Dubai: The Illusion of the City

By Atif Khan

Dubai is often considered the pinnacle of the tourist experience. The city is home to extensive ‘world’ titles and rampant consumption and opulence, however overshadowing the workers behind its very success. In the 2013 World Report, Human Rights Watch stated that approximately 88.5% of United Arab Emirates residents were in fact poor migrant workers. In this paper, I will argue that Dubai has exploited cheap forced labor as a commodity, which distinguishes Dubai’s case against other labor force migrations. To accomplish this, I will be primarily relying on secondary research specifically Saskia Sassen’s work as well as prominent newspaper sources and international organization reports to extract information and primary data. The issue of forced labor is significant in contemporary discourse as it calls into question state involvement (in this case the United Arab Emirates) and state apparatus in actively facilitating the exploitation of the workers. This is also relevant to the implications of the larger ideals of globalization and neoliberal policies of the 21st century.

It is helpful to provide a brief historical background of Dubai to contextualize the development of the city. Dubai was founded as a small fishing village involved in the pearl diving industry off its coast, in the Persian Gulf. Shortly after the British colonial administration ceded in 1971, oil was discovered. Due to the relatively small amount, Sheikh Maktoum, the constitutional monarch of Dubai, utilized the oil revenue to transform the city into a tourist center, to attract foreign investment (Cooper 65-66). Between 2000 and 2005, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the city had a growth rate of 13% per year (Cooper 66). In fact, Gulf News claimed that 24% of the world’s construction cranes were currently operating in Dubai alone (Gulf News Report). The construction of the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest man-made structure), the Dubai Mall (world’s biggest shopping mall) and the World Islands (artificial man-made islands) were the finished product of forced migrant labor largely originating from Asia, particularly South Asia. Dubai’s development trajectory onto the international stage has attracted criticism of its labor and human rights practices.

Saskia Sassen, a sociologist at Columbia University has written extensively on globalization and international human migration. Of particular interest is her work The Mobility of Labor and Capital (1988) as well as The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (1991). Although these works did not specifically use Dubai as a case study, her analysis provides a fundamental perspective that is perhaps of more relevance to Dubai as a ‘global city’ today than it was when her works were published.

In The Global City, Sassen draws branches from the World Systems theory proposed by Immanuel Wallerstein. Whereas World Systems theory undertakes a macro approach looking beyond the nation state under the structure of capitalism, Sassen utilizes a micro approach suggesting prominent cities such as New York and London have become core centers for the international management of capital and by extension the global economy (27). In the 1970s, Dubai has rapidly accelerated into a prominent city, replacing Tel Aviv in the region. In 1988, Globalization and World Cities Research Network (GaWC), a think tank based at Loughborough University (United Kingdom) attempted to ‘define, categorize and rank global cities’. In the research, Dubai was listed as an Alpha+ city placed on the same level as Hong Kong, Paris and Sydney and just below New York and London, the only two Alpha++ cities in the world in the 2012 published results.

In her second work, The Mobility of Capital and Labor Sassen argues that, foreign direct investment (FDI) is a significant factor in attracting a labor supply to a specific destination, generally urban cities (21). More recently, the global integration of market economies facilitates labor movement into a streamlined process. For example, the exporting and importing state is actively involved in the recruitment process. Agents provide the ‘pull’ promising lucrative wages and stable work. There is an artificial creation of demand by romanticizing Dubai as ‘a land of opportunity’ by hiring agents, among potential workers. However most such workers are already living in poor conditions and after taking out loans and paying ‘transport fees’, they find themselves in Dubai. Even before arrival, labor workers have already accumulated debt under false pretenses and such conditions pressure the individual to stay. Such a supply of labor has also created a situation in which workers are susceptible to exploitation. Foreign migrant workers are replaceable at any point in time due to the large supply of migrant workers to fill positions.

The contradictory role of the state in actively shaping the exploitative process. For example, under the kafala system (sponsorship system) the worker is bound to the employing company who has the ability to rescind their passports and documents (Khan 2014). Human rights groups liken the situation faced by workers to a form of 21st-century servitude, as labourers cannot change jobs without the permission of their sponsor and employers control their migration status. In addition, unions and strikes by foreigners are illegal in the U.A.E. and across the Gulf Region (Human Rights Watch Report 2012). The state renders foreigners socially and politically powerless simultaneously meeting the demand of its own needs. As such, there are also substantial savings on social services and infrastructure as a result of access to foreign labor.

Officials in the UAE have denied allegations of such conditions, claiming instead that because wages and working conditions have improved, workers choose to come to the Gulf (Arsenault 2013). Syed Khaled, a foreign worker of Bangladesh, interviewed by Al-Jazeera opposed the claim by the government saying, “I currently earn 8,000 Bangladeshi taka ($102 USD) per month. In Bangladesh for this work I can earn 10,000-15,000 taka ($128- $192 USD) per month, easily, but the work is far from my home and it isn’t steady, maybe work one month and no work for two months” (Arsenault 2013). Additionally such a statement also underlines possible push factors resulting in labor migration. The following paragraph will briefly incorporate my background as an emigrant from Pakistan to the larger context of possible push factors relevant particularly to the region of South Asia.

When my family and I emigrated from Pakistan in 2000, it was in large part because of the increasing instability in the country. A year later, in September 2001 the American ‘war on terror’ meant Pakistan became nothing more than a foothold for the United States in the region. Poverty did not decrease, civilian security did not increase; fundamentalist religious violence however did increase. It initiated a crisis for the country in which the government establishment looked the other way and daily survival became a question shrouded with uncertainty and fear. The failure of the Pakistani state not only contributed to the displacement of my family but also a significant amount of the Pakistani population. When the state failed to provide work with a living wage vis-à-vis increasing poverty, individuals were prompted to search for other means. This situation resulted in an increase in foreign labor work outlined in the preceding paragraphs as one possible solution. Such a solution however, also highlights the fundamental complexity of migration, suggesting multiple factors tracing back to affect the individual.

To conclude this discussion on Dubai, the exploitative and availability of abundant, cheap and a highly flexible labor supply has been a key factor in the development of Dubai. The movement of people due to various push and pull factors however has accelerated under the umbrella term of ‘globalization’ through neoliberal processes. At the same time, state intervention to facilitate migration has resulted in undermining the people who construct the city. Such a failure points to the fundamental lack of moral or ethical regard in economic development under the capitalist structure of production. The stark contrast present within the city of Dubai marks the disparity of wealth between those who reside in the luxury condominiums, and the nameless individuals who built these structures, who reside in labor camps, just outside the very same city.


Arsenault, Chris. “Dubai’s Striking Workers in their Own Words.” Al-Jazeera 24 May 2013. Web.

Cooper, Nicholas. “City of Gold, City of Slaves: Slavery and Indentured Servitude in Dubai.” Journal of Strategic Security. 6.5 (2013): 65-71. Print.

Globalization and World Cities Research Network (GaWC). United Kingdom. Accessed November 17, 2014.

Gulf News Report. “Dubai has 30,000 Construction Cranes.” Gulf News 18 June 2006. Web.

Human Rights Watch. United Arab Emirates World Report 2012 & 2013. New York: Human Rights Watch. Accessed November 18, 2014.

Khan, Azfar. “Why It’s Time to End Kafala.The Guardian 26 February 2014. Web.

Saskia Sassen, The Mobility of Labor and Capital (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 12-54.

Saskia, Sassen. The Global City: London, New York, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)

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Atif doesn’t like writing bios about himself. He prefers talking about himself instead. He’s an upper year student double majoring in International Relations and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies with a minor in Contemporary Asian Studies. His interests include listening to Doja Cat, cartoon network TV shows and calling people out.

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