coming to a bookstore near you...

It's been forever since I've posted, but if anyone's still out there, my book, Dubai: Gilded Cage is going to be out in April in the UK (click here) and May in the US and elsewhere.  Maybe even in Dubai.  Check out Yale University Press's official site for the book and my personal site.  Yale's site has the preface and the first few pages of the intro. If you find that interesting you might even buy the book.  Thanks to everyone who helped me out while I was in Dubai, couldn't have done it without you!

License plates

More license plates went up for auction recently:
"Number 98 in ‘F’ series raked in Dh2.4 million after intense bidding by eager buyers at the 55th auction of distinguished car number plates organised by the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) on Thursday." (Full article here.)

As to why such interest in plates:
“It is all about competition and status. I have been a regular in these auctions for quite some time now. Having good numbers on our cars is a special thing for us and is a matter of pride and prestige,” quipped a UAE national who declined to give his name.

I posted earlier about a dh 11 million plate sold at auction, proceeds going to charity.  (No such altruism at this auction, apparently.) My question still remains -- how did license plates and mobile numbers become status symbols? There is nothing inherently compelling about these things. It would be interesting to know the origins.

in ta hindi

A friend from Dubai was just here with me in Brooklyn and was talking about an Emirati friend of his he works with. This fellow told him, "you know what we say when we insult each other? in ta hindi (you are indian)."  I just thought that was hilarious. The question for you, dear reader, is to what degree is this comment true?  If true, it is a funny (though sad) commentary on the social hierarchy in Dubai. Would it be fair to say that no matter what heights an Indian has reached in Dubai, he is still "just" an Indian? 

Guardian UK article

Hello new and old readers. I haven't posted in a while, and since many of you will have come here via Monday's Guardian article, "You must come with us" (Nov 12), it is time now to make amends and recap. That article is a polished version of a post I put on this blog right after my stay with the fellows in white. You might enjoy the comments at the end. The (presumably) locals who posted anonymously did so with incredible vitriol and bile. I was amused; my wife was not. In any case, the comments from these people are very interesting. My January 8 post got interesting reactions too.  The blog was originally intended as a log of my research and living experiences while I was there. Some of it is funny (my first discrimination experience in Dubai), some of it is not. You might find it a useful waste of fifteen minutes. Or you may just find it a waste of time and cyberspace.

Anyways. I am a sociologist at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY. I did research in Dubai last summer/fall on expatriate workers in Dubai. I'm working on a book now that examines how professionals and lower level workers make their way in Dubai. I focus especially on professionals born and bred in Dubai. Unlike in western countries, merely being born in Dubai grants you no rights of residency, let alone citizenship. So these people are on the same visa situation as other workers who come in tomorrow.

The book is going to be called "Iron Chains, Gilded Cages: Expat Workers in Dubai." It is a critical examination of the living and working conditions of workers high and low. The book is not a gratuitous slam on Sheikh Mohammed (Sheikh Mo as he is often affectionately called in Dubai), or on the administrative apparati, or even on my friends in the secret police. (On the contrary, I think American secret forces could take a lesson in manners from these fellows.)

Every adult expat in Dubai is there by choice.  For professionals, they can lead the good life -- no shortage of bars, clubs, restaurants, outdoor activities.  Household help is cheap. Many people I hung out with lived in the US or UK, but went back to Dubai because the living is easy. Professionally, most people told me the opportunities for advancement, and the pace of advancement is much greater than in the US, UK and even India.  For laborers, even with all the horror stories, there is still the promise of the good life at home being sponsored by hard living in Dubai. Live in an all-male world in cramped quarters, often filthy quarters, but that will build the house, buy extra land back in India or Pakistan.  Or so the promise goes.

That's the carrot.  There's of course a stick.  Which is, lay low. No politics, no criticizing the Sheikh, no drugs, no worker agitation. Maids being beaten, construction workers not being paid --  put up with it quietly or leave. Any resistance to the state, and you get deported, which is the worst thing really that can happen to an expat. People do of course end up in prisons for all sorts of crimes. There are stories of a jail for political prisoners near the airport in Abu Dhabi.  It's probable that nasty things go on there (it's autocratic rule after all), but doubtful it's  anything like Iran, Syria, or the US.  But in the end, it's deportation I would say that people fear above all else.

The UAE is a country that, surface-wise anyway, pays lip service to being Islamic. Legally prostitution and alcohol are not allowed (by law to drink you are required to have an alcohol permit, which few people have).  But these are freely available, even during Ramadan.  In fact, me and my friend Wilbur were struck by how prostitution seemed to be even more intensified during Ramadan, since the clubs didn't play music, there were no distractions from the work at hand. I bring this up as alcohol and prostitution are very big attractions for expats of all stripes and religions.  These twinned vices are part and parcel of the success of Dubai, and go some ways to explaining Saudi's lagging, even though their population is huge and should be a boom site.  But not many western expats especially would want to live there.

Dubai, in short, is a dizzying experience.  Consumer culture is excessive even by western standards. The good life is the goal; western notions of "rights" are dispensed with -- who needs the right to vote when you can live like this?  Worker exploitation is the norm.  The state has the power and money to nip it, but they do not.  Why would they?  And if these workers are not willing to do the work, there are millions more who are willing to come and take their place.  The wonders of globalization find their perfect expression here.  The world's tallest building (glitzy) contrasts with the world's largest labor camp (squalid).  Welcome to Dubai.

Not banned

(note: updated January 18 to include more responses.)

I got a letter recently from the top echelons (THE top) of the Dubai police. They basically say that I'm not banned, and am actually welcome back. So for those of you who like to say nasty things... be careful. Your government thinks I'm not so bad. So you'd better fall in line, otherwise that could be seen as criticizing the royal family -- a big no no! So stop being disloyal to your country!

Recent comments:

Subject: get a life
"you sound like a begger who goes on and on about his losses.
Go fix your problems in your country of origion who allow such exploitation in their own country then shed the light on other countires.
Why arn't you living in that country? I am sure they failed to provide you with the things you found in the USA. So did these labourers. The difference is they don't have a degree that will take them to the USA, they can't make enough money in India so they do better here.
GEt a life, I am sure our men in white had a good reason to nail you. You sounded fishy the day you announced your stupid project on the UAE blog."

Subject: shut up
"be thankful that its the dubai police u were dealing with and the fbi or cia.. u would definitely have been held (without charges) for ever or may be even killed

be thankful that u atleast got out alive from dubai....

dont spy for US government....sad thing is that u do not know that u are spying..."

Subject: Loser.
"Why can't you get it. You left your country of origion because it has lots of problems that send people like you and others to the UAE and other countries who are willing to give you according to what you have.
Why don't you go interview people in India and find out why your people are leaving the country in the first place to countries that "mistreat them" by offering them a job rather than none.

Why talk about Dubai when you come from a place that has mega problems. Go write a book on that and we will all read it.

An please stay in punjab. We really don't like attracting jerks who make money from filth."

Subject: royal in my a***
"and by the way, the closest you can get to royal, is the toilet tissue papers brand royal."


To these and other like-minded bloggers I say, change your tune, or be guilty of treason. You're criticising the wise decision of your government. And insulting the royal family. Bad anonymous bloggers!

laptop no mo'

So just got word from the computer repair guys. Apparently, my friends in white took out the hard drive and messed up the track pad. Basically, they took a computer and gave me back a paperweight. That's just wrong. When you have as much money as they do, at least replace the laptop. That would have been classy. If you're still reading, fellas, that's a macbook pro you can get me. Don't be cheap.

But I must emphasize, I'm the sucker here. They had me sign a receipt saying I received it in "best operating condition". I should have haggled.

Men in white

Looking around at stuff online, and found a bunch of references to Amn al-Dawla, or, the state security department. Now we can put a proper name to my favorite fellows. But they don't have a place in the Dubai police organizational chart.  Thought that was interesting.


The American channel ABC showed a highly critical 20 minute piece on its news program 20/20 two days ago. Human Rights Watch last week released a report highly critical of Dubai's exploitation of construction workers. My guess is that both were doing their research last month, around the time my friends in white came to visit. Coincidence?