It glittered so brightly, I had to shield my eyes. I covered my gaze with my elbow and peeked underneath to see what it was that was right outside of the airport in Dubai. It was the construction of a new building. A seemingly 30-story apartment complex rising high out of the desert sand. This artificial oasis struck me as odd. Most of Dubai struck me as odd.
I had never dreamed of visiting this place. We were here for the renowned World Cup, a soccer competition that I had enjoyed only once before in Russia in 2018. This time, I was excited to see the World Cup through an Arab lens. Dubai was not the home of the World Cup but with Qatari accommodations in Doha reaching $3,000 a night, I knew Dubai was the more “affordable” city. So, we stayed. My boyfriend and I rented a car because dare you walk in Dubai? Bad idea. I understood that this dry desert climate and the luxury and wealth factor played a role in why no one walked outside except to get to their vehicles.
The cars were luxurious in Dubai. Outside of migrant vans, I never saw one beat-up old Toyota that I’m used to back in the United States. Every car I saw was new, expensive, and well-maintained. I got this sinking feeling when I would look around at this artificial oasis. It reminded me of oil. Synthetic, black, and pervasive. I never really wanted to go to Dubai but I did want to see what all the hype was about.
We arrived 5 days before the USA vs. England World Cup game that we had been waiting for. I’m an American and my boyfriend is a US resident, but still, we both understood the USA playing in a World Cup match was a rare experience we weren’t going to miss. So, we arrive early in Dubai and check all of the tourist spots off of our list.
Burj Khalifa ✅
Dubai Mall ✅
Downtown Dubai ✅
Visit the souks ✅
But where are all of the Emarati? Oh, they’re at the mall.
Although I was blinded by the glitz of an indoor skating rink and the glamour of downtown Dubai, I couldn’t help but notice the sore thumb sticking out of all of the shiny, new buildings: dusty Pakistani and Indian faces peaking out from construction buildings as if looking for a light at the end of a tunnel. Immigrant labor is big business in Dubai. It turns out 88.5% of people who live in the UAE are migrants. Emarati citizens account for only 11.5%.
In the United States, we have our share of migrant labor. They fill essential roles that American citizens don’t want to fulfill. Like picking tomatoes, cleaning homes, cooking food in restaurants, and doing construction projects.
I got this sinking feeling when I would look around at this artificial oasis. It reminded me of oil. Synthetic, black, and pervasive.
And on the other side of the world, you see the same system. Clean and calm Emarati walking around the Dubai Mall while migrants build new skyscrapers at impossible speeds. It’s true what you read in the news. Dubai and most of the Gulf Arab countries depend on immigrant labor to build and maintain their high-luxury lifestyles.
When you walk into Dubai, you immediately notice that everyone that you meet is an immigrant. The hotel concierge. The cook at a local restaurant. The Zamboni worker for the indoor ice rink at the Dubai Mall. The daycare attendant. The street sweeper. At one point, I began to ask myself, where are the Emarati? The truth is, I only saw them when I was at malls or in business centers. That’s it.
A Peak Inside of the Gulf’s Forced Labor Issue
The consequence of having an 80%+ migrant labor force is they do all of the things you don’t want to do. Need a stadium built in the middle of the desert in summer for a once-in-a-lifetime football event? Need a new high rise for ultra wealthy American expats who want to wear booty shorts in public despite being in an Arab nation? Let’s do it. And let’s throw in a private grocery store, too. But someone at the top had to stop and say, “well, how are we going to accomplish all of this?” And the answer lies in cheap, forced labor from abroad.
Without forced labor, it would all come crumbling down. Their indoor skating rinks would melt into the desert sun.
Here’s how it works. Recruiters for companies located in the Gulf advertise new job opportunities in less privileged nearby nations. Lack of opportunity in Pakistan and high competition in India is a thing that holds back many families from economic well-being. So some families willingly allow their son or daughter to travel to the Gulf with the hope of a better life tucked into their back pocket. Or so it seems on paper.
Families are told their son or daughter will earn $500-$4300 USD when they work in the Gulf, but the sad reality is most of the workers have to find their own way to the UAE, Qatar, and other nations. This requires families to take out a loan, sometimes equivalent to the amount of money they were promised to earn. The person who has stars in their eye about making enough money in Dubai to pull their family out of poverty is now faced with a check-mate situation. Take out a $4,000 loan, and get paid $4,300.
But they don’t know it’ll be a forced labor situation until they arrive. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, leadership in hotels or restaurants holding the passports of migrant workers in exchange for their labor. It seems that’s how you "check-in" to work. You give them your passport and you don’t get it back until you’re done with your assignment, however long that may be. So, they hold the migrant’s passport hostage essentially barring them from leaving the country. The sounds of slavery ring in the ears of those who are forced to stay. The dream of money and luxury sparkles in the eyes of those in control.
On assignment, many laborers do the work that local Emarati don’t want to do. Working in the heat of summer and in dangerous conditions on construction sites kill hundreds of migrant workers every year in the Gulf. But in the eyes of the locals, it’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make for the glitzy artificial kingdom they’ve built. Without forced labor, it would all come crumbling down. Their indoor skating rinks would melt into the desert sun. Their polluted air would become hotter with the remnants of exhaust from their oil reserves dissipating into the sky. They would have nothing. So, they create a system that entices, enslaves, and maintains their luxury lifestyle and no one (seemingly) on the Emarati side wants it to stop.
A video of the inside of the Dubai mall
Not All That Glitters Is Gold
While we as world travelers engage in places like Dubai and Qatar, we may be blinded by the golden nature of their atmosphere. It’s brilliant skylines and its “world’s tallest building” accolade. We’re blinded by the Gucci and Prada signs in the malls or the seemingly tranquil and peaceful nature of downtown. We take a ride in our expensive rental cars and jet ski on a Sunday in the Gulf. But underneath the privilege of being rich and beautiful in the Gulf is the underbelly of all who made it possible. The unseen and unspoken laborers who, from an American lens, resemble our very own version of Latin American workers. But upon closer inspection, are experiencing grave and dangerous situations that are only committed by the most corrupt of US businesses. It’s a step beyond what we see here in the states. It’s a level of slavery and subjugation that we haven’t seen since we had our own bout with Black slaves at the inception of our nation. But now, it’s come full circle. In a country where so many of us go on vacation, we see (or don’t see), the ways slavery lives on. Lurking in corners like the coffee shop and your hotel concierge.
Video of downtown Dubai at night.
To travel is a privilege and to not see the injustices that afford us this privilege is a disservice to those who suffer for our vacation to be made possible.
This travel blog is about the local experience. It’s about putting down the tourist hat and putting on the local one. To travel is a privilege and to not see the injustices that afford us this privilege is a disservice to those who suffer for our vacation to be made possible. Only when we are awake and aware while traveling, will we begin to see that the table in which we eat, the bed in which we sleep, and the sidewalks in which we walk are nothing but pure miracles at the hands of someone who wanted more, needed more, and was robbed of what they deserved. The intention and takeaway of this piece is for us to be reflective, as travelers and humans, of how the things we use and build get there. The environmental, personal, and ethical price of living an artificial life of luxury. So that next time we’re taking a jet ski in Dubai, we might consider for one moment, that we are not the center of the universe and that perhaps someone else deserves a thank you for the great privilege we call “vacation”.