What makes the UAE unique

Why you shouldn't actually travel to the United Arab Emirates

By Morgane Llanque | June 07, 2019, 10:34 am

If you don't take a closer look, you will imagine yourself as a tourist in the United Arab Emirates in the almost perfect holiday paradise: For relatively little money and flight hours, tourists get luxurious hotel complexes, architectural masterpieces and imported culture - plus a guarantee of sea and sunshine. But what many vacationers ignore: Human rights are ignored, freedom of the press and freedom of expression are restricted - critics end up in prison. And the major construction projects are being built by migrant workers, some of whom have to live under unworthy conditions. Is vacation in the UAE even acceptable?

More and more vacationers are drawn to Dubai. According to Euromonitor International 2018, 15.8 million people traveled to the metropolis in the United Arab Emirates in 2017. This made Dubai the seventh most visited city in the world in 2017. Abu Dhabi is also enjoying growing popularity. What attracts people to the cities of the desert nation? The omnipresent luxury and the futuristic architectural wonders, the heat and the beaches, and for some emigrants it is also the attractive jobs in a supposedly safe country that tries to present itself as modern and partly western-oriented. Human rights violations and the bloody civil war in Yemen, in which the UAE is heavily involved, are hardly noticeable on the sparkling clean beaches in front of the gigantic skylines.

Imported culture

The United Emirates are investing massively in tourism: they are creating artificial islands, huge hotels, hosting the 2020 world exhibition and paying billions for prestige projects that are imported from Europe. For example, the Louvre II in Abu Dhabi, which opened in 2017, designed by the French star architect Jean Nouvel. The UAE paid more than a billion euros to the French original in Paris to be able to call the new building the Louvre for 30 years.

The original Louvre, on the other hand, had to agree to the building of new halls in Paris, which bear the name of a former Emir of Abu Dhabi for an unlimited period and in which exclusively Muslim art is to be shown.

Architect Nouvel was offered dream conditions for the huge project: There were no budget limits for the construction costs of the museum. The United Arab Emirates offered similar conditions to the Guggenheim Museum and the British Museum: All three museums are to be part of a gigantic cultural complex on the artificial island of Saadyat off Abu Dhabi, in the immediate vicinity of the UAE campus of the renowned US American New York University ( NYU), which has been there for several years.

All of them are institutions that stand for freedom of expression, pluralism and democracy - and the West sells them for money to a country in which none of this exists or only inadequately exists. A supposed “island of happiness” - that's the name of Saadyat in Arabic - becomes a collection of soulless copies that are only aimed at prestige.

"An Illusion of Modernity"

In reality, the price for Saadyat, the hotels and the museums is not paid by the princes of Abu Dhabi, but by the millions of foreign labor migrants who have to build them: for starvation wages, in some cases without vacation and in the absence of rights.

"Saadiyat is an illusion of modernity that disguises the exploitation of migrant workers," says Professor Andrew Ross, a man who has followed and interviewed the workers who built the Louvre and NYU Abu Dhabi for years.

Ross is a labor rights expert and activist, researching and teaching at NYU Home University in New York City. He is also one of the most influential members of “Gulf Labor”, an international coalition of artists and scientists who campaigns for the rights of migrant workers in the Gulf States. "Only 10 percent of the 9 million inhabitants of the Emirates have citizenship," said Ross about TRAVELBOOK. “These are the ethical emirates. The remaining 90 percent come from countries such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan and have no rights whatsoever. ”Although the migrants build the magnificent skyscrapers and residential areas for the emiratis and the tourists, they are otherwise completely isolated from society. Instead, they live in camps far outside the city, invisible to the Arabs, invisible above all to the foreign visitors.

Gulf Labor, Amnesty International, the UN and Human Rights Watch documented the numerous human rights violations on the construction sites and in the Saadiyat camps in several publicly available reports between 2009 and 2018: In some camps there are hardly any sanitary facilities, leaving the facility without Permission is not permitted. A worker shares a ten-square-meter room with up to ten others. Unpaid overtime and twelve-hour days are normal. If a worker is injured, he has to pay for medical treatment himself. The wages are so low that in such a case the men are forced to take out loans from their employers. You have neither the possibility to sue nor to terminate your contract independently.

The kafala system is a modern form of slavery

The so-called kafala system is to blame for these conditions: an archaic labor law widespread in all Gulf states. In this system, migrant workers are forced to surrender their passports when entering the Emirates. They also need to take out a loan from their employer to cover the initial cost of the flight to the Emirates, room and board. The men work off this loan for the first few years and earn little or nothing at all.

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The average salary is just over $ 260 a month. The New York Times, which reported in detail about the construction of the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi, said a worker in 2014: “It's all a gigantic hoax. I would advise against anyone who wants to come here. "

When the "Observer", the "Guardian" and other large newspapers reported on the Kafala system and the conditions at the Louvre and NYU construction sites, the UAE officially abolished the system in 2014. Furthermore, a model workers camp was built on Saadiyat and a law for better protection of workers' rights was passed in 2017. But all reports from human rights organizations that appeared between 2014 and 2017 came to the conclusion that both the kafala system is still in place and that most workers still live and work in inhumane conditions.

"All changes to labor law are purely cosmetic, they exist on paper, but they will not be implemented," confirms Professor Ross, who has been on site with Golf Labor many times in the labor camps.

More and more tourists, but no more human rights organizations

In 2015, Professor Ross was banned from entering the Emirates: To this day, he is not allowed to enter the country. In the same year, all Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch representatives were also denied access to the Louvre construction site on Saadiyat. Shortly afterwards, both organizations were completely banned from the country. In November 2017, shortly before the opening ceremony of the Louvre, two accredited Swiss reporters who filmed and photographed the conditions in the workers' camps were arrested and detained by the police for more than 50 hours without any contact with the outside world. They said they were interrogated for nine hours straight before they were released.

For Emirati human rights activists and journalists, too, freedom of expression usually ends in prison. Lawyer Mohammed Al-Roken, one of the country's most famous activists, was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2013. In December 2018, the State Security Chamber of the Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi upheld a ten-year prison sentence against prominent human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor.

Tourists can also fall victim to the judiciary

Many tourists think that they will be spared the harsh persecution. But time and again the Emirates prove exactly the opposite: As reported by the BBC, among others, three young British men were arrested in 2012, detained for a year and, according to their own statements, stunned with electric shocks and beaten for possessing synthetic cannabis. Other examples were the following cases reported by international media: Both an Australian and a Norwegian went to the police while they were in Dubai because they were raped. Both were then arrested and convicted of sexual intercourse outside of marriage. It was only under great international pressure that both judgments were dropped.

Media are completely censored in the United Emirates, critical reporting is not possible. The use of social networks is also strictly monitored. Anyone who expresses criticism of the government can expect prison sentences. Punishment with lashes is very common in the United Emirates, as cases in the past have shown.

Anyone who travels to the UAE should never forget: The country is an absolutist monarchy without democracy and human rights. Anyone who is arrested here has little chance of a fair trial.

Should you support the system while on vacation?

Travel is without a doubt one of the most beautiful things in the world. But you also have to question what the consequences are. When you travel to countries like the United Arab Emirates, don't you use the money you bring to that country to support the politics that are being made in that country? Do you ignore the mass murder of the Rohingya in Myanmar when you fly there? About the political prisoners in the Cuban penal camps? About the discrimination against gays and lesbians in Tunisia? Aren't you paying indirectly to support these systems?

After all, it is precisely for these reasons that many people no longer travel to Turkey. The difference between these states and the United Arab Emirates, however, is as follows: When you travel to Cuba or Myanmar, at least some of the money you spend on food, accommodation and transport reaches the local population. Most citizens cannot be held accountable for their government. You meet the people of the country and can become aware of their sometimes difficult living conditions. In the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states, on the other hand, you are not only completely isolated from 90 percent of the population, but you also directly support the gross exploitation to which it is exposed.

Professor Ross also concludes: “It is not possible to travel to the UAE in an ethical manner. Unfortunately there are more and more tourists there and fewer and fewer human rights activists. "

Editor's note: TRAVELBOOK has also reported more frequently in the past about the United Arab Emirates as a travel destination. We are aware that we can now be accused of a lack of stringency.

However, a credible travel magazine should not fundamentally ignore critical aspects in connection with a country, but rather deal with them and make those voices heard that indicate any grievances.

That is why we think it is right and important to publish this article - always aware of the fact that a country is more than its political systemand nature, culture and people offer plenty of opportunities to report positively.

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