pay and improve living conditions, they were promptly arrested. [48]

Would someone make Neal Stephenson STOP WITH THE REALITY ALREADY!?!?

Shocker. Ruling elite not yet out of Middle Ages treats workers like serfs. Hoodathunkit?

The UAE seems to have taken the Chinese model of capitalism: small islands of completely laissez-faire economics, while retaining rigid control over the troublesome proletariat. I am hoping the model fails, or is forced to evolve into something more universally encompassing, becuse I don’t want Western governments getting any ideas of rolling back our freedoms.

Wow, sounds suspiciously like the libertarian utopia we were discussing a few months back.

Nobody forced the “indentured servants” to sign their contracts, so it’s all good, right? After all, if they didn’t like it, they could have chosen to starve or be deported instead…

Wow, sounds suspiciously like the libertarian utopia we were discussing a few months back.

You’re retarded.

Not to excuse the ghastliness of the UAE’s labor policies, but if it makes you feel any better, the migrants coming from Pakistan and Sri Lanka are actually moving themselves (and their families back home) up the economic ladder by taking menial jobs in the Middle East…a sobering lesson of Robert Baer’s books.

In any case, the party is over once Dubai runs out of crude. As Matt Damon eloquently puts it in Syriana, “A hundred years ago you guys were running around cutting each other’s heads off, and in a hundred years that’s right where you’ll be again.”

So, let’s see.

Sell off of former public lands to private interests? Check.
Exploitation of poor work force by the wealthy, through completely legal contracts? Check.
Little enclaves that each make up their own set of rules, including outlawing labor organizations? Check.
Rampant Laissez-faire capitalism? Check.

I mean, I can quote the corresponding parts from the LP platform if you like, Ben.

Edit: By the way, it’s fucking hyperbole. I know it’s not a libertarian state. But it goes to show how principles similar to those espoused by the LP lead to the exploitation of the underclass.

I think the “virtual slavery” part is the objectionable bit about the migrant labor, not that they’re migrant labor. I have a hard time believing these guys are getting ahead of anything.

On the out of oil angle, Davis discusses how the strategy is to turn Dubai into the Blade Runner Vegas of the Middle East before the oil runs out; they’re targeting 100% of national income from finance and tourism in the next decade.

I really want to visit Dubai now.

At least they are thinking ahead, unlike many oil-rich nations that squander their wealth.

But it goes to show how principles similar to those espoused by the LP lead to the exploitation of the underclass.

You’re still retarded.

I think the main difference is that this isn’t rampant laissez-faire economics. If this was set up like I imagine a party like LP would have it, then everyone would be equally free to choose their government, move from one state to another, and withdraw their labour. That’s not the case in UAE.

In the UAE you have small pockets of laissez-faire economics, but the majority have no say in the government, no freedom to move to and from the pockets of liberalism, and no ability to withdraw their labour. I’d say those were fundamental differences between this system and a libertarian ideal.

In a ideal libertarian state, if I didn’t like the work practices of one part of the country, I could move to another. That’s not the case with the indentured labourers of the UAE, who have their right to travel outside and within the country curtailed.

Is that about right, Ben?

I’m dazzled by the brilliance of your rebuttal. I’d respond in kind, but I’ve gotta go watch Wapner now.

bigdruid- Given that you apparently remember the thread a few months ago but believe it to be relevant to this situation I do not believe dicussion with you to be a worthwhile use of my time. The old thread pretty well explained why you are wrong, if you can’t see that you’re either too stupid or too fanatical about your statism to understand why Dubai is not a libertarian utopia.

Except, of course, that they sign contracts to enter the UAE. So even in this mythical libertarian state, if you sign a contract to enter one part of the country, you don’t then have the freedom to leave that enclave in violation of your contract.

To rephrase - under a Libertarian regime, I can setup the Enclave of Bigdruid, where all people are welcome to come and work, with the understanding that when they enter the Enclave of Bigdruid, they sign a contract stating that they will work for me for the remainder of their lives and cannot leave.

That’s essentially what’s going on in UAE. The Libertarian Ideal says that “well, nobody will move to the Enclave of Bigdruid then”, but the reality is that in the end every enclave will be owned by an oppressive oligarchy with similar restrictions (or at least there will be people so desperate or with skills so valueless that they don’t have the option to live in the nicer enclaves). Hell, there aren’t even any public lands anymore, so you don’t even have the option to squat outside the enclaves in a tent or something.

I think you need to go re-read that thread - there was plenty of support of my point of view.

But I’m quite happy to not rehash all the old arguments again - it’s just that every time I see a real-world example of “laissez-faire capitalism leads to economic exploitation of the underclass” I feel obliged to point it out.


I wasn’t aware that an ideal libertarian state would allow people to sign contracts that took away their basic civil liberties. I would think that allowing someone to infringe on another’s liberties, by means of an unfair contract, would be against the basic tenets of libertarianism. I think you might be getting mixed up with anarchy.

Hrm. Tim, are you saying that Libertarian principles would prevent me from signing an arbitrary contract of my own free will, without duress? So if I sign a contract where someone pays me $1MM to stay in their enclave for 12 months and play baseball, that contract is illegal because it violates my civil liberties (namely, the right to leave the enclave at any point)?

If you forbid that contract, then it’s hard to see how the economy can function. If you allow that contract, then I don’t see how you forbid a contract that pays someone $1 per day to sweep floors for 50 years.

We really can go back to the old libertarian thread now without rehashing this, where some of you want libertarianism to be libertarianism except where it is inconvient (and show a drastic lack of understanding of contract right and theory in connection with true libertarian philosophy), and the rest of you understand that absolute freedom of action without any state control can allow people to completely fuck up their lives permanently, often due to overbearing economic pressures they have no control over.

A fundamental tenet of libertarianism is that you can do what you like as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the basic rights of others. The only role for a government in a libertarian society is to protect the rights of others. If someone coerced another, including by using their economic situation against them, to sign a contract that gave up their fundamental rights, then that should be illegal under a libertarian government. At least by my understanding of it.

It’s a bit of a grey area, depending on what basic rights you define. If someone gave up their rights to freedom of movement, for example, and were of sound mind, sound health, and sound finances, I don’t think there would be any problem with that. It’s the same with our current system, where we outlaw physical harm, but are confronted with the problem of sado-masochists who want to cause harm to each other. Here we often decide that sado-masochism is fine, but taking advantage of another’s financial situation to pay them to take physical abuse is not.

If their health, mind or financial situation was taken advantage of to remove their rights, that would be coercion. For example, many long-term price-gouging contracts signed by California during its energy crisis were cancelled due to them having been signed under economic duress. I don’t see how allowing people to be tied to a contract which basically enslaves them is anything but opposite to the principles of libertarianism. If it is, then it’s not the kind of libertarianism I support.