Dubai Feature

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Well over a million people live in Dubai but only 17% are native Emiratis. From the very early days, the country has used foreign workers to oil the wheels of the economy. Traders from India and Iran have been established here for more than a century, many with fathers and grandfathers born in the city. But during the last 20 years, the need for more workers has exploded.

Nowhere else in the world do so many nationalities exist together in harmony. Representatives from about 180 countries bring their disparate religions, diets, and points of view to the Dubai melting pot. The relaxed and convivial atmosphere cultivated by the Dubai royal family filters through the whole population, and these attitudes foster a spirit of understanding and respect for other cultures and individuals. No doubt this is helped along by a lingua franca: English. Most first-time visitors, even when surrounded by the unfamiliar, express surprise at how safe the city feels. Crime barely even registers on the scale. Minds from every continent work here, but the dynamic is a bit more complicated than the simple-happy-people image that's pushed by the tourism authorities.

Most residents of Dubai came here to do one thing—make money. They see the emirate as a land of opportunity where they can benefit, but there are vast differences in the economic status expat workers are able to obtain. Thus their daily lives can differ greatly, as well as their tax-free profits.

Many white-collar positions in business, finance, insurance, real estate, and hotel management are equipped with impressive salaries and more. In addition to earning tax-free wages, most offer generous housing allowances, school placements for kids, country-club memberships, abundant vacation time, and gym memberships for nonworking spouses. These packages, shoo-ins to the glitzy lifestyle for which Dubai is famous, are attracting Brits, Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders, South Africans and North Americans, and increasingly highly educated Indians and Southeast Asians. It is an international resume builder and a stepping-stone to success.

The blue-collar experience is quite different. Salaries are low for store assistants, room maids, and taxi drivers, and most have to leave their families behind in India, Pakistan, or the Philippines. Their employers own their contracts, and some workers have to turn over their passports for the duration of their employ. Blue-collar workers often sleep in small apartments, several to a room, because accommodation is so expensive. Still, for most, their earnings far exceed what they could make in their native countries.

The construction industry in Dubai has been the subject of several press exposés, and critics argue that the city's economic success has been built on exploitation. Hundreds of thousands of mainly Indian and Pakistani laborers are employed at a time on the project sites around the city. Long hours and unenforced safety protocols result in a high percentage of injuries and deaths—880 workers died in 2005. Construction workers also complain about extremely low pay, with salaries rumored to be only 10% of the Dubai average. The government was slow to react but began discussing draft labor laws in early 2007; although its proposals still fall short of accepted international standards, according to Human Rights Watch.

The push for modernization and modernism has been wholeheartedly welcomed by Emiratis, and they embrace the have-it-all lifestyle. Before the 1950s, when the first modern infrastructure arrived in Dubai, Emiratis lived a very different life. Many were nomadic Bedouins who traveled around the desert in extended family groups, eking out a living with their livestock of goats and camels. The Bedouin existed in harmony with the shifting sands. Everything they owned could be carried, including their large tented homes, gold wealth, and foodstuffs such as dates and nuts. Family fealty was and still is paramount in the structure of Emirati society. But one effect of the dramatic economic transformation has been to squeeze the old ways into narrow margins. It's only been during the past few years that the government has started to invest in preserving the heritage of the country, rather than pumping all of its funds into Dubai's new personality. Of all the nationalities that inhabit Dubai, Emiratis are in some ways the most invisible, even though it is their home. They are relatively small in number and guard their home life in hopes of preserving traditional values. The wheeler-and-dealer business types and royal elite can be spotted making deals in Dubai's numerous hotel lounges, but most ordinary Emiratis live quiet lives within family compounds. Don't mistake their reserve for unfriendliness, though; Emiratis simply live a bit apart from the energy that surrounds Dubai.

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