The grim reality of Dubai: Beyond the glitzy Instagram pics of skyscrapers

It’s been a week since I’ve returned from Dubai and I’m still reeling from the decadence witnessed in this conspicuously wealthy city, writes Najm-Al Din.

As a history enthusiast, Dubai wasn’t exactly primed to capture my imagination. No one flocks to this Gulf sheikhdom anticipating a culturally enriching experience. One arrives to lap up the sunshine and luxury and to marvel at a skyline dotted with gaudy landmarks in a region which has undergone a remarkable transformation from a fishing village to a global real estate and investment hub. In what is often considered an oasis of freedom in the Arabian Peninsula, glitz and glamour are what the Emiratis exude in abundance. Regrettably, my interactions taught me that beyond this shimmering facade, there is little more they can offer as an enduring token of Dubai’s appeal.


It would be unceremonious if I didn’t unpack my journey with something that brings Emiratis euphoria like no other: shopping. With one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, brand is king in the city which rose from the sand and whose citizens shop themselves to a frenzy at the exceptionally vast boulevards and malls sprawling across the metropolis.

Dubai Mall

Materialism reaches its apex at the outlandish Dubai Mall, a $20bn megacomplex offering a welcome respite from the stifling temperatures which the region experiences most year round. Located in the heart of Downtown Dubai and boasting an incredible 1200 stores including an Olympic-size ice- rink, there are blockbuster elements at every turn.

Having spent almost an entire day meandering around the mall in the run up to Eid ul-Adha, it was clear the Emiratis have every finger on the pulse of haute couture. The extensive collection of designer boutiques stir the soul in this stylish emporium and few can splash the greenbacks like Emirati women. It’s most coveted location is Fashion Avenue, a distinct quarter with white statuario marble walkways and lavish contemporary art, hosting some of the most exclusive and bespoke luxurious brands where the appetite for bling and exquisite apparel is on brazen display.

The irony of burqa-clad women prancing around in Hermes handbags and undergoing Chanel makeovers was striking. So was the sight of children strolling along in Fendi sneakers, snapping up soft accessories from Prada and sporting Gucci backpacks in what seemed like a regular day out with the family? Having witnessed the vile consumerism in person, these gargantuan climate controlled spaces will confirm every Emirati stereotype. At 5.9 million square feet, every inch of the floor space is testament to the spending power of the Arab millennial, who will make any fiend for designer brands swoon with envy.

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Yet nothing could prepare me for Emirati indulgence than their compulsive eating habits. I’m not talking about the gastronomical variety on offer across the city. After all, an eclectic collection of halal dining outlets is something which Muslim tourists crave on vacation and Dubai’s cosmopolitan food scene makes it a culinary destination of choice.

But in a country where a major public health crisis caused by eating addictions is a depressingly familiar reality, people were not exactly in a rush to temper their desires. A few days into my stay, I couldn’t help notice the gluttony and respectfully, have rarely witnessed such an orgy of consumption. The common sight of obese families frequenting Five Guys and Cheesecake Factory almost religiously was worrying, especially since the fast food industry’s exponential growth in the UAE has coincided with a dramatic increase in diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Overeating is a pastime here and it would be a mistake to think the Emirati palette was limited to fine steak and seafood in Michelin star restaurants.

The Arab elite are notorious for their edible gold exploits, often feasting in the swankiest joints with Swarovski-encrusted interiors. Furthermore, a significant portion of Dubai’s pampered youth and socialites also share an insatiable appetite for flamboyance.

Dirhams grow on trees for the rich kids of Dubai who are too busy toying with their pet cheetahs or summoning personal porters when they’re not fetishising caviar, taking selfies with lobsters or consuming gold in the literal sense. When it’s not Versace or Christian Dior, Gulf profligacy is served on an extravagantly decorated plate. Think saffron mayonnaise as a condiment and cupcakes where you’ll be counting karats instead of calories.

For a fleeting moment, I confess that I was also part of the vanity. Don’t ask me why but the ostentation was inviting and my cousin and I succumbed to the Emirati penchant for opulence, thinking it would make our Arabian adventure every bit as glittering as those stunning city skyscrapers captured on Instagram handles. So we splashed out on pretty much everything which makes Dubai a hedonist’s paradise.  From being escorted to a private lounge at the highest observation deck in the Burj Khalifa, commanding the gravel at Abu Dhabi in a Ferrari California T to tandem skydiving from 13,000 feet above the Palm Jumeirah, the scale of the adrenaline-fuelled spectacle was staggering.


But scratch beneath the vapid aesthetics and you’ll find an ugly mirage in the desert. Leaving behind the glitzy boulevards of Jumeirah Beach Residence and Dubai Marina, we entered the historic district of Bur Dubai and its surrounding precincts. My cousin journeyed further out of downtown into Ajman, where the sight of dilapidated worker compounds was like being transported to a parallel universe. These regions have a large concentration of semi-enslaved foreign underclass workers representing the much neglected backbone of Dubai’s construction boom, whose blood has helped to fuel the glittering lights in the city’s upscale quarters. Having spoken to expats about their experiences, clearly, Dubai is no Middle-Eastern Shangri-La.

Stories abound of their ill-treatment including workers from the subcontinent being exploited by rapacious bosses who are indifferent to the squalid conditions which most labourers endure. After arriving in Dubai on draconian sponsorship laws, many migrant workers are paid extremely meagre wages, have their passports confiscated, are denied union membership and live cheek by jowl in overcrowded rooms which my cousin had the unfortunate experience of witnessing. Often excluded from legal protections which apply to workers in other sectors, it was heart-rending to learn that hardly any protest their plight due to fears of dismissal or deportation.

Such human rights violations are tragic considering how blue-collared labourers hand-built the emirate. Toiling in the heat and tiptoeing atop cranes to deliver Dubai’s vaunted infrastructure, you’d barely think they existed, living fenced off in tent-cities with some even residing nearby sand dunes where deaths from heat exhaustion have been documented. In the prevailing racial hierarchy, shamefully, Emirati hospitality extends only to European professionals who are lured by tax-free salaries and generally desensitised to the sordid realities suffered by most South Asian and Far Eastern workers who can barely eke out a living.

With a lack of legislative oversight to labour exploitation, a debt crisis amounting to billions and one of the world’s highest carbon footprints, the so called Vegas of the Persian Gulf is far from a monument to Arab enterprise. Built on credit, ecocide and indentured servitude, it’s a shame that tourists arrive here only to be intoxicated in their own bubble of gratification while remaining oblivious to these grave imperfections.

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