As you probably know already, I lived and worked in the city of Dubai for a year, on and off, until late 2008.
There has been a hot debate on Dubai going on in the international press and the blogosphere lately, ever since British journalist Johann Hari wrote an article in The Independent, one of Britain’s leading newspapers, that was very critical of the emirate’s economic development model.
Hari’s article was replied to by Sultan Al Qassemi, a prominent Emirati business man and regular Op Ed writer for The National newspaper in the UAE in an article also published by The Independent, with an equally acid, critical tone, about the UK. His writings are usually featured in other newspapers around the world, and he posts all his articles in his personal blog.
I happen to be a member of a social networking website of which Al Qassemi is also a member and where he posted his reply article to Johann Hari in one of the online discussion forums.
The forum generated more than 300 replies as many people saw Al Qassemi’s article as biased and defensive, while others thought he was right on spot on his criticism of Britain on the same vitriolic lines used by Hari’s article on Dubai.
My views of Dubai’s socio-economic model were the reason why I decided to leave the city in late 2008, and to step out of the business I was involved with at the moment.
Leaving Dubai marked the start of a personal growth journey that has provided me with great clarity about what I truly care for in life, and the things I really want to dedicate my time and effort to. As this blog is one of those things, I decided to post here my reply to Al Qassemi’s article in the online forum (what follows is a slightly edited version). It summarizes some of the lessons I learned from the whole Dubai-experience:
I know very well and totally acknowledge the positive side of Dubai. But I am also aware of its very negative side. I lived there for about a year, on and off, while working in PR-related projects to promote the image of the UAE to the rest of the world.
I can actually say that I can divide my career as before and after Dubai. The city triggered in me an existential crisis of sorts that made me abandon the glamorous, profitable business of country-image-promoter.
Until Dubai, I was of the opinion that my line of work, imperfect as it was, contributed to a healthy balance to the basic institutional flaw in the media industry of the West (pointed out by many participants in this forum) that biases it towards the negatives of developing countries, in order to generate the sort of morbid controversy that usually sky-rockets readership — and profits.
I arrived to Dubai with a particularly high sense of purpose. This was early 2007, and while the emirate was still riding high on a wave of global popularity, I was particularly eager to promote its economic rise as a personal matter. I was born and raised in Venezuela, also an oil state, and a country that could have been the Latin American Dubai if it wasn’t for decades of corrupt, although democratically elected politicians that mercilessly plundered the country, keeping the bulk of oil revenues for themselves. The inevitable result was of course the rise of the perfect populist demagogue that is Hugo Chavez, who plunders the country as much as the people he swept out of power, and on top of that is also killing Venezuelan democracy altogehter.
So Dubai, in my view, perhaps had found the perfect formula for economic development: a “benevolent dictatorship.” Yes, there were labor camps, the semi-censorship of the press, and the lack of basic civil rights in important areas that only democracy could warrant … but maybe this was a temporary, worthy price to pay in order to allow an elite to run the country efficiently?
And during the first 2-3 months, I was in a Dubai-honeymoon high. In my interviews with key government officials and CEO’s of top companies, I was marveled by the consistency of their vision of where the emirate, and the whole UAE for that matter, was going in terms of economic progress in the long term. Their generosity, hospitality and good humor matched their professionalism and intellectual brilliance. I even had lunch once with Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education, and… The King Pele! He was negotiating with Sheikh Al Nahyan the implementation of a soccer academy for children in Abu Dhabi for godssakes! Who in their right minds would not agree that these people were doing positive things for their country?
And of course, the lifestyle. Dubai is extremely safe, it’s impossible to get mugged (or killed, as it can easily happen in Venezuela) in the street at any time, in almost any part of the city. Nightclubs and restaurants are far more impressive than many capital cities of Europe and the US. Scrumptious, champaign-drenched, all-you-can-eat decadent Sunday brunches at mind-blowing 5-star (or 7-star if your budget allows) hotels, are an institution. The beach. The mighty Arabian dessert. You name it. There was a basic, material, tangible truth about the positives of Dubai life that I was happy to be promoting to the rest of the world. And of course, when you’re getting paid Dubai-rates for doing it, it’s hard to realize that all of a sudden you are seeing everything through rose-colored glasses that blind you to the subtle little signs that hold the key to understand the dark side of the emirate. But more on that later…
Who cared about the high prices caused by the real estate bubble? After all, I couldn’t have afforded to rent, or even dreamed of buying anything similar in Europe or the US to the 2-beds-2-baths, yatch-marina-view apartment in an olympic-swimmingpool-mega-gym-equipped skyscraper I called a home at Dubai Marina. Labor was so cheap compared to the west that it not only helped to compensate, via production costs, the rise in real estate prices. It also allowed me to have a lovely, super-efficient cleaning lady 3 times a week, and of course, Ahmed, a Pakistani driver-messenger-handyman chap that saved me from wasting hours of my day running errands in the midst of Dubai’s sizzling heat and insane traffic jams. To be true, he was a terrible driver. But he was young, uneducated, badly needed the job, and at least got the dreadful errand task done just fine. So I decided to give him a 2-month trial.
But there was another little annoying problem with Ahmed. He stank. He seriously did. He smelled as if he had not taken a shower in days. It came to a point where I had to pull him aside and address the issue — it was impossible to be in the car with him for more than 30 minutes.
And then all hell broke loose.
Ahmed’s explanation of his personal hygiene situation was a gut-wrenching narrative of how he lived. I’ll spear you the most gross details of it all, and limit myself to the shower-side-of-things. I obviously knew that he didn’t live in Dubai Marina, but I couldn’t have fathomed that he lived in a small apartment in Sharjah, half the size of mine… with 18 room mates! So they basically had to take turns, with several days of space between them, to use the shower.
And of course, deodorant was out of the question. He needed that money to pay for his only meal of the day (no wonder he was so euphoric whenever I bought him the occasional coke and sandwich!). One meal a day? I couldn’t believe it! Wasn’t he better off than in Pakistan at all then? He smiled. He said that some day he would be. But during the next few years it was going to be all sacrifice. He had to pay a big debt he incurred for financing his trip to the UAE. And of course, if I decided to hire him after his trial period he would obtain a visa from my company, which would liberate him from paying most of his salary to an Emirati local business man that demanded it in exchange of providing him with his current visa.
I was so ashamed for having addressed that issue with Ahmed, that I resolved to make it up to him and put up with his stinkinness no matter what. I had to fire him in the end because he crashed the car two times! But that only goes to show how far I was willing to go in order to, in some way, compensate my clumsy, insensitive criticism.
But this little issue of the shower conversation with Ahmed affected me beyond guilt and self-embarrasment. I couldn’t stop asking myself how it was that Dubai’s rulers, who clearly had the power, the resources, the administrative apparatus, and the organizational capacity to implement policies, had not been able to provide during the last 20 years of economic boom the basic, clean, minimal living conditions where workers could at least have a damn shower every day? I mean in many developing countries in Latin America and Africa you can argue that even if you had the most benevolent of leaders, the bureaucracy is so terribly inefficient, the populations are so huge, the city slums are so intractably overgrown and chaotic, that housing policies are sometimes almost impossible to implement. But in Dubai?! Was this an unequivocal sign of the fact that the government simply didn’t care?
I tell you, it is one thing to see all those construction workers toiling away 24/7 in the merciless heat, and hear the stories of many of them jumping down the skyscraper rooftops to charge government compensation for their families and end their miserable existence. I felt temporarily ashamed, but it ended as soon as I looked away from the glass-tinted backseat window of my air-conditined car, or as soon as the conversation with friends switched to our next dinner at Zuma — yes, you self-righteous Britons, Dubai’s version of it is better than London’s! ;-).
But hearing about Ahmed’s plight directly from him, in a face-to-face conversation, was a different thing. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was a little stone in my shoe. A f***ing annoying little scratch in my rose-colored glasses that wouldn’t leave me alone, threatening to peel off the pink paint altogether to show me that Dubai also had other, rather dark colors.
But after a while, I slowly came upon an illuminating realization. What I couldn’t stand, the source of that gut-wrenching sensation that ultimately made me realize I couldn’t live in Dubai despite its material exuberance, wasn’t the Ahmed-shower issue itself. It wasn’t either whether I was right or wrong in my conviction that Dubai’s government simply couldn’t care less about worker’s rights, about the inhuman condition in which they lived. It was the fact that even if I was wrong, I couldn’t express my opinion on the issue if I chose to.
Yes, I know, being involved in the PR business didn’t help much for doing that publicly. But that wasn’t the point. I have never been particularly eager to participate in political issues. I have never participated in a protest march. But to my own amazement, all of a sudden I couldn’t bear the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to if I wanted to. I didn’t have this intangible, too easily taken for granted right of freedom of speech that would have allowed me to burn the flag of my country, to cry to the top of my lungs the dirtiest insults to the people in power to at least symbolically let them know that I was aware of their inhumanity. And to do all this based only on my opinion — whether it was well informed or not.
All of a sudden I realized I hadn’t lived in a non-democratic country before, and how much I had come to underestimate the importance, the cruciality of being able to say what I wanted to say, however unpopular, biased or idiotic it might seem to other people. I cannot express with words how physically similar to asphyxia this feeling was. And I assure you, it wasn’t the heat or the sand storms. I felt its tightest grip in the air-conditioned-theme-park reality of Dubai’s mega-shopping-malls, 5-star mammoth hotels and spas, in its office skyscrapers… I couldn’t breathe even in the freakish indoor ski slope in the Emirates Mall for that matter! Everything slave-labor-made seemed to trigger the choking effect.
And I won’t even get into the incapacity to express “softer” civil rights of course. Where do you think I would have landed if in a cheesy, extravagant self-expression outburst I’d ever chosen to stand by the promenade adjacent to my uber-luxury skyscraper in Dubai Marina to read out loud my dairy-entries on the mind-boggling hypocrisy that in my personal (and mind you, perhaps completely biased and equivocal opinion) the Dubai regime treats the issue of extra-marital sex? Or rampant prostitution? Or gay rights?
I beg all participants in this forum to forgive my vehemence. I tell you, I miss Dubai in a way. I have great friends there, both local and foreign, and I still appreciate the positives. A part of me, deep inside, wishes Venezuela would have had the fortune of counting with the managerial capacity of many of Dubai’s leaders and the economic brilliance of many of its policies. It’s just that I wouldn’t be willing to trade democracy for that anymore. Now I know for sure. Democracy might be terribly imperfect at times, but it’s simply in line with basic humans conditions, as necessary as the air we breath.
And perhaps you will at this point be surprised that I wholeheartedly celebrate Sultan’s article. And no, not because I used to eagerly read his articles in Dubai. Trust me, I remember reading one of them more than 10 times, a particularly critical one of Dubai of course. I was reaching the very terminal stages of my metaphysical asphyxia attack at the time, so in a very literal sense reading Sultan’s critical writing, felt like a breath of fresh air.
The reason I celebrate Sultan’s answer to Johann Hari is that despite both of them being perhaps quite biased in their argument, they are playing the delicious game that is inevitable whenever we allow people to engage in freedom of speech. It’s an imperfect, sometimes destructive game, but imperfection is inevitable, and destruction breeds creation. It is a game that we should celebrate despite it being sometimes foolish and irrational, for when left to run its course, its social benefits outweigh its social costs. Let Sultan answer the way he wants to, as long as he is fully expressing his opinion, and others are allowed to contradict him. I praise his hats-off to The Independent for publishing his article — that shows the man’s true colors. Dubai leaders are watching one of his most prominent countrymen playing the game, and something tells me that it is instructive for them to see this vitriolic counter-argmuentation. Something tells me that this is the sort of thing they need to see for finally realizing that they must let the game run wild in their city too. And that, for sure, will help a lot to remedy many of the terrible injustices that are being committed on their land.