May 21, 2009
Dubai is a remarkable exercise in segregation. If your entire acquaintance with the place is through glossy articles in the media, you might well wonder how this could be. After all, Dubai is often described as a cosmopolitan city. You can find a remarkable range of nationalities and cuisines here, given its size, and this author has yet to see any mention of ethnic tensions in the city in the international press. What, then, is Ye Olde Top Secret Anonymous Guy talking about?
Dubai's population can be divided into four major parts. First, there is a large working class that makes up about half the population. (This proportion is likely to decline over the next few months as Dubai ceases to be the world's most intense site of construction activity.) This section of the city is generally invisible while not at work. Most laborers are forced to live in crowded camps on the outskirts of the city, where land is cheap, and conditions are generally poor. These camps often lie in inaccessible locations, meaning it would be hard for a worker to travel to the city and back by bus on a weekday even if he were not already working 10 or 12 hours a day. The cost of a taxi ride puts such a luxury well out of the reach of anyone living in such accommodation. On Friday, their day off, they are bused into the old markets near the center of the city, where they can connect with workers from other camps and thus speak in their native tongues. They can then take over small streets or open spaces with grass.
Other members of the working class try to group together in order to rent apartments in the city. Here, they face discrimination in the form of government rules restricting certain areas for families. Members of the city's underclass cannot bring their spouses or children to the country because their salaries are well short of a prescribed threshold. The government also has rules against sharing housing with anyone besides a close relative. This puts even the cheapest legal apartments well out of the reach of the working class. Anyone who is visibly working class may be denied access to hotels or shopping malls by (working class) security guards, and public parks often impose nominal entry fees or declare families-only days in order to deter workers from lounging around inside on their day off. Discrimination against this section of the population is therefore either government-approved or government-enforced.
At the other end of the social pyramid, Dubai's indigenous population has a far more affluent lifestyle. Yet it has also been forced out of the center of the city. Crime and education are not motivators, as they were in the suburbanization of American cities. Instead, rising land prices have been the major culprit in recent times. Apartment buildings have replaced low-rise housing throughout the downtown core, and often well beyond it. Emirati citizens almost always prefer to live in villas; while they might be happy to build gleaming skyscrapers, you would be hard-pressed to find any of them living inside. As the city has grown, Emirati neighborhoods have been pushed further and further away from the downtown core. That being said, Emiratis seldom lived in the same neighborhoods as expatriates in the past, and precious few members of either group seem eager to socialize with the other.
The other well-to-do section of UAE society is made up of expatriates. Plenty of Arabs and South Asians have done well for themselves, but the largest share of the expatriate upper class is of Western origin. Wealthy expatriates are seldom seen in the crowded older parts of town, and almost never reside there. Instead, many members of the upper class receive housing benefits from their employers in order to be able to afford homes in more desirable areas. The very richest residents are holidaymakers from Britain, Russia, Iran, or elsewhere who have purchased a second or third home in the city, and only reside there briefly each year. For the city's elites, Dubai offers the chance of a glorious lifestyle of sun, sea, and sand, with nightclubs and expensive meals thrown in for good measure. In order to attract more such people, Dubai has built not only luxury housing, but also a variety of playgrounds for the rich.
Just a decade ago, the truly exclusive parts of Dubai consisted of its nicer hotels and a few social clubs. Now, you can find a entertainment complexes the size of neighborhoods, especially in the prosperous south of the city, with Madinat Jumeirah being the most prominent. A few common themes unite them. First, they offer easy opportunities to walk around without the mere sight of vehicular traffic. For this to be possible, a single developer must buy a large tract of land and build upon it as a whole, rather than series of city blocks. The pedestrianized space between buildings can then be raised one level above the ground, allowing through traffic. Alternately, the area in question can be made inaccessible to vehicles, except insofar as is necessary to drop off visitors and goods. A private developer who controls a large area with no public streets can limit the number of entry points and restrict access to anyone perceived to cheapen the venue by their mere presence. Not that this is even necessary; it costs so much to shop or dine in such a place, that it is of little use to a member of the city's working class. Once you are inside such a complex, the rest of the city is usually out of sight, both figuratively and literally.
Why is the pedestianization mentioned above noteworthy? Well, newer parts of Dubai have been built around the automobile, and are hard to walk around, not least because highway and wide arterial roads through the city are difficult to cross. Furthermore, given the intense summer heat, air conditioned shopping malls are the closest thing to public space in the city. Indeed, the only other parts of Dubai one can really walk around are the lower middle class areas where the city first sprung up. These are almost entirely shunned by upper class visitors to the aforementioned entertainment complexes.
Social divisions do not work in the same way for the middle class. The city's different national groups do not mix very well socially, although they are happy enough to do business with one another. Not only are friends circles largely built along national lines, but if there are enough people from a given country, social networks will often be subdivided by region. This isn't just a question of linguistic compatibility, as most of the city's middle class is quite comfortable in English.
While it is normal for Western cities to feature ethnic neighborhoods, the difference in Dubai is that people of other ethnicities seldom visit such places. This can sometimes play out in strange ways. On Kuwait Street, you can find two malls with a couple of dozen shops each. Although they are immediately adjacent to one another, Filipinos dominate one, while the other is filled almost entirely by residents of south Indian extraction. A handful of institutions, such as the city's largest shopping malls, do manage to attract people from different classes and ethnic backgrounds. However there is little scope for meaningful personal interaction there, and certainly no prospect of any sort of cultural fusion. In short, Dubai's different sets of residents experience different parts of the city on account of their eagerness to self-segregate.
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I don't know what kind of information sources you consume, but the discussion of ethno-social (self)segregation in Dubai is hardly new.
And your claim of "ethnic tensions" needs to be substantiated. What kind of tensions are there & how do they play out?
Living in Dubai it reminds me a lot of L.A. and a lot of other major global cities. You have ethnically segregated communities who do not visit each other. Or how often have you been to East Hounslow? Bedford-Stuyvesant? The 10th arrondisement? Neukölln?
I am somewhat at a loss as to the point of this article ... Care to enlighten me?
Posted by: MSK* at May 23, 2009 03:55 PM
Not the author, but I’d say that the point of the article is that Dubai is grossly more discriminatory in both practice and ideology than Western societies, even when soberly acknowledging Western imperfections. I’d say this is obvious to observers of both regions, but it may not be so obvious to the general public in the West.
MSK: What comparisons do you see between Dubai and Bedford-Stuyvesant(circa 2009, not 1989)? I would say that Bedford-Stuyvesant is not a wholly segregated community and that inhabitants of the various NYC communities visit other neighborhoods enthusiastically and socialize with "outsiders" as well. All the while, the law does nothing directly and little indirectly to discourage this.
Say what you will about racism in America, but American policies and attitudes towards immigrants are are among the most just and effective in the world. Unlike recent European and current Gulf practices, Americans acknowledge that immigrants are in the US to stay. Even the lowliest immigrant worker has, for himself and his children, the right and ability to join American society. Millions of immigrants have already done this, adding to the cultural mix of American society. In both law and social attitudes, Gastarbeiter in Dubai are temporary, replaceable, and inherently separate from native society. I’m not saying America is perfect or that there aren’t huge problems of discrimination and segregation, but there simply is no comparison between the US and Dubai on the matter.
Chinese laborers came to the US under similar conditions as South Asians coming to Dubai today. Do you see South Asians ever reaching the same level of integration and acceptance into Emerati society as Chinese-Americans enjoy in America today? An honest question. Would Emerati attitudes towards foreign workers be different if the proportions were different? Say only 10-15% foreign-born living in-country, as has been the historical pattern in the United States?
Posted by: Djuha at May 24, 2009 04:04 PM