As I write this, I am sitting at the bottom of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The tallest building known to mankind looms over me like some sort of fantasy. In front of me is a dancing fountain and lights show the likes of which at least I have never seen. The building itself is clearly an architectural marvel, being almost a kilometre long â€“ and if I am not wrong I can see several stories of swimming pools about halfway up. Itâ€™s quite mindboggling how this was achieved, but like other things in Dubai, even this ode to manâ€™s desire seems hollow inside.
Donâ€™t get me wrong. This is a fantastic city for those who can afford it, and for the last few days I have enjoyed it within the capacity of my pocket. But everywhere I go and everything I see seems a tad more awkward since the last time I was here two years ago. I am now able to notice even more of the cracks glossed over by the great armies of bling that are constantly at work here.
For instance, there are retina scans at the airport, which I have no idea how the security officials in their quota-assigned jobs use. The dreaded one-finger typing skills are on display everywhere, whether you go to a bank or check in and out of a hotel. Thereâ€™s also a general disdain for anything or anyone from the Indian subcontinent. Itâ€™s like they see you and read the â€˜labourâ€™ stamp on your forehead. Want to settle here with a Pakistani passport? Good luck on the driving test. If youâ€™ve got a blue or a red passport, then step right up, sir, and we will transfer your license and have you out of this inconvenience in about half an hour. Get the picture?
The local population I am told lives on the outskirts, preferring not to mingle with the riff raff that comprises the rest of us. I do not begrudge the locals anything because they have seen the meteoric rise and fall of this city in terms of both real estate and self-esteem. I can thus understand why they are slightly bitter about it all. The great shrines of commercialism they have built seem to have fallen short of resilience when it came to economic crunch time. This is apparent in the long queues of empty taxis standing everywhere one goes â€“ last time I was here one had to call and wait for a taxi to arrive, and that too if the driver felt like going to your destination.
The number of abandoned and semi-finished projects that litter this city is also a reminder of the fact that the Emiratis opened up their homeland to everyone who wanted to come here, but failed to consider what they would bring with them.
I am not even going to bother to touch upon the labour laws â€“ or more precisely the lack of them â€“ at workplaces in Dubai. Here, bus stops are air-conditioned, but labourers are paid in monthly wages that amount to what it costs to stay in a decent hotel in this city for one night. However, much of this inequality is also due to the â€œfriendly agentsâ€ working throughout countries like Pakistan, who engage in what is essentially slave labour and sell people into bondage for a few dirhams in commission. The workersâ€™ passports remain with their employers once they arrive in the UAE, and they are not able to leave until their contracts are up.
These are the people who have built this mirage-like place with their sweat and blood. Sadly, their camps are hidden in safe places at the edge of the city, where no prying eyes can witness the squalor of their existence, which, like crime in this city, is ever-present but hushed up at the very instance of its display.
As published in the “DAWN BLOG” on 23/5/2010