The Draw of Dubai
"Las Vegas is a sputtering 20-watt bulb compared with this fire in the desert," wrote Vanity Fair's Nick Tosches last year, in his hyperbolic piece on the explosive and unprecedented growth in Dubai.
For a predominantly Muslim state in the Middle East, comparisons with the United States' own Sin City might seem odd, but with development plans that include an amusement park three times the size of Manhattan, an exact replica of the Eiffel Tower, a golf course designed by Tiger Woods and a resort owned by Donald Trump, they are hard to avoid. Often held up as a gleaming example of Western modernity in the conservative Gulf States, Dubai remains an economic and cultural anomaly in the region -- a tolerant society that welcomes foreigners, constantly recreates itself and relies more on tourism than oil for its revenues.
As one of the seven emirates to make up the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is ruled by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum generally considered the architect of Dubai's economic success and diversification away from an oil-based economy. He has instituted numerous measures to attract foreign business, such as tax-free imports and exports, no corporate taxes for up to 30 years and the ability to operate under 100 percent foreign ownership (as opposed to being forced to partner with local firms). So unlike other Gulf States in this oil-rich region, revenues from petroleum and natural gas make up only a small percentage of Dubai's gross domestic product.
The United Arab Emirates and surrounding countries.
In recent years, Dubai has come under increased scrutiny after unprecedented labor disputes and reports of human rights abuses against its large foreign worker population -- those responsible for construction of the city's many luxury developments. Of Dubai's 1.5 million residents, almost 85 percent are foreigners, with approximately 500,000 working as laborers. A Human Rights Watch report in 2006 described their living and working conditions as "less than human." The workers -- most of whom come from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan -- live primarily in desert labor camps outside the city where they pack up to a dozen people into single rooms.
The foreign workers often come to Dubai deeply in debt to recruiters, after paying them nearly a year's salary to secure jobs and then arriving to find wages significantly less than promised. Also, employers hold their passports and workers must ask permission to leave their jobs.
The prevalence of prostitution has brought some negative reaction from abroad as well, but news outlets routinely dismiss it as a result of the 3-to-1 ratio of men to women and the city's devotion to nurturing the tourism and hospitality industries. The U.S. State Department includes the United Arab Emirates on its Watch List for human trafficking and estimates that up to 10,000 women from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East are involuntarily forced into prostitution. The number of voluntary participants in the sex trade, though illegal, is believed to be much higher. When 7Days, an English-language daily in Dubai, reported that 4,300 prostitutes were deported in 2006, some Dubai residents wrote in to say that this figure was a fraction of the total number of women working as prostitutes. One reader wrote that when "4,300 leave the country ... another 5,000 come in."
The general approval of Western principles combined with unregulated development in Dubai, including the tacit acceptance of prostitution, has prompted a growing debate over the area's cultural identity. In 2006, during Ramadan, 7Days published an editorial titled "Show Some Respect," complaining of women showing too much flesh in public. Scholars and journalists from both sides took up the debate, which grew into an argument over tradition versus modernity and how much of Dubai's long-standing cultural beliefs would ultimately be lost to this laissez-faire economy.
Sources: The Washington Post, The New York Times, ABC News, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Wired, Columbia Journalism Review and BBC.
Wide Angle: The Sand Castle
The PBS program "Wide Angle" examines the growth in the United Arab Emirates by following a Norwegian architecture firm recruited to design a new capital city in Ras al-Khaimah, the northern-most of the seven emirates.
Washington Post: The Towering Dream of Dubai
Anthony Shadid examines the contradictions of Dubai: the glistening facades of the city's luxury developments and the broken backs of the foreign workers who built them; the Islamic piety so visible in other parts of the Persian Gulf and the rollicking nightlife of bars, clubs and prostitution in Dubai.
20/20: The Dark Side of Dubai's Boomtown
On the heels of the Human Rights Watch report in 2006, ABC News' 20/20 reports on the poor working and living conditions of foreign laborers in Dubai.
T Magazine: Confessions on a Dance Floor
Without a mention of the prostitution trade, Charles Runnette, in The New York Times travel magazine, writes about Dubai's nightlife and the excess that defines the city.
The New York Times: Beyond Skimpy Skirts, a Rare Debate on Identity
Hassan Fattah reports on the cultural debate that followed a newspaper column in Dubai demanding the increasingly cosmopolitan city respect Muslim traditions more.
U.S. State Department: United Arab Emirates Human Trafficking Report
The State Department report describes human trafficking -- which includes sex workers, foreign laborers, and child camel jockeys -- in the United Arab Emirates, as well as the efforts at protection, prosecution and prevention taking place there.
Wired: The Road to Tech Media
Lee Smith's extensive story from 2004 explores the tech market in Dubai, labeling the city the new media capital of the Middle East.
7Days: Show Some Respect
The English-language daily tabloid, run primarily by Western editors, calls on visitors and residents of Dubai to respect Muslim tradition by refraining from showing so much skin during Ramadan.
Human Rights Watch Report: Building Towers, Cheating Workers
The 2006 report detailing the exploitation of migrant construction workers in the United Arab Emirates began a flood of stories on labor abuses in Dubai.
From Our Files
Moldova: The Price of Sex
In the premiere of FlashPoint, our series of online slideshows, documentary photographer Mimi Chakarova looks into the lives of Eastern European women trafficked into the sex trade.
FRONLINE: Sex Slaves
FRONTLINE goes on an undercover journey deep into the world of sex trafficking, following one man determined to rescue his wife -- kidnapped and sold into the global sex trade.
India: The Sex Workers
FRONTLINE/World producer Raney Aronson reports from the coming epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, as sex workers and their clients struggle to contain the crisis. In cities rife with sex trafficking, where as many as 60 percent of the people are infected with HIV, can their fight help keep the disease from exploding?
-- Matthew Vree