Thursday, 9 April 2009

Vice v7n4 Feature: Dubai

This was one that I did intro, research and edit on but most if the captions and the excellent photos (go to Viceland to check them out) are by Adam Patterson.

CASTLES MADE OF TECHNOSAND

Inside Dubai’s Terrordome


Dubai: A city where oil-rich Emirates are willing to pay $14 million just to drive around with a license plate bearing the number “1” (seriously, look it up). A country of vast metal spires that actually feel like they scrape the sky, constructed with materials that can withstand solar heats, vortex winds and are built on the sweat of others’ misery.

When I landed in Dubai to photograph the structures and the men who made them, the atmosphere resembled the kind of sick feeling you get when noticing a starved pitbull has crept up on you – except here he has been fed acid and has every intention of seizing the very air from your lungs.

Annually 700,000 Brits love the cheap flights from the UK. They splurge money on continuous A/C and luxury bedding. They came for the holiday of a lifetime and it fits the bill. 250,000 limeys love it so much that they now call it home. The papers tell of no crime, they see no beggars or rubbish on the streets and they leave wondering why the UK cannot learn from this fine example. What many people will not consider is a lack of free press. Murders and crimes happen but are rarely reported, and any criticism of the government will leave the respective publication closed for business.

However, it was the structures and those who built them that I was pre-occupied with. As the global economy slowly limps into total bankruptcy and the tourist trade that the oil-raped country has come to rely upon dwindles, so the dollars pouring in dry up and lay-offs begin.

A report issued in January showed that while $692 billion worth of building projects are going ahead, $582 billion worth have been put on hold due to the economic slowdown. What will happen to these huge monoliths of futurist architecture gone wild when there is no one to stay in them? What will happen to the work force shipped in from India and Pakistan whose services can longer be rendered? In 2008, the Wall Street Journal placed Dubai's debt, relative to gross domestic product (GDP), at 42 percent. If you compare this to Abu Dhabi's debt of 2.9 percent of GDP, Dubai looks in serious trouble and the brutal reality behind the shiny titanium fa├žade is far scarier than I could possibly have imagined. Despite the number of labourers being in excess of millions, there are currently only 400 government building inspectors. And that is more than double the 2007 figure. It is common for employers to offer no medical insurance, confiscate passports (illegal even in Dubai) and withhold pay for months on end as an incentive for workers to continue labouring in 120-degree heat that often causes fatalities. In 2006, there were 667 labour-related deaths in Dubai.

The specific details of the structures read like a Dan Dare metropolis designed by a demented Donald Trump. For example, the Burj Al Arab: 321 meters and constructed on an artificial island 280 meters out from Jumeirh beach, taller than the Eiffel Tower, just 65 meters shy of the Empire State Building and constructed from 70,000 cubic meters of concrete and 9,000 tons of steel. To secure a foundation on the artificial base, builders drove 230 40-metre long concrete piles into the sand. The cost of staying in a suite begins at $1,000 per night; while a night in the Royal Suite will set you back $28,000. Its Al Mahara (Arabic for "The Oyster") restaurant has to be accessed by a simulated submarine voyage via a large seawater aquarium, holding roughly 35,000 cubic feet (over one million liters) of water. The tank, made of acrylic glass in order to withstand the water pressure, is about 18 centimeters thick. The hotel can only be reached by causeway in one of its courtesy white Rolls Royces or by helicopter, which lands at the hotel’s heliport that cantilevers out of the roof. It has also served as a grass tennis court for Andre Agassi and Roger Federer, and a golf green for Tiger Woods. Calling itself a 7-star hotel, despite the fact official ratings only go up to 5, the Burj also boasts the world's fastest lifts, which travel at 7 meters per second.

Once upon a time (also known as the late 90s) the Jumeirah Beach Hotel (the one that looks like a big wave that you always see on TV) was one of the tallest in Dubai but now it barely scrapes the top 100. It did however utilise next generation prefab products with strange names like Reynobond Aluminum Composite, which reflect the fierce sun, as well as Colorweld 300 coating and Reynobond panels, which allowed builders to construct the whole shebang in 12 months. To stop the place overheating, a massive cooling plant was constructed at a site almost half a kilometer from the hotel so as not to allow the engineering requirements to intrude on the main building.

At the pyramid-shaped Raffles you can get a 24 carat gold facial treatment and swim in a pool that, from above, operates as a functioning clock via moving jetted streams of water. You can eat brasserie prepared by Prince Charles’ former personal chef at The Grosvenor. Once finished, the $300m dollar Hydropolis Hotel project will allow you to stay in a wholly submerged hotel 22 meters below sea level in a structure the size of London’s Hyde Park for a cool $5,500 a night. The Lost City of Atlantis in the infamous “Palm” (a water-based, shaped clump of islands similar to the infamous “World” enclosure) resort contains just the 1,539 rooms. For £14,000 you can get a night in 1,105 square yards of hotel, the use of six bedrooms, 12 khazis, one gold-plated dinner table, two butlers, two maids, a dishwasher and two chefs.

Planned structures include The Trump International Hotel and Tower, which resembles a huge version of the rocket from Tintin’s Explorers on the Moon and the Dubai Death Star which looks exactly like, erm, a Death Star. Seriously. Zaha Hadid’s Dancing Towers will involve three entwined spikes rivaled only in nuttiness by the Infinity Tower, which will include a 90-degree twist, the Dubai Towers, which look a little like octopus tentacles writhing skywards and the Dynamic Tower, which will offer 80 floors all capable of rotating independently, powered by wind turbines fitted between each floor. The Al Burj, still under construction, will be 1,051 meters tall when finished and requires the tallest structure ever created in order to use as a platform to build the place. Perhaps the most insane proposed structure of all is The Cloud which will resemble a nebulous mass suspended 300m up on pylons designed to resemble rain. Yikes.

Caption Quotes:

* 1: (Opener. No quote.)

* 2: This was taken at around 4:30 AM. These workers must walk to work from their labor camps, which are often miles outside the city. Others are shutteled on prison style buses with faces peering through barred windows. They are part of an approximated 10 million migrant labour force mainly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and The Philippines. They look here much like they are within Emirate society: the ghosts of the great highway, the men building the dreams of Dubai.

* 3: In the rush to modernise, the Emirate of Dubai has ploughed any evidence of its past into the sand. There is no culture here, no way of doing things. Tourists are herded through the predictable turns like the gold souk, a rebuilt fabrication catering to the western craving of how things might have been.

* 4: 2007 reports claimed that Dubai retail and commercial space covered 1.3 million square feet, a figure projected to double this year. 15-25 percent of the world’s cranes are in Dubai, while the economy grows at an annual rate of 16.7 percent and the population 6.4 percent.

* 5: The push for western construction butts up against the pitfalls of religious tradition and often workers collapse and fall to their deaths by dehydration.

* 6: Rest during a lunch break. In summer, the mid-day sun has sweat blinding your eyes within minutes – regular water is needed to maintain – but during the month of Ramadan, when nothing may pass the mouth during daylight, problems arise.

* 7: Many of the workers aspire to be taxi drivers and spend years working their way up – getting permits and passing the taxi law tests. As a taxi driver they can earn as little as construction workers - about 500 Dhs a month ($130) - and will work 13-hour shifts, with only one holiday every two years to see their family.

* 8: Hygiene is minimal but the hand wash offers a brief chance for respite. Many workers discuss their homes and families. No matter the conditions those in a job are still earning ten times what they might at home in Pakistan, India or Bangladesh. Sometimes this is not enough though and in 2006, 87 migrant workers took their lives, many of whom would be sending the life insurance directly to their families.

* 9: The oldest tower hails only from the 70s, and its 30-year-old facade was a completely different incarnation to the one we see today. It was English financiers that saw potential in the tax free zone, and, teamed with Arabic backing, exploited it. It is Dubai law that companies have to be headed by at least one national, and there must be a ten per cent staff of nationals at all times. If a national is fired, the company will be fined by the government.

* 10: Hand in hand, Arabic families and British professionals regenerated the once faceless country, and so a relationship between the two has formed. It is estimated that within two years there will be more British residents than nationals. Judging by the streets of mini skirt-wearing, beer-swilling English who don't even try to tone down their national tongues let alone learn Arabic words, and malls of snogging couples, pasty white in their cut-off shorts and Crocs, this is a statistic quite believable and a world away from the work forces building their playgrounds.

* 11: In March 2006, workers rioted on the site of the Burj Dubai causing around $1 million of damage. Their protests led to a 20 percent increase in salary to match inflation but failure to deliver led to further riots in October 2007 with 4,000 workers being imprisoned and later deported without pay.

* 12: UAE labour laws, particularly in the ‘free zones’, are constructed to benefit the employer and undermine any rights the labour force have. Migrant exploitation is almost literally government sanctioned.

* 13: The day finally ends at sunset, usually at around 7.30 PM. The workers walk along worn paths, away from the public that toss dust into the air and leave a line of gritty, ghostly silhouettes moving into the distance.

* 14: This was taken in Sonapur (‘land of gold’ in Hindi), Dubai’s largest labour camp, which embassies estimate house upwards of 50,000 workers – although these figures are questionable and there are believed to be many more.

* 15: This is Ikram on the left with his friends in a rare moment of relaxation. As the economy begins to fail they have been given a ticket home. They are not sure when, but they are expected to feel lucky for this small mercy. Over the next few days they will be taken to the airport and shipped back to the mountains of Pakistan.

*16: They are excited to see their families again, but there was an over-riding sense of the reality of serious debt, and visits from the collectors. Most went to Dubai on broken promises – the recruiters paint a dream that cannot be realised. The prodigal sons are returning but without the bounty. You have one month to leave following the termination of employment. Whether you have worked two months or 20 years, no one can retire here. It is not an option.

* 17: These guys’ eyes looking back at me with more emotion than I could handle on a hot afternoon, or any other time for that matter, had me near to tears as I considered my photographs could never offer the realities of their suffering and the fact that these men were effectively being held as prisoners who had committed no crimes.

* 18: Imran was a goat herder from northern Pakistan. His family came together and pooled the cash for his flight to Dubai, with the promise of an exciting wage and solid work. On arrival he was informed that this wage would be halved and two months later Imran was told that he must leave Dubai within three days. There is no work; he now has no job.

* 19: Life in Sonapur is squalid and disease and illness rife. Open rubbish bins and sewage are everywhere, leading to high levels of disease and illness amongst workers with little to no access to medical care.

* 20: I visited a workers’ camp on the edge of nowhere. It wasn’t even a village. In fact, all signs prior to arrival indicated that we should immediately turn around, or risk being lost, forgotten and never found. We had left Dubai only an hour before, but this was like being in another world.
Around 30 Indian workers were living here, only months after being miscounted and left to survive on dates that have fallen from trees. They are looking healthier now, thanks to the woman who had taken me to see them. She was a company director that found them nearing starvation only months before and decided to blow the whistle.

* 21: A security guard on a small scale development.

* 22: Sewage left in acrid open pools. You could smell this from within the camp and as you approached, from miles before the camp was even in sight.

* 23: These are the huge pumps that pour the sewage out of the camps. They look like huge octopus tendrils snaking through the refuse-strewn streets.

* 24: The thing I remember most about this guy was his feet. They were rough and worn, like old leather sacks. His skin spoke of a style of living I had never known, or wanted to.

* 25: On my last night in the camp, the poor safety precautions finally caught up with the cheap and squalid living conditions and a petrol fire broke out. It is strange that even in a wholly impoverished culture the TV is still the first thing to be saved.

* 26: I followed Imran to the airport as he prepared to fly home. There were broken bodies everywhere. The workforce constantly reminded me of ghosts in that they are silent and ignored by the city. This shot became a physical manifestation of that feeling.

* 27 + 28: While the male workforce is often ignored but visible, the plight of female domestic servants occurs behind closed doors and is equally harsh. I managed to get scans of Alamesh, a domestic worker from Ethiopia’s pay slip: 500 Dhs ($130) a month for working seven-day weeks and often 18-hour days. Migrant workers send billions of dollars home annually. UAE Exchange claims that of their annual volume in 2008 they turned around 12 billion dollars, most of it to India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

* 29 Alamanesh and Mali working in an Emirate home.

* 30: Here a Filipino domestic worker I met called Jenny enjoys some respite in the Global Village, one of the few leisure areas domestic servants are allowed to enter in Dubai.

* 31: The government has ruled that families must live in villas or flats but female staff like Miss Suzi cannot afford the 150,000 Dhs that would cost. She lives with 24 others in a 3-bedroom villa. She told me: “My dream is to one day go back to the Philippines for good and not come back to Dubai. I don’t know when, there is no future here with the freeze, they have stopped hiring and people are losing their jobs.”

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