VIEW: Ecstasy and agony in the Emirates —Saleem H Ali
While many Pakistani households have benefited enormously from earnings in the Emirates, this has come at the cost of dignity and countenancing prejudice. All this is thankfully changing, though perhaps not soon enough or completely. There is indeed much to admire in the Emirates story but let us not be too dazzled by a desert mirage
“Chalo chalo, Dubai chalo”, the slogan of the blue-collar labourer in the 1960s, has acquired a white-collar panache these days. For many Pakistanis the fashionable Emirates are what we are all supposed to emulate. The promised land where islands of palm-shaped real-estate are miraculously emerging from the continental shelf and hyperbolic seven-star hotels are luring Hollywood and Bollywood royalty. PIA pilots are making the ultimate career move to fly Emirates planes; our TV stars are yearning for roles in Dubai-based shows; and university professors salivating over faculty salaries in Sharjah-based universities.
It seems as though everyone is dreaming of Dubai or Abu Dhabi or the even more rustic emirates of Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Ras al-Khaimah and Fujairah, whose previous claim to fame was garish postage stamps for collectors. But as is often the case with euphoric episodes in history, there are some troubling realities to this remarkable success story.
Recently, I was asked by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies to review a report on environmental priorities in the Emirates and the attempts to “modernise nature”. The author contended that by building artificial environments such as indoor snow landscapes and tropical water parks, the Emirati was creating a new and exciting vision of being an environmentalist. However, it is important in view of energy and water availability constraints to create an environmental ethic which makes people aware of these limitations. Glitter and glamour can often occlude these limitations as they did in the American city of Las Vegas many decades ago.
Today the city faces an acute water shortage and water prices have risen dramatically. Necessity is finally driving home the environmentalists’ calls for conservation. Just as building the Hoover Dam was not a lasting solution to the water and power needs of Las Vegas, subsidising desalinated water cannot be a permanent solution for the Gulf states.
Apart from these environmental concerns, the Emirates must also consider their record on social issues. Pakistani NGOs such as the Ansar Burney Trust have been instrumental in highlighting the plight of child camel jockeys in the Emirates. In early 2005 the UAE government commendably passed a law prohibiting the cruel practice of using traumatised children as a means of amusement. There was much news that sophisticated robots would be used instead to display the modernisation of tradition. However, there is continuing concern that the law against child trafficking is not being adequately enforced and the State Department’s 2005 report on trafficking of people still listed the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait among the 19 countries that are a priority concern for human trafficking. The report notes that “the Government of the UAE does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. The UAE government has failed to take significant action to address its trafficking problems and to protect victims.”
There are some much-publicised initiatives for environmental protection that the UAE government has been supporting. Indeed, through our own NGOs, they have also supported efforts for Pakistani wildlife conservation. However, in many cases the conservation efforts are focused on providing adequate hunting reserves for elite Emiratis.
During a recent visit to southern Punjab, I was alarmed at the number of four-wheel drives with Dubai licence plates and soon discovered that these belonged to hunting tourists after the fabled houbara bustard (chlamydotis undulate), which is already a severely threatened species. Conservation NGOs receiving funds from the UAE for ostensibly sustainable hunting of the bustard should consider the conflict of interest inherent in such measures.
There are indeed many laudable aspects of what the Emirati government has accomplished, even from an environmental perspective. Most significantly, there is a fascinating transformation from an oil-centred to a service sector economy, thus escaping the “resource curse” that has plagued African economies like Nigeria and Angola. Interestingly neighbouring countries, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have not emulated the model and are still highly dependent on oil whereas the UAE is moving away from the dependence. Organic farming is being developed in some parts of the Emirates and there is a great momentum towards improved recycling and waste management.
Compared to Saudi Arabia, the UAE has also reduced the paperwork burden on labourers and put an end to seizure of passports by kafils (local sponsors) that had reduced expatriate labour to a form of indentured servitude. However, in many areas of commerce, salaries are still differentiated on the basis of ethnicity. While many Pakistani households have benefited enormously from earnings in the Emirates, this has come at the cost of dignity and countenancing prejudice. All this is thankfully changing, though perhaps not soon enough or completely. There is indeed much to admire in the Emirates story but let us not be too dazzled by a desert mirage to lose momentum for continued reform.
Dr Saleem H Ali teaches environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont in the United States. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org