Comments on Johann Hari’s ‘Dark Side of Dubai’ article

While I was on holiday last week, Johann Hari of the UK Independent had an article on Dubai published.

Journalists seem to fall to pieces when it comes to Dubai. Context and balance tend to be thrown to one side and the results tend to be fawning pieces that describe Dubai as the most wondrous place on earth, or sneering hate-pieces filled with stereotypes and dubious quotations. There seems to be little in between.

Dubai really needs to get itself a professional PR company to help with its image abroad and Western journalists that write about Dubai really need to base their articles on more than a quick visit. At least Johann managed a few days here – better than Germaine Greer’s drivel based on taking a bus tour for four hours.

Journalists will write positive articles about Dubai. They will write negative articles about Dubai. What particularly irks me is an article that may make some otherwise valid or interesting points instantly losing all credibility by getting basic facts wrong. I also find it disappointing when the response by Dubai based writers is not to address the issues raised in a particular article, but simply to respond with facile comments about leaving if one doesn’t like it, or saying something along the lines of ‘well, your country’s not too nice either!’. Simplistic responses to simplistic articles aren’t the right way forward.

Johann Hari is gay, left wing and makes a living writing opinion pieces. Columnists are supposed to provoke and challenge. If Hari’s article had appeared in ‘Left wing gay opinion monthly’ his piece wouldn’t be worth commenting on. As it appears in The Independent, which markets itself as a quality British broadsheet, I think it’s worth looking at his claims a little more closely.

I have lived my sheltered, privileged, expat life in Dubai for nearly seven years. I think that puts me in a position to comment on Johann’s claims, which he made after a short, sheltered, privileged holiday here. I believe that the inaccuracies in his article invalidate any interesting points he might have made.

I have quoted parts of the article here. Obviously all content is copyrighted, owned, etc, etc, by the original publishers and can be read in full here.

“The wide, smiling face of Sheikh Mohammed – the absolute ruler of Dubai – beams down on his creation. His image is displayed on every other building, sandwiched between the more familiar corporate rictuses of Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders.”

Utter nonsense. If you do see a picture of Sheikh Mohammed, it’s the one you see on the main page here. As you can see, his face in the picture is neither wide, nor smiling. You see this picture when you leave the airport – it’s on the side of one of the hotels. Other than that, you may see it, or a picture of one of the other members of the ruling families of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, on one or two buildings around Dubai.

On Sheikh Zayed Road, you see a few pictures of Sheikh Zayed – this image can be found here.

In some hotels and offices you typically see the official portraits of various rulers hanging on the wall behind reception. Government buildings will have similar pictures hanging up, rather like images of the Queen that can be seen at British Consulate.

Whilst the average Brit is not used to seeing photos of rulers around the place, the picture Hari paints is wholly inaccurate. He seems to imply that everywhere you go, Sheikh Mohammed has placed pictures of himself that beam down upon you like some Arabic Big Brother. This is simply not the case.

I would also contest Hari’s description of Sheikh Mohammed as an ‘absolute ruler’. I am no expert in the political system here, but it is not a dictatorship, as Hari implies. There are plenty of articles online about the history of the UAE and the Gulf in general. A clear theme is that ruler rule with the assent of their people. Whilst this is not a parliamentary democracy, it is a system that seems to have worked well. It is also not a system that Emiratis seem particularly unhappy with. Steps are being made towards democracy – you can read about these steps, particularly the Federal National Council, online in the Gulf News and The National. It will be interesting to see how the UAE moves ahead.

One should also put the political situation here in context with what can be seen around the greater region.

He dominates the Manhattan-manqué skyline, beaming out from row after row of glass pyramids and hotels smelted into the shape of piles of golden coins. And there he stands on the tallest building in the world – a skinny spike, jabbing farther into the sky than any other human construction in history.

Untrue, as mentioned above. As to having his photo on the Burj Dubai, perhaps I live too close to it to notice, but I have not seen his photo on it.

Dubai is a living metal metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing – at last – into history.

To be fair, Hari nails his colours to the mast here. He’s obviously not keen on globalisation. I thought he was liberal, but this statement seems to imply he isn’t, or maybe I am missing the point. He does ignore the fact that Dubai has been a trading post for most of its history. Yes, the buildings are new. No, trading isn’t.

“Karen Andrews can’t speak. Every time she starts to tell her story, she puts her head down and crumples. She is slim and angular and has the faded radiance of the once-rich, even though her clothes are as creased as her forehead. I find her in the car park of one of Dubai’s finest international hotels, where she is living, in her Range Rover. She has been sleeping here for months, thanks to the kindness of the Bangladeshi car park attendants who don’t have the heart to move her on. This is not where she thought her Dubai dream would end.”

Is there any truth behind ‘Karen Andrews” story? Hari appears to be trying to make some points about the nature of Dubai, but the utter implausability of this section of the article makes it hard to take anything seriously.

Karen is living in her Range Rover in the car park of one of Dubai’s finest hotels, where Hari just happens upon her. This sounds completely made up.

If she were in debt, she would have sold her Range Rover. If she needed to live in her car, she would not be living in a hotel car park. This would be just as impossible in Dubai as it would be in London. It would also be utterly impractical. It would make far more sense to live in your car in numerous other areas of the city, where you would be near to affordable food and drinking water. Also, what is Hari doing wandering around hotel car parks? He would have got around Dubai using taxis or a rental car. Taxis would drop him off at reception, rental cars would be parked by a valet.

Karen’s story appears to be that she and her husband came to Dubai, did no research, got massively into debt and then things went wrong. That is tragic. Getting into debt in Dubai has consequences, as it does elsewhere.

I do not believe the part about a husband being in jail. Hari says she has been living in her car for months and that she has to survive for another nine months until her husband gets out of jail. I don’t understand why she needs nine months more on the back seat of here Range Rover when her husband is due out in six, at the most. If this part of the story doesn’t add up, why should the rest?

She is not alone. All over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars.

Hari, who generally seems to be anti business, the Market, etc, seems to be sympathetic towards these supposedly debt-ridden expats, which I find surprising. I would have thought he would take a tougher line on people who live beyond their means.

Regardless, the claim is nonsense. You cannot and would not sleep secretly in sand-dunes, or at the airport, or in your car. Maybe there are one or two people doing this – who knows. There are not lots of people all over the place, dossing down in Dubai, as Hari suggests.

“Thirty years ago, almost all of contemporary Dubai was desert, inhabited only by cactuses and tumbleweed and scorpions”

Did Hari go into the desert while he was here, or did he watch a spaghetti western in his hotel room? I have seen scorpions in the desert in Dubai. I have never seen cacti or tumbleweed. Or maybe they were there thirty years ago and have all disappeared now, or maybe Hari is ignoring facts in order to make his article sound better?

“They named it after a local locust, the daba, who consumed everything before it. “

Really? I have never heard this. I don’t remember it being mentioned when I visited the Dubai Museum. How convenient for the general tone of Hari’s take on Dubai that it was allegedly named after an all-consuming locust.

The town was soon seized by the gunships of the British Empire, who held it by the throat as late as 1971. As they scuttled away, Dubai decided to ally with the six surrounding states and make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

It doesn’t surprise me that Hari doesn’t like the British Empire. I completely dispute his claim, however, that the region was ‘held by the throat’ by British gunships. Wikipedia has some excellent articles on the Gulf states that present a more accurate history of the region and its relations with the British.

“The British quit, exhausted, just as oil was being discovered, and the sheikhs who suddenly found themselves in charge faced a remarkable dilemma. They were largely illiterate nomads who spent their lives driving camels through the desert – yet now they had a vast pot of gold. What should they do with it?”

The sheikhs were very much in charge already. If Hari had actually spent some time in the museum, he would have seen some documents discussing oil concessions granted by the Ruler of Dubai at the time to various oil companies, dating from the late 50s onwards, for example.

Hari’s claim that the sheikhs of the time were illiterate camel herding nomads is also completely incorrect. At best, this comment is rather condescending, as worst racist and insulting. Once again, a quick read of Dubai’s history provides a clearer picture – albeit not one that fits in with Hari’s agenda. Any history of Dubai talks about its legacy as a trading post, not as an area where sheikhs drove camels round deserts. It’s pretty clear he made up his mind what to write before he even left London.

Dubai only had a dribble of oil compared to neighbouring Abu Dhabi – so Sheikh Maktoum decided to use the revenues to build something that would last.

It’s sad that Hari can’t even be bothered to get names correct. This is rather like talking about King Charles and Princess Elizabeth.

It is Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, ruler from 1958 to 1990, who is the acknowledged ‘father of Dubai’. It is he that arranged for the creek to be dredged, built the World Trade Center, moved Dubai in the direction it is currently going. His son, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruled from 1990 to 2005. During that time, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was crown prince and a prime mover in developing certain aspects of Dubai with his brother. Sheikh Mohammed has been ruler of Dubai since 2005.

He would build a city to be a centre of tourism and financial services, sucking up cash and talent from across the globe. He invited the world to come tax-free – and they came in their millions, swamping the local population, who now make up just 5 per cent of Dubai.

Millions seems something of an exaggeration. The population of Dubai is around 1.2 to 1.5 million. The figures I usually hear of the proportion of local population to expats is around 10 to 15%, but maybe Hari saw some more up to date official statistics.

If you take the Big Bus Tour of Dubai… As you pass each new monumental building, he tells you: “The World Trade Centre was built by His Highness…”

The Big Bus Tour is getting a lot of free advertising in the British press at the moment! I have not been on it, but I am sure that the tour guide does not repeat the same line about the World Trade Center every time the bus passes a new building.

There are three different Dubais, all swirling around each other….and then there is the foreign underclass who built the city, and are trapped here. They are hidden in plain view. You see them everywhere, in dirt-caked blue uniforms, being shouted at by their superiors, like a chain gang.

As there is construction taking place all over the city, you do see labourers everywhere. Much of ‘new Dubai’ is one big building site, so this is hardly surprising. They do wear blue overalls, usually. They are not dirt-caked unless the guys have been doing something which covers you in dirt. You do not see them walking around like a chain gang, being shouted at by their superiors. This is just not true.

Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. They sweat like sponges being slowly wrung out.

Workers have been transported in buses for several years now. They certainly were when I arrived in 2002. Before that they were transported in pickups, not ‘cattle trucks’.

I imagine that the change was made for safety reasons. Hari does not compliment Dubai on making this change – given the way people are transported around in nearby countries, this was a very decent step on Dubai’s behalf. I am glad this was implemented.

Quite where Hari gets the idea that ‘expats complained this was unsightly’ is beyond me. This is clearly completely made up.

A positive move – safe transportation for workers – is completely ridiculed by Hari, for some reason.

The section with ‘Sonihal’ the Bangladeshi labourer…

I have a couple of comments to make on the issues Hari raises here.

Firstly, the UAE had clear laws concerning the well being and treatment of labourers. I am sure the concerned government department is working to enforce these laws where required.

Secondly, Hari does not address the glaring issue that many people who come here are tricked in their home countries. There is very little the UAE can do if innocent workers are ripped off by agents in their home countries. This is something that the UAE has often pointed out and has asked authorities in those countries needs to address. Hari seems to present these occurences as being the fault of the UAE, which they are not.

Whatever points Hari does make in this section are completely invalidated by the aura of implausibility that surrounds the whole story.

He just jumps in a taxi, rocks up to a secure compound, waltzes in and just happens to meet up with a Bangladeshi who speaks excellent English and spends the afternoon chatting. I don’t think you can do this.

I don’t know what normal journalistic guidelines are on quoting someone who doesn’t speak very good English. I would assume that you would use reported speech – ‘Sonihal tells me…, Sonihal explains his situation…’.

I find myself stumbling in a daze from the camps into the sprawling marble malls that seem to stand on every street in Dubai. It is so hot there is no point building pavements; people gather in these cathedrals of consumerism to bask in the air conditioning. So within a ten minute taxi-ride, I have left Sohinal and I am standing in the middle of Harvey Nichols, being shown a £20,000 taffeta dress by a bored salesgirl. “As you can see, it is cut on the bias…” she says, and I stop writing.

Given the date this article was published, Hari must have been in Dubai when the weather was rather pleasant and would have known that walking around outside would be perfectly doable. Whilst I would love to see it being a little easier to walk around certain areas of the city, there are plenty of pavements.

Earlier Hari has told us that Sonihal lives in a camp an hour out of town. Despite this, it has only taken Hari ten minutes in a taxi to get to Harvey Nicks. The timings are completely wrong.

I have no idea why Hari would walk into a shop and look at a taffeta dress.

Time doesn’t seem to pass in the malls. Days blur with the same electric light, the same shined floors, the same brands I know from home. Here, Dubai is reduced to its component sounds: do-buy. In the most expensive malls I am almost alone, the shops empty and echoing.

I’m not sure what Hari’s point is here. Malls aren’t very nice places? Dubai is bad because it has lots of malls?

I’m not a big fan of shopping and shopping malls in general. I have no desire to visit Bluewater in Kent, for example. Malls here are a little different. It is too hot to shop on a ‘normal’ high street for much of the year. Some malls are rather dull, but some are beautifully put together – Mall of the Emirates, for example, where Hari would have gone to look at his nice dress. Colleagues of mine who have children find malls very convenient.

I approach a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in hotpants, oblivious to the swarms of men gaping at her. “I love it here!” she says. “The heat, the malls, the beach!” Does it ever bother you that it’s a slave society? She puts her head down, just as Sohinal did. “I try not to see,” she says. Even at 17, she has learned not to look, and not to ask; that, she senses, is a transgression too far.

Yet another utterly implausible situation. 17 years old wandering around shopping malls don’t usually provide much useful comment to help a roving reporter, I would imagine, but Hari chats to this young girl, who speaks excellent English, like his other interviewees and is able, mysteriously, to see into the depths of her soul and understand what she senses. This paragraph is probably the most ridiculous of the entire article.

Despite claiming elsewhere that most malls are rather empty, this one is described as being filled with swarms of gaping men. I would imagine that a 17 year old girl in hotpants would probably suffer from a fair amount of gaping in London as well. I am not sure what Hari’s point is here. She shouldn’t wear hot pants? Men gawp at women in Dubai? The remark seems utterly unnecessary.

Between the malls, there is nothing but the connecting tissue of asphalt. Every road has at least four lanes; Dubai feels like a motorway punctuated by shopping centres. You only walk anywhere if you are suicidal. The residents of Dubai flit from mall to mall by car or taxis.

As mentioned before, it would be nice to be able to walk around Dubai more easily. I often feel the same way during visits to the States. That said, there are plenty of urban, walkable areas in Dubai. Hari is spending his time driving around in taxis, flitting from labour camp to mall, so he’s more than likely to see motorways.

Not every road has at least four lanes. This is nonsense.

Johann’s interview with Sultan Al Qassimi

Hari makes no comments on any of the points that Al Qassimi makes. He doesn’t comment on the fact that Dubai has grown so quickly, that it is a tolerant society, that a number of cultures live and co-exist here, that Dubai has enabled lots of people to fund their families’ education, build a house back in their home country, etc, etc.

In the 1930s… Sheikh Said bin Maktum al-Maktum

…normally referred to as Sheikh Saeed bin Matktoum Al Maktoum, but Hari cannot be bothered to keep his spellings in synch.

Adbulkhaleq says every Emirati of his generation lives with a “psychological trauma.” Their hearts are divided – “between pride on one side, and fear on the other.” Just after he says this, a smiling waitress approaches, and asks us what we would like to drink. He orders a Coke.

He orders a Coke? So what? Are non-Westerners not allowed to order Coke? Is it not possible for someone to voice concerns about his culture and the expats sharing his country and order anything other than what his forefathers drank? Is Abdulkhaleq only allowed, in Hari’s world, to drink well water or traditional coffee or a cup of tea? Will Hari permit him to eat anything other than goat, fish or rice?

At each point in his article, when someone other than Hari has a point to make, Hari makes comments like these, ridiculing whoever is speaking. What does Hari drink, one wonders?

Beneath a famous international hotel, I clamber down into possibly the only gay club on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. I find a United Nations of tank-tops and bulging biceps, I dancing to Kylie, dropping ecstasy, and partying like it’s Soho.

I know nothing about the gay scene here.

I do know that Dubai is not located in the ‘Saudi Arabian peninsula’. I also utterly reject Hari’s claim that anyone attending a club like this is ‘dropping ecstasy’. I have never seen anyone in Dubai taking drugs of any kind, I have never been offered drugs and I have never heard of anyone being anywhere where drugs have been taken. I would expect my friends and colleagues to say the same thing. Despite this, Hari appears to have arrived in Dubai for the first time and instantly ‘clambered’ into a place where drugs are taken openly.

I believe this claim to be complete nonsense.

…I go to Double Decker, a hang-out for British expats. At the entrance there is a red telephone box, and London bus-stop signs. Its wooden interior looks like a cross between a colonial clubhouse in the Raj and an Eighties school disco, with blinking coloured lights and cheese blaring out. As I enter, a girl in a short skirt collapses out of the door onto her back. A guy wearing a pirate hat helps her to her feet, dropping his beer bottle with a paralytic laugh.

I am not a big fan of Double Decker. I am a big fan of the fact that Dubai allows places like these to exist. This is the Middle East, but there are places where non-Muslims are free to enjoy themselves and drink alcohol if they wish. Women can also wear pretty much what they want, although short skirts or hotpants, something Hari seems rather fixated on, are generally discouraged.

In all my years here, I have never gone to a place like Double Decker and seen people collapsing on their backs while walking out of the door. Anyone walking out of Double Decker would not be allowed to be carrying their beer with them, either. The bouncers would stop them. You see plenty of drunken behaviour, but the excesses you see in the UK are fairly rare. Once again, Hari appears to be exaggerating.

I start to talk to two sun-dried women in their sixties who have been getting gently sozzled since midday. “You stay here for The Lifestyle,” they say, telling me to take a seat and order some more drinks. All the expats talk about The Lifestyle, but when you ask what it is, they become vague. Ann Wark tries to summarise it: “Here, you go out every night. You’d never do that back home. You see people all the time. It’s great. You have lots of free time. You have maids and staff so you don’t have to do all that stuff. You party!”

This is an odd conversation to have with two ladies in their sixties. Ladies in their sixties don’t tend to spend their afternoons in Double Decker. Once agin, Hari seems to be making things up in order to make a point.

They admit, however, they have “never” spoken to an Emirati. Never? “No. They keep themselves to themselves.”

Anyone claiming never to have spoken to an Emirati during twenty years in Dubai is talking utter nonsense.

I am not sure who Hari is criticising with the implication that Emiratis keep themselves to themselves. Is he suggesting that Emiratis should make a huge effort to talk to all the British expats here, or that we should rush up to every Emirati we see and have a good old chinwag?

When I ask the British expats how they feel to not be in a democracy, their reaction is always the same. First, they look bemused. Then they look affronted. “It’s the Arab way!” an Essex boy shouts at me in response, as he tries to put a pair of comedy antlers on his head while pouring some beer into the mouth of his friend, who is lying on his back on the floor, gurning.

I am sure, if Hari had tried, even a little bit, he could have had some more in depth discussions with British expats about what it is like not to live in a democracy.

You can’t lie on your back on the floor at Double Decker whilst your friends pour beer into your mouth. You would be thrown out. It makes for a great image and it helps Hari build a picture of all British expats as beer swilling idiots, however, regardless of whether it’s made up or not.

Later, in a hotel bar, I start chatting to a dyspeptic expat American who works in the cosmetics industry and is desperate to get away from these people. She says: “All the people who couldn’t succeed in their own countries end up here, and suddenly they’re rich and promoted way above their abilities and bragging about how great they are. I’ve never met so many incompetent people in such senior positions anywhere in the world.”

Which people is the dyspeptic expat trying to get away from? The boozy Brits, I presume. I don’t blame her. One of things a lot of Brits like about living here is that you don’t have to live with the appalling drunken behaviour you can see every weekend night across the country. Even if things get rowdy at Double Decker, you don’t have to be near it – it’ s not in your face, UK style.

Hari appears to be tarring every expat here with the same brush. Rest assured that whilst there are almost certainly some people here who are overpaid or incompetent, most of them don’t earn 40,000 quid a month.

My experience of the UK was that you had some excellent people, some middling, some pretty useless. My experience in Dubai has been that you tend to have very good or not very good people, with not much inbetween.

With the exception of her, one theme unites every expat I speak to: their joy at having staff to do the work that would clog their lives up Back Home. Everyone, it seems, has a maid. The maids used to be predominantly Filipino, but with the recession, Filipinos have been judged to be too expensive, so a nice Ethiopian servant girl is the latest fashionable accessory.

This is utter drivel. Not everyone has a maid. Ethiopian servant girls are not fashionable accessories.

Some expat families do have maids. Some don’t. My experience of my colleagues is that people treat their maids well. A good maid can often become part of the family. The money she earns allows her to support a family back home, educate children, etc.

Hari seems to be implying that having any kind of hired help is akin to some sort of slavery – it’s wrong, full stop, in his opinion. Whilst I can’t see us having a maid, I see no problem with other people employing someone willing to do the work, as long as that person is treated well. In some situations, not employing someone could be seen as denying someone a job. I have often heard this argument from South Africans, where having domestic staff is normal and not employing someone is neglecting your responsibility to the community around you. Fair enough.

It is an open secret that once you hire a maid, you have absolute power over her. You take her passport – everyone does; you decide when to pay her, and when – if ever – she can take a break; and you decide who she talks to. She speaks no Arabic. She cannot escape.

This is total nonsense. There are various laws in place to protect people employed as maids, but regardless, does Hari think that every normal, decent, expat family who employs a maid suddenly turns into a bunch of sadistic slave drivers?

Mistreatment of maids is wrong. Hari’s blanket statement that everyone here employs maids and then turns them into slaves is ridiculous.

Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. “But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: ‘You came here to work, not sleep!’ Then one day I just couldn’t go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn’t give me my wages: they said they’d pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn’t know anybody here. I was terrified.”

One day, after yet another beating, Mela ran out onto the streets, and asked – in broken English – how to find the Ethiopian consulate. After walking for two days, she found it, but they told her she had to get her passport back from Madam. “Well, how could I?” she asks. She has been in this hostel for six months. She has spoken to her daughter twice. “I lost my country, I lost my daughter, I lost everything,” she says.

If things like this do happen, it is clearly wrong. Once again though, Hari appears to be making things up to make them sound better.

Mela only speaks broken English, according to Hari, but he is still able to quote her speaking fluently and expressively.

She was with an Australian family who went berserk and treated her appallingly – something that is possibly believable as a one off, but Hari says this has happened to thousands of others. I find it hard to believe that an Australian family of six would be the kind to beat up their maid on a regular basis. Maybe I am naive.

Ironically, the only family I know who have a maid from Ethiopia are Australian. They have three adopted children (one from Ethiopia, two from Sierra Leone) and employ a very nice lady as their housekeeper. She is treated like one of the family. I would say that, amongst the expats I know who have maids, that this is the norm.

As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. “Oh, the servant class!” she trilled. “You do nothing. They’ll do anything!”

Hermione Frayling? What a great name. I wonder if she knew she’d be quoted like this. Or maybe she doesn’t exist, as the sentence attributed to her isn’t something I have ever heard a British expat say. It just sounds totally wrong.

The projects completed just before the global economy crashed look empty and tattered.

They might not be filled to the brim, but they don’t look tattered. They look brand new. Because they are.

The Atlantis Hotel… It is unexpectedly raining; water is leaking from the roof, and tiles are falling off.

I have been to the Atlantis on several occasions. I have never seen water leaking from the roof or tiles falling off.

I check myself in for a few nights to the classiest hotel in town, the Park Hyatt. It is the fashionistas’ favourite hotel, where Elle Macpherson and Tommy Hilfiger stay, a gorgeous, understated palace.

Where else would a man of the people such as Johann stay? Maybe this is where he met Karen Andrews, sleeping rough in her Range Rover.

My patience frayed by all this excess, I find myself snapping: doesn’t the omnipresent slave class bother you?

There isn’t an omnipresent ‘slave class’. The people who come to work here are not slaves. This is simply a gross exaggeration.

On my final night in the Dubai Disneyland, I stop off on my way to the airport, at a Pizza Hut that sits at the side of one of the city’s endless, wide, gaping roads. It is identical to the one near my apartment in London in every respect, even the vomit-coloured decor.

I’m not sure what point Hari is trying to make here. Pizza Hut isn’t very nice? Personally I am not a fan either. I don’t see anything wrong with it operating in Dubai, though.

I ask the Filipino girl behind the counter if she likes it here. “….everything in Dubai is fake. Everything you see.”

I find Dubai is ‘fake’ comments boring. It’s a brand new city in the desert. It’s not going to look like Rome, Johann, but it can still offer its citizens and the expats who live here a life that is far more positive than the one you describe in your article. What would you prefer Dubai’s rulers did? Force the local population to live in traditional barasti huts so as not to offend your sensibilities?

She got into debt to come here, and she is stuck for three years: an old story now. “I think Dubai is like an oasis. It is an illusion, not real. You think you have seen water in the distance, but you get close and you only get a mouthful of sand.”

If Filipinas are getting into debt to come here, their government really needs to crack down on the unscrupulous agents who are cheating them.

Once again, Hari’s quote seems rather implausible. Is he putting his words in someone else’s mouth again? I don’t want to do a disservice to the Filipinas working in Pizza Hut, but this lady’s comment sounds like something Hari came up with whilst flying over, rather than a comment made whilst chatting to someone buying a pizza.

26 Responses to “Comments on Johann Hari’s ‘Dark Side of Dubai’ article”

  1. Eliot Beer Says:

    You raise some interesting points, and I agree with your main premise – that Hari’s article is let down by sloppy journalism.
    I actually wrote to Hari earlier in the week, with a similar discussion to yours (I’ll post it on the AdNation blog tomorrow:, blog fans).
    However, what you’re accusing him of in many places is outright fabrication.
    Speaking as a journalist, this is about the most serious accusation you can make against our ilk – and is actually defamatory (although I’d doubt he’d sue…).
    I think the bigger fundamental problem with the piece is not Hari’s potential talent for fiction, but his credulousness, and his apparent unwillingness to seek out people that might offer a different perspective, particularly when it comes to Western expats.
    Like you, I would disagree with most of the sentiments and statements made by most of the Western expats in the piece – especially those at Double Decker.
    Had he spoken to either of us – or, indeed, most of the people I know and claim as friends – Hari would clearly have got a very different perspective. But he didn’t – so this is what we have.
    I have to disagree with you on a number of points though, especially in the nit-picking you do. For example, Atlantis – Hari went when it was raining – have you? I wouldn’t be surprised to see it leaking in this situation.
    Maids – I can believe this, to be honest. I would agree you are being naive – people’s ability to be unpleasant to other people seems unlimited, and does not break down by country of origin.
    Similarly, I don’t have to imagine someone expressing the stated views about the "servant class" – I’ve heard very similar sentiments expressed several times.
    And "slaves" – well, I think we have to face some unpalatable truths about where we live. Like it or not, thanks to bad practices, here and in their home countries, many labourers ARE effective slaves, in all but name. This is changing – but slowly. Very slowly.
    As with Sultan Al Qassemi, writing in the Indy and on criticising this piece, I believe we need to be very careful about nailing the specific inaccuracies, and NOT venting our anger – it will simply play up to Hari’s opinion of Dubaians as spoiled whiny brats, unable to engage in reasoned argument.
    Whew! Sorry, bit of a rant there. But these pieces are starting to get to me too…

  2. Cliff Says:

    This is a very effective and necessary point-by-point rebuttal of Hari’s article. A few broader points come to mind with reference to the article:
    To an extent, Dubai is reaping what it has sown. It has enthusiastically and energetically courted the British press for several years in its attempt to raise its profile. Unfortunately, it failed to recognize some harsh realities associated with this: “build ‘em up and knock ‘em down” is a favoured modus operandi of British journalism; sensationalism can cut both ways; and the Dubai phenomenon was always going to be distasteful to certain segments of the British intelligentsia. Dubai seemed at times to be promoting itself as a ‘celebrity city’, and is now suffering the kind of treatment received by many a celebrity who has fallen out of favour with the British press.
    However, none of this is an excuse for shoddy journalism. Eliot states that fabrication is ‘about the most serious accusation’ you can make about a journalist. I think that fabrication is just one symptom of a worse disease: a disregard for truth. Even if you accept that Hari did not fabricate anything contained in this article, this was still a sensationalist hatchet job devoid of balance, context or nuance. In my opinion, Eliot is extremely charitable towards Hari in ascribing this to ‘credulousness’; I believe that he arrived in Dubai with his conclusions and prejudices fully formed and then set about forming them into an article. He didn’t get a different perspective because his aim was to put the boot into Dubai as dramatically as possible.
    The really sad thing is that Hari’s effort is actually less risible than the recent journalistic efforts by Germaine Greer and Simon Jenkins. As Chris points out, both types of sensationalism (the fawning and apocalyptic), are inaccurate and one-dimensional. Dubai is by no means perfect, but neither is it the bizarre nightmare universe described by Johann Hari. It’s really very unfortunate as Dubai is actually a fascinating story, if only someone was capable of telling it properly.
    I could write a lot more on this article and this subject, but I fear I would just get extremely annoyed…

  3. her every cent counts Says:

    I know nothing about Dubai other than what I’ve read in various articles about it, including Hari’s piece. I have never visited, nor to I pretend to know whether what he wrote was 100% true or partially fabricated.
    However, having experience as a reporter, and often working with sources who did not want their identity revealed, feel the need to add that some of these seemingly half-truths may indeed be inconsistent because the reporter owes it to the source to hide their identity. Maybe Karen wasn’t actually living in the hotel parking lot, but had the reporter revealed where she was living, he would also have given up her identity. There’s a fine line between making a lot up so that it is not a believable article – but for such a seemingly small detail of where Karen was staying in her Range Rover (when the main point is that this woman was living in her car) might have been one that Hari did not think too hard on. Same for transit times and other inconsistencies in the article.
    That said, surely he could have included more of "the other side" in the lengthy article.

  4. Paul Moloney Says:

    If you think that Johann Hari is lying, then you should make a detailed complaint to his newspaper.

  5. Seabee Says:

    Having posted several times on the Hari article I was about to do what you’ve beaten me to – comment on it para by para. You’ve done such a good job I now won’t bother!
    There is no question that Hari’s piece contains deliberate lies, for example that Sheikh Mohammed’s face is on "every other building" which appears right at the beginning of the piece and sets the tone. The "maxed out expats living in the desert and in the airport" is another blatant untruth, as is "every road has four lanes". These justifiably raise questions about the truth of many of his other claims and statements.
    Eliot, you rightly say that accusing a journalist of fabrication is a serious accusation. However it is not defamatory if it is the truth. There is no question that the article contains these fabrications.
    I must disagree with you that Chris is ‘nitpicking’ and that ‘we need to be very careful about nailing the specific inaccuracies.’ You’re agreeing there are ‘inaccuracies’, but saying they shouldn’t be pointed out.
    Of course they need to be nailed. Disputing the accuracy of the claims requires the nailing of the inaccuracies. Simply to say ‘it’s not true’ is pointless.
    Like all such articles promoting extreme views it mixes truth with fiction so that the fiction may be more believable, and that’s the sad part. There are indeed many things here which we’d like to see improved, not least the treatment of labourers. But those subjects get lost because they’re mixed in with the blatant untruths, the very questionable interviewees, the numbers which don’t add up.

  6. Paul Moloney Says:

    "You’ve done such a good job I now won’t bother!"
    He has? All I see is a "rebuttal" consisting of posting excerpts from Hari’s article, followed by "I don’t believe this". For example, Christopher says that Hari is making up the "locust" story – his basis for accusing Hari of lying is that he, Christopher, has not heard of this despite his own research. Yet, it’s mentioned in the first few paragraphs of Dubai’s Wikipedia entry, so is hardly a hidden fact:
    "In the 1820s, Dubai was referred to as Al Wasl by British historians. However, few records pertaining to the cultural history of the UAE or its constituent emirates exist due to the region’s oral traditions in recording and passing down folklore and myth. The linguistic origins of the word Dubai are also in dispute, as some believe it to have originated from Persian, while some believe that Arabic is the linguistic root of the word. According to Fedel Handhal, researcher in the history and culture of the UAE, the word Dubai may have come from the word Daba (a derivative of Yadub), which means to creep; the word may be a reference to the flow of Dubai Creek inland, while the poet and scholar Ahmad Mohammad Obaid traces it through the same word, but in its meaning of locust".

  7. Cliff Says:

    Thanks Paul – you’ve just demonstrated Hari’s bias. The wikipedia quote doesn’t contain any ‘fact’ on this issue: it states that the origins of the name are disputed and uncertain. Yet Hari categorically presents this speculation as fact: "They named it after a local locust, the daba, who consumed everything before it."
    ‘Very nice symbolism Johann, but perhaps a little less creative license next time.’

  8. Paul Moloney Says:

    Well, Christopher claims never to have heard of this purported origin _at all_ – does this demonstrate that he appears to know even less about Dubai than Hari, despite living there?

  9. Chris Says:

    I confess, I have never heard of the ‘daba’ being proposed as forming the roots of Dubai’s name.
    I do not accuse Hari of lying in this particular section, I simply state I have never heard of this before, simple as that. And, as the Wikipedia article clearly states, this is not acknowledged fact, it’s one of several possible origins of the name ‘Dubai’. Hari does not mention this, he picks the option that nicely suits his agenda and presents it as fact. He does it quite poetically too.
    The fact I have not heard of the word daba does not mean that I know less about Dubai than Hari. But I would say that, wouldn’t I.

  10. Paul Moloney Says:

    I admit I’m baffled by the thin skin of Dubaians. For years, we, at least in Europe, have been treated to a unctious deluge of articles and TV programmes about how Dubai is the new miracle, yadda yadda yadda. I mean, hours and hours and pages of pages of it. These sugary advertorials somehow never produced any outcry from Dubai for more balanced coverage.
    Now, in the wake of a single article and a single TV documentary about the negative side of the city state, Hari’s _opinion piece_ (not news article) is deluged with comments decrying bias in the media; ironic, coming from a city-state where the media is tightly controlled and even academic texts are censored (
    Beneath the nitpicking about tumbleweed metaphors or exactly how many posters of the ruler there are or whether 60 year old women go to bars, perhaps the truth that the wealth of many in Dubai is based on the fact it’s an incredibly unequal society, hurts? So, you know, kick the author rather than do anything about.

  11. Chris Says:

    I don’t think it’s nitpicking. The point about the posters in particular is important – as I say in the post, Hari makes it sounds like there are posters everywhere, Big Brother style. If he is fibbing about things like this, what else can we believe?
    If he has points to make, he can simply make them. There’s no need to invent stuff.
    As I say at the beginning of the post, authors seem to fall to pieces when it comes to Dubai. You either get the overblown stuff, which I also find ridiculous, or Hari’s outpourings.
    Hari’s article is sneering, condescending and downright inaccurate in many places.
    If he wants to make valid points, there’s no need to dress them up in half truths and incorrect statements.
    There are problems in all sorts of countries, here included. A bit of context and accuracy is what I would like to see when reports like these are written.

  12. Weedy Says:

    Paul. you dont survive in dubai without thick skin and yes we are rightly protective about the city we have helped create over the last 100 or so yrs. I work in the construction industry and yes there are some serious Health and Safety issues which are not yet fully underpinned by the correct legislation. this has however rapidly improved over the last 6 yrs I have been working here and I am sure will continue to improve at a tremendous rate. This tiny state is far more advanced in this regard than the majority of countries in the middle east and the sub continent and this is due to the government trying to reach for a better standard and their willingness to cooperate with foreign advisors. When perhaps compared with GB there is a visible difference in equality but at least here we are a ‘society’ constantly helping to plug the gaps where the relatively young government has not got around to filling yet. People living here in general are of a very positive mind and rely on each other to get by across all sections of the pay scale. that is society. here we dont need a socialist state controlling us and telling us how to live. negativity and inaction in GB due to the increased red tape is why I left to help try and forge, in some small way, a fuller life in another country. here we are employed because we work to and help promote GB ideas of a fair society, the rule of law, education, democracy and market trade open to all (not to mention the stiff upper lip, which gets the job done). we do wonders for the marketing of british products and ideals but perhaps they no longer actually exist back in blighty. so when some fool on a jolly with an agenda to knock our hard work produces a sloppy piece of work it reflects on us out here in a negative way. that is why we are angry.

  13. Paul Moloney Says:

    Congratulations, Weedy – you certainly don’t sound like you are more than 100 years old. Just a thought – perhaps it’s because Britain is a bit of a "socialist state" (I didn’t think anyone apart from Jim Davidson thought that New Labour were running gulags) that it doesn’t have things like visible differences in equality? Certainly, the 17-page comments thread about Hari’s article is an eye-opener, with many Dubaian non-whites of various nationalities claming the place is run on completely racist terms, with whites getting all the best jobs. Perhaps they don’t have the requisite stiff upper lip, old boy.

  14. Dave Says:

    It’s not quite that simple, Paul. It’s facile to claim that ‘whites get all the best jobs’.
    You have many ‘non-whites’ in senior positions here. There are obvious examples – locally based companies that are typically Indian or Arab owned that are staffed to senior levels with those nationalities.
    Elsewhere, you can often find, for example, British born and educated people of an Asian/Black background doing senior level work. This is because they have the experience and qualifications they need to do their job, regardless of their skin colour.
    What counts at senior levels is not skin colour but experience, qualifications, language skills, etc. Given the nature of many of the senior level jobs available, this will mean someone with Western experience, Western qualifications and fluent English. What these employers are looking for is not someone who is white, but someone who has what’s needed to do the job. Given the ethnic makeup of the ‘West’, this will mean the people in these jobs will often be white.

  15. weedy Says:

    I am in fact Black Paul. But well done on you for assuming otherwise. Being lucky enough to be British I prefer the title of gentlemen. Dubai is far from perfect and we are trying to help change that for all. Rome was not built in a day. I have experienced some racist behaviour here and many misconceptions, not least when I open my mouth and they hear my clipped accent. However not the abuse I have received in my own Country. I truly believe in equality but ask the Polish or Chinese workers cleaning up after you in the UK if they see Britain as an equal society.

  16. lara dunston Says:

    That’s a great line-by-line analysis of the factual and historical errors and exaggerations in Hari’s piece – I haven’t met one person who doesn’t agree that his piece is full of holes/flaws/mistakes. But Hari’s role is to be provocative to increase the number of hits. I don’t think too many people take him seriously.
    Sadly, though, it’s a wasted opportunity. I’d much prefer to see someone like Robert Fisk tackling the same issues – can you imagine what a very different story it would be?! – far more objective and balanced, far more thorough research, and infinitely more intelligent writing.
    A journalist who says he hates Dubai simply shouldn’t be allowed to do a piece like that. His editor should have pulled him off it. It goes against all journalistic ethics and codes of conduct – if you hate someone/something you can’t apply the objectivity and balance needed to write an intelligent piece because the story is twisted by emotions and bias.

  17. elne Says:

    Speaking as a former Indian expatriate (who thankfully got the opportunity to get out of that shit-hole and come back to my country), I think all you nay-sayers to Johann’s piece are typical of the kind of brit and american expats over there.
    What do you know about how the other expats (indians,pakistanis, filipinos) have to undergo there? Ever had to take out a loan to cover the rent of a 1 bhk apartment in abu dhabi? and a loan to cover for buying vegetables for a family of 4? how about the loan to cover the school fees for your kids? I know many westerners who have shown compassion and restraint, and tried to see how other people live. I know of no such westerners in Abu Dhabi/Dubai or the rest of those seven steaming cauldrons; judging by the quality of responses from the cross-section that I see commenting on this blog, I don’t think I will. Go back to your ivory towers and stop pretending that you know everything.

  18. Gary Says:

    This ‘journalist’ clearly knew what type of piece he wanted to write and sought evidence to fulfill his view. That would be pretty easy of ten differnt stories in Dubai, as in every large city the world over. It happens all of the time, there is an advert on a Dubai forum at this very moment from a ‘journalist’ from Fabulous magazine in the UK (I believe) seeking a young female expat who has come unstuck in the credit crunch. The request goes so far as to describe the situation that their interviewee already probably finds herself in!
    The reason that I am not happy to credit these people as journalists is because in my mind a journalist tells THE story as they find it, not THEIR story as they constructed it.

  19. Nejibinho Says:

    I think I would agree with the comments by Chris quite wholeheartedly, in that Johann’s piece is incredibly sloppy when you break it down. Chris does mention that Johann had some good points to be fair. I think to some extent we (those of us who are not "slaves" in this society) do not want to admit that there are some highly unethical practises going on in the country in which we live. That struck me when reading Elne’s comment above. It is often more convenient not to be empathetic towards those who have been exploited by the same system that helped you prosper and in some ways we do not want to accept what is going on around us.

  20. Alan Furth Says:

    My views of Dubai"s socio-economic model were the reason why I decided to leave the city in late 2008, and to step out of the business I was involved with at the moment, which ironically had to do with promoting the image of the country in the international media.
    In the following link I blog about my reply to an online discussion forum initiated by Sultan Al Qassemi to discuss his recent response to Johann Hari’s article:

  21. Basil Says:

    Is it just me, or did our friendly local ISPs in the UAE block the original article posted on The Independent?!
    Haven’t they noticed that it was published almost a month ago and it still holds the number 1 slot on the Most Read Opinion pieces of the Independent?

  22. Susan Macaulay Says:

    More grist for the mill here:

  23. Mr T Says:

    What a pathetic man you are for going through an entire article and trying to justify the unjustifiable.
    Shame on you – and shame on me for even bothering to respond to this tosh!

  24. Schadenfreude – The Johann Hari Edition « Peter's Place Says:

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