A taxi driver called Maithripala (not his real name) gives me a lift into town from Dubai’s International Airport. M is in his thirties, smart, apparently upbeat, anxious to be helpful. He is a fine driver but it is not hard to imagine him doing equally well in less monotonous work environments. M tells me that he plans to return home when his contract with the taxi firm is over, hopefully with enough saved to start a business, and still plenty of time to grow it and enjoy life with his family (he has a wife and young child back home). But as he drops me at a 5 star hotel near Dubai’s marina – I have a business meeting – M admits that it’s not proving as easy as he had hoped.
Around 15% of the UAE’s >2 million population is Emirati. The rest are expatriates, brought in to run this place. Most of these are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There are around 100,000 British expatriates – by far the largest western group.
My meeting over, I walk out onto the hotel beach, following a path through manicured grounds – gentle hillocks, palm groves, raked sand. I am dressed for business and everything is oven hot. Above the water’s edge a boat house full of kayaks. Everything is quiet, the water is very still. Two tourists are swimming. Others lie comatose under tall umbrellas. Away behind the glass wall of the hotel comes the tonk and shuffle of Sunday traffic.
En route to more meetings I stop off at Kite Beach, in sight of the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel, shaped like the sail of a dhow. Mint white, built into the sea, out of reach. It possesses a helipad. In the distance, through a heat haze, the towers of the city.
The sea literally too hot to swim in. The beach empty, save a few Europeans lying inert just above the waterline, two men kite surfing and a couple of locals staring at the tourists. A green rubber running track separating the beach with the concrete promenade is painfully hot under bare feet. A faux courtyard with a stone floor, a strip of air conditioned cafes under a wooden awning which throws a little shade. In one of the cafes, the owner, an Australian, sits behind her Mac keeping an eye on her African and Indian staff. She calls them ‘my love’ in a testy sort of way and makes sarcastic remarks. One of the Africans tells me she is reading ‘If Tomorrow Comes’ by Sydney Sheldon.
Expat wives huddled in the cold drinking coffee. Pushing buggies. Everyone a little fat.
Construction work going on outside. Why? A sense of constant activity to no meaningful end.
While M drives me around town I quiz him for more details about his life in Dubai.
His contract still has years to run and just to be safe the firm is in possession of his passport. He works 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. He has a choice of two shifts: 5am to 5pm and 5pm to 5am. He shares his car with another driver, and must clean the car every day. “When I finish my eyes are heavy, I want to sleep”. He shares a room with three other expatriate workers, plus a kitchen and a bathroom. For this he pays the equivalent of GBP£640 per month.
In order to get to Dubai M paid a local agent AED12,000 (around GBP£2,000) which covers a visa and a 3 month ‘training programme’. He had to borrow money in his home city to pay this extravagant sum. So he arrived here with a large debt hanging over him. Paying off this debt eats into his savings. He knows that if he misses payments the money lender might hustle his relatives – one more worry for a man stranded thousands of miles away from home, helpless to intervene, and exhausted by a 12 hour working day.
The taxi firm operates thousands of cars, and each is one on the road for 24 hours. The firm sets him a daily target of AED1,230 (GBP£216) a day. It’s a very high figure. He must pay a share of his fuel bill, and any repair work on his car. If he is sick, he misses out on making any money. He may, if he wishes, go to a medical clinic approved by the firm but if the doctors pass him as fit he will be fined AED200 for malingering. The more days he misses, the tougher it will be for him to hit his monthly target. If he hits AED1,230 per day over a month, he will receive the maximum level of commission on his total earnings, which is 37%. If he falls below target, his commission drops as low as 25%. You can see why the firm sets its targets so high.
This mean system makes saving difficult for M. In a good month he might earn AED4,000 or 5,000 (£700 – 880) and have – after rent, food and phone costs – something left over to send home to his wife. But business in July and August, a fiercely hot time of year when the city empties, has been poor. Worse, a close relative at home has been sick and he has had to cash in what savings he had made to help with the medical bills. As a result M’s had to borrow money from other drivers to pay his rent and food.
Many taxi drivers have been here 20 or even 30 years. They have sacrificed their freedom, their relationship with their wives and children. Their lives have gone by while they sat behind someone else’s steering wheel, driving strangers around this artificial city.
I try and imagine M’s life: the repetitive, endless driving, sharing this spotless vehicle with another. A sense of helplessness, M’s rota life with its lack of privacy and affection, his family so far away and beyond his help and protection. I should go mad. And yet he is polite and efficient and cheerful.
The mundanity of poverty: I must clean, I must drive, I must sleep, I must go and complain, I must not complain. It’s all about ‘must’. The poor are directed, they have no elbow room, no independence. M must drop his car with the man he shares it with and it must be clean. If it is not the other must inform the firm that M has delivered the car spoiled. Everything is exposed, there is no hiding place. Earlier this year a taxi driver hanged himself. Emiratis and western expatriates complain that taxi drivers are becoming rude and erratic. But they are buckling under this awful system – they are going mad.
I wish to catch the evening ferry from the Creek to Dubai’s marina. A dashing Indian in a blue shirt with epaulettes and P&O branding stalls me – for the time being I am the only passenger and, he apologises, the ferry could not justify its 90 minute run simply for my convenience. I agree to wait in hope that there will be other passengers. And there are – two Indian couples, and one little girl. So we are allowed on board the Dutch-built ferry and on time we reverse out into the creek and head down stream. Past the shining building which houses the Governing Court of Dubai’s Emir, His Highness Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, past trading houses and the tall, open decked motor dhows which will follow us out and motor through the night across the Strait of Homuz, carrying consumner goods to Iran and returning in the morning with fresh fruit and vegetables. Past the Customs House we increase speed, following the long breakwater out and then north, Dubai’s bright towers on our left.
Sailing along the coast we pass a container port, the dry dock. There is the silhouette of the QEII, now a floating hotel. A Zanzibari deckhand points out scenes of maritime incident, and points out the distant lights of the World Island. Here is the raised sail of the Burj Al Arab, its helicopter pad illuminated. We follow a channel between the shore and the palm island; the resort Atlantis lit gold on the black sea. Here is a dark frond of the palm, home to one of the Emir’s wives. An enormous white motor yacht is moored beside it, towering over the tree line. The Zanzibari tells me it never goes far, but stays permanently on the island. Perhaps the lady sleeps aboard. He tells me the island has its own ferry, identical to this one, which is used to carry private guests to and from the frond. Across the channel, more royal palaces, hidden in dark palm groves. A police patrol boat passes by.
The ferry’s course brings it close to the shore buildings, so that it feels like we are sailing along the base of a looming, shining escarpment. We find an opening and turn into the marina. Slowing down, the ferry moves under road bridges which are so new that their concrete underneath looks perfectly clean. Tall buildings either side of us, like we are in the midst of an electronic forest. People everywhere around us – eating in their high apartments, strolling along the water’s edge, eating in restaurants, exercising, indulging their children. The air warm, and the night dark, the beat of the ferry’s engine, set to go slow, bubbling over the noise of everything else. Standing out on the boat’s stern as we slip deeper into the marina I have this crazy memory of the Heart of the Darkness, and the little boat moving between the high walls of the jungle, the US soldiers on tenter hooks. But no arrows come. Just the quayside, and the prospect of decking and little maritime motifs. The engines die, the Zanzibari shows us out and we are in the heart of the magic kingdom, landed among this incorporated, un taxed people of global commerce. The Indians ask directions to the mall. I go looking for the metro station.
The metro has a first class carriage, which unwittingly I enter. There are airplane style seats, and through the train’s glass tail I watch the track shifting away. We race the cars on the highway, sky scrapers rising on either side. A glass gorge, electric-lighted. Then a gap where fairways link greens, and water hazards reflect the orange sky. Golf after dark, the floodlights throwing shadows of the players. Buggies, shorts, water traps. Sand traps. Black palms like something growing at the bottom of the sea and on all sides the illuminations of the city. Is this is a great victory, or a staggering defeat?
In the bookshop of the Dubai Museum, a hardback copy of Al Maktoum’s biography sealed in plastic. On the back cover, a riff comparing globalisation with life in the African savannah, and the need for the gazelle to rise early and keep moving on to avoid the hungry lion and hyena. This gazelle is Dubai, the doe eyed innocent, barely 300,000 people who matter living on top of a great oil and gas field, and the restless building programme and fantasy exultations to tourists are a bid to stay ahead in the global system. But in this parched territory the system feels joyless and pointless.
Over dinner I ask an expatriate journalist what proportion of the UAE’s government ministers he thought competent, rather than (or rather, as well as) being well connected. He replied, without much hesitation, “twenty percent”.
M is feeling frustrated. Yesterday he wasted valuable hours at the firm’s HQ to lobby for his recent commissions to be increased from 25%. He had been paid at the lowest possible rate because he’d lost a day’s driving – the company had impounded his car to carry out repairs. But M had not been able to find the right people to talk to, and he was kept waiting, thus forfeiting time which he might have spent earning money
An Emirati in a black Lexus pulls alongside at traffic lights. He lowers his passenger window and shouts at M for directions. His English is worse than M’s, but he talks at him like you might talk to a miscreant boy. M patiently answers, and repeats himself when the man does not understand. Then the window is raised. There are no thanks.
Several years ago, the expatriate journalist told me, the taxi drivers of Dubai went on strike, protecting their low wages and their treatment. The ringleaders were immediately deported. Since the Arab Spring, support for the status quo has hardened. Change isn’t coming any time soon for the locals, he thought, let alone the poor indentured workers. Dissenters like Ahmed Mansoor, recently named as the 2015 Laureate by the Martin Ennals Awards for Human Rights Defenders, are pinned down, prevented from travelling overseas. But the journalist accepted that HH’s government had plenty to worry about – he could not imagine his children living here as he was currently able to do. “It will just be too hot. Everyone will be living in Scotland by then.”
Driving to the International Airport we pass two high masts being built, overlooking a park. M explains that they will soon carry an enormous cinema screen which will show images of Old Dubai and New Dubai.
Dubai survives on its own hot air. It must sustain a legend of itself, because really there is nothing here – just a creek, and trade routes, political stability, low taxes and the proximity of elsewhere. So it keeps building, laying down road, arranging groves of palms and water falls – anything to create charm and the semblance of permanence. Charm and semblance but no character. There is nothing indigenous left in Dubai. Visit the Dubai Museum and see the eviscerated past. Only the creek remains, the desert has gone, and the bedouin, and the old city walls and the raised wooden platforms on which, the museum explains, the locals used to sleep, and the pottery and the dhows, the pearl diving. The creek remains and trade remains, but the trade has been blown out of all proportion and pushed out everything else.
The UAE government has dubbed the city “magical Dubai”. There is no magic to this petrostate, just the the possibility and convenience afforded by hosting tens of thousands of low cost construction workers, taxi drivers, maids and miscellaneous workers prepared to tolerate low wages, long hours and prolonged absence from their families and home countries because they feel they have no better option. The UAE exploits people like M, it lures them in and makes it difficult for them to leave and while they are here it works them to the bone.