“When I came five years ago, not so much of this was here,” a Pakistani cabdriver told me one afternoon as we inched through traffic. “It feels like it’s all new.” With construction barreling along just about 24 hours a day year-round, the demand for labor has attracted foreign workers, who make up 80 percent of Dubai’s one million population. “I work very hard and long hours,” my driver said. “But it is very safe and stable. Both the work and the pay are far better than I could find in Karachi.” The expatriates include Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis and workers from countries throughout the Middle East, who take jobs in construction; act as maids, waiters and shop clerks; perform maintenance chores and oversee many of Dubai’s ingenious efforts to make its desert bloom.The guest workers fill a number of professional slots as well.
To Mary-Jane Deeb, an AmericanUniversity professor and Arab world specialist at the Library of Congress in Washington, the number and diversity of the foreign workers in Dubai offer the greatest proof of the society’s success. “People who are fighting each other elsewhere in the world, like Pakistanis and Indians, work comfortably together in Dubai,” she says. “All religions are countenanced, and even though Islam exerts a powerful influence in Dubai, it’s an extralegal role.”
For all its concrete, Dubai remains, inescapably, a desert locale. The morning haze, visible everywhere, is more often the powder-fine sand of Arabia than the moisture from the gulf seen in the photograph that opens this article. Occasional sandstorms, reducing visibility to a block or less, can last for days, to be typically followed by an emirate-wide washdown.
Despite several factory-size desalination plants that run around-the-clock on Dubai’s coast, water remains a precious commodity (roughly 30 cents a liter for drinking water, compared with 24 cents for gasoline). Even so, Dubaians make heroic efforts to maintain fountains, lawns and flowers. Networks of black plastic irrigation hoses snake along almost every roadside. “You see,” said a Dubai real estate executive with a matter-of-fact wave of his hand, “every plant must have its own water tap.”
The day Sultan Bin Sulayem, chairman of the Palm project, took me on a tour of his emergent island complex via boat, foot and all-terrain vehicle, he proudly pointed out enormous Dutch dredges fountaining sand from the gulf bottom, and cranes hefting Volkswagen-size boulders from barges to construct a breakwater. But he seemed most delighted by a scrawny, foothigh plant growing next to a freshwater tap at the construction workers’ barracks. “Some people said nothing would grow on this salty sand,” he said. “But some worker dropped a seed from the mango he had for lunch and look: it is now growing a tree!”