What bothered me about Dubai

We are back from our fall trip where we visited the Maldives and Dubai.  The Maldives was stunningly beautiful, Dubai – interesting and controversial.

First, a few things to know. Dubai is famously filled with foreigners, 85% of the population is composed of expatriates from all over the world.  It’s also incredibly safe for tourists, with one of the lowest crime rates in the world.  Dubai is also booming and making extraordinary progress toward a vision of one of the world’s greatest cities.  This is remarkable considering it rose from nearly nothing a few decades ago and shows us what can be done with a compelling vision and significant resources.

This sounds great, right?

Well, it depends on which layer of society you live in.  I identified at least 4.

First, the ruling class of local Emiratis.  They are incredibly wealthy and display their wealth in the most extreme ways from exotic animals as pets, enormous yachts, to single digit license plates that are purchased for millions of dollars to show the world how rich you are as you drive down the congested highway.  The level of materialism on display is jaw-dropping.  There is no subtlety there.

Then you have a second layer of rich foreign workers brought to the country for a variety of reasons, capitalizing on the business opportunities in the region.  It’s easy to spot them sitting at the bar, drinking without regard to the price of whiskey or having $10 cappuccinos in hotel lobbies.

The third layer are the international tourists, most all with great means, who come to enjoy the luxuries the city has to offer.  While some must be put off by lunch at $100 a head, it seems most are not and accept the fact Dubai is pay to play and there is a lot to play with.

The fourth layer are the poor foreign workers who quietly, and compliantly work 12-hour shifts at construction sites in the middle of the desert heat, and at all the tourist destinations, many living in workers camps with controversial conditions.  They are almost all men who have been given an opportunity to work in Dubai and send as much money home as possible.  It felt a little bit like modern day slavery to me.  We spent $200 on dinner one night, which was about half what our server was making the entire month.  The workers are incredibly polite, but none seemed genuinely happy to me.  Grateful for the opportunity to work and send money home, yes, happy – I didn’t get that impression.

I suppose in the context of history it’s not so unique to see a great city rise on the backs of workers, most of which will never experience anything close to the life of the people they are building for.  But I couldn’t help but think, in 2018, why aren’t we doing better?  Have we not learned from the past?

So to the poor foreign workers who built the hotels we stayed in, served us the meals we ate, cleaned the rooms we slept in, and guided the experiences we shared – thank you.  You were noticed and appreciated.  And while we may be at different stations in life, and come from entirely different cultures and backgrounds, know we are all on the same journey and we wish you the very best on yours.