Dubai – a microcosm of globalization?

What does globalization really mean? It’s a loaded term with many meanings. Perhaps one way to understand what the shrinking distances between people, economies, cities and countries really means is to look at life in one city that exists in its current form because of global trade and travel – Dubai.

Dubai is a city in the United Arab Emirites that has long historic routes as a regional trading centre, but only recently has become well known internationally. The government has undertaken a bold scheme to use the income from the limited oil reserves of this emirite to build a global financial center as well as international shopping and tourist destination.

Most work is done by foreigners, imported for their particular skills. This is where Dubai seems to encapsulate a darker side of the global economy — the stratification of jobs, and incomes, sometimes along national lines. Creative, professional and management type jobs tend to go to North Americans and Europeans. Skilled and semi-skilled labor is typically done by people from the Indian sub-continent but also Africa and other parts of the world. Tourists are typically caucasion, and usually from Europe — or UN workers and non-profit development staff stationed in places like Afganinstan taking a break. The class/race stratification is shocking. The few who are true emirate citizens are either managers or live off the income from oil and investments.

I’m trying to decide if Dubai and its social stratification is a microcosm of the world, or just a unique place.
This week south-Asian workers staged a strike. According to CBC news, construction workers were protesting poor working conditions and wages.

Dubai is currently home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai expected to be completed in 2008 and home of the world’s first Armani luxury hotel, and authorities report an annual average growth rate of 12 per cent over the past decade, largely driven by construction.

The boom has been possible due to plentiful investment from oil rich neighbours and armies of non-unionized South Asian workers whose fear of deportation, until recently, kept them from voicing discontent over low wages.

“The cost of living here has increased so much in the past two years that I cannot survive with my salary,” said Rajesh Kumar, a 24-year-old worker from the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, earning $150 a month.

This weekend the workers ignored the threat of deportation and refused to go to work, staging protests at a labour camp in Dubai’s Jebel Ali Industrial Zone and on a construction site in Al Qusais residential neighbourhoodThey demanded pay increases, improved housing and better transportation services to construction sites. On Saturday workers threw stones at riot police and damaged their cars.

The government is threatening deportation for some (foreigners have few rights in Dubai), however the construction managers and business community are generally against this as there is a labor shortage. Indeed, because of good economic times in India, cheap labor is becoming harder to come by in Dubai, generating challenges for the ambitious construction schedule.

There is another question here for cities like Dubai: Can a city survive on imported, rather than home grown labor and talent? What if not only the poorly-paid construction workers left, but also what if the highly-paid foreign real estate development managers and financial market gurus left for home as well?

And yet, I hope that the contrast of rich and poor, of highly paid talent from North America and Europe set against poorly paid labor from South Asia, is not really a microcosm of the world.

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Final, personal note: I did see the social stratification contrasted against ridiculous extravagance first hand three years ago. During a 24 hour layover in Dubai en route from Islamabad to London, my husband and I stashed our luggage at the giant glitzy airport and hopped on the bus to reach the old part of town. We were the only Caucasians using the spotless, brand new public transit system. The other passengers appeared to represent the multi-ethnic planet earth. The Indian-looking driver piloted the vehicle through major thoroughfares and onto narrower streets lined with industrial looking apartments, each with a balcony crammed with clotheslines displaying colourful laundry. They instantly reminded me of apartment blocks in working class neighborhoods of Latin America or Eastern Europe. On the roads, women in jewel encrusted black burka’s drove luxury automobiles (how they see to drive remains a mystery to me) while white men and women preferred SUVs, often white in colour. The modern shopping malls were more glitzy and grand than any I’d ever seen. A friend working there (managing a major development project) also took us on a tour. The strangest stop was a small high-rise neighborhood that looked — deliberately, by design — exactly like part of Yaletown in Vancouver.

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