The dark side of Dubai


As shocking as it may be to some of you who have only been hearing about the elite expat lifestyle in Dubai… there is a dark side as well.
(On a side note, although it’s necessary to read this and be aware of the situation… I completely agree with Shujah’s opinion in the “comment” section.)

The Dark Side of Dubai
Ben Anderson
BBC Panorama reporter

Just say the word Dubai and the images appear: impossible glass structures glistening in the year-round sun, perfect man-made beaches, yachts, private helicopters, malls and spreads of food that would satisfy Roman emperors – all the things huge amounts of new money can buy.

And yet for me these images are the opposite of what should come to mind.
Having spent the last three months travelling there, I no longer think of the seven star Burj Al Arab hotel when I think of Dubai, but of emaciated, wretched men, lining up for buses before the sun has risen, resigned to the fact that their hard day’s work wouldn’t earn them enough to buy a round of coffee here. The branding of Dubai has to be one of the greatest PR triumphs of the past 20 years.
It works out incredibly well for the developers – they can charge first world fortunes for the dream villas and apartments, but pay third world salaries to the men actually building them.
Poor and illiterate
Many in Dubai say that this is just globalisation working, and that while the lives of the workers, and the salaries they are paid, look bad to us, to them, where they come from, it’s good.
This excuse doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The story of Dubai’s immigrant construction workers shocks and depresses in several different stages. The poor and often illiterate men, who come here in their millions from the Indian sub-continent, are getting exploited from so many different angles that it’s sometimes hard to know who to be angry at.
It all starts in their home countries – often India or Bangladesh, where local recruitment agents promise them high salaries and generous overtime payments.
But often they also charge a “visa” or “transit” fee, averaging 200,000 taka, or £2,000 ($2,980).
This is supposed to be illegal.
The workers pay the fee because they believe the figures they’ve been promised. In most cases, it will take them the entire two-to-three year contract for them just to pay back that fee and break even.
It often takes that long because many developers, or their sub-contactors pay shockingly low wages – often less than £120 ($178.83) a month, for, on average, a 10-hour a day, six-day working week.
Rivers of stinking waste
We followed dozens of workers back to their “labour camps” where they cooked rice and potatoes (they can only afford meat or fish two-to-three times a month) in filthy rooms equipped with the most basic gas hobs.
In one camp sewage had leaked out from toilet blocks, and there was so much of it that the workers had built an entire network of stepping-stones just to get to their accommodation blocks.
“The dream,” as one Indian recruitment agent told me “soon turns into a nightmare the moment they arrive.”
Upon arrival, they are then bussed to their labour camp, where they will share a room with at least six other workers for the duration of their time in Dubai.
If they are given contracts, they are often not worth the paper they are written on, and collective bargaining and trade unions are illegal in Dubai anyway.
The developments we investigated are both enthusiastically endorsed by a long line of celebrities, who allow themselves to be described as “ambassadors.”
England footballer Michael Owen, cricketer Freddie Flintoff and golfer Sam Torrance endorse developments by the First Group in Dubai’s Sports City.
British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, golfers Greg Norman, Vijay Sigh, and Sergio Garcia are all ambassadors for Jumeirah Golf Estates, which will be home to the $20M “Race to Dubai,” the richest tournament in the golfing world.
The master developer of Jumeirah Golf Estates is a company called Leisurecorp, which owns Turnberry and has a stake in Troon.
‘Like a prison sentence’
We looked hard for a single example of good practice, interviewing dozens of workers employed by many different developers – some British, some owned by the Dubai Government.
But I didn’t find a single exception, not one worker who hadn’t paid a visa fee, not one who was being well paid (the highest monthly salary I heard of was being paid to a skilled crane operator- approximately £220 ($327) a month), not one who could eat well or was free to go home if he chose to.
They all said they were much worse off than they had been back at home.
“We are doing slavery,” said one worker, “we feel we are in jail, it’s like a prison sentence. This is how I feel. I am helpless. What can I do?”
Nick McGeehan, who runs Mafiswasta, one of the few NGOs working on behalf of the immigrant construction workers, is not surprised. I asked him what role we were playing in this, as property buyers, or as one of the million plus British tourists that visited Dubai last year.
“You’re contributing, directly or indirectly, to the enslavement of a migrant workforce. That’s a difficult pill to swallow, but when you look at the evidence that’s a fact.”
And what about the celebrities who endorse these developments, some of whom told us they sought, and got, re-assurances that the workers were being treated well.
“It’s not enough to say that. At best that’s naive and at worst that’s negligent.”
Panorama: Slumdogs and Millionaires is on BBC One, Monday 6 April at 8.30pm.



  1. While this exploit of laborers is very sad, it has been true since the very beginning of the “Dubai story” and no one (certainly not Dubai Govt) was trying to hide it. The entire business model of Dubai was built around using cheap inputs (labor, material, technology) to come up with a seemingly superior product that is catered to Western expats.

    The Brits (who by the way are the largest expatriate owners of freehold property in UAE) are well aware of the fact that it is not their English cousins who built their house in Dubai but rather a poor unskilled laborer from the Indian subcontinent. However, they chose to cast a blind eye to these problems because Dubai gave them a chance to own a house and live a life that they could not even dream of back in England.

    Therefore, the real shocker here is not that poor laborers are treated poorly. The real shocker is why did the Brits (and other supposedly civilized nations that preach equal rights) wait so long to make a fuss? Could it be that because Dubai no longer offers the get-rich-quick schemes they were hoping for? And now its suddenly become a good time to focus on everything that Dubai was doing wrong?

    To say that these labor practices only benefitted the real estate developers of Dubai is totally false. Do you think Michael Owen, Freddie Flintoff, and others were brand ambassadors for free? It labor practices were such an outrage, perhaps they should have done some homework on the brands they were representing before cashing in the tax-free check from Dubai. Or perhaps Brits should have not bought property in Dubai if it was that offensive. No developer will build if there is no buyer.

    While I agree that Dubai has its share of problems, its not any different from any other place on earth and these are not new problems. However it amazes me that the same outlets (such as BBC) who until last year made Dubai seem like heaven on earth are all of a sudden “just finding out” about how bad Dubai really is. That is the shocker to me.


  2. While I’m sure expats were aware that the houses they were buying in Dubai were built by cheap laborers, not many were aware that these laborers were being treated AS poorly. Reportedly, many are not paid on time (salaries witheld for a year), not sent home as outlined in the terms of their contracts, and are forced to work in extreme heat when they are supposed to be given a few hours off.

    Omar, maybe you could ask your contacts in Dubai to share their views…it would be interesting to hear from expats and locals living there.


    This is what was published in the newspaper this morning!

  4. shaheryar mirza · · Reply

    first off..these newspaper stories are not new..they have been circulating for years, it’s just that now that the world has grown familiar with Dubai, they get more attention.i can recall an article while I was at undergrad circa 2004 highlighting the problem of this slave labor..just because things like this may happen other places in the world, doesn’t make it ok. that’s an apologist view which just perpetuates practices like these.and most places in the world, third world countries included don’t have labor practices like this.even pakistan has unions and the like. laborers are exploited in pakistan but not even close to this level. and definitely not laborers who aren’t even your citizens. who benefits from these labor practices is irrelevant. despite who the beneficiaries may be, the slave labor exists and it’s a human rights violation.end of story. I don’t see why people feel the need to apologize for Dubai’s human rights violations.

  5. shaheryar mirza · · Reply

    additionally, i understand that the whole “maid” thing may be unfair as im sure not all people treat their maids like that. like in pakistan some people treat their servants like shit, but most of the people I know DO treat them like family.

  6. Anonymous · · Reply

    Westerners treat nonwestern Muslims far worse.

    In the last decade alone, they have killed millions of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Palestine etc directly and indirectly, all of it through massive propaganda campaigns to justify their illegal, immoral, unjust actions.

    However, I don’t see any of the concerned persons berating Dubai or such pointing a finger at the more ‘urgent’ and more ‘pressing’ issue.

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