Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The most vitriolic piece on Dubai so far

Today's UK paper The Independent has a story jumping on the new Dubai-bashing bandwagon and it's the most vitriolic I've seen so far.

At least the writer appears to have spent some time here, unlike many of the previous commentators, but it's obvious that the objective was simply to find the worst possible angle and seek out the worst possible examples.

It's biased, has no balance, has plenty of inaccuracies. It raises some valid points about things that need attention - treatment of labourers, bankruptcy laws, enforcement of the laws and the like. But to get those points across he crosses the line of responsible journalism.

It's so full of highly doubtful and downright untrue claims that it detracts from the the important issues he talks about.

He's painting a word picture to create an impression of the city that supports how he wants to project it. Lots of little comments, the implicit suggestion that the people he includes are the norm, emotive words thrown in, quotes from people which in themselves are unimportant and, worse, are simply untrue, but they're included because they add to the word picture. It's all to create the pre-determined bad impression.

There was no need, he could have stayed with the facts and discussed the things that need changing in responsible way. The vitriol is undisguised.

Here's what I mean by the word picture he's painting.

The first two sentences start to give the game away - the claim that Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid's "...image is displayed on every other building, sandwiched between the more familiar corporate rictuses of Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders.

On every other building? The truth is that the image is not even on one in a thousand buildings.

And I wonder whether he's noticed how many portraits of the Queen there are around London.

He reports on a group of Brits in the Double Decker bar - but if he did indeed come across this behaviour he's obviously been at pains to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

"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 start to talk to two sun-dried women in their sixties who have been getting gently sozzled since midday.

...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.

Questionable. I seriously doubt whether the bouncers would have allowed that behaviour.

Nevertheless there are badly-behaved expats in town - the yob culture exported. But Hari doesn't bother to point out that the excesses of a few are outweighed by hundreds of thousands of extremely hard working expats, from Britain as well as the rest of the world. Hundreds of thousands who are working hard and saving, putting their children through school, supporting extended families, who know how to behave.

In a mall he 'approached a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in hotpants' to get her opinion - but he was at pains not to approach any of the hundreds of families with kids in pushchairs or carrying their weekly groceries to ask for their opinions. Balance is not a word that comes to mind about in his interviewing.

There's the highly dubious story about 'Karen Andrews' who has supposedly been living for months in her Range Rover in the car park of an international hotel.

That leads to Mr Hari's ridiculous claim that "All over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars."

Absolutely untrue. People living in the departure lounge of the international airport? That's the only part of the terminals they can get in to. Think about it, do you think Security would allow that? And sleeping in the sand dunes in the city. Sand dunes in the city? The only people sleeping in the sand dunes in the desert are people on weekend camping trips.

He reports on the construction scene:

"The World is empty. It has been abandoned, its continents unfinished.

All over Dubai, crazy projects that were Under Construction are now Under Collapse. They were building an air-conditioned beach here, with cooling pipes running below the sand, so the super-rich didn't singe their toes on their way from towel to sea."

In reality The World hasn't been abandoned, projects are not 'under collapse' and the chilled beach was not a Dubai creation but was the private Versace hotel floating an outrageous idea to gauge reaction. It won't happen.

There's no mention of the hundreds of projects, both residential and commercial, which are finished, occupied and successful.

Even the section on the terrible conditions at some of the labour camps is highly selective. There are thousands of labourers, and others at the bottom of the social ladder, who do not live in these conditions and are happy with their lot. Money sent home to keep an extended family, to educate children and more than a few are considered wealthy in their home countries.

He brings up the water question.

"Dubai drinks the sea. The Emirates' water is stripped of salt in vast desalination plants around the Gulf – making it the most expensive water on earth. It costs more than petrol to produce, and belches vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as it goes."

Over 120 countries have desalination plants, there are over 13,000 operating around the world, yet it's presented as though Dubai is unique in desalinating water.

He's been at pains to search out disgruntled expats and quote their comments, true of false.

One section is even headed 'Fake plastic trees', picking up on a quote from a disgruntled Filipina. Another untrue claim because the trees are real. Nor is the water fake, as she also complains. Fake water? What's fake water?

It's the language barrier, she doesn't mean fake but it's been included because it adds to the picture. Most trees are not growing naturally, but that's not 'fake' - they've been planted as street landscaping and in parks. Just like cities all over the world.

"...a Filipino girl tells me it is "terrifying" for her to wander the malls in Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. "They say – 'Please, I am being held prisoner, they don't let me call home, they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.'

"Always" is a strong word. No question that some families mistreat some maids, but the vast majority are not badly treated, are not prisoners. I know plenty of Filipinas and they're not harrassed by desperate countrywomen leading for help. In fact it's normal for them to ask whether we can give their friends and relatives back home a job in Dubai!

This maids theme is another he gives a false impression about. "...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"

Again it's simply not true. Again he was very selective in the people he chose to interview.

"Between the malls, there is nothing but the connecting tissue of asphalt." More that's untrue. The malls are kilometres apart and in between them there's the usual cityscape - apartments, villas, commercial premises, office blocks, factories, strip shopping. Dubai is a working, trading, bustling city of over a million people.

"The roads are all four lanes" he declares as part of the word picture. No they're not.

"The residents of Dubai flit from mall to mall by car or taxis"

He must have missed the city, where the footpaths are full of Dubai residents walking around. In summer of course people stay out of the heat and humidity as much as they can, just as in the UK they try to avoid the worst of the winter weather. But the city is for walking. New Dubai isn't, it wasn't built that way any more than Los Angeles was.

As I've said before, I have no problem with articles which are critical of Dubai, which point out issues which need addressing, but I do object to sloppy journalism and biased reporting.

The over-the-top fawning articles we had up to a few months ago extolling the virtues of the miracle of Dubai were just as bad. Again there was no balance and they set it up as a tall poppy which inevitably was going to be chopped down.

Dubai has appointed a PR company in London to handle the emirate's financial image. There's an urgent need to hire one to handle the wider Brand Dubai image to get some balance, some context and perspective into the picture. It's a pity it wasn't done much earlier because now it's rapidly becoming an exercise in damage control. Having worked in PR I can tell you that's the worst possible place to start.

Thanks to Grace over at Sandier Pastures for the heads up. You can read the article in full and see if you agree with me here.

Oh, and you can check out photos and reviews of Double Decker bar for yourself at Time Out Dubai, here. You won't recognise it as the same place described in Hari's article.

And if you want to see what Dubai really looks like rather than the completely and deliberately inaccurate picture conjoured up by Johann Hari, click on the appropriate labels here on this blog.


Dave said...

Is Dubai-bashing set to become the next Olympic sport? The article contains distorted "worst case scenario" snippets of what this place is really like.

However, I think the naivety in which Dubai marketed itself over the last fews years, coupled with its lack of real estate transparency, greed and "alleged" human rights violations, have been major ingredients for the backlash now appearing in many publications.

You can't open the doors of an emerging city and attempt to control it with a tribal mentality.

Let's face it, Abu Dhabi has sat back & watched for several years now, and how much adverse publicity have they received? Not very much I think.

Seabee said...

Yes, it's the tall poppy syndrome Dave.

I've often posted about it - attract the attention that Dubai did around the world and the spotlight you've turned on yourself lights up some of the dark corners you didn't want people to see.

Anonymous said...

having worked in PR i can also say this, there is nothing like spin backed by truth. if this article is way out of line, why does Dubai not come out with truth, or even you, come out with the truth by answering each of the allegations one by one, and prove that the author is a liar? ball in dubai's court.

no one really seemed to complain when all the earlier PR articles going out about Dubai were all lies, as long as they were positive. Now that there are some truths coming out, it becomes a conspiracy.

The Sandman said...

It's getting a bit ridiculous all this Dubai-bashing. It seems like every British paper is sending out a journalist for a three day trip, getting the worst stories they can find, and putting them in an article.

People forget that Dubai was a normal town before the boom of the late 90s. It's not like the town has 'fallen from the sky' or whatever the article said.

At least the article contains a small amount of perspective at the end, when the author realises that the only reason he can feel as though London doesn't have the same problems, is because London's resources and imports are created on the other side of the planet.

Anonymous said...

I live here and yes there are a lot of pics of sheik mo. Most expat are not happy. People are rude. Terrible place to bring up kids. No sense of history. We come here because of an easy life built on top of slavery. I see it here, its very obvious and undeniable. And don't think that if you treat your staff well u are above criticism, your just as guilty as the slave traders. Will be leaving back to Canada soon. Ahh civilization.

James O'Hearn said...

I'm on your side with this Seabee, and like you, I do not discount what Hari points out, but I take great exception to a massive, inexcusable omission that most international media seem to make when covering Dubai.

If you are interested....


ZeTallGerman said...

I totally agree with Dave's view. Have read the article in whole and thoroughly this morning, and I had the same comments to my colleagues & friends: for the past 4-5 boom years most of us expatriates often complained at how the Western media's view of Dubai only focused on the positive, completely ignoring the fact that - yes - there are many issues that are simply swept under the world's biggest Persian rug here. Now, it's almost like the journalists are back-tracking in a most extreme way, but only focusing on the negative. And although it's quite exaggerated at points I also agree: Dubai forced the world's attention upon itself. And as any celebrity in the public eye will tell you: questions become personal and attacks become nasty - ESPECIALLY if you take the "Atlantis-approach" to life and don't ever issue a decent statement from your point of view.

Meherab said...

My question is...

How fast was the cabbie going to grt to MoE from Sonapur in 10 Minutes? (Even if it was a Friday.)

There is a good side and a bad side to all cities. Fo example, a lot of flak for Slumdog Millionaire comes from the fact that it has concentrated on the 'Dark Side' of Mumbai. But if it hadn't then it probably wouldn't have got the recognition it got.

I suppose the same is the case with these type of articles.

And as with life we should take the good with the bad.

Mohammed said...

The main reason why there is so much vitriol against Dubai is because, while other places admitted the financial problems, Dubai went on denial overdrive, claiming everything was fine. Do we have to paste quotes/comments during Atlantis' launch or Cityscape claiming Dubai will be the only city in the world to escape the recession.

Local media didnt help the situation as you had them cheerleading blindly, and any negative forecasts were dismised as jealousy.

In most places, you hae the eternal optimists and pessmists jostling for media space. Here, official avenues were all behaving blindly, while realistic comments were confined to blogs or the comments section of Arabian Business....

Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...

Famous in New York now!


Tariq said...

Perhaps you didn't notice that the title of his article is the "DARK SIDE" of Dubai. By definition he isn't trying to talk about the already well-publicized counter examples of which you speak (successful developments etc), but to shed some light on the side that no one ever sees or hears about amidst the avalanche of positive marketing spin on Dubai that most Westerners have been buried under for the last 10 years.

I've actually lived in Dubai and noticed much of what he describes myself (though not as severe, but then again I left before the global markets crashed).

Given that the Dubai defenders must concede that at least some of the allegations in the article are true (i.e., the Humans Rights Group-documented abuses against foreign labourers), why don't you expend your energies fixing Dubai's weaknesses rather than denying that they exist?

John Lee said...

I've never been to Dubai, but I've lived virtually my whole life in the developing world. Although the ostensibly annoying expats were one of the most striking things in the article, what really caught my eye -- and what I am 99% sure cannot be denied -- is the human rights abuses mentioned in the article. I've spent 80% of my life in Malaysia and Singapore, two former British colonies with a fairly decent (though far from fantastic) rule of law, and it's extremely routine for even locals to take on maids, and abuse them like nobody's business. It's almost a given that they'll take the maids' passports away. It's also well known that the myriad migrant workers responsible for much of our development live in similar conditions to those described in the article. I'm fairly confident that if these abuses happen in nominal democracies like Malaysia and Singapore, they happen all the more in countries like the UAE.

Having said that, it's obvious that some perspective is necessary; these things go on in Dubai, but they go on almost everywhere in the developing world. That doesn't mean they should be happening, and if we can start turning things around in Dubai, all the better.

rosh said...

You know I can't help think, some of this is sort of reverse PR, pulled in given conservative local folk power. I mean, isn't mass expat departures and minimum arrivals what most conservatives want anyway? Or perhaps this is the PR way of population control? If you think that's silly/weired? Think what was in the works earlier. DXB's last name is 'Outrageous'.

Seabee said...

Rupert, I read the NYT every day so I'd actually already seen it, and I'm getting a huge number of visitors from the NYT's link, but thank you for the link anyway. Much appreciated.

(I span the US!! - the Los Angeles Times links to me too) :-)

I think I'll post about the interest this article has attracted...

@logantreed said...

What about the allegations of near slave labor? How true is that?

SAS said...

Johann Hari's article about Dubai was nothing more than a vitriolically racist hatchet job against a remarkable city that has opened its doors to close to 100,000 of his compatriots. For every British journalist, willing to vilify Dubai for the sake of sensationalistic headlines, there are tens of thousands more willing to vacation, or do business in Dubai, even move there. Success is the best revenge for such hatemongering, and I hope Dubai has plenty of it when the current economic crisis recedes.

By the way, has anyone noticed how Hari has demolished his own credibility by acting as an apologist for Somali pirates ? He vilified peaceful and prosperous Dubai while acting as a PR man for seafearing thugs. Need I say more ?

Seabee said...

Logan, it's a long and complex story, but I'll try.

'Slave labour' means forced labour with no salary. It's a deliberately emotive phrase of course, used by sensationalist writers such as Hari, and is not true of Dubai because the labourers come here voluntarily and have a salary.

That doesn't mean there's not a huge amount which needs to be done to improve the way they are treated and housed. Inspections need to carried out much more frequently and the laws need much stronger enforcement. Probably the penalties on companies which violate the laws need to be increased too.

There is a lot that needs to be done.

Also, the labourers are-all-too often ripped off by their own people in their home countries, who act as employment agencies but give a very false picture of conditions and salaries. When they get here they find it's very different from what was promised. That's being addressed by agreement between the governments here and in the labour-supply countries, who are restricting it to approved government controlled agencies.

You also have to put it all in the context of a guest worker society. We're here temporarily on the sponsorship of a company, we can't become citizens. When the job ends the residence visa is cancelled.

SAS, Hari has made a career out of writing deliberately provocative articles. I assume at least some of it is what he actually believes from his very left wing perspective but I also suspect that a lot of it is just deliberately provocative to keep him in the limelight.

The pirate article was just another along those lines. Some truth, some very left wing ideology, some very questionable claims and conclusions.

For anyone who hasn't seen it here's his pirate story.

afurth said...

My views of Dubai’s socio-economic model were the reason why I decided to leave the UAE in late 2008, after living there for almost a year while being involved in a business that promoted the image of the country in the international media.

In the following link I blog my reply to an online discussion forum initiated by Sultan Al Qassemi about his recent response to Johann Hari's article, and I reflect upon my experience of living in Dubai:


Anonymous said...

Vitriolic perhaps but Dubai is not the only place in the world suffering bad press.


A quote from the above linked article might applies equally to a number of economies: "If the economic boom taught us anything it is that we have quite a capacity for dangerous self-delusion."

Anonymous said...

Having lived and worked in Dubai, I in fact, find the story to be understating the misery of some in Dubai. I would suggest that many of the positive comments about Dubai and attacks on the journalist are part of a well funded public relations campaign to prop up this dictatorship. Take a look at the comments. What possible motivation does a journalist have for such a story. He's just doing is job. Meanwhile, the regime has a strong motivation and money to do some reverse spin.

Seabee said...

What possible motivation does a journalist have for such a story. He's just doing is job.

That's unbelievably naive Anon...you must be one of the few people left who still believe 'it's in the papers so it must be true'.

Of course Hari has his own agenda.

Anonymous said...

Really well sounded out response.

The section on the labourers rights felt a bit brushed over.

However, the sections highlighting the sensationalist approach taken by Hari are really well made.