I settled in a studio apartment on the thirteenth floor of an apartment complex in a western, unfinished area of the city. It was simple but spacious, and despite my zeal to be as frugal as I could, was still far more than I needed to satisfy my college student tastes. Still, my coworkers laughed at the apartment as the type of place an Indian engineer would live in — not a flophouse by any means, but clearly not the level of luxury a white person should treat himself to.
I smiled whenever I was told this, laughing internally at my own inside joke — in better times, my colleagues might have been right, and the 26-story building would be packed with software engineers and other white collar workers from the subcontinent. But these were not good times, and aside from my landlord, whose winter residence was a floor below mine, the building was almost completely empty of tenants.
I was not alone in my alone-ness. Nearly every building I came across had huge banners draped across its upper floors, advertising leases.
Living in a modern-day ghost town brought more than just physical isolation. In some way, I was detached from the lifestyle that my coworkers enjoyed. It is hard to bridge the conversational divide when one side wants to lament the difficulty of finding good domestic help and the other wants to brag about the new futon he bought from IKEA.
The difference in mindset between me and the bulk of my coworkers was minor compared to the major divisions that split Dubai society. The most accurate way to describe UAE society is to say that it is stratified into a caste-like structure, with Emiratis at the top, western expats beneath them, and eastern expats at the bottom. There is little interaction between the rungs — each member is expected to socialize with his or her own group, and even western expats, who presumably participated in a more egalitarian society in their country of origin, accept the division as natural and desirable.
I enjoyed meeting and talking to other westerners. But it was difficult to shrug off the insidious effects of the caste system. Some of the nicest people I met displayed an almost sociopathic disregard for the eastern expat workers who served them. It was commonplace to verbally abuse cab drivers, make outrageous demands of waitstaff, and generally treat those on the lower rung as mere peons to be ordered about.
In the middle of my time overseas, a co-worker friend and I went to eat at an upscale restaurant near work. We were having a good conversation, trading stories and jokes, and I was enjoying myself until, seemingly out of nowhere, my friend pulled aside a waitress and dressed her down for some imperceptible infraction. After he was done and the waitress had left, I asked him, as politely and neutrally as I could, why he treated the waitress that way.
He gave two reasons. The first was the common response, as universal as it was unconvincing: being mean was the only way to get anything done. Unless one occasionally put boot to bottom, no eastern expat would ever take you seriously.
The second reason was more enlightening. Besides being necessary, he explained, keeping eastern expats in line was merely being honest with the situation. If he wanted to, my friend could call over the manager of the waitress and demand that she be fired. The woman would lose her job and be deported back to a country where she would be undoubtedly worse off. What good did it do to pretend that the power balance was otherwise? If my friend wanted speedy service, who was this waitress to deny him?
In obedience to the social norms imposed by the caste structure, I didn’t spend much time hanging out with eastern expats, but what little time I did spend did not confirm the expectations set by my colleagues. I liked talking to my cabbies. The most common topic of discussion was U.S. meddling in Pakistan — many of my drivers said they were not fond of America, although since we got along fine it seemed more likely to me that they took fault with some concept of America rather than any Americans in particular. Maybe it’s just hard to root for the big guy.
My longest conversation was with some Pakistani youths I’d hired to help me pick up furniture I’d bought off of Dubizzle, the Dubai equivalent of Craigslist. We crammed together in a tiny pick-up truck and wandered lost in the city for two hours grabbing futons and chairs and the like, mostly talking about our favorite movies and music, and what life was like in our respective countries. My impression is that the average eastern expat in Dubai is not embittered or anti-western — to the contrary, if anything they are envious of western lifestyles and eager to work for one themselves. You’d much sooner find them slinging bootleg DVD’s than fomenting revolution with AK-47’s.
The downside of being in a caste system is that as a westerner, I didn’t occupy the topmost rung. A month after I arrived, the government tapped my cell phone. When I tried to leave, immigration services barred me from leaving the country. For such injustices, there is no explanation, no apology. If the monarch wishes to tap your phone, he needs no justification. If you miss your expensive international flight because a bureaucrat decides at the last minute you cannot leave, tough cookie. You’re not a citizen. You’re a hired hand, a temporary servant brought in to fill a gap until a superior Emirati learns how to do your job. I was never treated with malice by an Emirati — they wouldn’t consider me worth the effort. But it was clear that the system — the laws, the government, the society — was not set up for my benefit. I had no rights that they were bound to respect.
I came to Dubai expecting some degree of culture shock. But there is a distinction between struggling to adapt because something is different and struggling to adapt because something is abhorrent. Dubai is a dictatorship, perhaps benevolent, but still a dictatorship. The press is free only so long as it does not criticize. The economy is hewn more closely to familial ties than capitalist pressures. Beneath the glamour of Dubai lies a society built upon precepts borrowed from the antebellum south. If I, a carpetbagging northerner, came away from the land of plantation owners and slaves without any feelings of attachment to the country I had lived for seven months in, I do not think I have myself to blame.
This is the second in a four-part series on the author’s experiences as a consultant in Dubai.