The Spine

Divided Dubai

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Hassan Fattah used to write for The New Republic. See, for example, here, here, and here. He is a fine journalist, and we were proud to have him in our pages, and we poached on his own pride seeing him regularly as a Middle East correspondent for The New York Times. Last Thursday--sorry to be so late--he posted a piece from Dubai about the tension between the (shall-we-say?) open culture brought to the emirate by the western expats, as well as the Arab super-rich looking for relief from their own puritanical Muslim societies, and the staid indigenous mores already under strain from the sheer prosperity of the place.

I've never been to Dubai. But I've read a decent amount about it, not least an article in a recent Times "Escapes" section which told you where to sleep for thousands of dollars a night. Then, there is Tom Friedman's love affair with Dubai, about which I've Planked not so long ago. I think Tom said Dubai was fantastic or phenomenal or amazing or some such empty superlative.

And now comes Fattah with this pull-quote crystallizing his piece: "A tolerant, divided emirate asks where to draw the line." There's much in this article. But the major social divide is covered over with a six word phrase, "South Asians do the menial labor." In fact, South Asians are a plurality of Dubai, maybe with a few other workers from poor Arab countries, a majority. They are indentured. Not slaves, mind you, not quite. There have been riots in Dubai over working conditions, over pay, over the sheer embittered ennui of those who make the place operate but are not and cannot be citizens at all.

This is not a long-term social or political model. It is paradigmatic of the super-wealthy Arab societies: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, a few other emirates. Dubai is a temporary haven, no more, a haven from progress or, maybe more likely, deep disorder. These South Asians, if only they knew the old American working class ballad, could sing and in total truth, "Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn." Not a single one.

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