How Dubai Works

By: Sarah Dowdey
Dubai Image Gallery An aerial view of booming Dubai. See more pictures of Dubai.
Nasser Younes/AFP/Getty Images

An o­­dd oasis of fantastical skyscrapers sits firmly planted in the desert. The city spraw­ls over the sand and even creeps out to sea -- man-made islands coated in luxury villas dot its coastline. Tourism, business and construction (confirmed ­by countless cranes) keep the city bustling through the night. Dubai, once an unassuming Bedouin outpost, has become an international curiosity for its unusual mixture of Middle Eastern conservatism and Western excess, its imagination and -- perhaps more than anything else -- its rapid growth.

No place flaunts capitalism like Dubai -- not even oil supplies, Dubai's royal family decided to establish the emirate as a financial center and an irresistible tourist destination. Since the early 1980s, the family has funded the city's boom, funneling money into construction, hosting mega-sporting events and establishing tax-free mini-cities like the Dubai International Financial Centre.


The strategy has worked. Today, oil accounts for very little of Dubai's revenue, yet the emirate's gross domestic product has exploded. Relatively relaxed laws and religious moderation have made Dubai palatable for expatriates attracted by business opportunities. The city has become a diverse, largely tolerant bastion in a region splintered by ethnic and religious conflict.­

But Dubai also has an underside of smuggling rings, prostitution and money laundering. The U.S. Department of State lists the United Arab Emirates as a country "that should receive special scrutiny" for its human trafficking [source: U.S. Department of State]. Most conspicuously, the migrant workers who build the glittering city -- mostly illiterate and impoverished South Asians -- suffer dangerous conditions, low pay and sometimes even involuntary servitude.

In this article, we'll learn about the city that rose from the desert, where it's headed and what might be going wrong.­­


Dubai History and Attractions

Sheik Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, has driven the emirate's wealth.
Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images

In the 1980s, Dubai's royals realized their emirate's main source of revenue -- oil -- wou­ld not last far into the next century. Oil discovered in 1966 enlivened the small desert city previously known for its pearl exports and fishing industry.

Dubai's Sheik Rashi­d bin Saeed al Maktoum, who ruled from 1958 to 1990, is largely credited with dreaming up Dubai. But it's his son, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler since 2006, who has made the city materialize.


Sheik Mohammed's endless ambition epitomizes Duba­i. He encourages the creativity and outlandishness that drive tourists to a destination city in a harsh climate, far from other cultural capitals. Many trace Dubai's entrée into global prominence to 1­985, when Sheik Mohammed started Emirates Airlines with his own funds and only two planes. The enterprise, profitable within a year, now serves more than 80 destinations.

Dubai is perhaps most famous for its seven-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab, a sail-shaped, suites-only luxury destination liberally decorated with 22-karat gold. For some, the hotel is Dubai's sole attraction -- an indoor vacation in itself. But outside, Dubai grows more astonishing.

Men in traditional dress watch children play at Ski Dubai, part of the Mall of the Emirates.
Nasser Younes/AFP/Getty Images

In 2008, workers will complete construction on the Burj Dubai, the new tallest building in the world. A palm-shaped island of apartments and villas extends out into the Persian Gulf and can be seen from space. Two larger palm islands and an archipelago shaped like a map of the world are also under construction. Soon Dubai will boast the world's largest mall, longest indoor ski run and biggest theme park. There are even plans for a district with buildings made to look like chess pieces.

Announcements of new projects in Dubai are usually prefaced by such superlatives as "world's tallest" or "most luxurious on Earth." But underlying all the remarkable,­ ostentatious design is also an intensity of service sure to surprise all but the most pampered visitors. Bedouin culture is known for its hospitality, and Dubai lives up to the reputation.

In the next section we'll learn about Dubai's plans for regional financial domination and the Emiratie identity crisis.


Dubai Economy

Dubai's main stretch is lined with unusual skyscrapers.
Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images

She­ik Mohammed has extended his vision for Dubai past gold, ski runs and oddly shaped islands. T­he elite of the city want Dubai to become the Middle East's financial center -- like a regional New York, London or Shanghai -- ready to absorb the vast wealth of the Gulf.

To attract businesses and banks, Dubai varies its theme of hospitality and convenience. Just as the city lures tourists with its comfortable opulence, it attracts business with a fast-tracked regulatory and court system. The Dubai International Financial Centre is a city within a city that has its own courts, regulations and commercial laws -- independent from the emirate's more conventional bureaucracy. Nearly every bank in the world has a branch there.


Dubai also owns a 20 percent stake in NASDAQ, the American stock exchange. After a failed attempt in 2006 by the state-owned company Dubai Ports World to take over six American ports, the UAE and Dubai began a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to improve their image. Because Sept. 11 conspirators laundered money through Dubai, many in Congress thought turning over port management would risk national security. Yet Dubai is also one of the United States' strongest allies in the Middle East, hosting more Navy ships than any other international port [source: NPR].

­But as Dubai work­s abroad to promote its carefully crafted identity, it struggles to define itself at home. Fewer than than one-eighth of Dubai's residents are actually UAE citizens [source: National Geographic]. The "nationals," who stand out with their distinctive dress -- white long-sleeved robes (dishdashas) for men and black gowns and scarves (abayas) for women -- represent the wealth of Dubai. They own the property and businesses and oversee a managerial class of expatriates who in turn oversee the majority of the population -- migrant laborers. But with so many foreigners and a constant flow of freewheeling tourists, many natives question whether they've traded culture for profit.

Next, we'll learn more about Dubai's migrant laborers and the troubling trade in humans.


The Dark Side of Dubai

Migrant laborers in Dubai often work in subpar conditions.
Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images

Migrant labore­rs compose 60 percent of Dubai's po­pulation [source: National Geographic­]. But t­he workers who make the city's growth possible suffer from treatment that the independent investigatory group Human Rights Watch calls "less than human" [source: Human Rights Watch].

Workers usually enter the UAE already deep in debt, having paid recruiters in their own countries large fees for jobs, visas and plane tickets. When they arrive in Dubai, employers often seize the migrants' passports and withhold two months' pay as security.


When paychecks finally arrive, they're dismally low. While the average per capita income in the UAE is the equivalent of $2,106 per month, the average migrant worker receives only $175 a month and often lives in a labor camp far outside of town. To prevent the in-demand workers from competing for better salaries, construction companies often have employees sign contracts pledging exclusivity to one firm for at least two years.­

Building skyscrapers and artificial islands is also dangerous work. In 2004, the UAE government listed only 34 work-site deaths, but foreign embassies reported 880 [source: Human Rights Watch]. Although the UAE does have federal labor laws, contractors who mistreat workers or withhold wages are rarely punished.

­The involuntary servitude of many construction workers, combined with a brisk business in commercial sexual exploitation, puts the UAE on the U.S. Department of State's Tier 2 Watch List for human trafficking. While men find themselves trapped in debt bondage, women recruited as domestic workers or secretaries often are forced into involuntary servitude or prostitution. The UAE also serves as a transfer point for women trafficked for labor to Oman and Sudan and men to Iraq.

Although the UAE passed an anti-trafficking law in December 2006, it has yet to prosecute offenders. The government also continues to detain and deport trafficking victims who have committed crimes while in servitude.


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