City of Brass

City of Brass

Dubai, city of the Pharoah, will fall

Johann Hari has a landmark essay in The Independent “The Dark Side of Dubai” that lays bare the facade of the glittering city of Dubai, peeling away the illusion of modernity and freedom to reveal a shocking substrate of slavery and exploitation at its foundation. It’s a depressing expose that ties together all the threads of Dubai’s decadence and failure. With the global crisis, the situation in Dubai has deteriorated even further, throwing the disparity between the city’s promise and reality into even starker relief. 

Hari’s essay is a magnificent piece of work. It’s almost impossible to excerpt, but in the course of the essay Hari introduces us to people from the full cross-secction of Dubai society, from foreigners to the labor class. I can’t stress enough what an important piece this is toread for anyone who has been or is going to Dubai. 
The reality of Dubai, as Hari ruthlessly reveals, is one built on literal slavery, where Pakistani and Bangladeshi men toil all day in the scathing heat building vast monuments and Filipino and Ethiopian maids are a legion of Cinderellas with no princes or fairy godmothers to save them. It is where expats who arrived “drunk on Dubai” are now in debtor’s prison or sleeping in their cars. Native Emiratis (accounting for 5% of the population) rationalize their paradise, reveling in their newfound modernity, in cargo-cult worship of idealized Western lifestyles. Wealthy Western tourists exist in a cultivated bubble of denial that would make North Korean or Cuban officials proud, and where the environment is so on the brink of collapse that literal faeces floats in the water and washes up on the beaches. 
The on section of Hari’s essay I will excerpt is both the most hopeful and also the most depressing. It is where Hari speaks furtively to the few dissidents in Emirati society, meeting at a Dunkin’ Donuts in the mall:

V. The Dunkin’ Donuts Dissidents


But there is another face to the Emirati minority – a small huddle of
dissidents, trying to shake the Sheikhs out of abusive laws. Next to a
Virgin Megastore and a Dunkin’ Donuts, with James Blunt’s “You’re
Beautiful” blaring behind me, I meet the Dubai dictatorship’s Public
Enemy Number One. By way of introduction, Mohammed al-Mansoori says from
within his white robes and sinewy face: “Westerners come her and see
the malls and the tall buildings and they think that means we are free. But
these businesses, these buildings – who are they for? This is a
dictatorship. The royal family think they own the country, and the people
are their servants. There is no freedom here.”


We snuffle out the only Arabic restaurant in this mall, and he says everything
you are banned – under threat of prison – from saying in Dubai. Mohammed
tells me he was born in Dubai to a fisherman father who taught him one
enduring lesson: Never follow the herd. Think for yourself. In the sudden
surge of development, Mohammed trained as a lawyer. By the Noughties, he had
climbed to the head of the Jurists’ Association, an organisation set up to
press for Dubai’s laws to be consistent with international human rights

And then – suddenly – Mohammed thwacked into the limits of Sheikh Mohammed’s
tolerance. Horrified by the “system of slavery” his country was
being built on, he spoke out to Human Rights Watch and the BBC. “So I
was hauled in by the secret police and told: shut up, or you will lose you
job, and your children will be unemployable,” he says. “But how
could I be silent?”


He was stripped of his lawyer’s licence and his passport – becoming yet
another person imprisoned in this country. “I have been blacklisted and
so have my children. The newspapers are not allowed to write about me.”

Why is the state so keen to defend this system of slavery? He offers a prosaic
explanation. “Most companies are owned by the government, so they
oppose human rights laws because it will reduce their profit margins. It’s
in their interests that the workers are slaves.”

Last time there was a depression, there was a starbust of democracy in Dubai,
seized by force from the sheikhs. In the 1930s, the city’s merchants banded
together against Sheikh Said bin Maktum al-Maktum – the absolute ruler of
his day – and insisted they be given control over the state finances. It
lasted only a few years, before the Sheikh – with the enthusiastic support
of the British – snuffed them out.


And today? Sheikh Mohammed turned Dubai into Creditopolis, a city built
entirely on debt. Dubai owes 107 percent of its entire GDP. It would be bust
already, if the neighbouring oil-soaked state of Abu Dhabi hadn’t pulled out
its chequebook. 

Mohammed says this will constrict freedom even further. “Now
Abu Dhabi calls the tunes – and they are much more conservative and
restrictive than even Dubai. Freedom here will diminish every day.”
Already, new media laws have been drafted forbidding the press to report on
anything that could “damage” Dubai or “its economy”. Is
this why the newspapers are giving away glossy supplements talking about “encouraging
economic indicators”?


Everybody here waves Islamism as the threat somewhere over the horizon, sure
to swell if their advice is not followed. Today, every imam is appointed by
the government, and every sermon is tightly controlled to keep it moderate.
But Mohammed says anxiously: “We don’t have Islamism here now, but I
think that if you control people and give them no way to express anger, it
could rise. People who are told to shut up all the time can just explode.”

Later that day, against another identikit-corporate backdrop, I meet another
dissident – Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, Professor of Political Science at Emirates
University. His anger focuses not on political reform, but the erosion of
Emirati identity. He is famous among the locals, a rare outspoken conductor
for their anger. He says somberly: “There has been a rupture here. This
is a totally different city to the one I was born in 50 years ago.”


He looks around at the shiny floors and Western tourists and says: “What
we see now didn’t occur in our wildest dreams. We never thought we could be
such a success, a trendsetter, a model for other Arab countries. The people
of Dubai are mighty proud of their city, and rightly so. And yet…” He
shakes his head. “In our hearts, we fear we have built a modern city
but we are losing it to all these expats.”

Adbulkhaleq says every Emirati of his generation lives with a “psychological
trauma.” Their hearts are divided – “between pride on one
side, and fear on the other.” Just after he says this, a smiling
waitress approaches, and asks us what we would like to drink. He orders a


What next for Dubai? As the economy collapses further, the situation can only get worse. Even Abu Dhabi’s oil revenue can only go so far in staving off debt; but as the ugly reality of Dubai gets more press, and the families of those trapped there share their plight via word-of-mouth, the illusion will collapse. The supply of slaves will dry up as fewer and fewer fall for the lies of the recruiters, and Dubai’s status as fashionable tourist spot for the elites will slip once the stigma starts to spread. 
Utimately, the millions of gallons of water and the infinite credit lines will dry up in the acrid sun, and the land will reclaim the city, with the manmade islands and half-finished megaliths ultimately abandoned to the desert. And then, the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley will ring true:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


Related: A photo-essay on Dubai’s past, present and planned future – with the latter utterly delusional in the modern economic reality. The Islamsphere has also been at the forefront of critique of Dubai – for example, a piece at altmuslim about the Burj al-Dubai tower entitled “the tower that slaves built“, my previous posts on Dubai at City of Brass, and the ongoing coverage of Dubai at Talk Islam. 
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posted April 16, 2009 at 11:27 am

Even a casual look would show Dubai to be an architectural prostitute, all cosmetics and show, with no heart or soul. Now that the finances are gone, the gloss and sheen are wearing thin and the inner corruption will show more and more easily. This may prove in only a few more years to be one of the most expensive “tells” (a city in ruins covered by sand) in the desert.
The men (who do not deserve any title that they might otherwise think they are owed) are callous fools who think nothing about other people, but only for their own image. It has never been a place of interest for me, and I think it’s fall will be due. It is an example of Middle Eastern attempts to appeal to the west at its worst. They have no true understanding of the what makes the western culture, for all of its value and its many faults, work as well as it does.

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posted April 17, 2009 at 9:36 am

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In this Gulf city-state, two things have long been untouchable: business interests and the ruling family. However, an attempt to sue a member of the family over an alleged financial swindle is a sign of how much the economic crisis has rattled business as usual here.
Shahram Abdullah Zadeh accuses the brother-in-law of Dubai’s emir illegally of taking over his real-estate firm and having him detained by police to help the swindle.
Zadeh, a 37-year-old Iranian national who has lived in Dubai all his life, brought a civil case against the brother-in-law to get his firm back, a rare move. Even more surprising, Zadeh tried to raise criminal charges, but that step went nowhere because prosecutors rejected it.
The case has raised questions about whether Dubai really is what it claims to be: A boomtown where international businessmen can safely invest and turn a profit; or rather, a nest of cronyism and connections where royal blood can still trump entrepreneurial effort.
Such questions were largely ignored by everyone – businessmen and politicians alike – as long as the cash was rolling in during Dubai’s stunning expansion over the past decade. But now the emirate has hit the skids in the world financial crisis.
“During the boom, Dubai’s shortcomings were glossed over, but now that the economy is struggling, it’s becoming a different story,” said Christopher Davidson, an author of two books on the United Arab Emirates and a lecturer at Durham University in Britain.
Dubai’s emir, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, led the emirate’s vast financial ambitions. But business ran far ahead of the effort to modernize legislation in what remains a traditional Arab monarchy, where the ruler and his family hold final say.
Now the government has been trying to rein in some fast-and-loose business practices. About a dozen former executives are in custody for various investigations. Some have close ties to the government, but none of those in custody are related to the ruling family.
Zadeh’s case goes farther – breaking to taboo of questioning Dubai’s leadership. Zadeh says he’s a victim of a system in which the rulers can manipulate police and the courts to protect their business.
“If Dubai cannot provide security for foreign investors, they might as well switch off all the lights,” he said.
Attempts over the past weeks by The Associated Press to contact the brother-in-law, Sheikh Hasher Maktoum bin Juma’a Al Maktoum, were unsuccessful. Hasher and his company attorneys did not return repeated phone calls or respond to interview requests.
In the first session of Zadeh’s civil case, Hasher and his lawyers failed to appear. In the second a week ago, his lawyer asked the court for more time to study the allegations. The case is to resume May 4.
Zadeh and the sheik went into business in 2004. Foreigners are allowed to deal in property only after finding an Emirati sponsor to officially register a company. The usual practice is for the Emirati sponsor to give his signature for an annual fee or profit share. Several members of the sprawling ruling family are involved in such deals.
Zadeh set up a firm, Al Fajer Properties, and was chief executive while Hasher held the trade license. The firm was profitable and is now worth about $2 billion, according to Zadeh. But the partnership soured over delays in building a commercial tower.
Zadeh said in an affidavit to Dubai’s attorney general that he was arrested in February 2008 and held for 60 days. He says he was never charged with any crime but was questioned over his business – including the combination of his safe.
While Zadeh was in detention, Hasher took over the company by appointing his son Sheik Maktoum as chief executive, ousting Zadeh, according to Zadeh’s filing. When he was released, Zadeh says he found his office safe had been cleaned of documents showing he was the owner and Hasher’s partner.
Zadeh also says police tried to push him to sign a document saying he had no connection to the firm. He submitted to the court Al Fajer documents listing him as CEO and transactions that his lawyers contend show he was the sole investor. The Associated Press was given a copy.
Hasher “thought he could do it all because he’s a sheik,” Zadeh said.
Police refused to comment on whether Zadeh was detained. Zadeh says they continue to hold his passport and so far he has had little luck pushing his claims.
He submitted a criminal complaint but the attorney general refused to investigate, giving no reason.
Zadeh then filed a complaint directly to Dubai’s emir, who holds what is called the Ruler’s Court. Residents can bring to the emir what they believe are injustices unaddressed by the courts – from disputes over money to wrongful deaths.
Zadeh says he has received no response.
More: Al Fajer Properties Dubai – Jumeirah Business Centre – Ebony Ivory Towers Dubai

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posted April 25, 2009 at 6:11 am

I am living here and many..others expatriates .also..but nobody
want to go back are talking about slavery…nobody force
these people to come and work here..they can go back home anytime..
slavery is every where in Europe and America..for expatriates..the asian..What is Paki in England…??????How are they living???
I have my passport with me..and most of us..anytime i can go back home ..but I am not interested..cause I am very safe here it a very secure country..crime and rape rate is not like in the west..I can walk alone on the road any time in the night ,,and nobody touch me.. come and visit this country and then can talk about it..

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Nadeem Ansari

posted May 9, 2009 at 11:16 am

The rulers of Dubai are modern day pharaohs; even worst! What makes them worst is the fact that these rulers called themselves Muslims. Zoubeida says that nobody forced these people to come and work here—that’s true these poor people, mostly from the subcontinent come to Dubai with dreams in their eyes. Once they reach Dubai they are in for the shock of their life as their passports are held with their employers and they are worst than slaves, these poor labours are confined in the labour camp where the employers hauls them early in the morning to the work place and dumps them back late evening. The salary offered to them is meagre, just 400-500 dhms/month and that too is not paid in many cases for as long as six or seven months and these poor people hang themselves in sheer desperation. No action is taken against their employers despite tall claims by the govt. that we will name and shame these companies, because these companies are owned by the ruling class. The rulers of the Dubai call themselves Muslims but people do not have freedom to study Quran or hold any religious gathering at their houses, why? because the rulers are paranoid that these gathering are held to overthrow their government. A gathering of five or more people in a house for the study of quran or religious lecture is a big crime and people could be detained for upto three years before they are deported. Offcourse! people can have such gatherings in mosque only because the secret police is present in every mosque who keeps a close watch on every activity. The religion is preached through their appointed sheikhs (religious scholars) who give lectures on TV or radio the way their govt. wants. Many expat Imam of mosques and other scholars have lost the job and were deported just because they annoyed the rulers. While there is so close watch on the religious activities, the prostitutes roam around freely under the govt. patronage, there is hardly any locality where you don’t see the prostitutes. The same vigilant secret police will turn a blind eye on these activities. But ofcourse you will never find such things in any newspaper. People talk about these things in hushed tones fearing the secret police. This is the real face of Dubai concealed under the gloss of tall buildings and latest and fashionable malls.

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posted February 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm

If you are faced with the following issues in dubai:
absonconded/uae visa not cancelled
abandoned your mortgaged property behind in uae
blacklisted due to outstanding bank debt
then contact us. i can help you resolve the matter legally. We have already helped over 20 people in the last 6 months. Most of them have re-entered uae and now found themselves a new job/life.

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posted February 21, 2010 at 5:34 am

Its WonderFul Post, Excellent work, keep it up

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Peter Noel

posted April 27, 2010 at 8:47 am

Emiratis first, everyone else last. Does anyone know of a legal action between an emirati and an expat where the expat WON?

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posted June 7, 2010 at 8:11 pm

I dont see Dubai as false or mordern day Pharaoho what i see is a country that pleases Allah. In Dubai people cannot commit sin as they please those Muslims are so stick with their laws and i commend them for that. I hope some day i can go and live there it is a city of rigthousness that is why they are developing so fast.When you look around the world Dubai is the only country that has kept the law of Allah I will say to the head Sheik may Allah continue to bless you and all muslims who help to keep the law and rules may Dubai prosper,continue to keep those wicked people from distroying our Islac laws.

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Quran Online

posted November 4, 2010 at 3:57 am

Salam: I agree with nadeem words that today “The rulers of Dubai are modern day pharaohs; even worst! What makes them worst is the fact that these rulers called themselves Muslims. Zoubeida says that nobody forced these people to come and work here—that’s true these poor people, mostly from the subcontinent come to Dubai with dreams in their eyes. “Well its not in duabi in other muslim countries many governing bodies are the pharaohs..they have no mercy on the public..

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