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Malia Bouattia

Stop whitewashing #MyDubai

Instagram star Dina Tokio takes a selfie in front of the Dubai Frame [Instagram]

Date of publication: 18 January, 2019

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Comment: To celebrate the Dubai's skyscrapers, is to condone the abuse of those who built them, writes Malia Bouattia.
In recent weeks, I have noticed Instagram 'influencers' and vloggers/bloggers including Dina Tokio, and With Love, Leena posting material across their social media accounts from Dubai with the hashtag #MyDubai.

Many, it seems were given paid sponsored trips by the state-owned airline Emirates, in order to advertise the many wonders of Dubai.

Of course, not one of the posts on the various vloggers' accounts showed the reality of how the infamous skyscrapers, luxurious hotels and sought-after photo spots are built, through the exploitation and quasi-enslavement of countless migrants workers.

Indeed, it is no secret from anybody who is prepared to pay any attention at all to the development of massive infrastructure and luxury destinations in Dubai that the incredible wealth of these repressive monarchies is based not only on the extraction of oil, but also on the violent super-exploitation of east African and South Asian workers. To celebrate the former, is to condone the latter.

Nothing captures this contrast more starkly than the juxtaposition of Dubai's grandiose constructions, ranging from the Palm Island Resort and its luxury Palm Jumeirah villas, sold to foreigners as the perfect luxury holiday destination, or the four-star Atlantis hotel, with its view on the ocean and its oriental-palace-like features, with the living conditions of the workers who make these extravagant projects possible.

Indeed, if these vloggers, international shoppers, and other party goers were to venture away from the opulence, towards the Muhaisnah neighbourhood, the whitewashing would become considerably harder to swallow.

Known ironically as 'Sonapur' or Land of Gold (in Hindi and Urdu), the neighbourhood houses thousands of migrant workers in horrendous conditions. Overpopulated rooms and insufficient sanitation are the daily reality.

If these vloggers, international shoppers, and other party goers were to venture away from the opulence, the whitewashing would become considerably harder to swallow

The situation is so bad that Human Rights Watch described these workers as being treated as "less than human". The systematic nature of these abuses was captured well in the organisation's "Building Towers, Cheating Workers" report.

The background to this reality is the now infamous 'Kafala' system, literally sponsorship, through which workers are brought over to work in the Gulf.

Labourers, hired in their country of origin, are tied directly to their employers - who hold their passports - and their stay in the country is dependent on their continued employment.

This gives bosses an incredible amount of power over them. Late payments, dangerous working conditions, and outrageous living quarters are incredibly difficult to oppose, as any attempt to organise, complain, or resist leads not just to job losses, but often to immediate deportation.

Read more: Maid screams for help as Kuwaiti employer Snapchats fall

In addition, workers indebt themselves heavily to pay for their right to work in the Gulf, making them even more dependent on their continued employment.

Instagram Post

And this situation does not affect a small number of people. For example, in 2005, over 71 percent of the entire population of the UAE was made up of migrant workers.

Cheap, highly exploited, violently oppressed, indentured labour builds the palaces, the islands, and the villas so enjoyed by international travelers.

This situation is also highly gendered.

While men mostly work in industry and construction, women are often hired as live-in maids, cleaners, and nannies. These women are expected to be available 24/7 for their employers and are often victims of terrible violence.

This was captured recently in the horrendous footage of a Kuwaiti employer filming her Ethiopian maid as she clung on for dear life - and then fell off - the window ledge after slipping while cleaning.

One Kuwaiti blogger, Sondos Alqttan, later also grabbed headlines after complaining that the human rights reforms for Fillipino domestic workers which include a break every five hours of work, one day off a week, and the right to keep their own passports, were "a joke".

Another HRW report, focussing on the UAE and Oman this time, detailed the systematic overworking, underpaying, and abuse imposed on these women, which could include sexual abuse.

Furthermore, behind the beautiful glossiness of the malls, theme parks, aquariums, zoos and gardens, are repressive, totalitarian laws that land people in prison for expressing public criticism.

The recent withdrawal of former Irish president Mary Robinson from the Emirates Festival of Literature helped sheds a light on some of the continued practices of the state.

Robinson pulled out following the open letter signed by the likes of actor Stephen Fry, writer Noam Chomsky and MP Caroline Lucas, which condemned the UAE's continued detention of internationally celebrated human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor.

Mansoor, winner of the 2015 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights was arrested in March 2017, and held for over a year without trial. He was placed in solitary confinement for at least six months, and eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, and fined around $270,000, in May 2018.

Overpopulated rooms and insufficient sanitation are the daily reality

He was charged with "publish[ing] false information to damage [the] UAE's reputation abroad" and "portray[ing] the UAE as a lawless land" in social media posts he had published on Facebook and Twitter which criticised the government.

The letter, which was published by the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE, pointed to the fact that, "As a member of the UN human rights council, the UAE has an obligation to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights for all its citizens."

The signatories therefore demanded that the UAE government issue the immediate release of Mansoor.

Not to mention the UAE prime minister's own daughter, who recently received international media attention over her alleged escape attempt and subsequent capture. Friends of Sheikha Latifa claim that she is being imprisoned by her father Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who she accused in a video released online of having ordered her to be tortured.

While all these human rights abuses take place, the world continues to normalise economic and political relations with the UAE.

While all these human rights abuses take place, the world continues to normalise economic and political relations with the UAE

From close diplomatic relations with the US state to active military equipment sales from Britain, or even the laughable inclusion of the UAE on the UN human rights council, it is clear that the world's leading powers are not only prepared to turn a blind eye to its violent repression but to actively sponsor and encourage the regime.

In these circumstances it is difficult not to feel absolute revulsion and disgust at the sight of young men and women, vloggers, professionals, and students, using their platform in minority communities including the Muslim community, to sponsor, normalise, and whitewash the horrors of these regimes.

The only acceptable response to such realities should be condemnation, resistance, and boycott, not a photo in front of The Dubai Frame.

Any other response falls short, not only of the principles of international solidarity, but also of basic human decency.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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