Feeding The Mirage: Workers in Dubai - Photographs and Some Words

barge @bargeJune 2018 · 5 min read

In 2006 I spent a few months in Dubai. This was at the invitation of well-intentioned Family who were based there and who, seeing that barge had not established himself in the world, wished to provide him with an opportunity to do so. I was convinced to at least give it a shot. I wasn't doing anything else at the time anyway, and the idea did have distance appeal. In the end, the experience proved valuable, for it highlighted many things that I did not wish to be a part of. Maybe it was a failure to seize a gold-plated opportunity LOL. I found Dubai to be mainly about networking and money and this aspect came across as brutal and ugly. I felt inadequate and fake and my heart was not in it. I couldn't, and didn't want to, 'make it'! I therefore expressed my gratitude for having been offered this opportunity and I tried to honestly and diplomatically explain why it wasn't for me (I think it was pretty obvious by then anyway). I withdrew myself from the glitzy mirage and returned to Scotland, where I entered yet another quagmire (marriage :).


I found Dubai on the whole to be a rather strange place; sterile, guarded and superficial. I did not share the excitement. Sure you can fly Emirates and stop off for a few days of FLY-BUY-DUBAI, where you can visit the artificial islands and go skiing when it is 45 degrees outside. There is entertainment and alcohol to be had, as are casinos and girls. I observed weekend traffic jams in the early hours of the morning, as people returned home to Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman and the other nearby Emirates where such things are not permitted to the ordinary public. Food is excellent in Dubai, the full spectrum of migrant cuisine on offer, and cheap. The streets are 'safe' and your wallet will be not be stolen.

I got some exposure to the way in which high-level business is conducted. I was taken along to lunches and meetings with a powerful Emirati with contacts here, a wheeler-dealer there - barge the passive observer. One sub-continental, Mr Slicko Boaster, invited us round for lunch. His villa was colossal, Ferrari and other bright flashes of motorised ostentation littering the grounds. Along with lunch, he fed us illustrated stories of how easy it was to make money in Afghanistan and how everyone was milking it. Then a different lunch with a client who was a member of the 'Bin Laden' family - a mega construction firm in Saudi Arabia btw :D. Young, western-educated, multi-lingual. In the moment I went ahead and asked if he had read any Salmaan Rushdie, specifically The Satanic Verses? Uff what a surreptitious kick on the shin I got under the table from Family, whose client he was - fucking OW! But no, he hadn't read that author- and had I read any of the Kor'an? Yes actually, I had!

I didn't fit in, Dubai was not for me!


Dubai has the glitz, the sky-scrapers and the level of 'getting things done' made possible by an absolute monarchy. Who you know matters, really matters! Less than 25% of the population is Emirati, and they hold all the cards and control the flow. The vast majority are migrant workers, ex-pats, foreigners. Of course there are grades of foreigners, with educated Arabs and Caucasians at the top, followed by educated Asians, followed by unskilled Arabs. At the bottom of the pile lie the workers - the laborers, the construction workers, the maids, drivers, servants (mainly from The Philippines, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Somalia) . These people are trapped, exploited, vulnerable and unhappy, passports retained by the 'employer' and laws set up against them. Nobody to turn to, no local assistance available. They would typically have paid an 'agent' in the home country for a work contract and visa, thus incurring large debt from the very outset. Conditions and wages in Dubai turn out to be less than promised, work and housing conditions terrible. Their options and 'rights' are restricted to practically nothing. Suicides are common, and the few people I spoke to about how they felt - Indians, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis (who could speak Hindi/Urdu) - all said that they left their wives and children behind and came to Dubai intending to stay only a few years, save some money and return home. 5 or 10 or 15 years later, they are still in Dubai, unhappy, trapped and still struggling to pay off dues under a system that provides them with almost no protection. And these were the chance encounters I had on the streets or in taxis. The worst hit, the lowest of the low, remain isolated in labour camps (it is what they are called!!!) and, as such, inaccessible to the curious sympathiser. Such was the situation in 2006, but it does not seem to have improved much since then!

Below are some articles that explore the issue of migrant workers in Dubai:

I bought a camera in Dubai and in trying it out, got some photos of people working along Dubai Creek and a few shots of the glitzy Sheikh Zayed Road. Some of the workers reacted angrily to my photographing them, understandably so.


Workers in Dubai (2006)
















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Yeah, I've always felt something fishy about that place. I have not been there, yet there are many other places that I would like to visit instead. I've always enjoyed Scotland, Iceland, and Switzerland. Not too far away from Sweden really. I'm white in that sense that I don't like it when it gets too hot ^^

barge @bargeJune 2018

Hey @azension 🔆 ! Dubai's got air-con everywhere! I was sleeping with a duvet in 40+ degree external temp coz that's the way they did things - way OTT!

Only ever once been to Sweden - train from Copenhagen to Malmö and back, pretending to the ticket collector that I had missed my stop :D. Cigarette and a sniff of air, my Swedish holiday over in 15 mins :D


To experience the horrors of the ticket checkers on the trains is experience enough. They have no real friends here, lol. I would recommend the northern parts of Sweden if you love nature. There's not much more than that there though. That's why they only talk when something needs to be said, which is not often. The shadows of the ticket checkers have faded a little more up there though, and they like beer on the weekends.
They also shoot elks xD

barge @bargeJune 2018

they only talk when something needs to be said, which is not often.

Wonderful! What a different place the world would be if the majority of humans were like that! ... wonder if the good folks of remote N. Sweden smoke weed :D ... and I wonder if people make friends with the Elk.

I used to be really scared of ticket checkers - have hidden myself in many train toilets to avoid their claws. The one I met on the Danish-Swedish line was very understanding, and didn't make me cough up :)


I've never been to Dubai before, it always comes across as bling bling and very artificial, so far not getting high on my to go list yet. Your post definitely confirms some of my opinions of it.

barge @bargeJune 2018

Bling bling it is indeed! Incredible transformation of desert, but at dreadful cost IMO. Guess the message of the post is Fly B u y Dubai after all :D

Thanks for stopping by @livinguktaiwan


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It's practically like they bought themselves into slavery!
It seems that in order for one man to life in wealth and comfort, many others must live in poverty and do hard labour.

barge @bargeJune 2018

Yup, exchanging freedom for illusory trinkets and heavy chains!

The wealthy may live on piles of cash and in physical comfort, but there are not many of them that have managed to find happiness, or even satisfaction (in my experience). It is actually not so enviable a position, yet people cast themselves onto the greasy pole in pursuit of the myth, and in the process sell themselves so short that they get completely lost!

I think true wealth does exist, but it is not material. The most beautiful, the most precious, cannot be bought. It is access to this that is often lost in pursuit of money, position, power. But who learns? And maybe we all need to go through some version of this pursuit in order to realise its emptiness!


Often in that pursuit of riches our the truly important things are lost, like health and the time for enjoying the important things.

And maybe we all need to go through some version of this pursuit in order to realise its emptiness!

Perhaps we do, but I think we also need to experience the simple precious things to know they exist in order to realise that pursuit is emptiness.
RTB worked for a while for a company that paid well, sent him on paid trips to other states and bought lavish gifts and meals for the workers and families. It was interesting to experience this and at the back of my mind I knew not to get used to it, because it might not last. The hours were long and stressful and he piled on weight. When he got made redundant and went back to a lower paid job without the stress he was a lot healthier for it. I don't regret that it didn't last, it wasn't worth his health and it was empty, just like you say. I'm glad we had the experience though.


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