Human Rights Abuses in Dubai

Shortly after my trip to Dubai, I watched a documentary about the human rights abuses guest workers are subjected to. Guest worker may be an inaccurate term to use – some of these workers are treated more like slaves than guests. Every country has issues with human rights – unless you’re Dick Chenney and don’t consider waterboarding to be a human rights abuse, then the US gets a free pass.

What angered me most was the despicable way these abuses were justified by the perpetrators.

“Their standards of cleanliness and hygiene are not up to your or our standards.”

“It is very difficult to change the habits that they unfortunately bring with them from their countries of origin.”

What’s ironic is when these Emiratis go to some of the western countries they’re so enamored with, they are looked down upon in the very same manner. They get put through an extra round of security at the airport and their traditional clothing are viewed as backwards rather than the status symbols they’re perceived as in their native land.

Guest workers fell to their deaths while building the world’s tallest building: Burj Khalifa. After a while, it became apparent that all of Dubai’s little victories were stained with blood.

Then there’s the Sheikh’s brother’s penchant for torture, and the UAE court’s penchant for disregarding video evidence when a prince is on trial.

It’s very easy to forget about these abuses when you’re in the city, but I don’t think I can admire any of its buildings knowing poor foreign workers died building them. Hell, I don’t think I can stay at one of their hotels, knowing it was constructed on slave labor.

What are your thoughts on traveling to countries with terrible human rights records? Is there any place you won’t visit as a result?

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  1. You are absolutely right. We should be consistent though about this, lest we be called hypocrites. One must not appreciate any country in the Americas as they have been built on the literal subjugation and decimation of native peoples and their traditions.
    And let us not forget Europe who has a very real history of brutal power and subjugation of peoples all over the world. In fact, that subjugation continue to this day with military, economic and political subjugation by the N Atlantic countries to this day.
    In that sense, I cannot appreciate any building ever built because these empires are based on a brutal civilizing crusade, if you will, of the entire planet…

    • PointChaser

      @ Qaram, they’re all guilty of human rights abuse. However, in Dubai’s case, the abuse has become more rampant over the past decade and the government is turning a blind eye.

  2. Glad you’re pointing this out. If we avoid countries where injustice is happening, as you point out, we’d have to avoid them all, even the one we’re living in.

    I work with, seek out the injustices, and travel there on purpose.

    “You can choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.” – Wilbur Wilberforce

    • PointChaser

      @ Justin, what a noble cause. I browsed through the site a bit and was really touched by Sarah’s story in particular. Keep up the great work!

  3. I have no words. I did not want to go before. Now – never!

    • PointChaser

      @ Rene, you are not missing out. There are more interesting places to visit, where the exploitation of foreign workers isn’t essential to the growth of the economy.

  4. Why are we acting like The USA isn’t part of these types of claims? We built the railroads? The buildings? Who worked the fields?

  5. Thanks for the article. There is a big difference between a country whose current mindset is to routinely exploit others and countries who have a history of this but now realize it’s wrong and truly try to make things different.

  6. If it were not for the higher echelon guest workers, the country would be in shambles.

    • PointChaser

      @ mikey, totally agreed.

      • On a lighter note, when I was in the Lejiajia super market another english speaking person asked me what the snacks on display near the check out line were. without thinking I said “looks like fried pork rinds” it got real quiet in the market almost instantly ( I could swear the background music even stopped)

        turns out is was fried pita bread.

        ( it was a loong walk to the car)

  7. Its not just these “3rd world people” who have these issues in UAE, so do white and blond poor Europeans from Eastern Europe. The police in Dubai are notorious for covering up sex crimes, murdered prostitutes, violent disputes, and robberies to avoid bad press. Ever get robbed there? The police will refuse to take your “report” even for insurance purposes. Its actually kinda scary. A gay Saudi prince tried this in a London 5* hotel and the UK put him in jail. But if you had an affair with a wealthy or connected person there, who knows what they could do. You are safer on the streets of revolutionary Cairo than in a 5* UAE hotel with a jealous lover!

  8. Glad to see you point out the human issues that we often forget when we get swept up in the adventures and travels we undertake. I think everyone has their own personal line (like I’d love to go Israel, but as long as the hardliner right wingers are in power and there’s a defacto apartheid, I find it hard to justify, separate buses for Palestinians? Really?), but as long as you are aware of the issues and aren’t afraid to shed light on the good and the bad, then you’re probably doing more good than harm. It’s a fine line though. Obviously you don’t want to encourage ruthless and inhumane behavior, but it’s not always easy.

    • PointChaser

      @ Matt, I agree. I’ve had mixed feelings about visiting Jerusalem. With the new bus system, it just feels wrong.

  9. globetrotter

    I’m in the minority but I tend to travel to countries that are rich in history with thousand of years of civilization. I am a budget traveler but not a backpacker or elite/premium tourist.I mostly stay at local hotels and dine in restaurants where locals frequent. I mingle with the locals to understand more about their culture, religion and perception about the world. I talk to ordinary citizens rather than those who work for big corporations or franchise businesses. We cannot compare our lives today to those that existed many centuries ago, except to learn from it and better ourselves in the 21st century. We probably do not want to lower our standards by rationalizing that if other countries do it, we need to jump on the bandwagon. I watched the documentary on PBS last Sunday on the sex industry in Dubai and Turkey. Kindly spare me character assassination. The main victims are white females from the former Soviet republics and East block countries. The main perpetrators are government officials, rich local males, British and American white tourists because they know they are untouchable by the judicial system and law enforcement. I lived in Kuwait for four years and am quite familiar with its culture. I do not recommend visiting the six Gulf countries in Mid-East:Kuwait, Saudi, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, Quatar. The former two countries do not allow tourists on the ground. Egypt, Jordan & Israel are the three must see countries but not in current volatile environment. Exotic places like Bali, Bora Bora, Maldives, Phunket, etc… are not on my list to visit, unless I come across an irresistable bonfire air ticket sales and tour guides deals.

    • PointChaser

      @ globetrotter, I enjoy places rich in history over glitzy places too. Underprivileged people around the world are exploited. In Dubai, however, most of the exploited workers tend to be from Asia and Africa.

  10. choi k lu

    I dont denied this is a terrible injustice on humanity and in 2013 its still exist. however I m just curious why you didnt cover similar events and attrocities in Afganistan. I realize its your native country but first hand account from personal point of view instead of journalistic is far more realistic.

    • PointChaser

      @ choi k lu, I’ve touched on it in my recent trip report. Every country has its human rights issues, but what stood out about Dubai is that the exploitation of workers is seen as an essential part of their construction boom.

  11. I have had the privlidge of working in neighboring Abu Dhabi many times. You see some of these injustices often hidden in plain sight. Housing compounds you drive by, construction workers in 115 degree heat. They soon become easy to ignore and lost in the city chaos. Much like how we conveniently forget where our iPads came from. And yes, you hear stories of police corruption, maybe even see suspicious activity in the fourth floor lounge of a five star resort. And people justifiably ask how I can continue to travel there and support the UAE.

    Well first, I do believe in the Emirates and that most of them are good people who don’t support these human rights violations. Guilty of turning a blind eye perhaps, but don’t condemn a nation for the acts of a few. Also, for every company profiting off cheap labor I like to think that maybe, just maybe a few are thre to make good. I’m proud to hear my company refused to break ground on a new site without negotiating the living conditions of workers in advance. I loved hearing of a coworkers 2hr drive in the desert to ensure our security guards were in adequate housing and loved it even more when she demanded they be moved because the apartments weren’t up to her standards.

    Perhaps I am naive and focusing too heavily on the good and seeing change for the better in he midst of lots of darkness. But for me, that’s what traveling is all about. Finding my own experiences in a foreign land, and usually not finding what I expected.

    • PointChaser

      @ Scott, thanks for providing an insider’s point of view. It’s good to know that some companies really are concerned about the welfare of their workers, and aren’t taking advantage of the lack of oversight.

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