Dubai Economic Boom Comes at a Price for Workers Dubai, the small Arab sheikhdom behind the U.S. ports controversy, is one of the fastest-growing and most cosmopolitan cities in the world. But diplomats and others say there's a dark side to the economic boom -- poorly paid foreign construction workers and widespread prostitution.
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Dubai Economic Boom Comes at a Price for Workers

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Dubai Economic Boom Comes at a Price for Workers

Dubai Economic Boom Comes at a Price for Workers

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President Bush may face a confrontation over the Dubai ports deal. Many members of his own party oppose it and today, a House committee is expected to adopt legislation that would effectively block it. The president continues to support the deal which would put operations at some U.S. ports in the hands of a state-owned company from Dubai.


Until this controversy, that small Arab sheikdom was better known as a playground of the Persian Gulf. The city of Dubai is one of the flashiest and fastest growing in the world. NPR's Ivan Watson paid a visit.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

To get to one of Dubai's most ambitious new tourist attractions, follow signs at the brand new Mall of the Emirates. Go past Starbucks and Radio Shack and you can't miss it. It's called Ski Dubai and it's the largest indoor ski resort in the world.

(Soundbite of crowd)

WATSON: For fifty bucks you get skis, poles and a snowsuit and you step through sliding glass doors into a giant snow and ice-covered amusement park. Here, kids slide down ice chutes.

(Soundbite of screaming)

WATSON: While adults slalom their way down a quarter-mile-long ski slope. It takes seasoned skiers barely half a minute to get down the hill, but Mario Akkel(ph), a visitor from Lebanon, doesn't care.

Mr. MARIO AKKEL (Lebanese Native, Visitor, Ski Dubai): Yesterday (unintelligible) and then, now we are skiing, so we have on our camera, the desert and now the ski, so we are doing great job here in Dubai city.

WATSON: For some visitors this is more than just a novelty. Thirteen-year-old Neuf Nassar(ph) stood at the bottom of the chairlift wearing a long coat over her traditional black robes. For this Emirates native, today was the first time she had ever seen snow.

WATSON: This is your first time seeing snow?

Ms. NASSAR: Yeah, my first time.

WATSON: So, what do you think?

Ms. NASSAR: It's amazing.


Ms. NASSAR: Yeah. I like it very much.

WATSON: The indoor ski resort is just part of much larger development boom that's rapidly transforming what used to be a small trading port for gold and pearls, into a global center for international trade. Nearly everywhere you look, skyscrapers are under construction. Soon to join the gleaming towers that already rise up out of the desert here on the edge of the Persian Gulf.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

WATSON: The scale and audacity of the project is mind-boggling. Take for example this promotional video for a development called The World.

(Soundbite of "The World" Promo)

Unindentified Speaker: (In promotional video) The world is a collection of 300 private islands in the shape of the continents. From secluded five-acre islands to 20-acre parcels, build anything you desire. From the perfect island home in multi-family communities, to exotic resorts, golf courses, (unintelligible) retreats--the world.

WATSON: The World is just one of four man-made island networks currently being built just off the coast. You can see sandy islands shaped like a palm tree from the penthouse of this brand new 51-story tower.

Ms. ZANA ABUJHAMRA(ph) (Realtor): Every single room in the apartment they have (unintelligible).

WATSON: A Jordanian realtor named Zana Abujhamra gives a tour of the building. It's just one of 70 towers currently in various stages of completion at this development.

Ms. ABUJHAMRA: Sometimes you feel it's a dream, but it's a dream coming true here in Dubai.

WATSON: Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates only 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 Yusef Ibrahim is a veteran Middle East journalist who's lived in Dubai for several years.

Mr. YUSEF IBRAHIM (Journalist): Dubai has invented itself as a hub--a hub for everything: a hub for airlines; a hub for boats; a hub for transient society that wants to come in here for three, four, five years, make some money and go away; and as a hub, it is a successful enterprise.

WATSON: Part of the Dubai formula is that everyone is welcome as long as you're here to make money. The result is a society where the majority of the residents are foreign from more than 150 countries around the world.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALEXANDRA DOBSKI(ph) (Business Journalist): If you go shopping in a super market and you really see all these different nationalities in the national dress shopping together. You see the Russian girl in a mini-skirt, the Arab woman totally covered in black, the Indian lady...

WATSON: Alexandra Dobski is a business journalist from Austria who moved here a year ago.

Ms. DOBSKI: We have amazing lifestyles here. Ex-pats make up to two or three times of the salary they make back in their countries and living costs are still relatively cheap. No taxes--that's what attracts people to come here.

WATSON: That, and the fact that Dubai is an opulent playground that pampers the wealthy. But amid this luxury, some foreign diplomats warn there is an often unseen dark side to the city.

Mr. BAYA SAYID(PH) MUBARAK (Consul, Labor and Welfare, Consulate General of India, Dubai): Even though the city is so glamorous, there is another other side of the city where people generally struggle to come up.

WATSON: Baya Sayid Mubarak deals with labor issues at the Indian Consulate. Roughly a quarter of the UAE's population--more than 1.2 million people--are Indian. Mubarak says the city's economic miracle would not be possible without armies of poorly paid construction workers from the Indian sub-continent, most of whom are forced to give up their passports upon arrival in the UAE.

(Soundbite of crowd)

WATSON: Not far from the resorts and skyscrapers, foreign construction workers live eight and ten to a room in labor camps like this one where they take turns preparing dinner in a communal kitchen.

(Soundbite of food frying)

WATSON: Most of these men make about $150 a month and many are trapped in a cycle of poverty and debt, which amounts to little more than indentured servitude. Twenty-four-year-old Sivanescin Argimen(ph) says he hasn't seen his wife and two children since the day he left India five years ago, after he took out loans to pay for his plane ticket.

Mr. SIVANESCIN ARGIMEN (Resident, Dubai): (Unintelligible)

WATSON: While Argimen struggled to pay back interest on his loan, his company withheld pay and broke a promise to fly him back home. Another side of Dubai which is technically illegal, but widespread here, is prostitution. Resident journalist Yusef Ibrahim calls Dubai the sin city of the Middle East.

Mr. IBRAHIM: (Laughs) It is the sin city. They don't like this name, but they don't shrink away from the image because it brings a lot of money.

(Soundbite of crowd)

WATSON: In one of Dubai's most notorious nightclubs, throngs of foreign customers can choose between Chinese prostitutes on one side of the room and Russian women on the other. Islamist groups in the region object to Dubai's freewheeling lifestyle, but the Emirates ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is famously apolitical. Perhaps this explains how Dubai has steadily prospered in the heart of 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. Ivan Watson, NPR News.

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