My message to the head of the Louvre would be to come and see how we are living here,” said Tariq,* a carpenter’s helper working on construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a $653 million Middle Eastern outpost of the iconic Parisian museum. Set to be completed in 2015, its collection will include a Torah from 19th-century Yemen, Picassos, and Magrittes.
“See our living conditions and think about the promises they made,” Tariq told me through a translator.
Recruiters promised him a salary of $326 a month—for a $1,776 recruitment fee to be paid in advance. With a cousin guiding him through the process, Tariq flew to Abu Dhabi to work for the Regal Construction company, one of roughly 900 construction outfits that employ foreign workers in the emirate.
But when Tariq arrived, Regal didn’t need him. For 24 days, he waited without pay, living in a squalid workers’ camp. When work finally materialized, he learned he would make only $176 a month. His boss confiscated his passport so that he couldn’t change jobs or leave the country. He sends half his salary back to his family. After 11 months in the Gulf, he still has not paid back the loan he took out to get there.
Though it is now only a sunbaked construction site, Saadiyat, a ten-square-mile atoll 500 yards off the coast of Abu Dhabi, will be home to branches of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University, alongside hotels, shopping, and luxurious homes. It will be a cultural paradise, conjured by the country’s vast oil wealth but built on the backs of men who are little more than indentured servants.
The Saadiyat Island Cultural District is the flagship project of TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company), a state-owned firm responsible for much of Abu Dhabi’s development. Announced in 2007, with an initial budget of $27 billion, according to media reports, Saadiyat will be the largest mixed-use development on the Arabian Gulf.
TDIC’s website promises fantasias of contemporary architecture. Plans show museums that look like they are pierced with moonbeams or modeled after the feathers of giant birds. After a day of culture, visitors will be able to relax at the St. Regis hotel or the Shangri-La. They will be able to play golf on world-class courses, or lounge by a series of man-made lagoons and mangrove forests, and then eat at one of dozens of gourmet restaurants run by international celebrity chefs. While construction of all these projects is happening piecemeal, Saadiyat, as envisioned by Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon al Nahyan, chairman of TDIC and member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, may be completed by 2020. For at least five more years, the island will need a veritable army of laborers.
Workers at the Louvre are all employed by a company called Arabtec, one of the Gulf’s largest construction outfits. The government of Abu Dhabi holds a 20 percent stake in Arabtec, and workers have staged strikes against them for years.
In 2007, up to 30,000 Arabtec workers went on strike in Dubai. Men building Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, put down their tools. The strike had been coordinated with mobile phones to protest low wages and poor living conditions. Police arrested 4,000 strikers. At the end of ten days, Arabtec promised a pay raise. Managing Director Riad Kamal told Reuters that the impact on the company’s profits would be less than 1 percent.
But the strikes—and crackdowns—continued. Three thousand more workers went on strike in Dubai in 2011. They made $176 a month and wanted a $41 raise. The police arrested 70 men they claimed were ringleaders. “Their presence in the country is dangerous,” Colonel Mohammed al Murr, director of the Dubai Police’s General Department of Legal and Disciplinary Control, told the National, a state-owned newspaper.
After this, Bangladeshi workers, who were alleged to have helped organize the strikes, were banned for an indefinite period from seeking UAE visas.
Arabtec also replaced Bangladeshis with Pakistanis. It was classic divide-and-rule strategy, harking back to the British Empire. In August 2013, the tension exploded into riots between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Saadiyat Village. Workers turned their tools against one another. The police fired live ammo into the air.
After the riots, Pakistani workers were shipped off to other camps.
While wages may sometimes rise, the Emirates will never permit workers to formally organize. Workers’ councils, or any form of unionization, are strictly banned.
Ibrahim lives in one of Abu Dhabi’s labor camps, in a low-rise building set among row after row of identical blocks. Like most camps, it is hidden deep in the desert, far from central Abu Dhabi. Forty thousand men can live in a single camp. They are Nepali, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian—and work for a variety of companies. Often, since they don’t speak English, they won’t know what project they’re building.
Corporate buses ferry workers to job sites. Even these are no respite from the heat. Despite laws to the contrary, many buses have no air conditioning. Commutes last up to two hours, and the temperatures often reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ibrahim showed me a cell-phone video of the windowless dorm he shares with ten men. Outside, he has only a mosque, a hypermarket, and the sun.
On his one day off, Ibrahim told me, he would like to stroll Abu Dhabi’s corniche. But there’s no public transit. He is a virtual prisoner in the workers’ city.
Besides a few cashiers, the camps contain no women—just as the UAE, flush with laborers, is two-thirds male. Men save up for occasional visits to Ethiopian prostitutes. They too are migrants, often former maids who ran away from abusive employers. Because of their dark skin, Ethiopian prostitutes aren’t favored by the country’s Emirati elite and have to charge prices that even laborers can afford.
“We are so bored, and it’s a long time away from home,” Ibrahim told me when I asked him about the women. “We sit in that room for the whole day. We can’t go outside because of the heat, can’t afford to get to the beach or the mall.”
Some workers sleep with each other. Several of Ibrahim’s acquaintances have been jailed for having romantic relationships with other men. To save face, one of them, a Pashtun, told his family he’d been charged with murder.
“A beautiful boy is like a girlfriend,” Ibrahim said. Bus drivers, among the best-paid workers, court good-looking young men with promises of meals at restaurants and cell-phone credit.
Roughly 10 percent of the UAE’s 9.2 million residents are citizens. The rest are “expats” (if they’re white-collar professionals) or “migrant labor” (if they’re working class). Foreigners can live in the Emirates for generations, but short of proving Emirati heritage, there’s no way they can get citizenship. They can be deported at whim.
Amid this disenfranchisement, Emiratis can appear to foreigners like aristocrats. One can be arrested just for flipping them off in traffic.
Pravasalokam is a hit TV show in Kerala, India. A reality program whose name means “Workers’ World” in Malayalam, the show depicts the rescue of workers who have disappeared—due to jail, poverty, or abuse—in the Gulf. The Gulf nightmare is well known, yet migrants keep coming. The $14 billion a year in remittances they send home is integral to the economies of Nepal and Bangladesh (in Bangladesh the two largest sources of foreign currency are migrant labor and garments). But migrants are pushed by war as well as cash. Many workers hail from Kashmir, Pakistan’s Taliban-dominated Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, and other crisis areas in South Asia.
Whatever his country of origin, a migrant almost always has to pay a recruiter fee (which is then shared with subcontractors inside the Emirates). While hiring companies claim to cover costs like airfare, visas, and medical exams, recruiters in the sending countries and their partners in the UAE often skim a year’s potential wages from the worker himself. In some countries recruiters dodge local labor laws by hiring subcontractors, who trawl villages for the illiterate, the desperate, or those simply frustrated enough to risk the dangers of the Gulf. Workers take out loans, empty their families’ savings, or use land as collateral.
At Mafraq Workers’ City No. 2, a labor camp 23 miles from central Abu Dhabi, I interviewed workers cutting one another’s hair in an improvised outdoor barbershop. They crowded around me, telling me about salaries of $150 to $300 a month and police who hassled them if they dared visit the beach in their salwar kameez. While Emiratis are dependent on migrant labor, they’d prefer that the workers stay invisible in their off-hours.
Friends crouched in the shade beneath buses. One group sneaked a forbidden bottle of wine. The rules here were as strict as summer camp—no booze, no cooking, no gambling, no porn.
Saadiyat Island is also home to what is billed to be the most humane labor camp in the entire Gulf. In response to international pressure, TDIC created what they call the Saadiyat Accommodation Village to house all workers building Western cultural institutions. In the words of its developer, it “provide[s] an internationally recognized world-class standard of living.” Its huge cricket field, writing classes, and a library containing Steinbeck are everything a visiting dignitary could desire.
Tariq, the Louvre worker, told me, “The grounds are the only things that are good. Everything else will make you feel awful. The bathrooms always stink. We don’t even have doors there. The food given to us is inedible.”
According to Ross, Saadiyat Village is a “high-security zone” where workers are constantly monitored.
Workers live more than a mile beyond a checkpoint they are forbidden from walking to. Their only escape is a bus that runs once a week to Abu Dhabi. In the wake of the Arab Spring, security concerns are cited to outside visitors as a reason for keeping the all-male workforce in physical isolation. But if controlling and isolating workers helps TDIC manage the fallout of international pressure, it also produces a less than ideal side effect for the press-shy Emiratis: It helps workers organize and resist.
The most simplistic accusation against Abu Dhabi is that by building branches of the Louvre or Guggenheim, the city is buying culture. This logic pretends that Cleopatra’s Needle ended up in Paris through the goodness of Egyptian hearts, or that Lord Elgin didn’t just pillage the marbles that bear his name.
Those accusations also perpetuate another myth: The UAE has no culture of its own.
Two generations ago, the Emiratis were Bedouins, nomadic desert people whose main economic activity was pearl diving. They built wind towers, trained falcons, and composed swashbuckling poetry. Emirati culture was rich, but Emiratis were poor. Now they are wealthy. From the lens of European dominance, Emiratis can seem like improper overlords.
Or perhaps Europeans are just jealous. The UAE’s oil money could have disappeared in the coffers of Western energy companies or corrupt leaders. Instead, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE, built a munificent welfare state. Emirati citizens get free education, health care, and electricity, as well as generous wages subsidized by the government. They pay no taxes. But the foreigners who compose 90 percent of the population don’t share in this largesse.
One afternoon I stood inside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, in central Abu Dhabi. Built in 2007, the gigantic structure made me gasp at its loveliness. Its design spans the breadth of Muslim art: The domes were Taj Mahal, the stucco Moroccan, the tiles Turkish, the gold palm columns seemingly from the future. It embodied the cosmopolitanism of the Muslim world, vital with the energy of this young country.
Andrew Ross from Gulf Labor stressed that an institution’s responsibilities don’t end with construction. “If you visit Saadiyat, you find NYU is the only finished building. Apart from the workers’ village, it’s surrounded by nothing. It will have construction going on for 20 years around it.”
“You know how Ford said you can have any car you like as long as it’s black? In the UAE they can make whatever you want, as long as it’s a building. They can’t make free speech or human rights,” Ahmed Mansoor told me in the curtained-off back room of a Dubai restaurant.
When I asked him about the Western cultural institutions being built on Saadiyat, he told me, “All these glittering buildings and huge names are there to hide an ugly face… Artists around the world appreciate the human struggle for freedom. In the UAE, we are only buying the image.”
Can you have art without freedom? Splendid objects get made for the highest bidder. Challenging ideas require something more than the Emirates may care to provide.
I put this question to a young artist born in the UAE. He told me: “By entertaining any vision of a culturally engaged metropolis, [the UAE] has opened up a Pandora’s box. Critical culture is forced into a more subversive form. This subversion itself can be a form of poetry. I have to think like this, because I live here and I need to survive the aftermath of my own thoughts.”
I asked a butcher the price of a cow’s head. The crowd screamed as undercover cops yanked him away. The butcher was arrested, seemingly as punishment for speaking to a Westerner. Terrified that he might also be arrested, Ibrahim suggested that we leave the market quickly.
“I have nothing to do with the workers,” said Zaha Hadid, the star architect behind one of Qatar’s phantasmagoric soccer stadiums being built for the 2022 World Cup, when the Guardian asked her in February 2014 about the deaths of 882 migrant laborers constructing her design. “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.” Hadid is now designing the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre on Saadiyat.
The West’s museums lie atop metaphoric graveyards. Art’s temples have always been built on the backs of the poor. The Louvre in Paris touts its history in the passive voice on its website: “Was built to the west of the city”; “wings begun under Louis XIV were partially completed.” But what of the peasants who sweated and died in the construction? Of them, official histories have little to say. Neither do official histories mention the miners who mined the fortune that let Solomon R. Guggenheim build the museum that bears his name.
Defenders of Western institutions in Abu Dhabi are right about one thing. They are not unique. The labor abuses at the Louvre or NYU are the same labor abuses that are happening throughout the UAE. The UAE is not the worst country for workers in the Gulf, and the Gulf is not the worst region for workers in the world. Most countries sustain themselves on the labor of transient, disposable people. This may be unofficial, as in the United States (our agricultural industry would collapse overnight without undocumented migrants), or it may be institutionalized, as in the UAE.