Blinded by Dubai

While the press gawks, workers are dying.
March 1, 2007

“I realize I’m late to the party: Dubai is long past its media moment. The flurry of breathless write-ups—in Sunday travel sections and glossy lifestyle magazines—has come and gone.” Thus began Seth Stevenson, writing on January 8 in Slate about his own trip to Dubai. It’s true that the celebration of Dubai as the latest, greatest spawn of globalization has reverberated through the U.S. media in recent years—Indoor skiing!No taxes!

A “safe” holiday in the Arab world! From Nick Tosches’s 10,000-word gonzo romp through the emirate last summer in Vanity Fair to Thomas Friedman’s repeated invocation on the New York Times op-ed page of the city-state as the “decent, modernizing model” for the rest of the Arab world, Dubai has been drilled into our consciousness as, variously, the Oz-Vegas-Singapore of the Middle East.

What dimmed Dubai’s media star was the release last November of a scathing report by Human Rights Watch on the medieval plight of the half-million migrant construction workers who provide the cheap labor that the boom in Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates demands. Those workers—mostly poor, illiterate men from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka—take on crushing debt to get to Dubai on the promise of earning good money, only to find themselves trapped in dangerous jobs, without their passports (which are routinely confiscated by their employers upon arrival for the duration of their one- to three-year contracts), and with their promised wages dramatically reduced and often withheld for months at a time. They live in squalid employer-run labor camps and are forced to work in temperatures that can exceed 130 degrees. As a result, according to the report, hundreds of construction workers die each year in the UAE under unexplained circumstances, and there is evidence that more—perhaps as many as one a week—commit suicide rather than return home to the shame of having been swindled.

Dubai, it would seem, needs a second media moment, one that makes the less sparkling aspects of its story the focus of the coverage rather than the oh-and-by-the-way treatment those darker storylines got the first time around. Were it not for the Human Rights Watch report and a courageous series of strikes by the desperate workers themselves, the U.S. media might have missed that side of the Dubai spectacle entirely. As it was, The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid did some fine reporting on the migrant workers in April 2006, and The New York Times’s Hassan Fattah wrote two articles pegged to the strikes. TV news was silent on the subject, except for one piece by ABC ’s Brian Ross in reaction to the HRW report.

If more thorough coverage of far-flung labor crimes seems a bit much to ask of American journalism, given its retreat from foreign news, here are a few news pegs that should give the story more traction in Peoria: the Bush administration is negotiating a significant free-trade deal with the UAE, and if it ever gets to Congress for a vote the labor situation in Dubai will be an issue; Tiger Woods is building a golf course in Dubai and Donald Trump is building a resort—will they use construction companies that treat their workers this way?; a growing number of U.S. companies are planting their regional headquarters in Dubai, from Microsoft to Merrill Lynch to CNN; and Harvard’s medical school is heavily invested in Dubai’s Healthcare City. Indeed, Dubai is swiftly emerging as the economic and service hub of this most crucial region.

It’s a question of bringing some sense of proportion to the coverage of an increasingly important U.S. ally, but also to the coverage of globalization, the economic story of our times. Lou Dobbs and other nouveau populists in the media are quick to demagogue the outsourcing of U.S. jobs as the primary sin of a globalized economy, but as Dubai shows, the story of globalization cannot be reduced to a balance sheet of American concerns.

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The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.