Report from Dubai

Against the Current, No. 131, November/December 2007

Vicky Francis

 DUBAI — THIS GULF emirate is shaping up into a key tourist destination. For golf, luxury hotels and high-end shopping, it is firmly established as a key player in the Middle East region. Dubai’s geographical location means it can position itself as a meeting point between east and west, a global business hub for the 21st century.

U.S, commentators sometimes view this development with suspicion, hence the recent controversies over Dubai’s ports and stock market investments and acquisitions. Yet corporate relocation decisions by Halliburton, coupled with the growing number of U.S. marines taking shore leave here, suggest that this attitude is changing.

International criticisms of Dubai often reflect anti-Arab prejudice or snooty disdain for its endless array of gargantuan architectural projects. Complaints about the absence of formal democracy and democratic rights are comparatively rare. Junior partners to oil-rich Abu Dhabi as the political power center in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai’s elite — led by Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum — has set its dominion ambitious targets for 2015.

An unspoken yet perennial feature of this master plan is the role of labor in accomplishing these goals. First impressions make it clear that the labor force that is building the city is absolutely everywhere. Cranes dominate the skyline, overshadowed only by some of the finished tower they were used to complete.

The working poor constitute the vast majority of the city’s pedestrians; its choked highways include buses and trucks serving the colossal building sites in every direction, not least the proposed business and residential district slowly taking shape in Jebel Ali, which promises to include the world’s largest airport and largest theme park. (In the downtown district, claims to the presence of the world’s tallest tower were officially confirmed in recent months.)

Amnesty for “Illegals”

While the government and privileged expats would sooner not talk about it, the labor question is one which will not just go away. Many of the core issues of labor in Dubai are typified by the recent amnesty starting June 4, offering so-called illegals within the workforce an opportunity to escape from Dubai without penalty.

During the hot summer months, in which temperatures routinely exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit and the wealthy leave town, economic activity is said to slow down, although where this occurs tends to be industry-specific.

During this year’s three-month amnesty, workers could regularize their papers without penalty or, failing that, be put on a flight back to their country of origin. Thousands of workers milled about outside the Naturalization and Residency Department building throughout the summer to take advantage of the program, forcing the government to revise its “final, absolute” deadlines.

At the time of writing, the real deadline had been set as far back as November 2007, although officially this was the estimated date for completing open cases. Behind a barrage of technical excuses —- insufficient air tickets, inadequate documentation — the late-running implementation of the amnesty provides a snapshot of the wider price being paid by the workers turning Dubai into a utopia for the leisure class.

For observers on the left, Dubai represents the kind of free market paradise that U.S. neo-cons can only dream of. Mike Davis calls it “Milton Friedman’s beach club.” This is an accurate description as far as foreign corporations are concerned who, once safely ensconced in a Free Zone, can do as they please provided they kick up the required tribute to the Ruler. (Fines for employing illegals and a growing official emphasis on sustainability may impinge on this over time, however.)

Laborers, in contrast, face a barrage of regulation on arrival, which touches on every aspect of life. In Dubai, even a market driven by the free exchange of labor would be an improvement on the current arrangements.

Amnesty procedures demarcated four legal categories of person and paved the way for future policing of the workforce. Workers sought amnesty for a variety of reasons, most of them a direct consequence of the local labor market. Lost passports, usually held by past employers as part of “sponsorship” — indentured labor by another name — was the primary reason.

Such workers — “overstayers,” “runaways” and “absconders” — were split into three groups: those who could return with their papers in order, those facing a year ban from working in the UAE, and those facing a life ban. Others taking advantage of the amnesty were “infiltrators,” who had crossed the border into the United Arab Emirates illegally and had a brief window in which to leave, subject to a lifelong ban, without facing criminal penalties.

Behind the Rhetoric

Strip away the self-congratulatory rhetoric about clemency in the holy month of Ramadan, and it’s clear that the amnesty itself produced two main consequences. The first of these — clearly unintended — was an immediate labor shortage.

Numerous firms complained that they were unable to work normally; at times, adequate staffing seemed rarer than the air tickets and exit visas for which the departing workers had queued for so long outside government offices and their various embassies. Estimates suggest that take-up of the amnesty had reduced the workforce by some 8-12%, with construction especially hard hit.

A second, deliberate component of the amnesty was an immediate tightening of employment legislation. Companies employing illegal migrant workers will face considerable fines. It is rumored that this punitive law will extend from the multinational corporations to households taking in part-time maids, cleaners or nannies.

Many of the women applying for amnesty come from precisely these backgrounds, where the sponsorship system leaves employers holding the passports of those who abscond, in search of better-paid jobs or, not uncommonly, to get away from cruelty and violence.

As cynical observers of the Dubai scene have come to expect, humanitarian gestures are often the window dressing for a crackdown on the very people who, since the 1970s, have built a sleepy fishing village into a self-styled global city.

The fines themselves represent another revenue stream to be paid to the Maktoum clique which remains, in effect, the sole landowner in Dubai. More broadly, they send out the signal that Dubai is a western investor’s paradise, where none of the usual checks and balances — trade unions, formal democracy — can obstruct the exploitation of labor.

Although individual companies might resent being fined once the amnesty is over, the new regulations also signal the willingness of the UAE government to legislate in ways that benefit capital in general — for instance, by corralling workers into situations where even job mobility is a bureaucratic nightmare.

This willingness to use the state on behalf of “Dubai Inc.” was also demonstrated in the official response to the consequences of the amnesty itself. With labor shortages springing up all over town, the government promised a revision of the rules on work permits.

Within a week, a new six-month work visa was announced. On paper, this offers a worker more protection than the widespread practice of arriving on a tourist visa and starting work illegally. While less restrictive than the three-year, passport surrendering “sponsorship” package it will coincide with, it is striking that the six month visa was dreamt up in response to the needs of capital.

Clearly there is much to be done to shift the balance of power away from the Maktoums and the Abu Dhabi-funded armed forces on which they will ultimately rely. The Dubai experience shows that neoliberal economics work best, for capital, when the state imposes invidious restraints on labor.

Likewise, the multinational workforce in the UAE exemplifies the consequences of globalisation. Its battles will provide key lessons in reconstituting a working-class movement for the 21st century.

from ATC 131 (November/December 2007)