Thursday, 30 April 2009

The torture tapes: A clue on which way the wind is blowing.

This is a press release from WAM dated 29th April '09. WAM is the Emirates News Agency effectively, the government's press office. While the statement doesn't "name names" its obviously a reaction to the international scrutiny being focused on the UAE following the general release of the tapes of Sheikh Issa torturing an Afghani trader accused of shortchanging the Sheikh in a grain deal.
-------------------------------------------
The Constitution of the United Arab Emirates guarantees a number of fundamental rights including those set forth in Article 25 providing that all persons are equal before the law, without distinction in regard to race, nationality, religious belief and social status. The Human Rights Office (HRO) of the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department has viewed the contents of a video containing graphic scenes of physical abuse that has been widely circulated online and reported in international media. The Government of Abu Dhabi unequivocally condemns the actions depicted in the video. The HRO of the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department will conduct a comprehensive review of the matter immediately and make its findings public at the earliest opportunity.

Based on the statement made by the UAE Ministry of Interior, the HRO of the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department understands that the matter depicted on the video was resolved between the two parties and that no criminal charges were brought by either party. However, the HRO believes that the events depicted in the video appear to represent a violation of human rights and therefore these events should be fully reviewed in their own right.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

UAE bans import and sale of pork 'as a precaution against swine flu'

From the Gulf News 29th April '09
------------------------------------
The UAE has banned the import and sale of pork in the country as a precautionary measure against swine flu, a senior official told Gulf News on Wednesday. General Secretariat of Municipalities [GSM] issued a circular on Monday banning import and sale of all types of pork in the country, Mohammad Jalal Al Reyaysa, Manager of Communication and Information Department at Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) said. The ban covers cooking the pork in hotels [for non Muslims], he added. GSM had already banned import of pork from Mexico and the US on Sunday, but extended it to a blanket ban, considering the alarming situation, Al Reyaysa said.

"Only two outlets in Abu Dhabi have the license to sell pork (for non-Muslims) and our inspectors have already informed them to remove the pork from the shelves," the official said.

UAE Ministry explores precautionary measures
A source from the Ministry of Health, who requested to remain anonymous, told Gulf News over the phone that the ministry is currently in talks with a technical group regarding precautionary plans and measures that should be practiced among hospitals and between people. "There is no specific vaccination or drug one can take to prevent swine flu, but there are technical procedures that should be put in place, that's why we contacted a technical team to help us prevent the condition from reaching the UAE." The World Health Organization (WHO) even though has no power to enforce any policies on different countries across the world with regards to swine flu, advises that ministries undergo their own pandemic flu plans. The WHO also recommends that vaccine makers keep making seasonal flu vaccine instead of switching over to a new one that matches the swine flu strain, but it urged them to start the process of picking a pandemic strain, weakening it and making large batches of it, which could take six months.

The Bird of Doom: Aussie deported from Dubai for showing middle finger

From 7 Days Monday 27 Apr, 2009

The press here refers to this incident as "road rage". Wussies! In NZ, "road rage" means that there is a "road incident" either real or imaginery and as a result someone's chased at high speed and run off the road or physically attacked, stabbed, shot or bludgeoned with a baseball bat (and that's just what the senior citizens do, the juniors get really serious!)

Q: And what happened to the individual whose dangerous driving led to Mr O'Mullane's outburst?
A: Absolutely nothing.
---------------------------------

An Australian nurse who was deported for showing his middle finger to a motorist has warned expats to be extra careful how they behave. “I want people to be aware of the law because I don’t want anyone to go through what my wife and I have been through,” Darren O’Mullane said.

Darren spoke to 7DAYS less than a week after he was deported for showing his middle finger to an Emirati driver on Sheikh Zayed Road. He was deported after spending 24 days in Dubai Central Jail, while his English wife, Marie, had to give up their apartment, cars and family pet and uproot to start a new life in Australia.

“It has been very, very stressful,” said Marie. “Darren’s a very honest person. He admitted what he did and he paid the price,” she said.

The couple are now living at Darren’s parents home in New South Wales while he looks for a job in Sydney.

Darren admits he was wrong but recalls he had just completed a 13-hour shift in the intensive care unit of Dubai’s American Hospital late last year. He says he was in a bad mood because a patient suffering from alcohol withdraw had attacked him and he had to rush to stop a schizophrenic woman from harming herself. “I was stressed and tired and in a bad mood and just wanted to get home,” he said. He encountered a motorist weaving between lanes and said the driver’s vehicle nearly crashed into his.

Darren lifted his middle finger in anger as he passed the car and kept driving toward his home in Dubai Marina.

“The guy in the car started following me. He was right up behind me flashing his lights. I went around one roundabout eight times but he stayed on me. I drove past my home many times but he kept following, even when I made it home,” he said. When the man got out of the car, Darren saw that he was in his early 20s. “I said ‘leave me alone’ and went into the house.”

Police called him later that night to say they had received a complaint. He went to the police station and admitted what he had done. A police officer said that he wanted to let Darren go, but said the driver, who was an officer in the UAE armed forces, was insisting on lodging a complaint.
“I didn’t think the consequences of telling the truth would be so harsh,” Darren said. “I’d like other people to be very careful. You’re in a different country and the laws are not always the same.”

The torture tapes

The video referred to below was shown on the ABC network in the US recently, though extracts have been circulating on the Net for some time and is on the ABC (US) website. It shows the prolonged torture of an Afghan grain trader by Sheikh Issa, the brother of the Crown Prince of the UAE. The grain trader was accused by the sheikh of cheating him in a grain deal in an amount of AED5,000 or AED500,000; the amount involved seems to vary according to who you talk to. The video, which is graphic and could be very disturbing to a lot of people, shows the active involvement of a uniformed member of the UAE police force. After viewing, we can only ponder the government's official response; "...all rules, policies and procedures were followed correctly by the Police Department."

The Guardian newspaper in the UK has also written extensively about this, showing interest in the fact that Sheikh Issa's brother is part owner of Manchester City soccer club.

And where are the links to the ABC and the Guardian? Well, strangely, in a bizarre, freakish and odd coincidence, I'm unable to link to them as both sites are currently unavailable from Dubai. However, du makes no pretence, I'm told that people in the UAE trying to access the Guardian site through du's system yesterday got the "this website is blocked" screen.

Much web forum comment has been along the lines "this is no worse than Guantanamo..." but two wrongs will never make a right.

In a final sad irony, "Issa" means Jesus in Arabic.

-------------------------
A video tape smuggled out of the United Arab Emirates shows a member of the country's royal family mercilessly torturing a man with whips, electric cattle prods and wooden planks with protruding nails.

A man in a UAE police uniform is seen on the tape tying the victim's arms and legs, and later holding him down as the Sheikh pours salt on the man's wounds and then drives over him with his Mercedes SUV.

In a statement to ABC News, the UAE Ministry of the Interior said it had reviewed the tape and acknowledged the involvement of Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, brother of the country's crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed.

"The incidents depicted in the video tapes were not part of a pattern of behavior," the Interior Ministry's statement declared.

The Minister of the Interior is also one of Sheikh Issa's brother. The government statement said its review found "all rules, policies and procedures were followed correctly by the Police Department."

"If this is their complete reply, then sadly it's a scam and it's a sham," said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch.

"It is the state that is torturing them," she said, "if the government does not investigate and prosecute these officers, and those commanding those officers."

The 45-minute long tape was smuggled out of the country by Bassam Nabulsi, of Houston, Texas, a former business associate of Sheikh Issa.

Nabulsi is now suing the Sheikh in federal court in Houston, alleging he also was tortured by UAE police when he refused to turn over the videos to the Sheikh following their falling out.

"They were my security, really, to make my case that this man is capable of doing what I say he can do," said Nabulsi in an interview to be broadcast Wednesday on the ABC News program Nightline.

Nabulsi says the video tapes were recorded by his brother, on orders from the Sheikh who liked to watch the torture sessions later in his royal palace.

The Sheikh begins by stuffing sand down the man's mouth, as the police officers restrains the victim. Then he fires bullets from an automatic rifle around him as the man howls incomprehensibly. At another point on the tape, the Sheikh can be seen telling the cameraman to come closer. "Get closer. Get closer. Get closer. Let his suffering show," the Sheikh says. Over the course of the tape, Sheikh Issa acts in an increasingly sadistic manner. He uses an electric cattle prod against the man's testicles and inserts it in his anus. At another point, as the man wails in pain, the Sheikh pours lighter fluid on the man's testicles and sets them aflame.
Then the tape shows the Sheikh sorting through some wooden planks. "I remember there was one that had a nail in it," he says on the tape.

The Sheikh then pulls down the pants of the victim and repeatedly strikes him with board and its protruding nail. At one point, he puts the nail next to the man's buttocks and bangs it through the flesh.

"Where's the salt," asks the Sheikh as he pours a large container of salt on to the man's bleeding wounds. The victim pleads for mercy, to no avail. The final scene on the tape shows the Sheikh positioning his victim on the desert sand and then driving over him repeatedly. A sound of breaking bones can be heard on the tape.

Sheikh Issa's lawyer, Daryl Bristow of Baker Botts in Houston, told ABC News "the tape is the tape." The torture victim was identified by Nabulsi as an Afghan grain dealer, Mohammed Shah Poor, who the Sheikh accused of short changing on a grain delivery to his royal ranch on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

The UAE government, in its statement, says the matter was settled privately between the Sheikh and the grain dealer, "by agreeing not to bring formal charges against each other, i.e., theft on the one hand and assault on the other hand."

Nabulsi says Sheikh Issa became increasing violent and sadistic following the 2004 death of his father, the UAE's first and only president until that time, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
"It's like you flipped a switch and the man took a wrong turn in his life and started getting violent," said Nabulsi. Sheikh Issa is one of the country's 22 royal sheikhs but does not hold an official position in the UAE government. Nabulsi first met Sheikh Issa when he traveled to Houston for medical reasons. Nabulsi provided hotel and limousine services and their relationship grew into a business partnership, he says.

Nabulsi, in his lawsuit, says he was falsely arrested on narcotics trafficking charges by Abu Dhabi police when he refused to turn over the tapes and mistreated in prison, where he was held for three months.

"They would stick a finger up his anus and say, 'this is from Sheik Issa, are you going to give us the tapes,'" said Nabulsi's Houston lawyer, Tony Buzbee.

"They would keep him from sleeping, deny him his medications, tell him they were going to rape his wife, kill his child. They made him pose naked while they took pictures," the lawyer alleges.
The UAE government said its review "also confirmed that Mr. Nabulsi was in no way mistreated during his incarceration for drug possession."

After a short trial, Nabulsi was convicted of having prescription medicine without a prescription from a local doctor. Evidence at the trail showed his doctor in Houston had prescribed the medicine.

Nabulsi was expelled from the country and his passport is stamped with the notation "Not Allowed to Return to the UAE."

Nabulsi says officials at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi were aware of the torture tapes but took no action to protest the Sheikh's action.

The UAE is considered a stalwart U.S. ally in the region, with close cooperation in working against al Qaeda. The U.S. Navy has an important base outside Dubai.

Nabulsi says he even showed portions of the tape to a Department of Homeland Security official stationed in Abu Dhabi to train UAE police, Bill Wallrap.

Nabulsi says after the U.S. official watched the tapes, he advised Nabulsi to "gather your family and get out of the country as soon as possible for your own safety."

A spokesman for DHS said neither Wallrap nor the DHS would have any comment on the torture tapes. In its 2008 Human Rights report, the U.S. State Department referred to "reports that a royal family member tortured a foreign national who had allegedly overcharged him in a grain deal." The State Department made no reference to the video tapes played for the U.S. official.
Rep. McGovern Weighs In Other U.S. embassy employees did help, says Nabulsi, who credits them with keeping him alive by their visits to the prison.

Asked why neither he nor his brother didn't report the torture he saw on the tape to authorities in the UAE, Nabulsi said, "I mean the whole government is all brothers. I mean the president is al Nahyan, the crown prince is al Nahyan, the foreign minister is al Nahyan, the foreign minister is al Nahyan. What can you do?"

The co-chairman of the House Human Rights Commission, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), said the existence of the tape requires the U.S. to take action.

"Granted that they're strategically located in a key part of the world, but it's hard to imagine that we're going to keep going on as if it' business as usual when this kind of stuff happens," said McGovern. "My guess is that this is just the tip of the iceberg."

Sheikh Issa's lawyer, Bristow, has moved to have the case, which also involves allegations surrounding their business dealings, transferred to courts in the UAE.

Wherever it is heard, said Bristow, "You may be assured that in due course the one-sided "story" being told to ABC by the Nabulsi's and their lawyers will be completely addressed and the Nabulsi's will be discredited," he said in a letter to ABC News.

The "'story that we think ABC is being told is grossly misleading; it is in large measure demonstrably untrue; and it is defamatory to Sheikh Issa." Bristow represented George W. Bush in the Florida recount case in 2000. Among the firm's partners is former Secretary of State James Baker.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Off the air

Sorry to be "off the air" over the past week. I'm in Oz and will be back in The Sandpit next week.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Meanwhile, in Fiji, a man gets on a bus

Back in the home neighbourhood, Fiji's military rulers have expelled several foreign reporters for their "irresponsible reporting" on the current political turmoil in that country. At the same time strict censorship rules are being imposed resulting in this piece taken from the "Sydney Morning Herald". It refers to the Suva based "Daily Post" newspaper issue of 15 April '09:
-------------------------------------------
Read all about it: man gets on bus

In a satirical jibe at stringent censorship imposed by Fiji's military Government, the Daily Post newspaper has been filling the space with some no news.

Headlines in Wednesday's edition included "Man gets on bus" over an item reading: "In what is believed to be the first reported incident of its kind, a man got on a bus yesterday. 'It was easy,' he said. 'I just lifted one leg up and then the other and I was on.' "

Another headed "Breakfast as usual" began: "It was breakfast as usual for the staff of this newspaper. 'I had leftover roti from last night,' senior reporter Manueli told his colleague yesterday morning."

A third story began, "Paint has apparently dried on his old couch, Max reports. Given the job of painting the couch, Max was excited at the prospect of the paint drying. But when asked how it dried, he was nonplussed.

" 'It just went on wet, but after about four hours, it started to dry. That was when I realised, paint dries,' the young scholar observed."

Fiji's military ruler Frank Bainimarama has posted censors in the offices of newspapers and radio and television stations, ordered foreign journalists out of the country and shut down the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's radio transmitters.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The basic rules for working in the UAE

From the Australian publication "Business Spectator" 14 April '09
--------------------------------------
The arrest and imprisonment without charge of several Australian businessmen working in Dubai should be the catalyst for shaking Australians out of their ignorance of Arab business culture.

It should help put an end to the stereotypical view that a job in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a ticket to a cushy, highly paid, tax-free position in a business environment not that different to home.

This distorted view of the UAE is perpetuated by recruitment consultants and by the custom of expatriates in senior positions hiring mates from the old boy's club.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith highlighted the Australian ignorance of Arab culture in a recent interview on the ABC's Lateline. Smith was interviewed following his direct intervention in the cases of two Australians employed by the Dubai government-owned property company Nakheel. Matthew Joyce and Marcus Lee have been in jail since January.

The Minister said he is trying to upgrade the diplomatic relations between Australia and the UAE to reflect the increased commercial links and also see what can be done to inform Australians about the very different legal and judicial systems that apply in Muslim countries.

The travel advisory for UAE issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been recently updated to highlight that an individual can be arrested and held indefinitely without charge while an investigation proceeds.

Without commenting on the circumstances surrounding the cases involving Joyce and Lee, it is obvious from discussions with sources in the Gulf region that many expatriates have little or no sensitivity toward Arab culture or the requirements for working in the UAE.

A couple of anecdotes sum it up.

There was a swaggering American executive who was employed by a property company in the UAE, but after less than three months didn't like it and decided to change jobs. He was surprised to find that he should have asked permission of his employer before doing so. He walked out on his employer as a protest and was then banned from working in that country for 12 months.
Then there was the arrogant Englishman who parked illegally outside his place of employment in Dubai. When asked to move by an Arab man, the Englishman verbally abused him. The Arab man was very well-connected and the Englishman was out of the country within two days.
In the UAE the contractual relationship between the expatriate employee and a government-owned employer is very different to the contract of employment in Australia.

The employer is effectively the employee's sponsor. The employer's name appears on the employee's work visa. The employer takes responsibility for the actions of the employee and is liable for everything from personal debts to social behaviour.

Until an employee gets a visa they can't do anything. Without a visa an expatriate cannot open a bank account sign a lease, obtain a driver's licence, get a mobile phone or rent a car.
An employee cannot change employment without the certification of the current employer.
The fundamental principle that underpins all relationships for an expatriate in the UAE is employment. Residency is tied to employment.

In fact, an employee who is terminated has a legal obligation to immediately notify the bank. This is to give the bank the opportunity to freeze the employee's accounts and ensure that all debts are paid before departing the country.

Separate to the strict rules of employment and residency are the ways of doing business, which can be hard for an expatriate to get their mind around.

The Australian way of running property development projects with verbal decisions at board meetings backed up by legally recognised board minutes and letters of intent do not apply in emirates such as Dubai.

In Dubai, all contracts have to be agreed and signed before proceeding. Variations orders must be signed and received by the client before proceeding. However, it is believed this approach was overlooked during the boom times when 'speed' was the core value of the government owned development companies.

Government-owned companies in the UAE have very powerful internal audit functions that focus on written and signed contractual terms. These internal auditors are being called upon to ensure all existing contracts are properly approved.

The concept of an implied contract does not apply in the UAE. This is particularly the case at a time when those higher up the chain are searching for people to blame for cost overruns, project problems or looking for excuses to stop work.

As Stephen Smith told Lateline, the best advice for Australians planning to work in the UAE is prevention rather than cure – to be aware of the different cultures and the different systems, “and the need for Australians to respect the judicial and legal processes of another country.”

A long weekend in Qatar








There are photos I took last weekend in Doha, Qatar here: http://carolynn-in-dubai.smugmug.com/gallery/7890231_ffhGd#511670102_xYbtb The photo above is from the Museum's website.

The outstanding Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar deserves its own gallery: http://carolynn-in-dubai.smugmug.com/gallery/7891227_djQD7#511775721_f327i

The Museum of Islamic Art also has an excellent website with lots of information.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Article from The Independent: The dark side of Dubai

While its not been published in the UAE for reasons that will become obvious, this piece by Johann Hari has received widespread internet circulation stiring up controversy here nevertheless. He makes some valid points in the piece, for example, there's no doubt that an examination of labourers' conditions in the UAE is valid and timely. However, what's being discussed in Dubai is this: when does a media article about Dubai convey an objective report or informed criticism and when does it constitute "Dubai bashing".

From the outset the reader is under no illusion as to Mr Hari's attitude to Dubai. He doesn't like it.

It also seems he had his Expat Idiot Magnet on high power when choosing his interviewees. Some of the expats he interviews, whether they're real individuals or an amalgam of various people he's met, raise the bar in stupidity and arrogance. However, he also treats the Emirati interviewees with a sneering condescension. He's so keen to find fault that he makes simple factual errors, 'Open Doors, Open Minds' is not "Dubai's motto" as he states, its the motto of the Sheikh Mohamed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai which does a great job of introducing Islam to people of other faiths. Perhaps he should have spent less time in the malls and pubs and more time seeking out thoughtful, intelligent resources. Anyway here goes...........

--------------------------------------------------------------------
From The Independent 7 April '09 written by Johann Hari

Dubai was meant to be a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La, a glittering monument to Arab enterprise and western capitalism. But as hard times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an uglier story is emerging.

The wide, smiling face of Sheikh Mohammed Рthe absolute ruler of Dubai Рbeams down on his creation. His image is displayed on every other building, sandwiched between the more familiar corporate rictuses of Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders. This man has sold Dubai to the world as the city of One Thousand and One Arabian Lights, a Shangri-La in the Middle East insulated from the dust-storms blasting across the region. He dominates the Manhattan-manqu̩ skyline, beaming out from row after row of glass pyramids and hotels smelted into the shape of piles of golden coins. And there he stands on the tallest building in the world Рa skinny spike, jabbing farther into the sky than any other human construction in history.

But something has flickered in Sheikh Mohammed's smile. The ubiquitous cranes have paused on the skyline, as if stuck in time. There are countless buildings half-finished, seemingly abandoned. In the swankiest new constructions – like the vast Atlantis hotel, a giant pink castle built in 1,000 days for $1.5bn on its own artificial island – where rainwater is leaking from the ceilings and the tiles are falling off the roof. This Neverland was built on the Never-Never – and now the cracks are beginning to show. Suddenly it looks less like Manhattan in the sun than Iceland in the desert.

Once the manic burst of building has stopped and the whirlwind has slowed, the secrets of Dubai are slowly seeping out. This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery. Dubai is a living metal metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing – at last – into history.

I. An Adult Disneyland
Karen Andrews can't speak. Every time she starts to tell her story, she puts her head down and crumples. She is slim and angular and has the faded radiance of the once-rich, even though her clothes are as creased as her forehead. I find her in the car park of one of Dubai's finest international hotels, where she is living, in her Range Rover. She has been sleeping here for months, thanks to the kindness of the Bangladeshi car park attendants who don't have the heart to move her on. This is not where she thought her Dubai dream would end.

Her story comes out in stutters, over four hours. At times, her old voice – witty and warm – breaks through. Karen came here from Canada when her husband was offered a job in the senior division of a famous multinational. "When he said Dubai, I said – if you want me to wear black and quit booze, baby, you've got the wrong girl. But he asked me to give it a chance. And I loved him."

All her worries melted when she touched down in Dubai in 2005. "It was an adult Disneyland, where Sheikh Mohammed is the mouse," she says. "Life was fantastic. You had these amazing big apartments, you had a whole army of your own staff, you pay no taxes at all. It seemed like everyone was a CEO. We were partying the whole time."

Her husband, Daniel, bought two properties. "We were drunk on Dubai," she says. But for the first time in his life, he was beginning to mismanage their finances. "We're not talking huge sums, but he was getting confused. It was so unlike Daniel, I was surprised. We got into a little bit of debt." After a year, she found out why: Daniel was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

One doctor told him he had a year to live; another said it was benign and he'd be okay. But the debts were growing. "Before I came here, I didn't know anything about Dubai law. I assumed if all these big companies come here, it must be pretty like Canada's or any other liberal democracy's," she says. Nobody told her there is no concept of bankruptcy. If you get into debt and you can't pay, you go to prison.

"When we realised that, I sat Daniel down and told him: listen, we need to get out of here. He knew he was guaranteed a pay-off when he resigned, so we said – right, let's take the pay-off, clear the debt, and go." So Daniel resigned – but he was given a lower pay-off than his contract suggested. The debt remained. As soon as you quit your job in Dubai, your employer has to inform your bank. If you have any outstanding debts that aren't covered by your savings, then all your accounts are frozen, and you are forbidden to leave the country.

"Suddenly our cards stopped working. We had nothing. We were thrown out of our apartment." Karen can't speak about what happened next for a long time; she is shaking.

Daniel was arrested and taken away on the day of their eviction. It was six days before she could talk to him. "He told me he was put in a cell with another debtor, a Sri Lankan guy who was only 27, who said he couldn't face the shame to his family. Daniel woke up and the boy had swallowed razor-blades. He banged for help, but nobody came, and the boy died in front of him."

Karen managed to beg from her friends for a few weeks, "but it was so humiliating. I've never lived like this. I worked in the fashion industry. I had my own shops. I've never..." She peters out.

Daniel was sentenced to six months' imprisonment at a trial he couldn't understand. It was in Arabic, and there was no translation. "Now I'm here illegally, too," Karen says I've got no money, nothing. I have to last nine months until he's out, somehow." Looking away, almost paralysed with embarrassment, she asks if I could buy her a meal.

She is not alone. All over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars.

"The thing you have to understand about Dubai is – nothing is what it seems," Karen says at last. "Nothing. This isn't a city, it's a con-job. They lure you in telling you it's one thing – a modern kind of place – but beneath the surface it's a medieval dictatorship."

II. Tumbleweed
Thirty years ago, almost all of contemporary Dubai was desert, inhabited only by cactuses and tumbleweed and scorpions. But downtown there are traces of the town that once was, buried amidst the metal and glass. In the dusty fort of the Dubai Museum, a sanitised version of this story is told.

In the mid-18th century, a small village was built here, in the lower Persian Gulf, where people would dive for pearls off the coast. It soon began to accumulate a cosmopolitan population washing up from Persia, the Indian subcontinent, and other Arab countries, all hoping to make their fortune. They named it after a local locust, the daba, who consumed everything before it. The town was soon seized by the gunships of the British Empire, who held it by the throat as late as 1971. As they scuttled away, Dubai decided to ally with the six surrounding states and make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The British quit, exhausted, just as oil was being discovered, and the sheikhs who suddenly found themselves in charge faced a remarkable dilemma. They were largely illiterate nomads who spent their lives driving camels through the desert – yet now they had a vast pot of gold. What should they do with it?

Dubai only had a dribble of oil compared to neighbouring Abu Dhabi – so Sheikh Maktoum decided to use the revenues to build something that would last. Israel used to boast it made the desert bloom; Sheikh Maktoum resolved to make the desert boom. He would build a city to be a centre of tourism and financial services, sucking up cash and talent from across the globe. He invited the world to come tax-free – and they came in their millions, swamping the local population, who now make up just 5 per cent of Dubai. A city seemed to fall from the sky in just three decades, whole and complete and swelling. They fast-forwarded from the 18th century to the 21st in a single generation.

If you take the Big Bus Tour of Dubai – the passport to a pre-processed experience of every major city on earth – you are fed the propaganda-vision of how this happened. "Dubai's motto is 'Open doors, open minds'," the tour guide tells you in clipped tones, before depositing you at the souks to buy camel tea-cosies. "Here you are free. To purchase fabrics," he adds. As you pass each new monumental building, he tells you: "The World Trade Centre was built by His Highness..."

But this is a lie. The sheikh did not build this city. It was built by slaves. They are building it now.
III. Hidden in plain view
There are three different Dubais, all swirling around each other. There are the expats, like Karen; there are the Emiratis, headed by Sheikh Mohammed; and then there is the foreign underclass who built the city, and are trapped here. They are hidden in plain view. You see them everywhere, in dirt-caked blue uniforms, being shouted at by their superiors, like a chain gang – but you are trained not to look. It is like a mantra: the Sheikh built the city. The Sheikh built the city. Workers? What workers?

Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. They sweat like sponges being slowly wrung out.

Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings. Some 300,000 men live piled up here, in a place whose name in Hindi means "City of Gold". In the first camp I stop at – riven with the smell of sewage and sweat – the men huddle around, eager to tell someone, anyone, what is happening to them.

Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. "To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell," he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal's village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa – a fee they'd pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.
As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.

Sahinal was in a panic. His family back home – his son, daughter, wife and parents – were waiting for money, excited that their boy had finally made it. But he was going to have to work for more than two years just to pay for the cost of getting here – and all to earn less than he did in Bangladesh.

He shows me his room. It is a tiny, poky, concrete cell with triple-decker bunk-beds, where he lives with 11 other men. All his belongings are piled onto his bunk: three shirts, a spare pair of trousers, and a cellphone. The room stinks, because the lavatories in the corner of the camp – holes in the ground – are backed up with excrement and clouds of black flies. There is no air conditioning or fans, so the heat is "unbearable. You cannot sleep. All you do is sweat and scratch all night." At the height of summer, people sleep on the floor, on the roof, anywhere where they can pray for a moment of breeze.

The water delivered to the camp in huge white containers isn't properly desalinated: it tastes of salt. "It makes us sick, but we have nothing else to drink," he says.

The work is "the worst in the world," he says. "You have to carry 50kg bricks and blocks of cement in the worst heat imaginable ... This heat – it is like nothing else. You sweat so much you can't pee, not for days or weeks. It's like all the liquid comes out through your skin and you stink. You become dizzy and sick but you aren't allowed to stop, except for an hour in the afternoon. You know if you drop anything or slip, you could die. If you take time off sick, your wages are docked, and you are trapped here even longer."

He is currently working on the 67th floor of a shiny new tower, where he builds upwards, into the sky, into the heat. He doesn't know its name. In his four years here, he has never seen the Dubai of tourist-fame, except as he constructs it floor-by-floor.

Is he angry? He is quiet for a long time. "Here, nobody shows their anger. You can't. You get put in jail for a long time, then deported." Last year, some workers went on strike after they were not given their wages for four months. The Dubai police surrounded their camps with razor-wire and water-cannons and blasted them out and back to work.

The "ringleaders" were imprisoned. I try a different question: does Sohinal regret coming? All the men look down, awkwardly. "How can we think about that? We are trapped. If we start to think about regrets..." He lets the sentence trail off. Eventually, another worker breaks the silence by adding: "I miss my country, my family and my land. We can grow food in Bangladesh. Here, nothing grows. Just oil and buildings."

Since the recession hit, they say, the electricity has been cut off in dozens of the camps, and the men have not been paid for months. Their companies have disappeared with their passports and their pay. "We have been robbed of everything. Even if somehow we get back to Bangladesh, the loan sharks will demand we repay our loans immediately, and when we can't, we'll be sent to prison."

This is all supposed to be illegal. Employers are meant to pay on time, never take your passport, give you breaks in the heat – but I met nobody who said it happens. Not one. These men are conned into coming and trapped into staying, with the complicity of the Dubai authorities.

Sahinal could well die out here. A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they're not reported. They're described as 'accidents'." Even then, their families aren't free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a "cover-up of the true extent" of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.

At night, in the dusk, I sit in the camp with Sohinal and his friends as they scrape together what they have left to buy a cheap bottle of spirits. They down it in one ferocious gulp. "It helps you to feel numb", Sohinal says through a stinging throat. In the distance, the glistening Dubai skyline he built stands, oblivious.

IV. Mauled by the mall
I find myself stumbling in a daze from the camps into the sprawling marble malls that seem to stand on every street in Dubai. It is so hot there is no point building pavements; people gather in these cathedrals of consumerism to bask in the air conditioning. So within a ten minute taxi-ride, I have left Sohinal and I am standing in the middle of Harvey Nichols, being shown a £20,000 taffeta dress by a bored salesgirl. "As you can see, it is cut on the bias..." she says, and I stop writing.

Time doesn't seem to pass in the malls. Days blur with the same electric light, the same shined floors, the same brands I know from home. Here, Dubai is reduced to its component sounds: do-buy. In the most expensive malls I am almost alone, the shops empty and echoing. On the record, everybody tells me business is going fine. Off the record, they look panicky. There is a hat exhibition ahead of the Dubai races, selling elaborate headgear for £1,000 a pop. "Last year, we were packed. Now look," a hat designer tells me. She swoops her arm over a vacant space.
I approach a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in hotpants, oblivious to the swarms of men gaping at her. "I love it here!" she says. "The heat, the malls, the beach!" Does it ever bother you that it's a slave society? She puts her head down, just as Sohinal did. "I try not to see," she says. Even at 17, she has learned not to look, and not to ask; that, she senses, is a transgression too far.

Between the malls, there is nothing but the connecting tissue of asphalt. Every road has at least four lanes; Dubai feels like a motorway punctuated by shopping centres. You only walk anywhere if you are suicidal. The residents of Dubai flit from mall to mall by car or taxis.
How does it feel if this is your country, filled with foreigners? Unlike the expats and the slave class, I can't just approach the native Emiratis to ask questions when I see them wandering around – the men in cool white robes, the women in sweltering black. If you try, the women blank you, and the men look affronted, and tell you brusquely that Dubai is "fine". So I browse through the Emirati blog-scene and found some typical-sounding young Emiratis. We meet – where else? – in the mall.

Ahmed al-Atar is a handsome 23-year-old with a neat, trimmed beard, tailored white robes, and rectangular wire-glasses. He speaks perfect American-English, and quickly shows that he knows London, Los Angeles and Paris better than most westerners. Sitting back in his chair in an identikit Starbucks, he announces: "This is the best place in the world to be young! The government pays for your education up to PhD level. You get given a free house when you get married. You get free healthcare, and if it's not good enough here, they pay for you to go abroad. You don't even have to pay for your phone calls. Almost everyone has a maid, a nanny, and a driver. And we never pay any taxes. Don't you wish you were Emirati?"

I try to raise potential objections to this Panglossian summary, but he leans forward and says: "Look – my grandfather woke up every day and he would have to fight to get to the well first to get water. When the wells ran dry, they had to have water delivered by camel. They were always hungry and thirsty and desperate for jobs. He limped all his life, because he there was no medical treatment available when he broke his leg. Now look at us!"

For Emiratis, this is a Santa Claus state, handing out goodies while it makes its money elsewhere: through renting out land to foreigners, soft taxes on them like business and airport charges, and the remaining dribble of oil. Most Emiratis, like Ahmed, work for the government, so they're cushioned from the credit crunch. "I haven't felt any effect at all, and nor have my friends," he says. "Your employment is secure. You will only be fired if you do something incredibly bad." The laws are currently being tightened, to make it even more impossible to sack an Emirati.
Sure, the flooding-in of expats can sometimes be "an eyesore", Ahmed says. "But we see the expats as the price we had to pay for this development. How else could we do it? Nobody wants to go back to the days of the desert, the days before everyone came. We went from being like an African country to having an average income per head of $120,000 a year. And we're supposed to complain?"

He says the lack of political freedom is fine by him. "You'll find it very hard to find an Emirati who doesn't support Sheikh Mohammed." Because they're scared? "No, because we really all support him. He's a great leader. Just look!" He smiles and says: "I'm sure my life is very much like yours. We hang out, have a coffee, go to the movies. You'll be in a Pizza Hut or Nando's in London, and at the same time I'll be in one in Dubai," he says, ordering another latte.
But do all young Emiratis see it this way? Can it really be so sunny in the political sands? In the sleek Emirates Tower Hotel, I meet Sultan al-Qassemi. He's a 31-year-old Emirati columnist for the Dubai press and private art collector, with a reputation for being a contrarian liberal, advocating gradual reform. He is wearing Western clothes – blue jeans and a Ralph Lauren shirt – and speaks incredibly fast, turning himself into a manic whirr of arguments.

"People here are turning into lazy, overweight babies!" he exclaims. "The nanny state has gone too far. We don't do anything for ourselves! Why don't any of us work for the private sector? Why can't a mother and father look after their own child?" And yet, when I try to bring up the system of slavery that built Dubai, he looks angry. "People should give us credit," he insists. "We are the most tolerant people in the world. Dubai is the only truly international city in the world. Everyone who comes here is treated with respect."

I pause, and think of the vast camps in Sonapur, just a few miles away. Does he even know they exist? He looks irritated. "You know, if there are 30 or 40 cases [of worker abuse] a year, that sounds like a lot but when you think about how many people are here..." Thirty or 40? This abuse is endemic to the system, I say. We're talking about hundreds of thousands.

Sultan is furious. He splutters: "You don't think Mexicans are treated badly in New York City? And how long did it take Britain to treat people well? I could come to London and write about the homeless people on Oxford Street and make your city sound like a terrible place, too! The workers here can leave any time they want! Any Indian can leave, any Asian can leave!"
But they can't, I point out. Their passports are taken away, and their wages are withheld. "Well, I feel bad if that happens, and anybody who does that should be punished. But their embassies should help them." They try. But why do you forbid the workers – with force – from going on strike against lousy employers? "Thank God we don't allow that!" he exclaims. "Strikes are in-convenient! They go on the street – we're not having that. We won't be like France. Imagine a country where they the workers can just stop whenever they want!" So what should the workers do when they are cheated and lied to? "Quit. Leave the country."

I sigh. Sultan is seething now. "People in the West are always complaining about us," he says. Suddenly, he adopts a mock-whiny voice and says, in imitation of these disgusting critics: "Why don't you treat animals better? Why don't you have better shampoo advertising? Why don't you treat labourers better?" It's a revealing order: animals, shampoo, then workers. He becomes more heated, shifting in his seat, jabbing his finger at me. "I gave workers who worked for me safety goggles and special boots, and they didn't want to wear them! It slows them down!"

And then he smiles, coming up with what he sees as his killer argument. "When I see Western journalists criticise us – don't you realise you're shooting yourself in the foot? The Middle East will be far more dangerous if Dubai fails. Our export isn't oil, it's hope. Poor Egyptians or Libyans or Iranians grow up saying – I want to go to Dubai. We're very important to the region. We are showing how to be a modern Muslim country. We don't have any fundamentalists here. Europeans shouldn't gloat at our demise. You should be very worried.... Do you know what will happen if this model fails? Dubai will go down the Iranian path, the Islamist path."

Sultan sits back. My arguments have clearly disturbed him; he says in a softer, conciliatory tone, almost pleading: "Listen. My mother used to go to the well and get a bucket of water every morning. On her wedding day, she was given an orange as a gift because she had never eaten one. Two of my brothers died when they were babies because the healthcare system hadn't developed yet. Don't judge us." He says it again, his eyes filled with intensity: "Don't judge us."

V. The Dunkin' Donuts Dissidents
But there is another face to the Emirati minority – a small huddle of dissidents, trying to shake the Sheikhs out of abusive laws. Next to a Virgin Megastore and a Dunkin' Donuts, with James Blunt's "You're Beautiful" blaring behind me, I meet the Dubai dictatorship's Public Enemy Number One. By way of introduction, Mohammed al-Mansoori says from within his white robes and sinewy face: "Westerners come her and see the malls and the tall buildings and they think that means we are free. But these businesses, these buildings – who are they for? This is a dictatorship. The royal family think they own the country, and the people are their servants. There is no freedom here."

We snuffle out the only Arabic restaurant in this mall, and he says everything you are banned – under threat of prison – from saying in Dubai. Mohammed tells me he was born in Dubai to a fisherman father who taught him one enduring lesson: Never follow the herd. Think for yourself. In the sudden surge of development, Mohammed trained as a lawyer. By the Noughties, he had climbed to the head of the Jurists' Association, an organisation set up to press for Dubai's laws to be consistent with international human rights legislation.

And then – suddenly – Mohammed thwacked into the limits of Sheikh Mohammed's tolerance. Horrified by the "system of slavery" his country was being built on, he spoke out to Human Rights Watch and the BBC. "So I was hauled in by the secret police and told: shut up, or you will lose you job, and your children will be unemployable," he says. "But how could I be silent?"
He was stripped of his lawyer's licence and his passport – becoming yet another person imprisoned in this country. "I have been blacklisted and so have my children. The newspapers are not allowed to write about me."

Why is the state so keen to defend this system of slavery? He offers a prosaic explanation. "Most companies are owned by the government, so they oppose human rights laws because it will reduce their profit margins. It's in their interests that the workers are slaves."

Last time there was a depression, there was a starbust of democracy in Dubai, seized by force from the sheikhs. In the 1930s, the city's merchants banded together against Sheikh Said bin Maktum al-Maktum – the absolute ruler of his day – and insisted they be given control over the state finances. It lasted only a few years, before the Sheikh – with the enthusiastic support of the British – snuffed them out.

And today? Sheikh Mohammed turned Dubai into Creditopolis, a city built entirely on debt. Dubai owes 107 percent of its entire GDP. It would be bust already, if the neighbouring oil-soaked state of Abu Dhabi hadn't pulled out its chequebook. Mohammed says this will constrict freedom even further. "Now Abu Dhabi calls the tunes – and they are much more conservative and restrictive than even Dubai. Freedom here will diminish every day." Already, new media laws have been drafted forbidding the press to report on anything that could "damage" Dubai or "its economy". Is this why the newspapers are giving away glossy supplements talking about "encouraging economic indicators"?

Everybody here waves Islamism as the threat somewhere over the horizon, sure to swell if their advice is not followed. Today, every imam is appointed by the government, and every sermon is tightly controlled to keep it moderate. But Mohammed says anxiously: "We don't have Islamism here now, but I think that if you control people and give them no way to express anger, it could rise. People who are told to shut up all the time can just explode."

Later that day, against another identikit-corporate backdrop, I meet another dissident – Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, Professor of Political Science at Emirates University. His anger focuses not on political reform, but the erosion of Emirati identity. He is famous among the locals, a rare outspoken conductor for their anger. He says somberly: "There has been a rupture here. This is a totally different city to the one I was born in 50 years ago."

He looks around at the shiny floors and Western tourists and says: "What we see now didn't occur in our wildest dreams. We never thought we could be such a success, a trendsetter, a model for other Arab countries. The people of Dubai are mighty proud of their city, and rightly so. And yet..." He shakes his head. "In our hearts, we fear we have built a modern city but we are losing it to all these expats."

Adbulkhaleq says every Emirati of his generation lives with a "psychological trauma." Their hearts are divided – "between pride on one side, and fear on the other." Just after he says this, a smiling waitress approaches, and asks us what we would like to drink. He orders a Coke.

VI. Dubai Pride
There is one group in Dubai for whom the rhetoric of sudden freedom and liberation rings true – but it is the very group the government wanted to liberate least: gays.

Beneath a famous international hotel, I clamber down into possibly the only gay club on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. I find a United Nations of tank-tops and bulging biceps, dancing to Kylie, dropping ecstasy, and partying like it's Soho. "Dubai is the best place in the Muslim world for gays!" a 25-year old Emirati with spiked hair says, his arms wrapped around his 31-year old "husband". "We are alive. We can meet. That is more than most Arab gays."

It is illegal to be gay in Dubai, and punishable by 10 years in prison. But the locations of the latest unofficial gay clubs circulate online, and men flock there, seemingly unafraid of the police. "They might bust the club, but they will just disperse us," one of them says. "The police have other things to do."

In every large city, gay people find a way to find each other – but Dubai has become the clearing-house for the region's homosexuals, a place where they can live in relative safety. Saleh, a lean private in the Saudi Arabian army, has come here for the Coldplay concert, and tells me Dubai is "great" for gays: "In Saudi, it's hard to be straight when you're young. The women are shut away so everyone has gay sex. But they only want to have sex with boys – 15- to 21-year-olds. I'm 27, so I'm too old now. I need to find real gays, so this is the best place. All Arab gays want to live in Dubai."

With that, Saleh dances off across the dancefloor, towards a Dutch guy with big biceps and a big smile.

VII. The Lifestyle
All the guidebooks call Dubai a "melting pot", but as I trawl across the city, I find that every group here huddles together in its own little ethnic enclave – and becomes a caricature of itself.

One night – in the heart of this homesick city, tired of the malls and the camps – I go to Double Decker, a hang-out for British expats. At the entrance there is a red telephone box, and London bus-stop signs. Its wooden interior looks like a cross between a colonial clubhouse in the Raj and an Eighties school disco, with blinking coloured lights and cheese blaring out. As I enter, a girl in a short skirt collapses out of the door onto her back. A guy wearing a pirate hat helps her to her feet, dropping his beer bottle with a paralytic laugh.

I start to talk to two sun-dried women in their sixties who have been getting gently sozzled since midday. "You stay here for The Lifestyle," they say, telling me to take a seat and order some more drinks. All the expats talk about The Lifestyle, but when you ask what it is, they become vague. Ann Wark tries to summarise it: "Here, you go out every night. You'd never do that back home. You see people all the time. It's great. You have lots of free time. You have maids and staff so you don't have to do all that stuff. You party!"

They have been in Dubai for 20 years, and they are happy to explain how the city works. "You've got a hierarchy, haven't you?" Ann says. "It's the Emiratis at the top, then I'd say the British and other Westerners. Then I suppose it's the Filipinos, because they've got a bit more brains than the Indians. Then at the bottom you've got the Indians and all them lot."

They admit, however, they have "never" spoken to an Emirati. Never? "No. They keep themselves to themselves." Yet Dubai has disappointed them. Jules Taylor tells me: "If you have an accident here it's a nightmare. There was a British woman we knew who ran over an Indian guy, and she was locked up for four days! If you have a tiny bit of alcohol on your breath they're all over you. These Indians throw themselves in front of cars, because then their family has to be given blood money – you know, compensation. But the police just blame us. That poor woman."
A 24-year-old British woman called Hannah Gamble takes a break from the dancefloor to talk to me. "I love the sun and the beach! It's great out here!" she says. Is there anything bad? "Oh yes!" she says. Ah: one of them has noticed, I think with relief. "The banks! When you want to make a transfer you have to fax them. You can't do it online." Anything else? She thinks hard. "The traffic's not very good."

When I ask the British expats how they feel to not be in a democracy, their reaction is always the same. First, they look bemused. Then they look affronted. "It's the Arab way!" an Essex boy shouts at me in response, as he tries to put a pair of comedy antlers on his head while pouring some beer into the mouth of his friend, who is lying on his back on the floor, gurning.

Later, in a hotel bar, I start chatting to a dyspeptic expat American who works in the cosmetics industry and is desperate to get away from these people. She says: "All the people who couldn't succeed in their own countries end up here, and suddenly they're rich and promoted way above their abilities and bragging about how great they are. I've never met so many incompetent people in such senior positions anywhere in the world." She adds: "It's absolutely racist. I had Filipino girls working for me doing the same job as a European girl, and she's paid a quarter of the wages. The people who do the real work are paid next to nothing, while these incompetent managers pay themselves £40,000 a month."

With the exception of her, one theme unites every expat I speak to: their joy at having staff to do the work that would clog their lives up Back Home. Everyone, it seems, has a maid. The maids used to be predominantly Filipino, but with the recession, Filipinos have been judged to be too expensive, so a nice Ethiopian servant girl is the latest fashionable accessory.

It is an open secret that once you hire a maid, you have absolute power over her. You take her passport – everyone does; you decide when to pay her, and when – if ever – she can take a break; and you decide who she talks to. She speaks no Arabic. She cannot escape.

In a Burger King, a Filipino girl tells me it is "terrifying" for her to wander the malls in Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. "They say – 'Please, I am being held prisoner, they don't let me call home, they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.' At first I would say – my God, I will tell the consulate, where are you staying? But they never know their address, and the consulate isn't interested. I avoid them now. I keep thinking about a woman who told me she hadn't eaten any fruit in four years. They think I have power because I can walk around on my own, but I'm powerless."

The only hostel for women in Dubai – a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. "But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: 'You came here to work, not sleep!' Then one day I just couldn't go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn't give me my wages: they said they'd pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn't know anybody here. I was terrified."
One day, after yet another beating, Mela ran out onto the streets, and asked – in broken English – how to find the Ethiopian consulate. After walking for two days, she found it, but they told her she had to get her passport back from Madam. "Well, how could I?" she asks. She has been in this hostel for six months. She has spoken to her daughter twice. "I lost my country, I lost my daughter, I lost everything," she says.

As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. "Oh, the servant class!" she trilled. "You do nothing. They'll do anything!"

VIII. The End of The World
The World is empty. It has been abandoned, its continents unfinished. Through binoculars, I think I can glimpse Britain; this sceptred isle barren in the salt-breeze.

Here, off the coast of Dubai, developers have been rebuilding the world. They have constructed artificial islands in the shape of all planet Earth's land masses, and they plan to sell each continent off to be built on. There were rumours that the Beckhams would bid for Britain. But the people who work at the nearby coast say they haven't seen anybody there for months now. "The World is over," a South African suggests.

All over Dubai, crazy projects that were Under Construction are now Under Collapse. They were building an air-conditioned beach here, with cooling pipes running below the sand, so the super-rich didn't singe their toes on their way from towel to sea.

The projects completed just before the global economy crashed look empty and tattered. The Atlantis Hotel was launched last winter in a $20m fin-de-siecle party attended by Robert De Niro, Lindsay Lohan and Lily Allen. Sitting on its own fake island – shaped, of course, like a palm tree – it looks like an immense upturned tooth in a faintly decaying mouth. It is pink and turreted – the architecture of the pharaohs, as reimagined by Zsa-Zsa Gabor. Its Grand Lobby is a monumental dome covered in glitterballs, held up by eight monumental concrete palm trees. Standing in the middle, there is a giant shining glass structure that looks like the intestines of every guest who has ever stayed at the Atlantis. It is unexpectedly raining; water is leaking from the roof, and tiles are falling off.

A South African PR girl shows me around its most coveted rooms, explaining that this is "the greatest luxury offered in the world". We stroll past shops selling £24m diamond rings around a hotel themed on the lost and sunken continent of, yes, Atlantis. There are huge water tanks filled with sharks, which poke around mock-abandoned castles and dumped submarines. There are more than 1,500 rooms here, each with a sea view. The Neptune suite has three floors, and – I gasp as I see it – it looks out directly on to the vast shark tank. You lie on the bed, and the sharks stare in at you. In Dubai, you can sleep with the fishes, and survive.

But even the luxury – reminiscent of a Bond villain's lair – is also being abandoned. I check myself in for a few nights to the classiest hotel in town, the Park Hyatt. It is the fashionistas' favourite hotel, where Elle Macpherson and Tommy Hilfiger stay, a gorgeous, understated palace. It feels empty. Whenever I eat, I am one of the only people in the restaurant. A staff member tells me in a whisper: "It used to be full here. Now there's hardly anyone." Rattling around, I feel like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, the last man in an abandoned, haunted home.
The most famous hotel in Dubai – the proud icon of the city – is the Burj al Arab hotel, sitting on the shore, shaped like a giant glass sailing boat. In the lobby, I start chatting to a couple from London who work in the City. They have been coming to Dubai for 10 years now, and they say they love it. "You never know what you'll find here," he says. "On our last trip, at the beginning of the holiday, our window looked out on the sea. By the end, they'd built an entire island there."
My patience frayed by all this excess, I find myself snapping: doesn't the omnipresent slave class bother you? I hope they misunderstood me, because the woman replied: "That's what we come for! It's great, you can't do anything for yourself!" Her husband chimes in: "When you go to the toilet, they open the door, they turn on the tap – the only thing they don't do is take it out for you when you have a piss!" And they both fall about laughing.

IX. Taking on the Desert
Dubai is not just a city living beyond its financial means; it is living beyond its ecological means. You stand on a manicured Dubai lawn and watch the sprinklers spray water all around you. You see tourists flocking to swim with dolphins. You wander into a mountain-sized freezer where they have built a ski slope with real snow. And a voice at the back of your head squeaks: this is the desert. This is the most water-stressed place on the planet. How can this be happening? How is it possible?

The very earth is trying to repel Dubai, to dry it up and blow it away. The new Tiger Woods Gold Course needs four million gallons of water to be pumped on to its grounds every day, or it would simply shrivel and disappear on the winds. The city is regularly washed over with dust-storms that fog up the skies and turn the skyline into a blur. When the dust parts, heat burns through. It cooks anything that is not kept constantly, artificially wet.

Dr Mohammed Raouf, the environmental director of the Gulf Research Centre, sounds sombre as he sits in his Dubai office and warns: "This is a desert area, and we are trying to defy its environment. It is very unwise. If you take on the desert, you will lose."

Sheikh Maktoum built his showcase city in a place with no useable water. None. There is no surface water, very little acquifer, and among the lowest rainfall in the world. So Dubai drinks the sea. The Emirates' water is stripped of salt in vast desalination plants around the Gulf – making it the most expensive water on earth. It costs more than petrol to produce, and belches vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as it goes. It's the main reason why a resident of Dubai has the biggest average carbon footprint of any human being – more than double that of an American.

If a recession turns into depression, Dr Raouf believes Dubai could run out of water. "At the moment, we have financial reserves that cover bringing so much water to the middle of the desert. But if we had lower revenues – if, say, the world shifts to a source of energy other than oil..." he shakes his head. "We will have a very big problem. Water is the main source of life. It would be a catastrophe. Dubai only has enough water to last us a week. There's almost no storage. We don't know what will happen if our supplies falter. It would be hard to survive."
Global warming, he adds, makes the problem even worse. "We are building all these artificial islands, but if the sea level rises, they will be gone, and we will lose a lot. Developers keep saying it's all fine, they've taken it into consideration, but I'm not so sure."

Is the Dubai government concerned about any of this? "There isn't much interest in these problems," he says sadly. But just to stand still, the average resident of Dubai needs three times more water than the average human. In the looming century of water stresses and a transition away from fossil fuels, Dubai is uniquely vulnerable.

I wanted to understand how the government of Dubai will react, so I decided to look at how it has dealt with an environmental problem that already exists – the pollution of its beaches. One woman – an American, working at one of the big hotels – had written in a lot of online forums arguing that it was bad and getting worse, so I called her to arrange a meeting. "I can't talk to you," she said sternly. Not even if it's off the record? "I can't talk to you." But I don't have to disclose your name... "You're not listening. This phone is bugged. I can't talk to you," she snapped, and hung up.

The next day I turned up at her office. "If you reveal my identity, I'll be sent on the first plane out of this city," she said, before beginning to nervously pace the shore with me. "It started like this. We began to get complaints from people using the beach. The water looked and smelled odd, and they were starting to get sick after going into it. So I wrote to the ministers of health and tourism and expected to hear back immediately – but there was nothing. Silence. I hand-delivered the letters. Still nothing."

The water quality got worse and worse. The guests started to spot raw sewage, condoms, and used sanitary towels floating in the sea. So the hotel ordered its own water analyses from a professional company. "They told us it was full of fecal matter and bacteria 'too numerous to count'. I had to start telling guests not to go in the water, and since they'd come on a beach holiday, as you can imagine, they were pretty pissed off." She began to make angry posts on the expat discussion forums – and people began to figure out what was happening. Dubai had expanded so fast its sewage treatment facilities couldn't keep up. The sewage disposal trucks had to queue for three or four days at the treatment plants – so instead, they were simply drilling open the manholes and dumping the untreated sewage down them, so it flowed straight to the sea.

Suddenly, it was an open secret – and the municipal authorities finally acknowledged the problem. They said they would fine the truckers. But the water quality didn't improve: it became black and stank. "It's got chemicals in it. I don't know what they are. But this stuff is toxic."
She continued to complain – and started to receive anonymous phone calls. "Stop embarassing Dubai, or your visa will be cancelled and you're out," they said. She says: "The expats are terrified to talk about anything. One critical comment in the newspapers and they deport you. So what am I supposed to do? Now the water is worse than ever. People are getting really sick. Eye infections, ear infections, stomach infections, rashes. Look at it!" There is faeces floating on the beach, in the shadow of one of Dubai's most famous hotels.

"What I learnt about Dubai is that the authorities don't give a toss about the environment," she says, standing in the stench. "They're pumping toxins into the sea, their main tourist attraction, for God's sake. If there are environmental problems in the future, I can tell you now how they will deal with them – deny it's happening, cover it up, and carry on until it's a total disaster." As she speaks, a dust-storm blows around us, as the desert tries, slowly, insistently, to take back its land.

X. Fake Plastic Trees
On my final night in the Dubai Disneyland, I stop off on my way to the airport, at a Pizza Hut that sits at the side of one of the city's endless, wide, gaping roads. It is identical to the one near my apartment in London in every respect, even the vomit-coloured decor. My mind is whirring and distracted. Perhaps Dubai disturbed me so much, I am thinking, because here, the entire global supply chain is condensed. Many of my goods are made by semi-enslaved populations desperate for a chance 2,000 miles away; is the only difference that here, they are merely two miles away, and you sometimes get to glimpse their faces? Dubai is Market Fundamentalist Globalisation in One City.

I ask the Filipino girl behind the counter if she likes it here. "It's OK," she says cautiously. Really? I say. I can't stand it. She sighs with relief and says: "This is the most terrible place! I hate it! I was here for months before I realised – everything in Dubai is fake. Everything you see. The trees are fake, the workers' contracts are fake, the islands are fake, the smiles are fake – even the water is fake!" But she is trapped, she says. She got into debt to come here, and she is stuck for three years: an old story now. "I think Dubai is like an oasis. It is an illusion, not real. You think you have seen water in the distance, but you get close and you only get a mouthful of sand."

As she says this, another customer enters. She forces her face into the broad, empty Dubai smile and says: "And how may I help you tonight, sir?"

Monday, 6 April 2009

Nakheel confirms cancellation of $1bn construction contract

From Arabian Business 6 April '09
--------------------
Nakheel has cancelled a $1bn contract with Samsung C&T to build shopping malls, apartments and commercial buildings in Dubai.

Dubai state-owned developer Nakheel confirmed on Monday it had cancelled a construction contract with South Korea’s Samsung C&T that had included the building of shopping malls. In a statement, the developer said it had taken the decision to reschedule or cancel a number of supplier contracts as a result of a delay to its $3bn mall expansion programme.

At the end of last month it announced it was putting the design work and site preparation for the programme on hold for 12 months because of the global financial downturn.

Samsung said on Friday its $1bn order from Nakheel to build apartments, shopping malls and other commercial structures in Dubai had been cancelled.

"The cancellation of the deal came via unilateral notification by the contractor," Samsung C&T said in a regulatory filing without elaborating on the reason.No one was available to comment from Samsung’s Dubai office on Monday.A Nakheel spokesman said: “Nakheel Retail remains committed to its expansion plans over the medium and long terms and will make announcements about new target completion dates for projects in due course.”

In April last year, the company’s retail division unveiled an ambitious shopping mall development programme across the UAE.It said it would build five new projects including one on the Palm Jumeirah, its palm-shaped island.Nakheel, which is also behind the ambitious The World project, is owned by state-backed investment group Dubai World.

An interesting twist on the Dubai property slump

Property developers make a big profit in Afghanistan
From the Telegraph, 6th April '09

The global financial crisis has created an unlikely property boom in Kabul, where four-bedroom houses now cost up to $500,000.

As prices across the world collapse, parts of the Afghan capital have seen values rise by 75 per cent in the past year, according to estate agents.

A plummeting Dubai property market has forced the wealthy Afghan elite to pull their investments out of the Gulf and plough the money back into Kabul.

Prices have been further buoyed by demand for city centre property and land from aid agencies, international contractors and new embassies. Because the economy is largely reliant on aid or donations and the tiny formal banking system is reluctant to lend, Afghanistan has so far been largely untouched by the credit crisis and ensuing downturn, according to ministers and business leaders.

Those Afghans who have amassed large sums from reconstruction contracts, corruption or the opium trade have invested in Dubai's booming markets in the past five years. But Dubai property is estimated to have fallen 25 per cent in value since its September peak and billions of dollars of development there is on hold or cancelled.

"Most Afghans who have invested in Dubai are now turning their faith back to Kabul," said Torialai Bahadery, director of Property Consulting Afghanistan.

"We have been hearing that people are losing millions of dollars in Dubai.

"In addition there's very easy money for selected people. They make good money out of contracts and they prefer to invest it here rather than Dubai.

"Drug dealers want to make their money clean by investing in property. It used to be when they had money they had ways of taking it out, but because of the global crisis, they don't want to take it out."

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Whodunnit? Dubai Police Chief tells.

Adam Delimkhanov, a top Chechen leader, is the mastermind behind the assassination of 36-year-old Chechen Sulim Yamadayev, said Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, Dubai Police chief, on Sunday. Delimkhanov is Chechnya’s representative to the Russian State Duma and a close associate of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow President, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Yamadayev, an opponent to the Moscow-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, was shot dead at Dubai's Jumeirah Beach Residence recently. There were six people involved in the attack and two of them, including an Iranian and a Tajik, have been arrested; four have escaped from the country, said the police chief.

The police have alerted the Interpol to arrest the absconding suspects, including the top Chechen leader, said Lieutenant General Dahi.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Sana'a, Yemen

Here's a short video I've put together of our visit to Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. The music is by Mohammad al-Harithi, "Li-llah ma yahwi hadha-i-maqam..." (Oh God, this place has so many beautiful things").

video

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Assassination: Part 3

Despite the BBC report to the contrary, according to today's issue of "7 Days":
A former Russian army commander from Chechnya shot in Dubai is “dead and buried”, a Russian senator said yesterday, after uncertainty over whether he had been killed.

Ziad Spassibi who represents Chechnya in Russia’s upper house of parliament said: “He was buried on Monday in the Al Quoz cemetery in Dubai.“This information is from official channels in the United Arab Emirates,” he added. Sulim Yamadayev, a bitter foe of Chechen leader Ramzam Kadyrov, was shot in a car park on Saturday.

Radio Free Europe's webpage reports:
Russian Consul Sergei Krasnogor said relatives confirmed that the dead man was Yamadayev, a prominent foe of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. Krasnogor later stressed to RFE/RL's Russian Service that he had seen neither the corpse nor any identification but was quoting relatives of the victim who attested to his identity.

Dubai developer withdraws from Barangaroo project in Sydney

From the Sydney Morning Herald 2nd April '09

IT IS 15 months since the Australian boss of Dubai's biggest developer, the royal family-backed Nakheel, said it would expand its "international mandate" by buying a big stake in the leading Australian property group Mirvac.

Now Nakheel is winding back that mandate and has withdrawn from a consortium bidding to develop Barangaroo, the NSW Government's $2.6 billion project on east Darling Harbour.
Mirvac and another of Nakheel's co-bidders for Barangaroo, Leighton, are sharing its pain amid the global credit squeeze and a collapse in Dubai property prices. Leighton was to build the Donald Trump Tower in Dubai until Nakheel and the American tycoon halted the project this year.

The Herald revealed on Monday that Barangaroo - to combine Australia's biggest financial hub and a foreshore park - faced a financial hurdle as bidding consortiums warned the Government they could provide only limited funding. Nakheel's withdrawal raises further questions. Its departure was announced when the three bids for Barangaroo were submitted on Tuesday.

Mirvac Projects, Leighton Projects and Macquarie Property Development and Finance insisted yesterday that Nakheel's departure from their tender did not jeopardise the bid. A spokeswoman said it was locally driven and "we have the financial capacity, the experience and the resources to deliver the project". She could not say what percentage of funding Nakheel was to contribute.

Another bidder, Lend Lease, said it and Westpac, its main financier and bid partner, remained committed. The Herald understands Westpac's funding will be limited but David Hutton, chief executive of Lend Lease Retail and Communities, said his firm's own capital was significant. "We remain confident, despite the current financial conditions, that we can fund the bid."

The third bidder is Brookfield Multiplex. Its major projects director, Mick O'Brien, asked if there were concerns about finance, said: "We're not talking about that when we're in the process. We feel we have a good bid and we will want to discuss those issues internally, with the Government."

When Nakheel took a stake in Mirvac worth about $400 million in December 2007, the Australian chief executive of the company, Chris O'Donnell, said: "As Nakheel looks to move forward its international mandate, it makes perfect sense to look at the possibility of joint developments with a like-minded company."

Two of Mr O'Donnell's former Australian colleagues at Nakheel, Matt Joyce and Marcus Lee, have been held without charge in Dubai, on suspicion of fraud, since January 25. They are among 20 Australians now held in Dubai. The latest two are a NSW man, 57, and another man, facing separate allegations of fraud. Both approached the Australian Consulate-General on March 25.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Assassination Part 2: Police say "He's dead" but his brother says he's alive.

Do you remember in August last year, the case of the Lebanese singer who was murdered here? The papers reported that her assailant was alive and in police custody, then a day later he was reported as dead followed a day or so later by reports that he was, once again, alive. Well, its happening again, the Chief of Dubai Police says the target of the assassination on Saturday, Sulim Yamadayev, is brown bread while Mr Yamadayev's brother says he's visited Mr Yamadayev in hospital and he's very much alive. Its so easy to get confused about these things.

This from the BBC.
---------------------------------
Mystery continues to surround the fate of a former Chechen commander who was reported shot in Dubai on Saturday.

The chief of Dubai's police said Sulim Yamadayev, a rival of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, died after an apparent assassination attempt.

But Russian media have contradicted these reports, quoting Mr Yamadayev's family saying he survived the attack.

His younger brother, Isa, said he had visited Sulim in hospital and that his condition had "not deteriorated".

"Reports that his body has been handed over to me are a lie," he told the Russia's Itar-Tass news agency by telephone.

In a separate interview to Russia's NTV Mir, Isa Yamadayev said his brother "feels OK", despite being wounded.

"He recognised us and even tried to talk to us. It was said that his life was out of danger. Everything will be OK," Isa said.

The Russian consul in Dubai, Sergey Kranogor, said the local authorities insisted that the victim of the shooting had died - though he was not yet able to confirm his identity.

"There was an attempt on the life of a Russian citizen at about 1500 on 28 March. The police maintain that the person is dead. The hospital where he was taken after the attack has also reported his death," Mr Kranogor told the Interfax news agency.

"We have not seen the [victim's] passport or the body and cannot say that it was Sulim Yamadayev who was killed."

At least one person, described as a Russian national, has been arrested in Dubai following the shooting.

'Kadyrov's foe'
The chief of Dubai police, Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, earlier dismissed any contradictions, saying: "The case is clear and there is no confusion over what happened. An organised criminal group was behind the assassination."

"He was shot and died instantly on the scene," he told Reuters, adding that one person - "a Russian national" - had been arrested.

Gen Tamim said Mr Yamadayev had been in Dubai on a Russian passport issued in the name of Sulaiman Madov.

Mr Yamadayev was named a Hero of Russia in 2005, the top national honour.

But he fell out with President Kadyrov last year and was sacked as commander of the elite Vostok security forces battalion. He later fled to the United Arab Emirates.

In September last year, his brother Ruslan was shot dead in his car while it waited at traffic lights in central Moscow.

Opponents have accused Mr Kadyrov's henchmen of systematically removing any opposition to his absolute rule, says the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Moscow.

In January, Umar Israilov, a former bodyguard for Mr Kadyrov who had accused him of torture and kidnapping, was killed in Vienna. Then last month, a former deputy mayor of Grozny was shot dead in Moscow.

Political assassination in Dubai


From the "Telegraph" 1 April '09.

THE Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, is facing fresh international scrutiny after a Chechen warlord who fell out with the Kremlin was assassinated in Dubai at the weekend. The murder of Sulim Yamadayev could provoke renewed violence in Chechnya and will cause alarm outside Russia after a series of similar assassinations in Istanbul and Vienna.

Mr Yamadayev, 36, pictured left, the leading rival of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's Kremlin-backed president, was shot dead on Saturday in the car park of a housing development in Dubai where he had been living under a false name since December. (The assassination happened at 3pm last Saturday afternoon in the carpark of Rimal 6 Building at Jumeirah Beach Residences. The "Gulf News" reports that two bodyguards were also injured in the attack. According to a security guard at the Rimal Building, and let's face it, those guys know everything that happens in their buildings, there had been previous attempts on Mr Yamadayev's life. A timely reminder to check out your neighbours before you move in. )

Experts alleged that the planning related to the attack suggested the involvement of Russia's FSB intelligence service, once headed by Mr Putin.

Coming only six months after Mr Yamadayev's brother, Ruslan, was shot dead outside the British embassy in Moscow, the murder is another sign that Chechnya's increasingly bloody gangland war is being fought beyond the Russian republic's borders.

According to police officials in Dubai, a lone gunman killed Mr Yamadayev as he walked from his apartment block to its underground car park. Police said it appeared that the "victim had been under surveillance for some time".

Until his removal in a palace putsch last year, Mr Yamadayev was Chechnya's second most powerful warlord, after Mr Kadyrov. Both men were former rebels who fought the Russian government in the first of Chechnya's two rebellions between 1994 and 1996.

They defected to the Kremlin's side in the second war, which began in 1999, and their powerful clans formed the bedrock of an uncertain pro-Russia government, with Mr Kadyrov at its helm.
As head of the eastern battalion and de facto leader of Chechnya's second biggest city of Gudermes, Mr Yamadayev was never happy in his junior role.

Even though Mr Kadyrov has largely succeeded - through a mixture of terror and Kremlin money - in pacifying Chechnya, the death of his rival could destabilise the republic.

The killing could also prompt world leaders to take Mr Putin to task over the various Chechnya-related assassinations.

"The latest events in Dubai will have indirect consequences for Putin's reputation as a world leader," said Alexander Konovalov, a Chechnya analyst.

In the past six months alone, three of Mr Kadyrov's opponents have been shot dead in Istanbul. A fourth was killed in Vienna after telling The New York Times that Mr Kadyrov had ordered executions and personally tortured his opponents.

The murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the outspoken Russian journalist, has also been linked to the Chechen President. Mr Kadyrov has denied all the allegations.

Questions are being asked in Moscow about whether the murders are solely on orders from within Chechnya, or whether they have the FSB's blessing.