The Dark Side of Dubai – Johann Hari

Cropped screenshot of Zsa Zsa Gabor from the t...

Image via Wikipedia

There is an undertone of a hatchet job against Dubai, but it doesn’t mean the accusations levelled are not true. Highlighted disproportionately perhaps, as there are abuses like this in the UK everyday if you look hard enough, but still true…

VIII The End of The World

The World is empty. It has been abandoned, its continents left unfinished. Through binoculars, I think I can glimpse Britain, its sceptred isle left barren in the salt-breeze.

Here, off the coast of Dubai, developers have been rebuilding the world. They have constructed artificial islands in the shape of all Planet Earth’s land masses, and they plan to sell each continent off to be built on. There were rumors that the Beckhams would bid for Britain. But the people who work at the nearby coast say they haven’t seen anybody there for months now. “The World is over,” a South African suggests.

All over Dubai, crazy projects that were Under Construction are now Under Collapse. They were building an air-conditioned beach here, with cooling pipes running below the sand, so the super-rich didn’t singe their toes on their way from towel to sea.

The projects completed just before the global economy crashed look empty and tattered. The Atlantis Hotel was launched last winter in a $20m fin-de-siecle party attended by Robert De Niro, Lyndsay Lohan, and Lily Allen. Sitting on its own fake island – shaped, of course, like a palm tree – it looks like an immense upturned tooth in a faintly decaying mouth. It is pink and turreted – the architecture of the Pharaohs, as reimagined by Zsa-Zsa Gabor. Its Grand Lobby is a monumental dome covered in glitterballs, held up by eight monumental concrete palm trees. It is unexpectedly raining, so water is leaking from the roof, and tiles are falling off.

A South African PR girl shows me around its most coveted rooms, explaining that this is “the greatest luxury offered in the world.” We stroll past shops selling £24m diamond rings around a hotel themed on the lost and sunken continent of Atlantis. There are huge water tanks filled with sharks who poke around mock-abandoned castles and dumped submarines. The Neptune suite has three floors, and – I gasp as I see it – it looks out directly onto the vast shark tank. You lie on the bed, and the sharks stare in at you. In Dubai, you can sleep with the fishes, and survive – if you have the cash.

But even the luxury – reminiscent of a Bond villain’s lair – is also being abandoned. I check myself in for a few nights to the classiest hotel in town, the Park Hyatt. It is the fashionista hotel where Elle MacPherson and Tommy Hilfiger stay, a gorgeous, understated palace. Apart from the servants, it feels empty. Whenever I eat, I am one of the only people in the restaurant. A staff member tells me in a whisper: “It used to be full here. Now there’s hardly anyone.” Rattling around, I feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, the last man in an abandoned, haunted home.

The most famous hotel in Dubai – the proud icon of the city – is the Burj al Arab hotel, sitting on the shore, shaped like a giant glass sail-boat. In the lobby, I start chatting to a couple from London. They have been coming to Dubai for ten years now, and they say they love it. “You never know what you’ll find here,” he says. “On our last trip, at the beginning of the holiday, our window looked out on the sea. By the end, they’d built an entire island there.”

Doesn’t the omnipresent slave class bother you? The woman replies: “That’s what we come for! It’s great, you can’t do anything for yourself!” Her husband chimes in: “When you go to the toilet, they open the door, they turn on the tap – the only thing they don’t do is take it out for you when you have a piss!” And they both fall about laughing.
IX Taking on the Desert

The very earth is trying to repel Dubai, to dry it up and blow it away. The new Tiger Woods Gold Course needs four million gallons of water to be pumped onto its grounds every day, or its grasses and sands simply shrivel and disappear on the winds. The city is washed over with dust-storms that fog up the skies and turn the skyline into a blur, and when the dust parts, sheer heat burns through. Anything that is not kept constantly and artificially wet or cold is cooked to a crisp.

This is the most water-stressed place on earth, according to the UN – yet it is littered with sprinklers, giant artificial ski-slopes frozen to create real snow, and tanks filled with dolphins. Dr Mohammed Raouf, the Environmental Director of the Gulf Research Centre, sits in his Dubai office and warns: “This is a desert area, and we are trying to defy its environment. It is very unwise. If you take on the desert, you will lose.”

Sheikh Maktoum built his showcase city in a place with no useable water. None. There is no surface water, very little aquifer, and some of the lowest rainfall in the world. So Dubai drinks the sea. The Emirates’ water is stripped of salt in vast desalination plants around the Gulf – making it the most expensive water on earth. It costs more than petrol to produce, and belches vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as it goes. It’s the main reason why the residents of Dubai have the biggest average carbon footprint of any human being – more than double an American’s.

If a depression bites deep, Dr Raouf bluntly says Dubai could run out of water. “At the moment, we have financial reserves that cover bringing so much water to the middle of the desert. But if we had lower revenues – if, say, the world shifts to another source of energy than oil…” he shakes his head. “We will have a very big problem. Water is the main source of life. It would be a catastrophe. Dubai only has enough water to last us a week. There’s almost no storage. We don’t know what will happen if our supplies falter. It would be hard to survive.”

Is the Dubai government concerned about any of this? “There isn’t much interest in these problems,” he says sadly. In the looming century of water stress, Dubai seems uniquely vulnerable. How will the government react? I decided to look at how they have dealt with an environmental problem that already exists: the pollution of their beaches. One woman – an American, working at one of the big hotels – had written in a lot of online forums arguing that it was bad and getting worse, so I called her to arrange a meeting. “I can’t talk to you,” she said sternly. Not even if it’s off the record? “I can’t talk to you.” But I don’t have to disclose your name… “You’re not listening. This phone is bugged. I can’t talk to you,” she snapped, and hung up.

The next day I turned up at her office. “If you reveal my identity, I’ll be sent on the first plane out of this city,” she said, before beginning to nervously pace the shore with me. “It started like this. We began to get complaints from people using the beach. The water looked and smelled odd, and they were starting to get sick after going into it. So I wrote to the Ministers of Health and Tourism and expected to hear back immediately – but there was nothing. Silence. I hand-delivered the letters. Still nothing.”

The water quality got worse and worse. The guests started to spot raw sewage, condoms, and used sanitary towels floating in the sea. So the hotel ordered its own water analyses from a professional company. “They told us it was full of fecal matter ‘too numerous to count.’ I had to start telling guests not to go in the water, and since they’d come on a beach holiday, as you can imagine, they were pretty pissed off.” She began to make angry posts on the expat discussion forums – and people began to figure out what was happening. Dubai had expanded so fast its sewage treatment facilities couldn’t keep up. The sewage disposal trucks had to queue for three or four days at the treatment plants – so instead, they were simply drilling open the manholes and dumping the untreated sewage down them, so it flowed straight to the sea.

Suddenly, it was an open secret – and the Municipal Authorities finally acknowledged the problem. They said they would fine the truckers. But the water quality didn’t improve: it became black and stank. “It’s got chemicals in it. I don’t know what they are. But this stuff is toxic.”

She continued to complain – and started to receive anonymous phone calls. “Stop embarrassing Dubai, or your visa will be cancelled and you’re out,” they said. She says: “The ex-pats are terrified to talk about anything. One critical comment in the newspapers and they deport you. So what am I supposed to do? Now the water is worse than ever. People are getting really sick. Eye infections, ear infections, stomach infections, rashes. Look at it!” There is faeces floating on the beach, in the shadow of one of Dubai’s most famous hotels.

“What I learned about Dubai is that the authorities don’t give a toss about the environment,” she says, standing in the stench. “They’re pumping toxins into the sea, their main tourist attraction, for God’s sake. If there are environmental problems in the future, I can tell you now how they will deal with them – deny it’s happening, cover it up, and carry on until it’s a total disaster.”

As she speaks, a dust-storm blows around us, as the desert tries, slowly, insistently, to take back its land.
X Fake Plastic Trees.

On my final night in the Dubai Disneyland, I stop off on my way to the airport in a Pizza Hut that sits at the side of one of the city’s endless, wide, gaping roads. It is identical to the one near my apartment in London in every respect, even the vomit-coloured decor. My mind is whirring and distracted. Perhaps Dubai disturbed me so much, I am thinking, because here, the entire global supply chain is condensed. Many of my goods are made by semi-enslaved populations desperate for a chance two thousand miles away; is the only difference that here, they are merely two miles away, and you sometimes get to glimpse their faces? Dubai is Market Fundamentalist Globalisation in One City.

I ask the Filipino girl behind the counter if she likes it here. “It’s okay,” she says cautiously, and waits for my order. Really? I say. I can’t stand it. She sighs with relief and says: “This is the most terrible place! I hate it! I was here for months before I realised -” she stares into my face with the intensity of a person who hasn’t had a real conversation in a year – “Everything in Dubai is fake. Everything you see. The trees are fake, the workers’ contracts are fake, the islands are fake, the smiles are fake – even the water is fake!” So why is she here? I hear the same Dubai fairytale, as scripted by the Brothers Grimm. She got into debt to come here, and she is stuck for three years. It’s an old story now. “I think Dubai is like an oasis. It is an illusion, not real. You think you have seen water in the distance, but you get close and you only get a mouthful of sand.”

As she says this, another customer enters. She forces her face into the broad, empty Dubai smile and says: “And how may I help you tonight, sir?”

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