Dubai is a global tourism hotspot. The city’s bustling malls and eye-widening skyscrapers attracted 1.2 million British visitors in 2018. Its airport is a travel hub, and the world’s third largest in terms of passengers. However, there’s a darker truth behind Dubai’s glamour.
Until the 60s, Dubai was a small port-city, reliant on the trade of gold and pearls. The discovery of oil kickstarted growth, causing the population to rapidly increase. However, by the 1980s, it became clear that the economy required diversification, and so investment was poured into the tourism sector.
The city has a strategic location, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and receives the majority of its visitors from these areas. It is through this unique combination of factors that Dubai has grown into a beach paradise over the past 30 years, and its success serves as a model for many other oil-producing Gulf countries.
The UAE maintains clear distinctions between its native population, or Emiratis, and its migrant workers. Only 15% of the population of the UAE are Emiratis, with the overwhelming majority of the population being migrant workers from South, and East Asian countries.
Only Emiratis, or spouses of Emiratis, are permitted to become citizens of the UAE, and so a deep social divide runs through the country, with a ‘state-enforced’ social hierarchy. Although there is an option of naturalisation, it is notoriously strict, and requires 30 years of prior residence.
The UAE legislates that businesses cannot be run solely by a non-citizen, and so migrants often enter partnerships with Emiratis, whereby their partner will maintain a majority stake, despite playing little to no role in the business.
Most migrant workers have their work permits ‘sponsored’ by Emirati citizens, under a system known as ‘kafala’, which is prevalent throughout the Middle East. In this way, workers are effectively legally bound to their employers, a system which has been compared to modern-day slavery by Amnesty International.
Upon arrival in the UAE, many migrant workers have their passports seized by their employers for the duration of their contract, making it virtually impossible for them to leave their contracts.
Migrant workers tend to be uneducated and from poor backgrounds, and so lack the ability make an informed decision as to whether they should enter a contract in the first place.
Gulf countries offer images of grandeur and a better lifestyle to prospective migrants, when their reality is much less attractive.
Squalid living conditions are typical for these workers, who commonly live in crowded dormitories for the duration of their contracts, and send most of their earnings back to their families as remittance.
Migrant workers in the UAE are allowed very few workers’ rights, they are not permitted to form trade unions or take strike action, and are faced with deportation or imprisonment should they do so. Therefore, complaints are uncommon, as workers would rather endure their condition than risk deportation.
Effectively, migrant workers are the underbelly of Emirati society. With South Asian workers (from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) making up the majority of construction workers, and Filipinos prominently making up the service and hospitality sectors.
This being said, money sent by migrant workers in the Gulf as remittance makes up a large proportion of the economies of areas such as Kerala, in India. The Keralan diaspora in the Gulf totals to approximately 2.5 million people, with remittances representing 35% of the state’s GDP.
Workers, who are usually men, will often leave their families for numerous years, while their families rely on the money sent back as remittance.
Whilst the wages paid to these workers are often low, they still convert well into the weaker currencies of South and East Asia. Despite this, more than 80% of complaints filed against employers are delayed and many fail to ever fully pay wages.
The troubling condition of migrant workers has only been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, as concerns grow over the potential of crowded ‘labour camps’ to become hotbeds of disease.
The pandemic has caused the tourism industry in the UAE to collapse, and so many workers have had their contracts terminated, leaving them in legal limbo and without means of survival.
Repatriation schemes for migrant workers by the Pakistani and Indian governments are currently underway, with India’s repatriation mission set to be the world’s largest in peacetime. However, the need for such a mission raises questions over the blatant disregard for migrant workers in the UAE.
Realistically, migrant workers are a cheap source of manpower, and continue to fuel the rise of most Gulf countries, especially the UAE.
The UAE’s tourism boom has been built on the backs of these migrant workers, who are effectively inferior members of Emirati society, and denied freedoms stipulated by the International Labour Organisation.
Although a visit to Dubai offers a glamorous short trip abroad, it is important to remember that everything you see has been built by, or employs migrant workers.