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Performing Modernity

You don’t have to look far to find the dark side of Dubai

The United Arab Emirates has worked long and hard at looking like the West—even better than the best. The world’s tallest building, with its glistening spire, looms over the shoreline of the gleaming city of Dubai, proof of the Emiratis’ technocratic zeal. The streets are clean; a brown or black person is always nearby to pick up any errant piece of litter. For entertainment, there are bars and clubs where liquor flows much like it does in New York or London or any place that draws the young and the affluent. Blazing lights shine from malls full of wares from around the world: perfumes that cost hundreds of dollars, couture houses that make their own statement by refusing to pin prices, cars that cost more than a small suburban home in the American Midwest.

There are many takers for Dubai’s performance of modernity, gussied up as it is in the wrappings of unfettered abundance. You can see the glee on the faces of Western travelers as soon as they arrive, as they roam from one duty-free store full of candy and makeup and watches and so much else to the next. Here they can play and buy and evade taxes and gather up goodies like never before. Whatever the condition of the consumer markets of their origins, here capitalism rules, and lays before them all the status symbols, all the gewgaws and gadgets, that their hearts desire. There are multiple Apple stores, and Tesla dealerships too. If you’ve brought the cash—and the corrupt grifters and former dictators and dynastic rulers have—you can pour it into all this, or into Dubai’s internationally appealing real estate market.

And even while the world, particularly the world still romancing liberal democracy, knows that Dubai’s dalliance with modernity is a farce, the UAE continues to get a free pass. The well-worn list of Dubai’s sins is proliferated with perfunctory regularity. One of its most recent iterations is a report issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that sees the current moment as a potentially fortuitous one for Washington’s new leaders to “elevate and address widespread concerns about Dubai’s role in enabling global corruption.”

Enumerating Dubai’s sins in as kindly a tone as possible, the report alleges that everyone from Afghan warlords to Nigerian kleptocrats to Russian mobsters and European money launderers are operating there, funneling money in and out of Dubai’s banks, which are only too happy to look away when it comes to the source of these amounts. Dubai is “a magnet for tainted money,” the report says. It has a thriving gold market with opaque business practices; its free trade zones are havens for trade-based money laundering. It is notable that the Carnegie report and others before it detailing the dark side of Dubai do not question the Emirates’ de facto admission into the ranks of neoliberal modernity.

Take, for instance, the fact that the summary of the report contains only one mention of Dubai’s inhumane treatment of its migrant laborers, which doesn’t appear until halfway down the page: “Many migrant workers are also treated as commodities in Dubai through the kafala system, an exploitative migrant labor scheme that shares some characteristics with human trafficking.” Ironically, for a report trying to uncover corruption, this milquetoast characterization of the tens of thousands of migrant workers who live a slave-like existence in the Emirate is itself a cover-up. Instead of emphasizing the stunning abuses the system engenders, it normalizes them as ones akin to, rather than equal to or even greater than, human trafficking.

The Carnegie report is but one example of how the developed world, the United Nations, and the post-Bretton Woods financial system have become used to turning their heads when it comes to the wrongdoings of powerful actors in places like Dubai. The diktats of neoliberalism, which crown homo economicus king, are, as the report shows, more concerned with financial crimes than with the welfare of actual human beings. But the most vile of Dubai’s papered-over and bedazzled sins is actual modern-day slavery. According to Nicholas Cooper, author of the paper “City of Gold: City of Slaves: Slavery and Indentured Servitude in Dubai,” most of the slaves are put to work in the construction industry. The kafala system ensures that they remain tied to the employer who imported them to the country.

The report alleges that everyone from Afghan warlords to Nigerian kleptocrats to Russian mobsters and European money launderers are operating in Dubai.

As I learned from conversations with some workers who work as janitors at the Dubai airport, payment is up to the discretion of these employers, who often (and particularly now) do not pay, or will pay one month’s salary and skip the next two months. If workers do manage to escape their employers and take on irregular work elsewhere, they become visa overstayers, for which the United Arab Emirates also imposes a huge per diem fine, further prohibiting these individuals from seeking a better situation.

The United Arab Emirates’ prowess at pretense, whether it be of modernity or regarding the worth of art or culture (Art Dubai, one of the leading art fairs of the Middle East, attracts some thirty thousand visitors annually), knows no limits. The supertall Burj Khalifa and the art from the Louvre thus coexist in a happy union with a modern form of slave labor, in a place whose dark underbelly is covered up by Prada bags and Ferraris and whatever else.

For its part, the UAE recognizes the power of paying empty homage to the concept of human rights, which is partly why its practices are never questioned with any seriousness. In 2014, for instance, the Middle Eastern website Jadaliyya exposed a dubious NGO that pretended to be a human rights organization but was really a propaganda machine tasked with issuing “reports” on human rights issues such as the abuse of migrant workers. The “International Gulf Organization” was based in Geneva but “operated a branch” in Dubai. The leadership of IGO included officials who were on very friendly terms with the Emirati rulers.

Just like Dubai’s many banks, which slip the illegitimate in under the guise and trappings of the legitimate, the IGO produced documentaries and policy reports. However, instead of underscoring the abject condition of migrant workers or alleged Islamists, or the issue of torture of domestic workers, they parroted Emirati propaganda about the improvements being made in these realms. One of the IGO’s first documentaries tried to prove the “fairness” of trials under the Emirati justice system, per which alleged Islamists have been jailed for up to fifteen years simply for criticizing the government. It also “refuted” reports of torture, and of preventing the accused from obtaining legal representation or even visitation from their family members.

IGO’s policy report “Domestic Work Legislation in the GCC” misleadingly labels pending or proposed legislation as proof of progress. It incorrectly places hope in international frameworks and bodies like the International Labor Organization despite the fact that most GCC countries have not ratified nor adopted the ILO convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Other parts of the report obfuscate the reasons why the domestic work sector remains unregulated in Dubai, arguing that it is cultural precepts which produce this resistance, when it is those very cultural precepts that are actively promoted by the government, to ensure that there won’t ever be regulation of the sector.

The example of the IGO is important because it reveals just how easy it is to talk the talk without any intention of ever walking the walk. If Dubai’s banks can funnel money in illegal ways, then surely its fraudulent human rights organizations can do the same thing. After all, in the current age of liberal disenchantment and populist fervor, human rights organizations, even those with alleged enforcement powers like the United Nations, have been reduced to producing report after report that fail to move the powers-that-be or shame the governments that kill and enslave the most vulnerable among them.

In Dubai, then, we have a perfected performance of modernity embellished by the tokens of neoliberalism. The malls, the shops, the endless caverns of duty-free enterprises all pay homage to homo economicus. The buying and selling are all interpreted as a commitment to freedom, where freedom means precisely the freedom to partake of frenzied economic activity. Aesthetics add further credibility, the much-touted wonder of Dubai’s metropolitan skyline offered up as the ultimate homage to technological achievement. That all of it is hollow, that beneath it all lie the bodies of enslaved workers who toiled unto their death, that an obstinate government provides these foreign workers no social services or path to citizenship, are the details in small print that nobody cares to read.

Dubai is not just the case of a shady and ruthless city kingdom given to fraud. It is instead a dark but accurate depiction of the post-liberal order, where capitalism savagely exacts profit and tramples the weak, and there is no way to rescue those it condemns as the detritus of its transactions. Dubai, this post-liberal necropolis, imposes its cruelties on hundreds of thousands because its rulers are aware that the values of human rights, of economic and gender equality, have all been reduced to nice words and policy briefs to be produced at regular intervals by front NGOs. The future, even the post-Trumpian future, promises many more Dubais.