Less than 30 years ago, the deserts of the United Arab Emirates transformed themselves into a corporate playground at a staggering pace. Now, as the financial crisis engulfs the old money powerhouses of Europe and North America, the vulgar wealth of the United Arab Emirates attracts more and more. Dubai and its neighbouring Emirate states are touted as havens of care-free sea, sand and kitsch glitz. But the dark undertones, and in many cases, overtones, of these societies have only recently begun to be brought to light.
A damning expose of Dubai's enslaved immigrant workers in The Independent recently laid bare the guilty foundations of the palatial desert. The glistening construction which characterizes the city is the work of abused labourers. Brought over under false pretences, their passports removed and housed in filthy compounds, Bangladeshi, Somali and other workers are forced to work 14 hour days in staggering heat with neither rights nor avenues for escape. The "official temperature" is kept at a maximum of 50 degrees Celsius to circumvent labour law. With no legal recourse to appeal to and imprisonment looming for any objectors, theirs is a hell with no escape.
This is capitalism at its flimsiest and dirtiest: a conglomerate of rash investment, human rights abuses and for those not yet convinced, a horrific toll on the local ecology as a desert is harassed until it can squeeze out water at alarming cost. With no natural source of drinkable water, estimates suggest that the treated sea water that hydrates the city state would last a matter of days in the event of economic collapse.
It is perhaps unfair, and too easy, to characterize the Western presence in this paper-thin civilization as nothing but nauseating self-indulgence. Times are hard and Dubai offers opportunities for financial recovery which few other places around the globe can do currently. In the face of redundancy at home, beneath-the-surface atrocities that Westerners are kept comfortably away from are easily overlooked. But Westerners can find themselves the victims of this system, too: imprisonment is standard procedure for debt and bankruptcy, and there are many stories of people left with nothing when the money runs and it becomes clear that the welfare state has yet to make its way to the desert.
Ignorance can be no excuse. There is a duty on any expat, most of all one who relocates to a playground society which emerged from the desert practically overnight, to educate themselves before settling, at the very least. That aside, any investment in a society teetering so precariously on the edge of anything that resembles basic ethics and humanity, not to mention one founded on untested investment, needs justification.
The presumption that "common sense" laws must apply anywhere where Amex is accepted is a frightening one. It is testimony to the gross complacency of Westerners about their freedoms that so many venture to Dubai and its neighbours only to be devastated when the regressive laws upon which it is founded are exposed to them. Success at the capitalist game does not translate into success at establishing a free and fair society. Those allured by the sand castles would do well to take note.
Eimear O'Casey was an intern at atlantic-community.org from December 2008 until February 2009 and most recently worked for the Scottish government.