I am actually a big fan of what Dubai has achieved over the last 20-30 years, but the article has valid points that need to be addressed sooner or later.
VI Dubai Pride
There is one group in Dubai for whom the rhetoric of sudden freedom and liberation rings true – but it is the very group the government wanted to liberate least: gays.
Beneath a famous international hotel, I clamber down into possibly the only gay club on the Saudi Arabian peninsular. I find a United Nations of tank tops and bulging biceps, dancing to Kylie, dropping ecstasy, and partying like it’s Soho. “Dubai is the best place in the Muslim world for gays!” a 25-year old Emirati with spiked hair says, his arms wrapped around his 31-year old “husband”. “We are alive. We can meet. That is more than most Arab gays.”
It is illegal to be gay in Dubai, and punishable by ten years in prison. But it circulates online which is the latest unofficial gay club, and men flock here, seemingly unafraid of the police. “They might bust the club, but they will just disperse us,” one of them says. “The police have other things to do.”
In every large city, gay people find a way to find each other – but Dubai has become the clearing-house for the region’s gay people, a place where they can live in relative safety. Saleh, a lean Private in the Saudi Arabian army, has come here for the Coldplay concert, and tells me Dubai is “great” for gays: “In Saudi, it’s hard to be straight when you’re young. The women are shut away so everyone has gay sex. But they only want to have sex with boys – 15 to 21 year olds. I’m 27 so I’m too old now. I need to find real gays, so this is the best place. All Arab gays want to live in Dubai.”
With that, Saleh dances off across the dance-floor, towards a Dutch guy with big biceps and a big smile.
VII The Lifestyle
All the guidebooks call Dubai a “melting pot”, but as I trawled across the city, I found that every group here huddles together in its own little ethnic enclave – and becomes a caricature of itself. One night – in the heart of this homesick city, tired of the malls and the camps – I went to Double Decker, a hang-out for British expats. At the entrance there is a red telephone box, and London bus-stop signs. Its wooden interior looks like a cross between a colonial club-house in the Raj and a 1980s school disco. As I enter, a girl in a short skirt collapses out of the door onto her back. A guy wearing a pirate hat helps her to her feet, dropping his beer bottle.
Two sun-dried women in their sixties have been getting gently sozzled since midday. “You stay here for The Lifestyle,” one of them says, telling me to take a seat and order some more drinks. All the expats talk about The Lifestyle, but when you ask what it is, they become vague. Ann Wark tries to summarize it: “Here, you go out every night. You’d never do that back home. You see people all the time. It’s great. You have lots of free time. You have maids and staff so you don’t have to do all that stuff. You party!”
They have been in Dubai for twenty years, and they are happy to explain how the city works. “You’ve got a hierarchy, haven’t you?” Ann says. “It’s the Emiratis at the top, then I’d say the British and other Westerners. Then I suppose it’s the Filipinos, because they’ve got a bit more brains than the Indians. Then at the bottom you’ve got the Indians and all them lot.” They admit, however, they have “never” spoken to an Emirati. Never? “No. They keep themselves to themselves.”
Dubai has disappointed them. Jules Taylor tells me: “If you have an accident here it’s a nightmare. There was a British woman we knew who ran over an Indian guy, and she was locked up for four days! If you have a tiny bit of alcohol on your breath they’re all over you. These Indians throw themselves in front of cars, because then their family has to be given blood money – you know, compensation. But the police just blame us. That poor woman.”
A 24 year-old British woman called Hannah Gamble takes a break from the dance-floor to talk to me. “I love the sun and the beach! It’s great out here!” she says. Is there anything bad? “Oh yes!” she says. Ah: one of them has noticed, I think with relief. “The banks! It’s like something from the prehistoric age. When you want to make a transfer you have to fax them. You can’t do it online.” Anything else wrong with Dubai? She thinks hard. “The traffic’s not very good.”
When I ask the British expats how they feel to not be in a democracy, their reaction is always the same. First, they look bemused. Then they look affronted. “It’s the Arab way!” an Essex boy shouts at me in response, as he tries to put a pair of comedy antlers on his head while pouring some beer into the mouth of his friend, who is lying on his back on the floor, gurning.
Later, in a hotel bar, I start chatting to a dyspeptic expat American who works in the cosmetics industry and is desperate to get away from these people. She says: “All the people who couldn’t succeed in their own countries end up here, and suddenly they’re rich and promoted way above their abilities and bragging about how great they are. I’ve never met so many incompetent people in such senior positions anywhere in the world.” She adds: “It’s absolutely racist. I had Filipino girls working for me doing the same job as a European girl, and she’s paid a quarter of the wages. The people who do the real work are paid next to nothing, while these incompetent managers pay themselves £40,000 a month.”
With the exception of her, one theme unites every expat I speak to: their joy at having staff to do the work that would clog their lives up Back Home. Everyone, it seems, has a maid. The maids used to be predominantly Filipino, but with the credit crunch, Filipinos have been judged to be too expensive, so a nice Ethiopian servant-girl is the latest trendy acquisition.
It is an open secret that once you hire a maid, you have absolute power over her. You take her passport – everyone does; you decide when to pay her, and when – if ever – she can take a break; and you decide who she talks to. She speaks no Arabic. She cannot escape.
In a Burger King, a Filipino girl tells me it is “terrifying” for her to wander the malls in Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. “They say – ‘Please, I am being held prisoner, they don’t let me call home, they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.’ At first I would say – my God, I will tell the consulate, where are you staying? But they never know their address, and the consulate isn’t interested. I avoid them now. I keep thinking about a woman who told me she hadn’t eaten any fruit in four years. They think I have power because I can walk around on my own, but I’m powerless.”
The only hostel for women in Dubai is a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed. The corridor is grimy, the bathroom is full of cockroaches, and in every corner, there is an escaped maid who sits terrified. When they realise I am not the police come to seize them, they give me a tiny, faint smile of gratitude. Mela Matari, a 25 year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her.
She was promised a Paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money. “I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. They paid me half what they promised. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: ‘You came here to work, not sleep!’ They wouldn’t give me my wages: they said they’d pay me at the end of the two years. One day I just couldn’t go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. What could I do? I didn’t know anybody here.”
One day, after another beating, Mela ran out onto the streets, and asked – in broken English – how to find the Ethiopian consulate. After walking for two days, she found it, but they told her she had to get her passport back from Madam. “Well, how could I?” she asks. She has been in this hostel for six months, four frightened women to a room. She has spoken to her daughter twice. “I lost my country, I lost my daughter, I lost everything.”
As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman what the best thing about Dubai was. “Oh, the servant class!” she trilled. “You do nothing. They’ll do anything!”