The Evolvement Of Dubai: From A Desert To A Global Destination

In this essay, I will explore the shift from the city-centre in the Dubai Creek area of Dubai’s mercantile days to the “New Dubai” in the post-oil landscape and how this move left migrant workers behind.

History of Dubai

How did Dubai become a global destination and a global hub besides the 3rd most travelled city in the world? The city of Dubai has become infamous for its iconic, ultramodern architecture, manmade islands, and its futuristic atmosphere. Until 50 years ago, Dubai land was covered in sands. Neither it had any staple crop like the other Agrarian countries to export, or any mineral or gold. Well, it was because of the prosperous maritime activities. Dubai which was once a modest fishing town, which by the earlier twentieth century became an important trading port. With increased trade routes the Dubai region began to prosper through coastal industries such as pearl diving and fishing. Gains from pearl diving began to plunge in the 20th century due to a lack of demand internationally due to the two world wars and drastic effects were had on trade routes and global economies. No longer a scrabble of fishing villages, today Dubai is home to countless modern wonders.

The trading activities in Dubai dates back to the days in 1901 when Al Maktoum established Dubai as a free port with no taxation on imports or exports and also gave merchants parcels of land and guarantees of protection and tolerance. Its strategic location and proximity to Iran somewhat contributed to the city’s commerce and business projects. Today, Dubai’s main cargo port, Jebel Ali is the busiest port in the Middle East and arguably UAE’s most valuable commercial asset. Coincidently, in 1966, oil was discovered in Dubai which led this emirate of UAE become the modern, business centred city. Having turned this once quiet backwaters into world’s one of the most popular cities. However, discovery of oil was a good as well as a bad news. The black gold was found, but there were limited reserves. The driving force behind Dubai’s incredible growth ‘was’ oil. The oil boom in the 1950s and 60s in the Arabian Gulfs parked rapid development, which put a demand on labour. Due to small population sizes in the Gulf, GCC countries relied on imported labour to balance out their local labour deficits, which has primarily been sourced from the Indian subcontinent and South Asia.

Accomplishments and Achievements

But, let me first clear this myth that all the Gulf countries in the Middle East are surviving on oil or gas. Dubai is an exception in the sense that Dubai’s revenue from oil now is even less that 1%. Rather, the remaining 99% of oil comes from its tourist based sectors and the finance based economy. The diversification of the economy’s revenue sources would be of vital success to the city is something the PM of UAE had believed in and had also practised. Dubai owes this development to its Emir, the ruler of UAE, the current PM of UAE, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. A common man plans his/her weekends, whereas this visionary leader lays down the tracks for next 10 years. We can simply say that this dominator suffers from a disease of ‘Allergy to Average’. Dubai never settles for anything less than the first place in most cases. Either they will be ‘The Only One’ or ‘The Number One’. 'In the race for excellence, there is no finish line,' he said, and Dubai has grown exponentially into the desert, sky and sea.

When talking about malls, it constructed the World’s Biggest Mall in terms of land coverage -The Dubai Mall. Some of the exciting attractions in Dubai which include World’s tallest tower – Burj Khalifa, Palm Jumeirah defined as the world’s first ‘man-made’ island, Underwater Tunnel, World’s most expensive seven-star hotel Burj-Al-Arab, also the first underwater tennis court is to be made in Dubai. It seems that when it comes to the ‘biggest and tallest of all’, Dubai competes with itself.

Now, let’s imagine plants on sand. Sounds weird right? Not until when Dubai built the biggest garden in the World – The Dubai Miracle Garden. With more than 40 skyscrapers, this emirate of UAE has the title of the World’s highest Five-Star Hotel – JW Marriott. Besides that, the World’s biggest Gold Market – The Gold Souk will be found in Dubai. One after another, an innovation led initiative is undertaken in this city. Ever heard of buildings made out of 3d Printing? Yes, you read it right. Dubai had already launched World’s First ‘functional’ 3d Printed Office Building and is determined to get constructed 25% of buildings in Dubai through 3d Printing by 2030. Another thrilling idea of a Passenger drone was recently tested in Dubai itself, turning impossible into possibilities.

Actually, this Sheikh is of the view that ‘Ordinary people save money to party, but extraordinary people save money to build great Empires’. This reminds me of a saying that goes like this “Its not necessary to have resources, it is important to be resourceful”. Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE which grew because of its huge oil reserves compared to which Dubai had almost nothing. The Sheikh knows how to bring Global Talent and Global Traffic. To invite talent, he created a tax-free economy where whatever one earns is entirely owned by him.

Sheikh Mohmmed better understands the ease of communication system, enabling him to create the World’s most connected smart city. Dubai believes that investing in Police will be an asset and not an expense thus making the Dubai Police one of the richest Police force in the world who posses or handle the world’s most expensive super cars like Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Up till now, islands were a gift of nature only when Dubai constructed its own man-made islands i. e. Palm Jumeirah. The usual shape of a man-made archipelago that would come to our minds will be that of a circular shape. However, think about an island in the shape of a palm tree. Why palm tree? Well, the purpose of building Palm-Jumeirah was basically to sell more of beach-facing houses adding to the revenue of the Dubai Government because of its unique design of leaves and a huge trunk. Due to this design of the palm leaves, the beach facing villas are substantially 5 times the villas that would have been built if the archipelago was in a normal circular formation. Genius isn’t it?

Disclosing the Undisclosed

Well, now you would wonder from where Dubai gets the money to finance all its investments. Although, I mentioned it’s a tax-free economy, it’s not completely tax less. The UAE does not impose any income tax on wages and salaries of individuals, which is true but the oil companies pay one of the highest tax rates in Dubai as they are subject to a 55% tax in addition to payment of royalties. Foreign banks are also subject to a 20% corporate tax on profits that is earned in Dubai. Hotels and entertainment venues pay a 5% municipality tax for rooms, food and other services. Import taxes on luxury items, including those shipped through the free zones, is 10%, while all other imports are taxed at 4%. While they are not taxed, many government related entities also pay the government royalties. Finally, alcohol, which is not widely sold outside hotels, attracts a 30% sales tax in Dubai. Recently, the UAE has also introduced Value Added Tax Scheme on goods and services starting at a rate of 5%. Business licenses here are very expensive and can easily cost one up to thousands of dollars. These business licenses have to be renewed yearly, and certainly it is very costly to renew them. In addition, the government services in the United Arab Emirates are very expensive, a mere stamp on a paper can cost some absurd amount of money. The system of fines in the UAE is very efficient and generates a good and a substantial amount of revenue for the government. There are traffic radar cameras everywhere in the UAE, and they are among the smartest systems in the world. The fines paid for violations of traffic laws are expensive, and since people here love to drive fast, traffic fines contribute very well to the government revenue.

There is a flip side to this story too. Now let me ask the question from where does the labour to erect such huge structures come from? For much of known history, Indian merchants travelled across the Indian Ocean to participate in trade of rice, cloth, food and spices. These merchants often returned back to the subcontinent, though some remained and established themselves as bankers and financiers. This phase set the framework for future trade and migration conduits. The booming oil industry in the Gulf was also one of the major reasons for the influx of labour in this iconic city. This phase began in the 1960s and gathered speed in the 1970s. Though oil was discovered in the early part of the 20th century in the Gulf, the widespread success of the oil industry was not seen until the 1960s and 70s. The new and rapid influx of wealth in these recently independent countries inspired plans for development and modernization, which necessitated the importation of labour. According to government statistics from 2011, foreigners make up more than 88. 5% of the population in the Emirates, and more than 90% in the Emirate of Dubai.

‘Twenty men stand in their damp blue overalls, all chestnut skinned workers sweating as much as their pores will allow their bodies. They are taking a short break, and drinking lukewarm water from plastic bottles while the thermometer reads 122 degrees Fahrenheit. ’

The welfare state that has developed in the United Arab Emirates has created a consumer culture among Emirati nationals, which has produced and perpetuated a status quo where locals act as consumers and migrants as producers. The welfare state has fostered a superior mindset among nationals, which ultimately causes locals to rely on migrants to supply the manpower for the menial jobs which they view as inferior. Because these jobs, such as those in the construction sector, are necessary to support the consumer culture in Dubai, Emiratis remain reliant on an imported labour supply.

Dubai knows that cheap workforce who can bear the heat of 50 degrees Celsius will be found in these South Asian Countries. Once the insane 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. There is the foreign underclass who built the city, and are trapped here. They are hidden in plain view. But poverty is as real thing in the UAE as due to these modern skyscrapers and artificial islands, we only see the rich side and not the poor side or maybe that is what is shown to us on purpose. The development of these Gulf cities has come at the expense of the rights and liberties of the migrant labour population, whose lived experiences are often overshadowed by the successes of their labour. As the wealthy urbanized and moved to newer areas of the city, populations that could not keep up remained on the periphery of the city. This divide was not only physical, but as Gulf cities became more developed and modern, boundaries between nationals and non-nationals became more defined both socially and institutionally.

Indians have made up the largest national group in Dubai since the beginning of the development era. Though Indians were present in Dubai as merchants before the 20th century, Dubai’s demand for labour significantly increased the density of the India-UAE migration conduit. By the 1970s, Indians accounted for the third largest group in the UAE, with a population of 102,000 of a total 656,000 population. About 85% of Dubai's population consists of foreign migrants, a majority of whom are from India. Development efforts and the demand for import labour created a massive construction boom in Dubai. During the early 2000s, the construction sector was a leading contributor to the economic growth of the country. Between 2000 and 2004, the construction sector’s contribution to GDP grew by 23%, with an annual growth rate of 5%. Today, construction workers account for one-fourth of the population of Dubai and experience many of the injustices. They are paid extremely low wages that are often withheld, their passports are confiscated, they arrive to the country with pre-existing debt to recruitment agencies, they are forced to live in unsanitary labour camps located on the periphery of the city, labour unions are prohibited, and the workers suffer financial and health ramifications due to the cyclical nature of labour migration that the kafala system instills. On average, a construction worker in the United Arab Emirates makes a mere $175 per month. Not only are the wages consistently low for the service sector in GCC countries, but there is also a wage disparity based on nationality and ethnicity. Inconsistent values are placed on the work done by certain nationalities, placing South and East Asians on the bottom rung of the ladder.

In Dubai’s two largest camps, Al Quoz and Sonapor, the typical dwelling is a small room of 12 by 9 feet which sleeps as many as 8 workers. Other accounts of labor camps cite as many as 12 workers sharing one room Not only are these camps overcrowded, but they lack sanitary living conditions. The kafala systems’ ban on labour unions and strikes among migrant labours allows Gulf governments to treat the workers as temporary guests who are privileged to be working in the Gulf. GCC countries employ a system known as kafala that allows the government to monitor migrant laborers through national sponsors. The system ties each labourer to a kafeel (sponsor) in the destination country, who is responsible for arranging his or her visa and employment contract. The kafeel, or sponsor, is usually also the migrant’s employer. The system requires all labour migrants to operate through contracts, which usually last for two to three years at a time. Through locating the responsibility of migrants at the level of the sponsor, the state evades any sort of legal accountability for the migrant labour population. This controversial system allows Gulf governments to avoid recognizing migrant workers as residents, meaning that they are not obliged to uphold their rights or to administer benefits in the way that they do for nationals.

Behind the façade of the symbolic presence of the Burj Khalifa exists the lives of an overlooked sub-population. The Burj Khalifa aims to represent luxury, cosmopolitanism, and modernism. However, the story of its construction represents capitalism at its finest, exploitation of an import labour population, and the deep-seated racist mindset that is ever present in Dubai. In the process, migrant laborers fall in the trap of the kafala system, which keeps them in a perpetual state of debt, marginalization, and inferiority in Emirati society. The kafala system promotes the rapid influx of migrants to meet the labour demand while simultaneously subjugating this imported population through exclusion from the legal framework in Gulf States. As a result, the Gulf has witnessed an emergence of multi-tiered societies where locals are situated in the top tier and migrant populations consistently occupy the lowest rungs of society. The kafala system has produced structural inequalities in Gulf States and has resulted in grave human rights abuses against migrant laborers.

When examining emigration policy, India is an excellent example for many reasons. Indians make up the largest foreign population group in many GCC countries, and it is one of the largest contributors to the global stock of migrants. Supporting a surplus labour population, India is more reliant on remittance inflows than ever, which indirectly contributes to the abuse of migrant workers abroad. Money flowing from workers in the Gulf make up a large part of the GDP in some Indian states such as Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Because of this reliance, India has crafted emigration policies that make the process of travelling abroad and remitting money back to India much easier. In addition, focusing on sending surplus populations abroad, local governments should ensure that the rights of their citizens are upheld in destination countries.


The Arabian Gulf has come a long way in the matter of a few decades. Sprawling stretches of desert have been replaced with cosmopolitan cities, and the Gulf has transformed from a regional trading centre to a globally important zone. These transformations have come with a price, however, and we must take into account all aspects of the modernization story. Not only are they physically marginalized from Gulf cities, but they are also socially and politically excluded from society. GCC (Gulf Corporation Council) governments should work to reform the system of regulation of the migrant population, to provide forms of inclusion, and to improve the appalling conditions under which migrant labourers are living. Further, immigrant-sending countries need to play a more dominant role in ensuring the rights of their citizens in Gulf countries.

10 December 2020
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