30 November 2009

Dubai: the beginning of the end of feudalism?

How much of any presentation, speech or lecture ever gets remembered for more than a few minutes, let alone for 45 years?

If all the lectures I attended as a student are anything to go by, the answer is 'not much'. But there was one point made in one of the lectures I heard in 1964 that has occasionally come rushing back into my mind, probably because it seemed so counter-intuitive at the time.

Not gold and diamonds but cheap labour
It was about the economy of South Africa, still three decades away from the end of apartheid, and the surprising news (to me) was that the main resource on which the country depended was not its gold and diamond reserves but it's enormous supply of cheap (i.e. black) manpower. And this, claimed the lecturer, was the achilles heel of apartheid - because, in the long run, societies based on near-slave labour are doomed.

His point first came back to me a few years ago on a visit to Dubai, and it's resurfaced again with this week's news that the emirate's grandiose building schemes are facing financial collapse.

Not oil but cheap labour
What shocked me when I was there was that it wasn't just Dubai's construction industry that depended on cheap labour, but so too did pretty much everything else. From shops and stalls in the souks to hotels, taxis and tour buses, the only people who seemed to be actually doing anything were ex-patriate workers from the Indian sub-continent - with the sole exception of the counter staff in a bank and a post office that I visited a day or two before we left for home.

On one of our tours, we were the only passengers in the back of a 4x4, and it wasn't long before our driver started opening up on the appalling conditions under which ex-pats like him were living - in out of town dormitories, from where they were shipped to and from work on open trucks.

As for health, educational, recreational or any other facilities or rights of a most basic kind, they were at best minimal. And, if any of the ex-pat workers dared to complain, they would be sent home and replaced by a new supply of their compatriots.

Feudalism?
Meanwhile, the hereditary extended families running the various emirates were living in a style reminiscent of Europe's elite in the days of feudalism.

For example, the sheik of neighboring oil-poor Sharjah, where the economy depends on handouts from Saudi Arabia in exchange for a total ban on alcohol, had just bulldozed a Bedouin village to make room for a new palace for himself. He was also building a university on an architectural scale to rival Versailles (see above) - approached along a majestic drive enclosed by ornate iron railings and grass verges that were only kept green by continual watering.

What next?
I came away wondering about the long-term survival prospects of societies that hardly pay lip-service to democratic and human rights, and seem to have no qualms about depending on cheap labour as their primary economic resource.

If recent events in Dubai are a sign that the end may be nigh, the time-scale - based on the prediction I heard about undemocratic-cheap-labour-dependent South Africa in 1964 - is that it will take another 30 years before such places find a firmer fairer footing.

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