Monday, February 21, 2011
Do you wish to know the truth behind the regular bananas you grab each week at the supermarket? If so, read this article. But here is what it's about: banana workers use pesticide on the plant which has the effect of sterility, and birth defects. Dole, Chiquita, they all use it although it has been banned in developing countries as it keeps their disease prone product pest free. Don't fear, there is something you can do - there are Fair Trade bananas out now, called "All Good Bananas". I saw them in Pak n' Save here in NZ. They are just taped together though, possibly off to one side, as the biggest banana supplier gets rights to sell them "loose".
Banana RepublicWORDS HARRIET LAMB AND ANDY KENWORTHY PHOTOGRAPHY SIMON COLEY
Super cheap and plentiful in our supermarkets year round, it's no surprise that bananas arethe world 's most popular and heavily-traded fruit. Across the globe, more people eat bananas than any other fresh fruit and altogether over $25 billion is spent on them each year.
There's a lot to like about bananas; they come ready-wrapped and in a variety of sizes that make them as convenient to pop in the kids lunchboxes as they are to munch one-handed .... while we go about our business. According to The Guardian, only petrol and scratch card soutsell bananas in UK supermarkets.
Chock-full of dietary fibre and vital minerals such as potassium, they even contain tryptophan and vitamin B6, which are known to help us feel happy.
Bananas might be the easiest fruit eat, but susceptibility to disease combined with large-scale monoculture of single varieties means banana producers are second only to cotton producers in global pesticide use.
Then there's the social justice story: while banana sales and demand have soared in Western countries, plummeting prices have had a devastating effect on banana producers in the developing world - vhich is where most bananas are grown, with agencies such as Oxfam reporting that banana plantation workers not make enough to live on and support their families, many earning as little as NZ $3 a day.
According to the World Development Movement, unfair First World barriers cost developing countries US $700 billion a year in lost export earnings – some 14 times the amount that poor countries receive in aid.
But there is a better way. In this book, Harriet Lamb explains how a terrible experience prompted her to pour her efforts into the Fairtrade industry.
Travelling through Costa Rica finding finding out about what life was like for local banana workers, Harriet was suddenly just one mother listening to another talking about the most precious thing in the world - her child.
What could I say? There was nothing I could say. So I just sat next to Maria [footnote 1], held her hand, listened to her story and cried with her.
Like so many local men, her husband, Juan, worked on a banana plantation. During the 1980s his job was to inject a chemical called DBCP [dibromochloropropane] [footnote 2]into the ground with a hand-held machine to kill the worm-like parasites that attack the roots of banana plants. He prepared the chemical, carried it in an open container, and reloaded the machine from an open vat many times a day. As he worked he breathed in DBCP. It often went onto his skin.
Juan knew nothing of its hidden dangers. But the chemical companies who made it did, and the banana companies that used it did. The US manufacturers knew DBCP caused sterility in rats as early as the 1950s but suppressed the information and pressured officials to approve its use. Then in 1977 it was revealed DBCP had made thirty-five workers sterile at a factory in California. The state quickly banned its use and the US Environmental Protection Agency stopped registering any products containing DBCP. Rut the chemical manufacturers went on exporting it to poor countries like Costa Rica, where the banana companies continued using it on their plantations. Day after day Juan's body absorbed the poison - slowly and silently. Only years later did it exact its toll.
It was November 16, 1993. It should have been one of Juan and Maria's happiest days. But, Maria told me, after she had given birth to her son, the hospital staff seemed afraid to bring him to her. It had been a very difficult birth. In the end it was a caesarean.
"But now that was all over, I just wanted to see my child," she said. When she finally held him in her arms, she understood why it had been such a hard delivery and the staff had been reluctant to show her the baby. The boy was severely deformed. His head was four times bigger than his body. His eyes and nose were joined together. He had no proper eyelids. His skin was sickly green. Parts of his brain were missing. And it had all been caused by his father’s exposure to DBCP.
Haltingly she told me -with her eyes filling up - how her baby could never sleep for more than two hours at a stretch, as his condition tortured him. Even now, years later, it makes me cry when I remember her telling me, as she gestured weakly to the room where he had lain, how she couldn't even cuddle the crying boy.
"I couldn't hold him because it seemed to make him cry more. I just talked to him and cried with him. It's the worst thing that can ever happen to anyone. There are no words to explain what life is like." [footnote 3]
When Maria and Juan went to their local doctor for advice about the cause of the deformities and what could be done to help him, he fobbed them off.
"The doctor is in the pay of the company," the local priest later told me.
A few months later the baby died. Maria was far from alone. The babies of over 3,500 women in Costa Rica alone suffered birth defects, we were told. Tens of thousands of workers in Central America and Asia say they have been left sterile by DBCP [footnote 4]. As we sat there, and she showed me pictures of her baby, rage bubbled up inside me because the companies knew of the dangers of this chemical but they ignored them. I have never, ever forgotten Maria.
As I walked away down the path from her small house, I felt a burning desire to tell supermarket shoppers about the misery suffered by people like Maria and Juan in order to deliver ever cheaper and more spotless fruit into their shopping trolleys.
It was 1997. I was working for a British pressure group on world poverty, the World Development Movement (WDM). I was in Costa Rica's bananagrowing Atlantic region with Alistair Smith - a tall, intense campaigner from the watchdog group Banana link - to find out from the workers there how shoppers who ate their bananas could support their struggle for better wages and conditions. The emotions of my meeting with Maria were still churning inside me as he and I sat later in a smoky, ramshackle cafe in town sipping hot sweet coffees and long glasses of water. Nick Shaw, a somewhat dishevelled freelance journalist who was hoping to interest TV's Channel Four News in the issue, had just joined us. We were discussing the companies' line that things had improved. "Things are getting worse, not better," Alistair interjected heatedly, looking up from rolling a cigarette. "The price war between the supermarkets means the banana companies are squeezing workers so they can get the fruit cheaper. Sackings, union-busting, wage cuts, threats to move production to other countries, intimidation - you name it. They're clamping down everywhere."
I'd felt this pressure among the staff of the country's embattled Plantation WorkersUnion, called SITRAP,when we'd visited earlier in the day. "It's like a war now," one of them had told me starkly.
Arriving during the still-gentle, pink, early sun light we'd met Carlos Arguedas, a former 'bananero', or banana worker; now working on environmental issues at SITRAP. His warm, avuncular face and drooping grey moustache belied the horrors he, too, had suffered .
"Yes, I'm one of the 'burnts', as we're jokingly called," he told me. "I was affected by DBCP. I am unable to procreate. I have headaches, kidney problems, loss of sight. DBCP produces inflammation of the testicles, or the shrinking of testicles even to the point of being nearly eliminated. The worker who has reduced testicles has suffered less than those whose testicles have been inflamed or those who have had to have theirs amputated. There are co-workers affected by DBCP who don 't have genitals any more now."
By that time, 16,000 banana workers from 12 countries were trying to take legal action in the US courts against the chemical companies Shell, Dow Chemical and Occidental Chemical as well as the three banana giants Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte - that dominate the trade. Despite years of legal wrangling, none of these workers had yet received one single cent in compensation from US courts. Others had felt compelled to take offensively small, out-of-court settlements. Many had died young waiting for justice.
In November 2007, however, after decades of doing everything to avoid justice in the US, Dow and Dole finally were proved guilty in a Los Angeles courtroom of making six Nicaraguan banana workers sterile through the use of DBCP and were ordered to pay out $3.3 million in compensation.
Company letters from the 1960s and 1970s were used in court to show that "Dole knew about the problems with DBCP, but wanted to continue using the chemical because the company feared not doing so would hurt their banana crops", reported Associated Press. Thousands of further cases of banana workers in Central America and West Africa who allege they have been affected by DBCP are waiting to come to court.” [footnote 5]
As we sat in the union's cramped office, Carlos told me he'd eventually accepted an out-of-court settlement of $7,600 - no liability was admitted, and it was only enough for ten treatment sessions at a local clinic for a condition he'd have for the rest of his life. And yet, he says, some US workers affected by DBCP received $1 million compensation each.
He says of the pay-out, "It makes me angry when I think the multinationals come to our country, contaminate our men, take back their dollars, leaving mutilated men and women, and don 't face up to their responsibilities afterwards. "
I asked Carlos if he'd like to give a message to people in the UK who buy Costa Rican bananas. His response was striking. "Bananas carry a high cost in this country. We don't ask people in Britain to stop buying them. But we do ask they be mindful so that sooner, rather than later, we should have a banana industry that is in accord with nature and with humankind. We hope to have the strength to continue producing that dessert which is so popular in your country. But we hope to continue doing so in humane and ecologically-sound living conditions."
His vision of a fairer way of trading bananas could have sounded hopelessly naive. But from Carlos, who knew firsthand the brutal realities of the cur-throat trade and the power of the companies who controlled it, the words were powerful and inspiring. I felt then for the first time, as I feel now, that building this better type of trade had to be possible. And across the world - in Costa Rica, in Mexico, in tiny Caribbean islands, in development organisations in Europe and North America -more and more people were thin king.along the same lines. The beginnings of a global movement were stirring.
Footnotes:l. Names have been changed to protect the identities of workers and because legal proceedings to secure compensation continue.
2. Excerpt on pineapple plantations in Hawaii. World Development Movement (WDM ), DBCP Legal Action, 1997, WDM.
3. WDM, DBCP Legal Action, 1997, WDM.
4. WDM, Saying Yes to the Best - Justice for Banana Workers, 1997, WDM.
5. Associated Press, 5 November 2007; Los Angeles Times, 6 November 2007. See also www.ihr.com/articles/ap/2007/11/06/business/NA-FIN-USBanana-Workers.php
- From Fighting the Banana Wars and Other Fairtrade Battles, by Harriet Lamb, Rider 2009, $28. Extracted with permission, proceeds donated to the Fairtrade Foundation.
(Photo Left) Harriet Lamb
Fairtrade warriorDescribed in the press as dynamic, inspiring and the 'Eco Queen', Harriet Lamb is living proof that individuals can make a difference. Born in India, Harriet was educated at a private boarding school in Wiltshire, UK. A political science degree at Cambridge University was followed by an MPhil in Development Studies.
Returning to India, Harriet spent 18 months helping farm workers in the lowest caste system, the 'untouchables', to band together in a co-operative selling grapes. She's travelled and campaigned in many countries but cites the heart-rending meeting with Maria, described above, as the moment that convincedher of theimportanceoffairtrade.
Harriet has bee nthe executive director of the United Kingdom Fairtrade Foundation since 2001 and through her leadership she's helped make fairtrade one of Britain's most active grassroots social movements. Accolades include the UK's Orange Businesswoman of the Year 2008 and a CBE (Commander of the Order of theBritish Empire) for her contribution to Fairtrade.
Harriet plans to visit NewZealand mid 2011.Watch this space!
Sunny side upBanana devotee ANDY KENWORTHY gives usthe goods on the availability of guilt-free bananas in New Zealand.I recently visited naturopath Christine Lane, and the hardest task she set me was to improve my diet was to "expand your choice of fruit beyond bananas ". I love those hand-sized packages of seedless goodness: you don 't need tools to eat one, your fingers don't get sticky and you don't spend the rest of the day picking bits from your teeth.
But I don 't think I love bananas as much as Chris Morrison. Right now he has several 40-foot containers full of them and several more container loads on the way.
Other than my naturopath, the only thing that ever gave me pause when grabbing a bunch of bananas was the thought that they had to be flown in from some pretty poverty-stricken, far-off places. From my experience of working with non-government organisations like Oxfam and WWF, I know local producers don't often get their fair share of the profits and environmental safeguards can be limited or non-existent. Chris is working to remove this final barrier between me and my lifelong banana addiction, and ruin my naturopath's best-laid plans.
Along with his wife, Deborah Cairns, and business partner Roger Harris, Chris co-founded Phoenix Organics, and spent two decades pioneering New Zealand's organic drinks market. Then in 2008 his new company, All Good Bananas, was launched with hisbrother,M atthew,and business partner, Simon Coley.At first, the team imported organic Samoan bananas, then began searching for ethical producers elsewhere. The first to get Fairtrade bananas onto our nation's shelves, their company also hopes to secure an ongoing supply of organic Fairtrade bananas if it can.
I asked Chris why.
"It has been on my radar for a long time and we have seen how successful organic bananas have been around the world, particularly in Europe," says Chris. "We knew that New Zealanders love bananas, so I thought it was time they were offered a fair banana."
Timing is key: a lot of the groundwork for Fairtrade and organic produce has been done by cafes offering ethical coffee to the country's caffeine addicts. And in recent years, nongovernment organisations have raised awareness of the issues involved and are now promoting All Good Bananas to their networks of supporters.
"There are similar issues with other commodities like coffee, tea and cocoa. It's about giving people a fair price for their products and for their labours," says Chris.
But is the current recession the best time to launch All Good, given that more money for the producers means the bananas will cost about a dollar more a bunch?
Chris is optimistic: "I think Kiwis can relate to people not having a lot. It is a wake-up call for shoppers - they can make a difference. And it is great to see Kiwis responding positively to that message."
The power of positive thought appears to be working. So far the company is knocking our five 40-foot containers of bananas a month to Nosh, Pak'n Save, New World and others all over the country, with more orders rolling in all the time. But as this is fairtrade, getting the fruit into the shops was only one part of the challenge: the other was sourcing the right bananas in the first place.
Here the team at All Good enlisted the help of AgroFair, a company that imports a large amount of Fairtrade fruit into Europe. AgroFair hooked the company up with a co-operative in El Guabo, Ecuador. Like all Fairtrade producers, El Guabo is independently audited. In addition, Matthew, Simon and Chris's daughter Rose have all visited the co-operative to meet the workers and see the effect of their efforts firsthand.
Chris explains the impact: "Unfortunately, there is still a lot of corruption in the developing world. We may think we are doing the best thing for people by giving them aid, but only a percentage of that goes into the right hands. Fairtrade is independently audited, the producers get paid a fair wage and the community co-operatives receive a premium. They work democratically, and can choose to spend it on education, medical facilities or more farming equipment."
Ecuador is a long way away. Isn't there some way we could cut the air miles on our bananas too?
"In an ideal world, we would like to work with our neighbours in the Pacific," says Chris. “A lot of bananas used to come from the Pacific but then the big corporations stepped in and undercut them, destroying markets overnight.
"We are working to try and help set them back up, but a lot of the infrastructure has gone. We are currently experimenting with bringing in Samoan dried bananas to put into a health bar with coconut and other whole food ingredients."
So where to next? Spray free?
As El Guabo is certified by The Fairtrade Labelling Organisation, a long list of fungicides and pesticides commonly found in conventional banana production are no longer present in theirs. But like other food imports, All Good Bananas sometimes get fumigated by inspectors from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry on their way in. So Chris and his team are working on new ways of packing and shipping their bananas to minimise the chances of this happening. "We don't have full organic certification just yet, but it's our ultimate goal. We're working hard on this and our producers already use organic fertilisers," says Chris.
And, finally, if you've wondered why the All Good Bananas come in taped 1 kg bunches in supermarkets, it's because selling ' loose' is the exclusive preserve of the biggest banana supplier in each store.
To help ensure we get Fairtrade organic bananas loose in our supermarket sometime soon, I'm off to get me some All Good Bananas.
The Last Banana?
- In 2003, New Scientist magazine ran a cover story arguing that the supply of Cavendish bananas, the type most commonly sold around the world (including All Good Bananas). could be devastated.by diseases sweeping through the world's crop.
- This has happened before. The banana cultivar Gros Michel used to be the type most people were eating around the world. By most accounts it was tastier, more robust and easier to ship. Then in 1960 Panama disease, also known as Fusarium wilt, killed so many bananas it pretty much wiped out this cultivar as a commercial proposition. That's when the world shifted to the Cavendish. But it, too, is now being hit by new strains of the same disease. Research is underway into the use of other varieties and even genetic modification as potential solutions to the problem.
- Bananas are Australia's top-selling fruit, but even though more than 85 percent of the nation's banana crop was destroyed in February's cyclone, they won't be bringing any in from overseas. Australia technically permits imports from the Philippines, but biosecurity standards are so high no grower has yet obtained entry.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT:
1. Michael on top of a mound of the organic fertiliser he makes for the El Guabo Co-operative. He collects by-products from local farms and industries, including processed coffee, rice grasses, and liquid biological fertiliser
2. Washed,weighing and checking hands of bananas for quality in the packing shed at the San Andrea s farm in El Guabo
3. A team of Bananeros, the local name for banana farmers, harvesting bananas at San Andreas farm in El Guabo
4. Maricela Calero cleaning the flowers out from bunch of bananas at the San Andreas farm in El Guabo
5. Anibal Upulte has owned and farmed his small Fairtrade organic banana farm on the border of Ecuador and Peru for over 30 years
6. Taping and packing AllGood Bananas into 1kg bunches as you find them in store. Tape bearing the Fairtrade mark is carefully wound around each bunch before they're placed in boxes bound for New Zealand. The Fairtrade mark is an independent, third-party certification scheme identifying bananas that guarantee growers a fair deal
7. A cable system carefully transports the bananas to the packing shed at the San Andreas farm in EI Guabo Centre
8. Children swim in the river below Cabrera's organic banana farm in the highlands of EI Guabo. Biodiversity and the absence of herbicides and pesticides on farms like this keep the local water clean and unpolluted for drinking and swimming
9. Teams of two cut and carry the bunches of bananas harvested at fruit from the palm
From top left to right:
1. Segundo Ceguana, President of the E1 Guabo Association of Small Banana Producers
2. Jose Tenesaca has been able to support his wife Maria and family by owning his small banana farm as a member of the El Guabo Association of small Banana Producers
3. Abel Ugarte, Elizabeth Urdiales and their family at their organic farm in Pasaje, El Guabo.
4. Children at one of E1Guabo's 17 schools. Over 900 local children benefit from the Fairtrade premium paid by shoppers
There are two issues here - one is the human impact of the way we produce food - the human cost of the efficiency and perfection the world demands. The other is biological, in regardes to the food plant itself with the impact of monoculture growing. When only one strain of a food is mass-produced for greater efficiency, that single variety is more prone to being wiped out than a variety of strains suited to local climates.
From the article, of particular note is:
"According to the World Development Movement, unfair First World barriers cost developing countries US $700 billion a year in lost export earnings – some 14 times the amount that poor countries receive in aid."
Saturday, February 19, 2011
I love how simple and ornate Jane Ray's illustrations are at the same time. They are full of spirit.
Above is an illustration from The Orchard Book of The Unicorn and other Magical Animals. (Good title by the way, specific, not general.)
I will definitely buy the book one day. Full of tales from all over the world. The one in the image above is a Scandinavian story, told in the Orkney Isles to explain how the islands came into being. The creature above is a monster with a head as big as a mountain named Master Stoorworm! The tale is called, in the book The Sea Serpent: Jamie and the Biggest, First and Father of Serpents.
Another wonderful tale in the book is The Feathered Snake: How Music Came into the World, a tale from Mexico (pages below).
She places smaller decorations throughout the book, which decorate the book as a whole, around the page numbers, contents and title pages, ribbons of motifs along the page text, some coloured page backs, at story close.
(Below) Jane Ray's deceptively simple illustration from the front of the book.Each fish is drawn with a different pattern.
Original Oamaru Mail link: http://www.oamarumail.co.nz/local/news/council-buys-into-nappies/3921583/
Council to subsidise cloth nappies
By Randall Johnston
12:22 PM Friday Sep 10, 2010
Waitaki District Council solid waste officer Gerry O'Neill said disposable nappies were responsible for five per cent of the waste that ended up at the Oamaru landfill. Photo / Thinkstock
In what could be a first for New Zealand, the Waitaki District Council is planning to sell cloth nappies from its front desk in an effort to reduce the amount of disposable nappies being put into landfill.
Council solid waste officer Gerry O'Neill said disposable nappies were responsible for five per cent of the waste that ended up at the Oamaru landfill.
"It is proposed that council offer subsidised starter packs of cloth nappies to the parents of newborn babies in the district," he told the Oamaru Mail.
"This is to encourage the use of cloth nappies and reduce the community's reliance on disposable nappies"
A study of solid waste at the Oamaru landfill showed it received about 12 tonnes of nappies and sanitary waste a week in 2008.
Mr O'Neill said the same amount was likely to be going in at the Palmerston landfill.
The cost of this cloth nappy initiative is tipped to be capped at $5500 a year and at this stage it is suggested it be funded out of the $225,000 set aside in the Long Term Council Community Plan for the promotion of waste minimisation.
The council is looking to reduce waste at landfills to meet its obligations under the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).
The ETS requires landfill owners to buy emissions units for emissions generated from their waste from January 1, 2013.
If councillors approve the cloth-nappy initiative, its effectiveness will be reviewed after one year.
Interesting fact: It takes 450 to 550 years for a disposable nappy to decompose in a landfill environment.
- OAMARU MAIL
By Randall Johnston
FIVE MINUTES WITH David SuzukiDavid Suzuki, scientist and passionate environmentalist, spoke to Vincent Heeringa about action and optimism when he was last in New Zealand.
Good: Sometimes our environment problems seem so large that as individuals we are overwhelmed. How can we make a difference?
David: I used to say 'think global, act local'. But it becomes so immense that people feel disempowered. We're better to 'think locally and act locally' to have any hope of being effective globally.
Good: How urgent are our problems?
David: I feel like we're heading towards a brick wall at 100 miles an hour, and we've got to slow down and get off the road. Individually, we can begin to act. On my website we've got the nature challenge - the 10 most effective things people can do. We focus on three areas: what we eat, how wemove and where we live - so food, housing and transportation.Very simple things, but if everybody does them it'll be quite effective at slowing us down.
Good: And on a global scale?
David: We need big government action: regulation and taxation. We need to regulate and bring down our car emissions. And we have to use taxation creatively: pull back taxes on the things you want to encourage, like infrastructure and green salaries, and tax the hell out of pollution.
Good: Do you feel like there's a momentum building?
David: The frustration for me is the power of the people with money. And that money in the end is driving the resistance to making the big changes. I'm an elder now, free of the burden of having to seek celebrity or power or money. So here's the truth: if we don't act, my children and grandchildren are in for deep trouble. When I'm on my deathbed, I want my grandchildren to gather round and for me to be able to say, "Look, I did the best I could!" I'm not going to be able to save the world, I'm only one person. But grandpa did the best he could.
Monday, February 7, 2011
As reported by The Independent
Dubai was meant to be a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La, a glittering monument to Arab enterprise and western capitalism. But as hard times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an uglier story is emerging. Johann Hari reports
Tuesday, 7 April 2009
Construction workers in their distinctive blue overalls building the upper floors a new Dubai tower, with the distinctive Burj al-Arab hotel in the background
Workers wait for a bus
The Palm, a man-made archipelago off the coast of Dubai
Workers excavate a building site next to the Emirates Towers
The wide, smiling face of Sheikh Mohammed – the absolute ruler of Dubai – beams down on his creation. His image is displayed on every other building, sandwiched between the more familiar corporate rictuses of Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders. This man has sold Dubai to the world as the city of One Thousand and One Arabian Lights, a Shangri-La in the Middle East insulated from the dust-storms blasting across the region. He dominates the Manhattan-manqué skyline, beaming out from row after row of glass pyramids and hotels smelted into the shape of piles of golden coins. And there he stands on the tallest building in the world – a skinny spike, jabbing farther into the sky than any other human construction in history.
But something has flickered in Sheikh Mohammed's smile. The ubiquitous cranes have paused on the skyline, as if stuck in time. There are countless buildings half-finished, seemingly abandoned. In the swankiest new constructions – like the vast Atlantis hotel, a giant pink castle built in 1,000 days for $1.5bn on its own artificial island – where rainwater is leaking from the ceilings and the tiles are falling off the roof. This Neverland was built on the Never-Never – and now the cracks are beginning to show. Suddenly it looks less like Manhattan in the sun than Iceland in the desert.
Once the manic burst of building has stopped and the whirlwind has slowed, the secrets of Dubai are slowly seeping out. This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery. Dubai is a living metal metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing – at last – into history.
•State distances itself from Dubai World debt
•Sean O'Grady: Is Dubai the 'New Lehmans'?
Search the news archive for more stories
I. An Adult Disneyland
Karen Andrews can't speak. Every time she starts to tell her story, she puts her head down and crumples. She is slim and angular and has the faded radiance of the once-rich, even though her clothes are as creased as her forehead. I find her in the car park of one of Dubai's finest international hotels, where she is living, in her Range Rover. She has been sleeping here for months, thanks to the kindness of the Bangladeshi car park attendants who don't have the heart to move her on. This is not where she thought her Dubai dream would end.
Her story comes out in stutters, over four hours. At times, her old voice – witty and warm – breaks through. Karen came here from Canada when her husband was offered a job in the senior division of a famous multinational. "When he said Dubai, I said – if you want me to wear black and quit booze, baby, you've got the wrong girl. But he asked me to give it a chance. And I loved him."
All her worries melted when she touched down in Dubai in 2005. "It was an adult Disneyland, where Sheikh Mohammed is the mouse," she says. "Life was fantastic. You had these amazing big apartments, you had a whole army of your own staff, you pay no taxes at all. It seemed like everyone was a CEO. We were partying the whole time."
Her husband, Daniel, bought two properties. "We were drunk on Dubai," she says. But for the first time in his life, he was beginning to mismanage their finances. "We're not talking huge sums, but he was getting confused. It was so unlike Daniel, I was surprised. We got into a little bit of debt." After a year, she found out why: Daniel was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
One doctor told him he had a year to live; another said it was benign and he'd be okay. But the debts were growing. "Before I came here, I didn't know anything about Dubai law. I assumed if all these big companies come here, it must be pretty like Canada's or any other liberal democracy's," she says. Nobody told her there is no concept of bankruptcy. If you get into debt and you can't pay, you go to prison.
"When we realised that, I sat Daniel down and told him: listen, we need to get out of here. He knew he was guaranteed a pay-off when he resigned, so we said – right, let's take the pay-off, clear the debt, and go." So Daniel resigned – but he was given a lower pay-off than his contract suggested. The debt remained. As soon as you quit your job in Dubai, your employer has to inform your bank. If you have any outstanding debts that aren't covered by your savings, then all your accounts are frozen, and you are forbidden to leave the country.
"Suddenly our cards stopped working. We had nothing. We were thrown out of our apartment." Karen can't speak about what happened next for a long time; she is shaking.
Daniel was arrested and taken away on the day of their eviction. It was six days before she could talk to him. "He told me he was put in a cell with another debtor, a Sri Lankan guy who was only 27, who said he couldn't face the shame to his family. Daniel woke up and the boy had swallowed razor-blades. He banged for help, but nobody came, and the boy died in front of him."
Karen managed to beg from her friends for a few weeks, "but it was so humiliating. I've never lived like this. I worked in the fashion industry. I had my own shops. I've never..." She peters out.
Daniel was sentenced to six months' imprisonment at a trial he couldn't understand. It was in Arabic, and there was no translation. "Now I'm here illegally, too," Karen says I've got no money, nothing. I have to last nine months until he's out, somehow." Looking away, almost paralysed with embarrassment, she asks if I could buy her a meal.
She is not alone. All over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars.
"The thing you have to understand about Dubai is – nothing is what it seems," Karen says at last. "Nothing. This isn't a city, it's a con-job. They lure you in telling you it's one thing – a modern kind of place – but beneath the surface it's a medieval dictatorship."
Thirty years ago, almost all of contemporary Dubai was desert, inhabited only by cactuses and tumbleweed and scorpions. But downtown there are traces of the town that once was, buried amidst the metal and glass. In the dusty fort of the Dubai Museum, a sanitised version of this story is told.
In the mid-18th century, a small village was built here, in the lower Persian Gulf, where people would dive for pearls off the coast. It soon began to accumulate a cosmopolitan population washing up from Persia, the Indian subcontinent, and other Arab countries, all hoping to make their fortune. They named it after a local locust, the daba, who consumed everything before it. The town was soon seized by the gunships of the British Empire, who held it by the throat as late as 1971. As they scuttled away, Dubai decided to ally with the six surrounding states and make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The British quit, exhausted, just as oil was being discovered, and the sheikhs who suddenly found themselves in charge faced a remarkable dilemma. They were largely illiterate nomads who spent their lives driving camels through the desert – yet now they had a vast pot of gold. What should they do with it?
Dubai only had a dribble of oil compared to neighbouring Abu Dhabi – so Sheikh Maktoum decided to use the revenues to build something that would last. Israel used to boast it made the desert bloom; Sheikh Maktoum resolved to make the desert boom. He would build a city to be a centre of tourism and financial services, sucking up cash and talent from across the globe. He invited the world to come tax-free – and they came in their millions, swamping the local population, who now make up just 5 per cent of Dubai. A city seemed to fall from the sky in just three decades, whole and complete and swelling. They fast-forwarded from the 18th century to the 21st in a single generation.
If you take the Big Bus Tour of Dubai – the passport to a pre-processed experience of every major city on earth – you are fed the propaganda-vision of how this happened. "Dubai's motto is 'Open doors, open minds'," the tour guide tells you in clipped tones, before depositing you at the souks to buy camel tea-cosies. "Here you are free. To purchase fabrics," he adds. As you pass each new monumental building, he tells you: "The World Trade Centre was built by His Highness..."
But this is a lie. The sheikh did not build this city. It was built by slaves. They are building it now.
III. Hidden in plain view
There are three different Dubais, all swirling around each other. There are the expats, like Karen; there are the Emiratis, headed by Sheikh Mohammed; and then there is the foreign underclass who built the city, and are trapped here. They are hidden in plain view. You see them everywhere, in dirt-caked blue uniforms, being shouted at by their superiors, like a chain gang – but you are trained not to look. It is like a mantra: the Sheikh built the city. The Sheikh built the city. Workers? What workers?
Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. They sweat like sponges being slowly wrung out.
Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings. Some 300,000 men live piled up here, in a place whose name in Hindi means "City of Gold". In the first camp I stop at – riven with the smell of sewage and sweat – the men huddle around, eager to tell someone, anyone, what is happening to them.
Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. "To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell," he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal's village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa – a fee they'd pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.
As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.
Sahinal was in a panic. His family back home – his son, daughter, wife and parents – were waiting for money, excited that their boy had finally made it. But he was going to have to work for more than two years just to pay for the cost of getting here – and all to earn less than he did in Bangladesh.
He shows me his room. It is a tiny, poky, concrete cell with triple-decker bunk-beds, where he lives with 11 other men. All his belongings are piled onto his bunk: three shirts, a spare pair of trousers, and a cellphone. The room stinks, because the lavatories in the corner of the camp – holes in the ground – are backed up with excrement and clouds of black flies. There is no air conditioning or fans, so the heat is "unbearable. You cannot sleep. All you do is sweat and scratch all night." At the height of summer, people sleep on the floor, on the roof, anywhere where they can pray for a moment of breeze.
The water delivered to the camp in huge white containers isn't properly desalinated: it tastes of salt. "It makes us sick, but we have nothing else to drink," he says.
The work is "the worst in the world," he says. "You have to carry 50kg bricks and blocks of cement in the worst heat imaginable ... This heat – it is like nothing else. You sweat so much you can't pee, not for days or weeks. It's like all the liquid comes out through your skin and you stink. You become dizzy and sick but you aren't allowed to stop, except for an hour in the afternoon. You know if you drop anything or slip, you could die. If you take time off sick, your wages are docked, and you are trapped here even longer."
He is currently working on the 67th floor of a shiny new tower, where he builds upwards, into the sky, into the heat. He doesn't know its name. In his four years here, he has never seen the Dubai of tourist-fame, except as he constructs it floor-by-floor.
Is he angry? He is quiet for a long time. "Here, nobody shows their anger. You can't. You get put in jail for a long time, then deported." Last year, some workers went on strike after they were not given their wages for four months. The Dubai police surrounded their camps with razor-wire and water-cannons and blasted them out and back to work.
The "ringleaders" were imprisoned. I try a different question: does Sohinal regret coming? All the men look down, awkwardly. "How can we think about that? We are trapped. If we start to think about regrets..." He lets the sentence trail off. Eventually, another worker breaks the silence by adding: "I miss my country, my family and my land. We can grow food in Bangladesh. Here, nothing grows. Just oil and buildings."
Since the recession hit, they say, the electricity has been cut off in dozens of the camps, and the men have not been paid for months. Their companies have disappeared with their passports and their pay. "We have been robbed of everything. Even if somehow we get back to Bangladesh, the loan sharks will demand we repay our loans immediately, and when we can't, we'll be sent to prison."
This is all supposed to be illegal. Employers are meant to pay on time, never take your passport, give you breaks in the heat – but I met nobody who said it happens. Not one. These men are conned into coming and trapped into staying, with the complicity of the Dubai authorities.
Sahinal could well die out here. A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they're not reported. They're described as 'accidents'." Even then, their families aren't free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a "cover-up of the true extent" of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.
At night, in the dusk, I sit in the camp with Sohinal and his friends as they scrape together what they have left to buy a cheap bottle of spirits. They down it in one ferocious gulp. "It helps you to feel numb", Sohinal says through a stinging throat. In the distance, the glistening Dubai skyline he built stands, oblivious.
IV. Mauled by the mall
I find myself stumbling in a daze from the camps into the sprawling marble malls that seem to stand on every street in Dubai. It is so hot there is no point building pavements; people gather in these cathedrals of consumerism to bask in the air conditioning. So within a ten minute taxi-ride, I have left Sohinal and I am standing in the middle of Harvey Nichols, being shown a £20,000 taffeta dress by a bored salesgirl. "As you can see, it is cut on the bias..." she says, and I stop writing.
Time doesn't seem to pass in the malls. Days blur with the same electric light, the same shined floors, the same brands I know from home. Here, Dubai is reduced to its component sounds: do-buy. In the most expensive malls I am almost alone, the shops empty and echoing. On the record, everybody tells me business is going fine. Off the record, they look panicky. There is a hat exhibition ahead of the Dubai races, selling elaborate headgear for £1,000 a pop. "Last year, we were packed. Now look," a hat designer tells me. She swoops her arm over a vacant space.
I approach a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in hotpants, oblivious to the swarms of men gaping at her. "I love it here!" she says. "The heat, the malls, the beach!" Does it ever bother you that it's a slave society? She puts her head down, just as Sohinal did. "I try not to see," she says. Even at 17, she has learned not to look, and not to ask; that, she senses, is a transgression too far.
Between the malls, there is nothing but the connecting tissue of asphalt. Every road has at least four lanes; Dubai feels like a motorway punctuated by shopping centres. You only walk anywhere if you are suicidal. The residents of Dubai flit from mall to mall by car or taxis.
How does it feel if this is your country, filled with foreigners? Unlike the expats and the slave class, I can't just approach the native Emiratis to ask questions when I see them wandering around – the men in cool white robes, the women in sweltering black. If you try, the women blank you, and the men look affronted, and tell you brusquely that Dubai is "fine". So I browse through the Emirati blog-scene and found some typical-sounding young Emiratis. We meet – where else? – in the mall.
Ahmed al-Atar is a handsome 23-year-old with a neat, trimmed beard, tailored white robes, and rectangular wire-glasses. He speaks perfect American-English, and quickly shows that he knows London, Los Angeles and Paris better than most westerners. Sitting back in his chair in an identikit Starbucks, he announces: "This is the best place in the world to be young! The government pays for your education up to PhD level. You get given a free house when you get married. You get free healthcare, and if it's not good enough here, they pay for you to go abroad. You don't even have to pay for your phone calls. Almost everyone has a maid, a nanny, and a driver. And we never pay any taxes. Don't you wish you were Emirati?"
I try to raise potential objections to this Panglossian summary, but he leans forward and says: "Look – my grandfather woke up every day and he would have to fight to get to the well first to get water. When the wells ran dry, they had to have water delivered by camel. They were always hungry and thirsty and desperate for jobs. He limped all his life, because he there was no medical treatment available when he broke his leg. Now look at us!"
For Emiratis, this is a Santa Claus state, handing out goodies while it makes its money elsewhere: through renting out land to foreigners, soft taxes on them like business and airport charges, and the remaining dribble of oil. Most Emiratis, like Ahmed, work for the government, so they're cushioned from the credit crunch. "I haven't felt any effect at all, and nor have my friends," he says. "Your employment is secure. You will only be fired if you do something incredibly bad." The laws are currently being tightened, to make it even more impossible to sack an Emirati.
Sure, the flooding-in of expats can sometimes be "an eyesore", Ahmed says. "But we see the expats as the price we had to pay for this development. How else could we do it? Nobody wants to go back to the days of the desert, the days before everyone came. We went from being like an African country to having an average income per head of $120,000 a year. And we're supposed to complain?"
He says the lack of political freedom is fine by him. "You'll find it very hard to find an Emirati who doesn't support Sheikh Mohammed." Because they're scared? "No, because we really all support him. He's a great leader. Just look!" He smiles and says: "I'm sure my life is very much like yours. We hang out, have a coffee, go to the movies. You'll be in a Pizza Hut or Nando's in London, and at the same time I'll be in one in Dubai," he says, ordering another latte.
But do all young Emiratis see it this way? Can it really be so sunny in the political sands? In the sleek Emirates Tower Hotel, I meet Sultan al-Qassemi. He's a 31-year-old Emirati columnist for the Dubai press and private art collector, with a reputation for being a contrarian liberal, advocating gradual reform. He is wearing Western clothes – blue jeans and a Ralph Lauren shirt – and speaks incredibly fast, turning himself into a manic whirr of arguments.
"People here are turning into lazy, overweight babies!" he exclaims. "The nanny state has gone too far. We don't do anything for ourselves! Why don't any of us work for the private sector? Why can't a mother and father look after their own child?" And yet, when I try to bring up the system of slavery that built Dubai, he looks angry. "People should give us credit," he insists. "We are the most tolerant people in the world. Dubai is the only truly international city in the world. Everyone who comes here is treated with respect."
I pause, and think of the vast camps in Sonapur, just a few miles away. Does he even know they exist? He looks irritated. "You know, if there are 30 or 40 cases [of worker abuse] a year, that sounds like a lot but when you think about how many people are here..." Thirty or 40? This abuse is endemic to the system, I say. We're talking about hundreds of thousands.
Sultan is furious. He splutters: "You don't think Mexicans are treated badly in New York City? And how long did it take Britain to treat people well? I could come to London and write about the homeless people on Oxford Street and make your city sound like a terrible place, too! The workers here can leave any time they want! Any Indian can leave, any Asian can leave!"
But they can't, I point out. Their passports are taken away, and their wages are withheld. "Well, I feel bad if that happens, and anybody who does that should be punished. But their embassies should help them." They try. But why do you forbid the workers – with force – from going on strike against lousy employers? "Thank God we don't allow that!" he exclaims. "Strikes are in-convenient! They go on the street – we're not having that. We won't be like France. Imagine a country where they the workers can just stop whenever they want!" So what should the workers do when they are cheated and lied to? "Quit. Leave the country."
I sigh. Sultan is seething now. "People in the West are always complaining about us," he says. Suddenly, he adopts a mock-whiny voice and says, in imitation of these disgusting critics: "Why don't you treat animals better? Why don't you have better shampoo advertising? Why don't you treat labourers better?" It's a revealing order: animals, shampoo, then workers. He becomes more heated, shifting in his seat, jabbing his finger at me. "I gave workers who worked for me safety goggles and special boots, and they didn't want to wear them! It slows them down!"
And then he smiles, coming up with what he sees as his killer argument. "When I see Western journalists criticise us – don't you realise you're shooting yourself in the foot? The Middle East will be far more dangerous if Dubai fails. Our export isn't oil, it's hope. Poor Egyptians or Libyans or Iranians grow up saying – I want to go to Dubai. We're very important to the region. We are showing how to be a modern Muslim country. We don't have any fundamentalists here. Europeans shouldn't gloat at our demise. You should be very worried.... Do you know what will happen if this model fails? Dubai will go down the Iranian path, the Islamist path."
Sultan sits back. My arguments have clearly disturbed him; he says in a softer, conciliatory tone, almost pleading: "Listen. My mother used to go to the well and get a bucket of water every morning. On her wedding day, she was given an orange as a gift because she had never eaten one. Two of my brothers died when they were babies because the healthcare system hadn't developed yet. Don't judge us." He says it again, his eyes filled with intensity: "Don't judge us."
V. The Dunkin' Donuts Dissidents
But there is another face to the Emirati minority – a small huddle of dissidents, trying to shake the Sheikhs out of abusive laws. Next to a Virgin Megastore and a Dunkin' Donuts, with James Blunt's "You're Beautiful" blaring behind me, I meet the Dubai dictatorship's Public Enemy Number One. By way of introduction, Mohammed al-Mansoori says from within his white robes and sinewy face: "Westerners come here and see the malls and the tall buildings and they think that means we are free. But these businesses, these buildings – who are they for? This is a dictatorship. The royal family think they own the country, and the people are their servants. There is no freedom here."
We snuffle out the only Arabic restaurant in this mall, and he says everything you are banned – under threat of prison – from saying in Dubai. Mohammed tells me he was born in Dubai to a fisherman father who taught him one enduring lesson: Never follow the herd. Think for yourself. In the sudden surge of development, Mohammed trained as a lawyer. By the Noughties, he had climbed to the head of the Jurists' Association, an organisation set up to press for Dubai's laws to be consistent with international human rights legislation.
And then – suddenly – Mohammed thwacked into the limits of Sheikh Mohammed's tolerance. Horrified by the "system of slavery" his country was being built on, he spoke out to Human Rights Watch and the BBC. "So I was hauled in by the secret police and told: shut up, or you will lose you job, and your children will be unemployable," he says. "But how could I be silent?"
He was stripped of his lawyer's licence and his passport – becoming yet another person imprisoned in this country. "I have been blacklisted and so have my children. The newspapers are not allowed to write about me."
Why is the state so keen to defend this system of slavery? He offers a prosaic explanation. "Most companies are owned by the government, so they oppose human rights laws because it will reduce their profit margins. It's in their interests that the workers are slaves."
Last time there was a depression, there was a starbust of democracy in Dubai, seized by force from the sheikhs. In the 1930s, the city's merchants banded together against Sheikh Said bin Maktum al-Maktum – the absolute ruler of his day – and insisted they be given control over the state finances. It lasted only a few years, before the Sheikh – with the enthusiastic support of the British – snuffed them out.
And today? Sheikh Mohammed turned Dubai into Creditopolis, a city built entirely on debt. Dubai owes 107 percent of its entire GDP. It would be bust already, if the neighbouring oil-soaked state of Abu Dhabi hadn't pulled out its chequebook. Mohammed says this will constrict freedom even further. "Now Abu Dhabi calls the tunes – and they are much more conservative and restrictive than even Dubai. Freedom here will diminish every day." Already, new media laws have been drafted forbidding the press to report on anything that could "damage" Dubai or "its economy". Is this why the newspapers are giving away glossy supplements talking about "encouraging economic indicators"?
Everybody here waves Islamism as the threat somewhere over the horizon, sure to swell if their advice is not followed. Today, every imam is appointed by the government, and every sermon is tightly controlled to keep it moderate. But Mohammed says anxiously: "We don't have Islamism here now, but I think that if you control people and give them no way to express anger, it could rise. People who are told to shut up all the time can just explode."
Later that day, against another identikit-corporate backdrop, I meet another dissident – Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, Professor of Political Science at Emirates University. His anger focuses not on political reform, but the erosion of Emirati identity. He is famous among the locals, a rare outspoken conductor for their anger. He says somberly: "There has been a rupture here. This is a totally different city to the one I was born in 50 years ago."
He looks around at the shiny floors and Western tourists and says: "What we see now didn't occur in our wildest dreams. We never thought we could be such a success, a trendsetter, a model for other Arab countries. The people of Dubai are mighty proud of their city, and rightly so. And yet..." He shakes his head. "In our hearts, we fear we have built a modern city but we are losing it to all these expats."
Adbulkhaleq says every Emirati of his generation lives with a "psychological trauma." Their hearts are divided – "between pride on one side, and fear on the other." Just after he says this, a smiling waitress approaches, and asks us what we would like to drink. He orders a Coke.
VI. Dubai Pride
There is one group in Dubai for whom the rhetoric of sudden freedom and liberation rings true – but it is the very group the government wanted to liberate least: gays.
Beneath a famous international hotel, I clamber down into possibly the only gay club on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. I find a United Nations of tank-tops and bulging biceps, dancing to Kylie, dropping ecstasy, and partying like it's Soho. "Dubai is the best place in the Muslim world for gays!" a 25-year old Emirati with spiked hair says, his arms wrapped around his 31-year old "husband". "We are alive. We can meet. That is more than most Arab gays."
It is illegal to be gay in Dubai, and punishable by 10 years in prison. But the locations of the latest unofficial gay clubs circulate online, and men flock there, seemingly unafraid of the police. "They might bust the club, but they will just disperse us," one of them says. "The police have other things to do."
In every large city, gay people find a way to find each other – but Dubai has become the clearing-house for the region's homosexuals, a place where they can live in relative safety. Saleh, a lean private in the Saudi Arabian army, has come here for the Coldplay concert, and tells me Dubai is "great" for gays: "In Saudi, it's hard to be straight when you're young. The women are shut away so everyone has gay sex. But they only want to have sex with boys – 15- to 21-year-olds. I'm 27, so I'm too old now. I need to find real gays, so this is the best place. All Arab gays want to live in Dubai."
With that, Saleh dances off across the dancefloor, towards a Dutch guy with big biceps and a big smile.
VII. The Lifestyle
All the guidebooks call Dubai a "melting pot", but as I trawl across the city, I find that every group here huddles together in its own little ethnic enclave – and becomes a caricature of itself. One night – in the heart of this homesick city, tired of the malls and the camps – I go to Double Decker, a hang-out for British expats. At the entrance there is a red telephone box, and London bus-stop signs. Its wooden interior looks like a cross between a colonial clubhouse in the Raj and an Eighties school disco, with blinking coloured lights and cheese blaring out. As I enter, a girl in a short skirt collapses out of the door onto her back. A guy wearing a pirate hat helps her to her feet, dropping his beer bottle with a paralytic laugh.
I start to talk to two sun-dried women in their sixties who have been getting gently sozzled since midday. "You stay here for The Lifestyle," they say, telling me to take a seat and order some more drinks. All the expats talk about The Lifestyle, but when you ask what it is, they become vague. Ann Wark tries to summarise it: "Here, you go out every night. You'd never do that back home. You see people all the time. It's great. You have lots of free time. You have maids and staff so you don't have to do all that stuff. You party!"
They have been in Dubai for 20 years, and they are happy to explain how the city works. "You've got a hierarchy, haven't you?" Ann says. "It's the Emiratis at the top, then I'd say the British and other Westerners. Then I suppose it's the Filipinos, because they've got a bit more brains than the Indians. Then at the bottom you've got the Indians and all them lot."
They admit, however, they have "never" spoken to an Emirati. Never? "No. They keep themselves to themselves." Yet Dubai has disappointed them. Jules Taylor tells me: "If you have an accident here it's a nightmare. There was a British woman we knew who ran over an Indian guy, and she was locked up for four days! If you have a tiny bit of alcohol on your breath they're all over you. These Indians throw themselves in front of cars, because then their family has to be given blood money – you know, compensation. But the police just blame us. That poor woman."
A 24-year-old British woman called Hannah Gamble takes a break from the dancefloor to talk to me. "I love the sun and the beach! It's great out here!" she says. Is there anything bad? "Oh yes!" she says. Ah: one of them has noticed, I think with relief. "The banks! When you want to make a transfer you have to fax them. You can't do it online." Anything else? She thinks hard. "The traffic's not very good."
When I ask the British expats how they feel to not be in a democracy, their reaction is always the same. First, they look bemused. Then they look affronted. "It's the Arab way!" an Essex boy shouts at me in response, as he tries to put a pair of comedy antlers on his head while pouring some beer into the mouth of his friend, who is lying on his back on the floor, gurning.
Later, in a hotel bar, I start chatting to a dyspeptic expat American who works in the cosmetics industry and is desperate to get away from these people. She says: "All the people who couldn't succeed in their own countries end up here, and suddenly they're rich and promoted way above their abilities and bragging about how great they are. I've never met so many incompetent people in such senior positions anywhere in the world." She adds: "It's absolutely racist. I had Filipino girls working for me doing the same job as a European girl, and she's paid a quarter of the wages. The people who do the real work are paid next to nothing, while these incompetent managers pay themselves £40,000 a month."
With the exception of her, one theme unites every expat I speak to: their joy at having staff to do the work that would clog their lives up Back Home. Everyone, it seems, has a maid. The maids used to be predominantly Filipino, but with the recession, Filipinos have been judged to be too expensive, so a nice Ethiopian servant girl is the latest fashionable accessory.
It is an open secret that once you hire a maid, you have absolute power over her. You take her passport – everyone does; you decide when to pay her, and when – if ever – she can take a break; and you decide who she talks to. She speaks no Arabic. She cannot escape.
In a Burger King, a Filipino girl tells me it is "terrifying" for her to wander the malls in Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. "They say – 'Please, I am being held prisoner, they don't let me call home, they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.' At first I would say – my God, I will tell the consulate, where are you staying? But they never know their address, and the consulate isn't interested. I avoid them now. I keep thinking about a woman who told me she hadn't eaten any fruit in four years. They think I have power because I can walk around on my own, but I'm powerless."
The only hostel for women in Dubai – a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. "But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: 'You came here to work, not sleep!' Then one day I just couldn't go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn't give me my wages: they said they'd pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn't know anybody here. I was terrified."
One day, after yet another beating, Mela ran out onto the streets, and asked – in broken English – how to find the Ethiopian consulate. After walking for two days, she found it, but they told her she had to get her passport back from Madam. "Well, how could I?" she asks. She has been in this hostel for six months. She has spoken to her daughter twice. "I lost my country, I lost my daughter, I lost everything," she says.
As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. "Oh, the servant class!" she trilled. "You do nothing. They'll do anything!"
VIII. The End of The World
The World is empty. It has been abandoned, its continents unfinished. Through binoculars, I think I can glimpse Britain; this sceptred isle barren in the salt-breeze.
Here, off the coast of Dubai, developers have been rebuilding the world. They have constructed artificial islands in the shape of all planet Earth's land masses, and they plan to sell each continent off to be built on. There were rumours that the Beckhams would bid for Britain. But the people who work at the nearby coast say they haven't seen anybody there for months now. "The World is over," a South African suggests.
All over Dubai, crazy projects that were Under Construction are now Under Collapse. They were building an air-conditioned beach here, with cooling pipes running below the sand, so the super-rich didn't singe their toes on their way from towel to sea.
The projects completed just before the global economy crashed look empty and tattered. The Atlantis Hotel was launched last winter in a $20m fin-de-siecle party attended by Robert De Niro, Lindsay Lohan and Lily Allen. Sitting on its own fake island – shaped, of course, like a palm tree – it looks like an immense upturned tooth in a faintly decaying mouth. It is pink and turreted – the architecture of the pharaohs, as reimagined by Zsa-Zsa Gabor. Its Grand Lobby is a monumental dome covered in glitterballs, held up by eight monumental concrete palm trees. Standing in the middle, there is a giant shining glass structure that looks like the intestines of every guest who has ever stayed at the Atlantis. It is unexpectedly raining; water is leaking from the roof, and tiles are falling off.
A South African PR girl shows me around its most coveted rooms, explaining that this is "the greatest luxury offered in the world". We stroll past shops selling £24m diamond rings around a hotel themed on the lost and sunken continent of, yes, Atlantis. There are huge water tanks filled with sharks, which poke around mock-abandoned castles and dumped submarines. There are more than 1,500 rooms here, each with a sea view. The Neptune suite has three floors, and – I gasp as I see it – it looks out directly on to the vast shark tank. You lie on the bed, and the sharks stare in at you. In Dubai, you can sleep with the fishes, and survive.
But even the luxury – reminiscent of a Bond villain's lair – is also being abandoned. I check myself in for a few nights to the classiest hotel in town, the Park Hyatt. It is the fashionistas' favourite hotel, where Elle Macpherson and Tommy Hilfiger stay, a gorgeous, understated palace. It feels empty. Whenever I eat, I am one of the only people in the restaurant. A staff member tells me in a whisper: "It used to be full here. Now there's hardly anyone." Rattling around, I feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, the last man in an abandoned, haunted home.
The most famous hotel in Dubai – the proud icon of the city – is the Burj al Arab hotel, sitting on the shore, shaped like a giant glass sailing boat. In the lobby, I start chatting to a couple from London who work in the City. They have been coming to Dubai for 10 years now, and they say they love it. "You never know what you'll find here," he says. "On our last trip, at the beginning of the holiday, our window looked out on the sea. By the end, they'd built an entire island there."
My patience frayed by all this excess, I find myself snapping: doesn't the omnipresent slave class bother you? I hope they misunderstood me, because the woman replied: "That's what we come for! It's great, you can't do anything for yourself!" Her husband chimes in: "When you go to the toilet, they open the door, they turn on the tap – the only thing they don't do is take it out for you when you have a piss!" And they both fall about laughing.
IX. Taking on the Desert
Dubai is not just a city living beyond its financial means; it is living beyond its ecological means. You stand on a manicured Dubai lawn and watch the sprinklers spray water all around you. You see tourists flocking to swim with dolphins. You wander into a mountain-sized freezer where they have built a ski slope with real snow. And a voice at the back of your head squeaks: this is the desert. This is the most water-stressed place on the planet. How can this be happening? How is it possible?
The very earth is trying to repel Dubai, to dry it up and blow it away. The new Tiger Woods Gold Course needs four million gallons of water to be pumped on to its grounds every day, or it would simply shrivel and disappear on the winds. The city is regularly washed over with dust-storms that fog up the skies and turn the skyline into a blur. When the dust parts, heat burns through. It cooks anything that is not kept constantly, artificially wet.
Dr Mohammed Raouf, the environmental director of the Gulf Research Centre, sounds sombre as he sits in his Dubai office and warns: "This is a desert area, and we are trying to defy its environment. It is very unwise. If you take on the desert, you will lose."
Sheikh Maktoum built his showcase city in a place with no useable water. None. There is no surface water, very little acquifer, and among the lowest rainfall in the world. So Dubai drinks the sea. The Emirates' water is stripped of salt in vast desalination plants around the Gulf – making it the most expensive water on earth. It costs more than petrol to produce, and belches vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as it goes. It's the main reason why a resident of Dubai has the biggest average carbon footprint of any human being – more than double that of an American.
If a recession turns into depression, Dr Raouf believes Dubai could run out of water. "At the moment, we have financial reserves that cover bringing so much water to the middle of the desert. But if we had lower revenues – if, say, the world shifts to a source of energy other than oil..." he shakes his head. "We will have a very big problem. Water is the main source of life. It would be a catastrophe. Dubai only has enough water to last us a week. There's almost no storage. We don't know what will happen if our supplies falter. It would be hard to survive."
Global warming, he adds, makes the problem even worse. "We are building all these artificial islands, but if the sea level rises, they will be gone, and we will lose a lot. Developers keep saying it's all fine, they've taken it into consideration, but I'm not so sure."
Is the Dubai government concerned about any of this? "There isn't much interest in these problems," he says sadly. But just to stand still, the average resident of Dubai needs three times more water than the average human. In the looming century of water stresses and a transition away from fossil fuels, Dubai is uniquely vulnerable.
I wanted to understand how the government of Dubai will react, so I decided to look at how it has dealt with an environmental problem that already exists – the pollution of its beaches. One woman – an American, working at one of the big hotels – had written in a lot of online forums arguing that it was bad and getting worse, so I called her to arrange a meeting. "I can't talk to you," she said sternly. Not even if it's off the record? "I can't talk to you." But I don't have to disclose your name... "You're not listening. This phone is bugged. I can't talk to you," she snapped, and hung up.
The next day I turned up at her office. "If you reveal my identity, I'll be sent on the first plane out of this city," she said, before beginning to nervously pace the shore with me. "It started like this. We began to get complaints from people using the beach. The water looked and smelled odd, and they were starting to get sick after going into it. So I wrote to the ministers of health and tourism and expected to hear back immediately – but there was nothing. Silence. I hand-delivered the letters. Still nothing."
The water quality got worse and worse. The guests started to spot raw sewage, condoms, and used sanitary towels floating in the sea. So the hotel ordered its own water analyses from a professional company. "They told us it was full of fecal matter and bacteria 'too numerous to count'. I had to start telling guests not to go in the water, and since they'd come on a beach holiday, as you can imagine, they were pretty pissed off." She began to make angry posts on the expat discussion forums – and people began to figure out what was happening. Dubai had expanded so fast its sewage treatment facilities couldn't keep up. The sewage disposal trucks had to queue for three or four days at the treatment plants – so instead, they were simply drilling open the manholes and dumping the untreated sewage down them, so it flowed straight to the sea.
Suddenly, it was an open secret – and the municipal authorities finally acknowledged the problem. They said they would fine the truckers. But the water quality didn't improve: it became black and stank. "It's got chemicals in it. I don't know what they are. But this stuff is toxic."
She continued to complain – and started to receive anonymous phone calls. "Stop embarassing Dubai, or your visa will be cancelled and you're out," they said. She says: "The expats are terrified to talk about anything. One critical comment in the newspapers and they deport you. So what am I supposed to do? Now the water is worse than ever. People are getting really sick. Eye infections, ear infections, stomach infections, rashes. Look at it!" There is faeces floating on the beach, in the shadow of one of Dubai's most famous hotels.
"What I learnt about Dubai is that the authorities don't give a toss about the environment," she says, standing in the stench. "They're pumping toxins into the sea, their main tourist attraction, for God's sake. If there are environmental problems in the future, I can tell you now how they will deal with them – deny it's happening, cover it up, and carry on until it's a total disaster." As she speaks, a dust-storm blows around us, as the desert tries, slowly, insistently, to take back its land.
X. Fake Plastic Trees
On my final night in the Dubai Disneyland, I stop off on my way to the airport, at a Pizza Hut that sits at the side of one of the city's endless, wide, gaping roads. It is identical to the one near my apartment in London in every respect, even the vomit-coloured decor. My mind is whirring and distracted. Perhaps Dubai disturbed me so much, I am thinking, because here, the entire global supply chain is condensed. Many of my goods are made by semi-enslaved populations desperate for a chance 2,000 miles away; is the only difference that here, they are merely two miles away, and you sometimes get to glimpse their faces? Dubai is Market Fundamentalist Globalisation in One City.
I ask the Filipino girl behind the counter if she likes it here. "It's OK," she says cautiously. Really? I say. I can't stand it. She sighs with relief and says: "This is the most terrible place! I hate it! I was here for months before I realised – everything in Dubai is fake. Everything you see. The trees are fake, the workers' contracts are fake, the islands are fake, the smiles are fake – even the water is fake!" But she is trapped, she says. She got into debt to come here, and she is stuck for three years: an old story now. "I think Dubai is like an oasis. It is an illusion, not real. You think you have seen water in the distance, but you get close and you only get a mouthful of sand."
As she says this, another customer enters. She forces her face into the broad, empty Dubai smile and says: "And how may I help you tonight, sir?"
Some names in this article have been changed. "endquote
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CAPTION: A wind turbine stands generating power next to Hull, Mass., High School in the shadow of Boston on Feb. 24, 2006. It took eight years for Cape Wind, the nation's first offshore wind farm near Cape Cod, Mass., to win approval, prompting the Obama administration to announce that it will streamline the process.
PHOTO BY Stephan Savoia, AP
The Obama administration announced plans Monday to spend $50 million to speed the development of offshore wind farms, aiming to lease wind farms off four Mid-Atlantic states by the end of this year,
The Interior Department said it will expedite environmental reviews for four wind projects off the coasts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. This spring, it expects to identify other wind energy areas off Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the South Atlantic region, notably North Carolina.
"This initiative will spur the type of innovation that will help us create new jobs, build a clean energy future and compete and win in the technologies of the 21st century," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in the announcement, which notes President Obama's goal of generating 80% of U.S. electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.
Wind advocates called for a streamlined process after it took eight years for the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod, Mass., to obtain a lease as the nation's first offshore wind farm. That project faced opposition from Indian tribes, some environmentalists and residents, who argued it threatened marine life and ruined ocean views.
Salazar said the wind farms identified Monday -- all off major tourist destinations, including Atlantic City, N.J.; Ocean City, Md.; and Virginia Beach, Va. -- would be 10 to 20 miles offshore so they shouldn't mar vacationers' views, according to the Associated Press.
The Department of Energy said it would spent up to $25 million over five years to support the development of innovative wind turbines, up to $18 million over three years to study how to optimize the wind market and up to $7.5 million over three years to fund more cost-effective turbine drive trains.
"Offshore wind power holds incredible potential to drive our energy and economic engine forward while reducing pollution," Sean Garren, clean energy advocate for Environment America, said in a statement welcoming the news. "Nations around the world have already proven the effectiveness of this resource. If we do not move quickly, we risk falling behind."