Kingdoms Built on Sand
Vacation season is winding down for those of us tied to an academic schedule, and just starting for the luckier denizens of cold northern climates. Vacation is complicated. It presents a whole new series of morally questionable choices. Most of us have reached a comfort level with the choices we make daily; we minimize harm to the extent we can, and we know that our choices are not going to be perfect. But vacations present an unfamiliar range of choices. (Notice here that I am speaking strictly of vacation; work-related travel is a different issue.) Are hotel workers being treated well? Do I need to look at how much water I’m using? What about the source of my food? There are hundreds of small choices that are complicated by being in an unfamiliar place. So for the next few posts – this week, next week, and possibly the week after that – I am going to talk about how international travel can relate to crimes against humanity, and how to minimize harm when you travel. Each post will focus on one destination. Today’s destination:
The United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai)
The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven kingdoms and a popular destination for travelers. Of particular interest are Abu Dhabi, the capital, and Dubai, developed as a business and tourist hub for the Arabian Peninsula.
The United Arab Emirates pulled itself out of poverty and became a unified country on the strength of the petroleum economy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and now has the twelfth-highest GDP per capita in the world – ahead of Australia, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and the U.S. It is a major player in global finance as well. Dubai is known for its luxury hotels; it is a playground for tourists and business travelers alike, with neighborhoods of man-made islands in fanciful shapes, the tallest hotel in the world, and an indoor ski resort where the desert meets the sea.
Yet somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-85% of those who live in the U.A.E. are not included in the statistics or the prosperity; they are not Emirati. Some come from Iran, some come from other Arabic-speaking countries such as Egypt, and many come from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines. Many have their passports taken, are given minimal water, and are housed in shanty towns. Thousands are forced into prostitution – a tourist service that the U.A.E. does not publicize. Their condition can only be described as slavery. They are lured by the promise of wages they never receive.
A further problem in the United Arab Emirates is the way that the Emirati population has been subsidized by the government. As the global economy changes, those workers are seeing their benefits dry up, highlighting the vast difference between Emirati haves and have-nots. This is a recipe for instability, especially as nearby countries such as Yemen and even Saudi Arabia suffer from unrest. While the world plays in Dubai, the bottom may soon be falling out for the U.A.E.
Water resources are also problematic in the United Arab Emirates. The tiny country is more than 80% desert. Swimming pools, indoor ski slopes, and restaurants use a tremendous amount of water, yet fresh water is scarcer than ever.
For the international traveler, perhaps the most immediate danger of visiting the U.A.E. is its harsh justice system. In the U.A.E., posting a rant on social media about your employer can result in imprisonment – even if you are not an Emirati and are in your home country when you post the rant. In the U.A.E., reposting a GoFundMe page for charity can result in imprisonment and fines. In the U.A.E., acquittal might not end your imprisonment. In the U.A.E., you can be arrested as a tourist for a debt incurred abroad. In the U.A.E., there is no right to a speedy trial, nor is there legal protection from torture.
If You Go to the U.A.E.
Be kind and take notice of the people around you. Tip well and frequently. Do not go on social media until you get home. Do not criticize anyone at any time. Cooperate with all authorities. Use water carefully and responsibly (Californians are experts at this!).
Alternatives to a Vacation in Dubai or Abu Dhabi
Singapore! Singapore has a similarly absolutist political system with similarly luxurious accommodations for foreigners (with the addition of some legal brothels) – but with better protections for foreign workers, fewer water problems, and a better record on torture (though caning is still common). Please note that neither the U.A.E. nor Singapore is a safe travel destination for QUILTBAG vacationers.
In North America, Las Vegas and Palm Springs are well-equipped to accommodate visitors (both have water issues similar to those in the U.A.E.), while New York City and Toronto offer a cosmopolitan feel to accompany the luxury.