The opulence amazes most Americans, Australians, and Europeans. Instead of tribal authoritarianism, ethnic enmity, or criminal anarchy, they discover a Dubai gloriously gilded in sophisticated style; the Middle East’s modern, enlightened luxury playground. Scheherazade herself seems to await, her legendary thousand and one tales whispering through the sandy breeze. Babylonian hotels, skyscrapers, yachts, villas, restaurants, shopping malls, and indoor ski facilities invite the world’s elite.
But the extravagant transformation does not disguise this Muslim nation’s seedy underbelly. It’s impossible to know exactly how much of Dubai has been built on slave labor. The United Arab Emirates has four million residents, and over 75% are migrant workers from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh. Contractors have a broad range of standards. Some are honorable and legitimate, with fair pay and ethical checks and balances established to prevent employee abuse.
Others might be better described as slave traders. They imprison workers even before they depart their villages, seducing them with promises of riches to send back home. When the workers arrive, they confiscate their passports, leaving them indefinitely captive. The slaves are jammed together in boarding rooms without air conditioning or ventilation. Trapped, abandoned, and poor, some escape and plead for assistance to Dubai’s authorities. Lacking identity documents or airline tickets, the slaves are usually carted back to their captors. Some end their desperate struggle with a jump from their work site; falling to their death from one of Dubai’s marvelous buildings.
My 2009 encounter with Dubai’s slave trade was no less tragic. The evening we arrived, I sat alone at a hotel bar awaiting two male colleagues. Suddenly, three Eastern European girls arrived. They wore halter tops, tight jeans, and glum expressions. A raven-haired Uzbek walked in, speaking quickly on a cell phone. Two Russians, a Kazakh, an Albanian, and a Mauritanian soon arrived. My colleagues walked in, and two dozen girls trailed behind them. By now, almost forty women circled five guys: drinking, flirting, inviting purchase.
The three of us learned their stories as we declined their offers, and found them identical when we compared notes. All had been trafficked into Dubai and remained against their will. Only the Uzbek, whom we guessed was the madam, seemed pleased with the work. She was married and raped at eleven, she said, and fled her husband’s abuse at fifteen. “I only want money from men,” she said. “I have no use for love.”
Dubai provides its denizens with a delightful mirage of freedom, but the luxury may trouble those who truly believe all are created equal. The city claims to be doing more to fight migrant worker and sex trafficking. Last month, authorities sentenced five Filipinos involved with human trafficking to a year in prison for “having sex outside of wedlock.” The legal gymnastics call to mind the U.S. government’s prosecution of criminal kingpin Al Capone for tax fraud.
Back in 2009, the hotel staff shrugged when I queried them about the sex slaves. It seemed clear they somehow benefited from the local arrangement. I departed with a jaundiced eye towards Dubai’s tolerance of inhumanity, hoping the spotlight of the world’s rich and famous would eventually rescue the workers and women who remain powerless to save themselves.