PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dubai Economic Boom Comes at a Price for Workers

Dubai made headlines when a state-owned company moved to take over shipping terminals at six U.S. ports. The small Arab sheikhdom is one of the fastest-growing, flashiest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world. But foreign diplomats and others say there's a dark side to the economic boom, including millions of poorly paid construction workers, and illegal but widespread prostitution.

In a bid to attract tourists, Dubai has opened the world's largest indoor ski resort, where children slide down ice chutes and adults slalom their way down a quarter-mile-long ski slope. It's the first some visitors from Dubai and other countries in the region have ever seen snow.

The indoor ski resort is part of a much larger development boom that is rapidly transforming what used to be a small trading port for gold and pearls into a global center for international trade. Skyscrapers are under construction, soon to join the gleaming towers that already rise up out of the desert on the edge of the Persian Gulf. Developers tout manmade island networks -- some shaped as palm trees, others as continents -- just off the coast.

Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates won independence from Britain in 1971. Since then, Dubai's ruling family has carefully invested its share of the country's oil money into developing duty-free ports and infrastructure for tourism.

Egyptian-born Youssef Ibrahim, a veteran Middle East journalist who has lived in Dubai for several years, says the city has "invented itself as a hub -- a hub for everything. A hub for airlines, boats. A hub for transient society that want to come for three, four, five years, make some money and go away. And as a hub, it is a successful enterprise."

Dubai seems open to anyone who comes to make money. The result is a society in which the majority of the residents are foreign, coming from more then 160 countries around the world. Many foreigners find they can make several times the salaries they could back home, and living costs are relatively low.

But amid the high living, some foreign diplomats warn there is an often unseen dark side to Dubai. They say the city's economic miracle would not be possible without armies of poorly paid construction workers from the Indian subcontinent, most of whom are forced to give up their passports upon arrival in the U.A.E. Some workers say they haven't been home in years and that their salary has been withheld to pay back loans.

Another side of Dubai is technically illegal but widespread: prostitution.

"It is a sin city," Ibrahim says. "They don't like this name, but they don't shrink away from the image, because it brings a lot of money."

Islamist groups in the region object to Dubai's freewheeling lifestyle, but the emirate's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, is famously apolitical. Perhaps this explains how Dubai has steadily prospered in the heart of a region plagued by violence and terrorism. But some locals privately wonder how long Maktoum's miracle can continue -- and whether his unique society would survive a major political or economic shock.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.