By Rafia Zakaria

Building towers is risky business. In fact, the very dynamics of the architecture of towers and their historical symbolism suggest acts of defiance. Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, now the world’s tallest building, takes the act of rebellion against physical limitations to new levels — literally.

Burj Khalifa
Burj Khalifa

Over 100 storeys, it boasts the world’s highest swimming pool and perhaps as expiation also the world’s highest mosque. Its golf course requires over four million gallons of water a day. Last week, amid much fanfare, the legendary tower finally threw open its majestic doors to the public.

Previously known as Burj Dubai the structure was renamed Burj Khalifa in honour of the Abu Dhabi ruler and UAE president who had bailed out struggling Dubai with a sum of billions of dollars. Envisioned and designed by a Chicago firm, the Burj is said to have been inspired by the vision of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Sky City which was to be built in Chicago. However, it was never realised as it lacked both the funds and labour. Neither of these were seemingly a problem in the construction of the Burj which employed thousands of labourers from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh for several years for its construction.

According to reports, the vast majority of these workers have never even been to the top of the building they spent years constructing. But not seeing the view from the top is hardly the biggest problem faced by those who constructed the Burj; there are allegations that many have died in the construction of the Burj. Such construction projects take a huge toll. Records kept by the Indian mission for only one year showed that nearly 1,000 Indian workers had died, more than 60 in accidents on the site. The Pakistani and Bangladeshi missions do not keep records of the many labourers who have died possibly deterred by the criticism of the UAE authorities. Based on estimates the total number of workers killed in such construction projects is believed to be well into the thousands.

Days after the opening of the Burj a UAE court absolved the president’s brother for the beating and torture — an event that was videotaped — of an Afghan grain merchant. Sheikh Issa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan was recorded brutally thrashing the man, stuffing sand into his mouth, burning his private parts with cigarettes and beating him with a nailed board. The video, which is available on the Internet, shows the sheikh literally pouring salt on his bloody wounds.

The court that heard the case acquitted the sheikh on the grounds that he had been under the influence of ‘drugs’. Put simply, despite incontrovertible recorded evidence, the sheikh was simply too powerful to be brought to task for hurting a man who was in the Emirati scheme of things little more than a slave.

The inauguration of the tower and the acquittal of the sheikh is a lurid juxtaposition of the hypocrisy, gluttony and crude injustice that lies beneath a glitzy façade. None of the innovation or glamour is indigenous; the architecture is American, the designers European and the slave labour South Asian.

Only 10 per cent of Dubai’s population is indigenous and actually has some say in how the emirate is run. The rest, either labourers or the educated middle class from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, are only too happy to swallow their pride and meekly accept second-class status as gratitude for employment. The slave-like labourers languish in camps hapless and helpless at the hands of sheikhs and companies who may choose to abuse them at whim.

In the meantime, the lurid contrast of limitless wealth and gluttonous consumption is seemingly lost on middle-class expatriates in Dubai. The expat bankers, engineers and doctors who have got work permits to escape dim prospects in their own countries unquestioningly consume the capitalist wealth of Dubai without ever contesting the injustice of their own political silencing. They wander in the malls, stare in veneration at the towers and flaunt their designer trinkets at cousins and relatives left at home as markers of their economic superiority.

Never once do they ask what basis of justice allows a government to pay two people different amounts based on their nationality. Nor do they wonder at the justifications of virtual labour camps where workers toil for 18 hours a day and are not paid for months, conditions that would result in protest in any part of the developed world. Similarly, tourists from around the world visiting Dubai are happily duped by the fireworks, the pretty beaches and now the tall towers without taking a moment to question the inequity that fuels them or the injustice that makes them possible.

True, injustice exists everywhere and Dubai sustains Pakistan’s exported labour force whose remittances are crucial to the country’s economic survival. But it must be remembered that the case of Dubai is unique. There is no place in the contemporary West where workers may live and work and even be born and never have the opportunity to participate in the governance of the country.

Unless those who make up the expatriate labour force of the emirates are allowed a voice Dubai’s progress will continue to be a product of exploitation of poverty and need.
Indeed, if the world is revolted by reports of torture in Guantanamo, and campaigns to hold the US accountable, so too must it demand accountability for the sheikhs of Dubai without being duped by the luxurious façade of their towers.

The writer is an attorney and director at Amnesty International, US.