"See our living conditions and think about the promises they made," Tariq told me through a translator.
Last year, in his mid 30s, Tariq left his job at a Pakistani textile mill with dreams of being a crane operator in the Gulf. He showed me his certificate of crane proficiency, pulling the worn piece of paper out of the pocket of his beige salwar kameez. Recruiters promised him a salary of $326 a month—for a $1,776 recruitment fee to be paid in advance. With a cousin guiding him through the process, Tariq flew to Abu Dhabi to work for the Regal Construction company, one of roughly 900 construction outfits that employ foreign workers in the emirate.
But when Tariq arrived, Regal didn't need him. For 24 days, he waited without pay, living in a squalid workers' camp. When work finally materialized, he learned he would make only $176 a month. His boss confiscated his passport so that he couldn't change jobs or leave the country. He sends half his salary back to his family. After 11 months in the Gulf, he still has not paid back the loan he took out to get there.
"How can I stay happy with a salary of $176?" Tariq asked, with an uncomfortable smile.
Tariq is one of dozens of construction workers laboring on Saadiyat Island whom I interviewed this May. He took out his flip phone and snapped a picture of the drawing I'd sketched of him. He had a gentle face that lit up when he talked about cricket. He told me he'd use my drawing as a profile pic on Facebook.
Though it is now only a sunbaked construction site, Saadiyat, a ten-square-mile atoll 500 yards off the coast of Abu Dhabi, will be home to branches of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University, alongside hotels, shopping, and luxurious homes. It will be a cultural paradise, conjured by the country's vast oil wealth but built on the backs of men who are little more than indentured servants.
While there are no official statistics, there may be as many as 1 million migrant construction workers in the UAE today. Like Tariq, the men I talked to have had their passports confiscated and earn between $150 and $300 a month. They will have to spend years working off debts to recruiters who have gotten them their jobs.
Reports about the conditions of workers in the Gulf have been wide and probing. Articles contrast the glittering skyscrapers they build and the scant wages they receive. In May, the New York Times published a scathing exposé of labor abuses at NYU Abu Dhabi.
But what's often lost in much of the reporting about foreign labor in the United Arab Emirates—and Abu Dhabi specifically—is the agency of the workers themselves. The men I met in the Gulf are brave and ambitious—heroes to their families back home. They dared to chase better prospects and were met with repression instead. In a country where the faintest whisper of dissent can get you deported, more than a hundred strikes have rocked the construction industry in the past three years. While workers may be lied to and forced to live and work in brutal conditions, they also—improbably—are fighting back.
The Saadiyat Island Cultural District is the flagship project of TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company), a state-owned firm responsible for much of Abu Dhabi's development. Announced in 2007, with an initial budget of $27 billion, according to media reports, Saadiyat will be the largest mixed-use development on the Arabian Gulf.
TDIC's website promises fantasias of contemporary architecture. Plans show museums that look like they are pierced with moonbeams or modeled after the feathers of giant birds. After a day of culture, visitors will be able to relax at the St. Regis hotel or the Shangri-La. They will be able to play golf on world-class courses, or lounge by a series of man-made lagoons and mangrove forests, and then eat at one of dozens of gourmet restaurants run by international celebrity chefs. While construction of all these projects is happening piecemeal, Saadiyat, as envisioned by Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon al Nahyan, chairman of TDIC and member of Abu Dhabi's royal family, may be completed by 2020. For at least five more years, the island will need a veritable army of laborers.
I first set foot on Saadiyat on a day so hot it nearly made me faint. Journalists are not allowed to visit without government minders, so I sneaked in. Saadiyat's terrain looked like the moon. Bulldozers churned up pearl-colored dust. The dust dried my eyes. It came out in my snot. In company-branded jumpsuits, men toiled through their 12-hour shifts, welding and lugging rebar beneath the merciless sun.
Ibrahim served as my translator. He is in his early 20s. With his carefully styled black hair, he resembles a South Asian James Dean. Ibrahim asked me to withhold details about his life for fear of deportation, or worse. "If I speak to the media, they will take me from my room and put me somewhere no one will find me," he said. Ibrahim has the sort of intelligence that crackles around him in sly, sarcastic sparks. He is smart in a way so obvious that he tries to hide it from his bosses by speaking in broken English. He knows five languages, loves poetry, and dreams of getting a master's degree.
In his home country, Ibrahim had worked as a translator for an international NGO. Insurgents murdered locals who collaborated with foreigners. Ibrahim's friends worried that he'd be next. The NGO offered little protection because he wasn't an employee, so it was time to skip town.
Seeing a newspaper ad for construction jobs in Abu Dhabi, Ibrahim scraped together $760 from friends to pay a recruiter. He arrived in the UAE in the summer of 2013. "It's so hot under that sun," Ibrahim told me. "The sweat pours off your body like rain."
"Hell is better than here," he told his boss soon after he came to work on Saadiyat.
"Haha! Go to hell then," the boss responded.
Ibrahim relished describing his boss, a blowhard who berates his workers and often calls them donkeys, which means "idiot" in idiomatic Arabic. Because of Ibrahim's language proficiency, workers demand that he tell his boss that they work hard, that they are men.
We drove around Saadiyat in a creaky rental. It overheated whenever we turned on the air. At the NYU site, cheerful signs invited workers to share their opinions about their conditions. They were in English, a language few workers understand. We drove past the Louvre site. TDIC had hung banners from the perimeter fence showing the museum as it would be in 2015. When I looked inside, the building was nothing more than a shell of steel beams. Workers at the Louvre are all employed by a company called Arabtec, one of the Gulf's largest construction outfits. The government of Abu Dhabi holds a 20 percent stake in Arabtec, and workers have staged strikes against them for years.
In 2007, up to 30,000 Arabtec workers went on strike in Dubai. Men building Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraper, put down their tools. The strike had been coordinated with mobile phones to protest low wages and poor living conditions. Police arrested 4,000 strikers. At the end of ten days, Arabtec promised a pay raise. Managing Director Riad Kamal told Reuters that the impact on the company's profits would be less than 1 percent.
But the strikes—and crackdowns—continued. Three thousand more workers went on strike in Dubai in 2011. They made $176 a month and wanted a $41 raise. The police arrested 70 men they claimed were ringleaders. "Their presence in the country is dangerous," Colonel Mohammed al Murr, director of the Dubai Police's General Department of Legal and Disciplinary Control, told the National, a state-owned newspaper.
After this, Bangladeshi workers, who were alleged to have helped organize the strikes, were banned for an indefinite period from seeking UAE visas.
In May 2013, thousands of Arabtec workers stopped work in Dubai and on Saadiyat—including at the Louvre. They demanded an $81 a month stipend for food. According to a source who asked for anonymity, "The police were called in after one day. Workers were told to return to work or they'd be sent home. Over the coming weeks at least a thousand Arabtec workers in Abu Dhabi alone were rounded up and had their visas canceled. The majority were Bangladeshis."
In response, Arabtec promised a 20 percent wage hike. No worker I interviewed had seen the promised cash.
Arabtec also replaced Bangladeshis with Pakistanis. It was classic divide-and-rule strategy, harking back to the British Empire. In August 2013, the tension exploded into riots between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Saadiyat Village. Workers turned their tools against one another. The police fired live ammo into the air.
After the riots, Pakistani workers were shipped off to other camps.
Arabtec is not the only company to draw protests. In May 2014, the New York Times reported that hundreds of workers at BKGulf (which is building NYU Abu Dhabi) had been deported for striking. Management bluffed that they'd negotiate, but police broke down workers' doors instead. Workers told the Times that police had beaten them to force confessions.
Ibrahim told me about smaller disobediences. On the Bani Yas villas site, about 15 miles inland from downtown Abu Dhabi, workers had organized a brutal beat-down of an abusive engineer. To protest the lack of air conditioning in buses, workers had staged impromptu soccer games with their hard hats to prevent the buses from leaving.
While wages may sometimes rise, the Emirates will never permit workers to formally organize. Workers' councils, or any form of unionization, are strictly banned.
We parked the car on a spot overlooking the Louvre site on Saadiyat. Ibrahim and I stepped into the hallucinatory heat and walked up to two workers who seemed to be on break.
We made sure no supervisors were around, then asked the laborers how much money they made. They answered gladly.
One said $200 a month; the other said $175. Yes, their bosses kept their passports.
Ibrahim lives in one of Abu Dhabi's labor camps, in a low-rise building set among row after row of identical blocks. Like most camps, it is hidden deep in the desert, far from central Abu Dhabi. Forty thousand men can live in a single camp. They are Nepali, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian—and work for a variety of companies. Often, since they don't speak English, they won't know what project they're building
Corporate buses ferry workers to job sites. Even these are no respite from the heat. Despite laws to the contrary, many buses have no air conditioning. Commutes last up to two hours, and the temperatures often reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ibrahim showed me a cell-phone video of the windowless dorm he shares with ten men. Outside, he has only a mosque, a hypermarket, and the sun.
On his one day off, Ibrahim told me, he would like to stroll Abu Dhabi's corniche. But there's no public transit. He is a virtual prisoner in the workers' city.
Besides a few cashiers, the camps contain no women—just as the UAE, flush with laborers, is two-thirds male. Men save up for occasional visits to Ethiopian prostitutes. They too are migrants, often former maids who ran away from abusive employers. Because of their dark skin, Ethiopian prostitutes aren't favored by the country's Emirati elite and have to charge prices that even laborers can afford.
"We are so bored, and it's a long time away from home," Ibrahim told me when I asked him about the women. "We sit in that room for the whole day. We can't go outside because of the heat, can't afford to get to the beach or the mall."
Some workers sleep with each other. Several of Ibrahim's acquaintances have been jailed for having romantic relationships with other men. To save face, one of them, a Pashtun, told his family he'd been charged with murder.
"A beautiful boy is like a girlfriend," Ibrahim said. Bus drivers, among the best-paid workers, court good-looking young men with promises of meals at restaurants and cell-phone credit. One driver offered Ibrahim 20 dirhams to find him a boyfriend. After a week he called Ibrahim, peeved he had turned up no one. Promising to do better, Ibrahim shook him down for ten dirhams more.
If Ibrahim is late sending money back home, his mom voices her displeasure. "What are you doing? Drinking at nightclubs in Dubai?" Ibrahim shouted, in imitation of her maternal holler. "If you're not going to send money, come home!"
"If you ask a thousand workers," Ibrahim said, "not one will tell you we are happy."
Roughly 10 percent of the UAE's 9.2 million residents are citizens. The rest are "expats" (if they're white-collar professionals) or "migrant labor" (if they're working class). Foreigners can live in the Emirates for generations, but short of proving Emirati heritage, there's no way they can get citizenship. They can be deported at whim.
Amid this disenfranchisement, Emiratis can appear to foreigners like aristocrats. One can be arrested just for flipping them off in traffic.
Pravasalokam is a hit TV show in Kerala, India. A reality program whose name means "Workers' World" in Malayalam, the show depicts the rescue of workers who have disappeared—due to jail, poverty, or abuse—in the Gulf. The Gulf nightmare is well known, yet migrants keep coming. The $14 billion a year in remittances they send home is integral to the economies of Nepal and Bangladesh (in Bangladesh the two largest sources of foreign currency are migrant labor and garments). But migrants are pushed by war as well as cash. Many workers hail from Kashmir, Pakistan's Taliban-dominated Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, and other crisis areas in South Asia.
Whatever his country of origin, a migrant almost always has to pay a recruiter fee (which is then shared with subcontractors inside the Emirates). While hiring companies claim to cover costs like airfare, visas, and medical exams, recruiters in the sending countries and their partners in the UAE often skim a year's potential wages from the worker himself. In some countries recruiters dodge local labor laws by hiring subcontractors, who trawl villages for the illiterate, the desperate, or those simply frustrated enough to risk the dangers of the Gulf. Workers take out loans, empty their families' savings, or use land as collateral.
At Mafraq Workers' City No. 2, a labor camp 23 miles from central Abu Dhabi, I interviewed workers cutting one another's hair in an improvised outdoor barbershop. They crowded around me, telling me about salaries of $150 to $300 a month and police who hassled them if they dared visit the beach in their salwar kameez. While Emiratis are dependent on migrant labor, they'd prefer that the workers stay invisible in their off-hours.
Friends crouched in the shade beneath buses. One group sneaked a forbidden bottle of wine. The rules here were as strict as summer camp—no booze, no cooking, no gambling, no porn.
In addition to the acres-wide sandpits and towering construction cranes, Saadiyat Island is also home to what is billed to be the most humane labor camp in the entire Gulf. In response to international pressure, TDIC created what they call the Saadiyat Accommodation Village to house all workers building Western cultural institutions. In the words of its developer, it "provide[s] an internationally recognized world-class standard of living." Its huge cricket field, writing classes, and a library containing Steinbeck are everything a visiting dignitary could desire.
But despite TDIC's claims, many workers live elsewhere, including in crumbling tenements in central Abu Dhabi. And Saadiyat Village is hardly a paradise.
Tariq, the Louvre worker, told me, "The grounds are the only things that are good. Everything else will make you feel awful. The bathrooms always stink. We don't even have doors there. The food given to us is inedible."
Andrew Ross is an NYU professor and activist from Gulf Labor, a coalition of artists who advocate for the rights of workers building cultural institutions on Saadiyat. In May, TDIC invited Gulf Labor to tour Saadiyat Village. But when the activists visited other labor camps unsupervised, they noticed that they were followed. The surveillance only stopped when they left their cell phones behind.
According to Ross, Saadiyat Village is a "high-security zone" where workers are constantly monitored.
Workers live more than a mile beyond a checkpoint they are forbidden from walking to. Their only escape is a bus that runs once a week to Abu Dhabi. In the wake of the Arab Spring, security concerns are cited to outside visitors as a reason for keeping the all-male workforce in physical isolation. But if controlling and isolating workers helps TDIC manage the fallout of international pressure, it also produces a less than ideal side effect for the press-shy Emiratis: It helps workers organize and resist.
In 2006, three eminent figures in the French art world wrote an open letter to Le Monde titled "Museums Are Not for Sale." Françoise Cachin, Jean Clair, and Roland Recht decried the Louvre's partnership with Abu Dhabi. "Isn't that 'selling your soul'?" they asked.
The most simplistic accusation against Abu Dhabi is that by building branches of the Louvre or Guggenheim, the city is buying culture. This logic pretends that Cleopatra's Needle ended up in Paris through the goodness of Egyptian hearts, or that Lord Elgin didn't just pillage the marbles that bear his name.
Those accusations also perpetuate another myth: The UAE has no culture of its own.
Two generations ago, the Emiratis were Bedouins, nomadic desert people whose main economic activity was pearl diving. They built wind towers, trained falcons, and composed swashbuckling poetry. Emirati culture was rich, but Emiratis were poor. Now they are wealthy. From the lens of European dominance, Emiratis can seem like improper overlords.
Or perhaps Europeans are just jealous. The UAE's oil money could have disappeared in the coffers of Western energy companies or corrupt leaders. Instead, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE, built a munificent welfare state. Emirati citizens get free education, health care, and electricity, as well as generous wages subsidized by the government. They pay no taxes. But the foreigners who compose 90 percent of the population don't share in this largesse.
At times the dream of Abu Dhabi slayed me. One afternoon I stood inside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, in central Abu Dhabi. Built in 2007, the gigantic structure made me gasp at its loveliness. Its design spans the breadth of Muslim art: The domes were Taj Mahal, the stucco Moroccan, the tiles Turkish, the gold palm columns seemingly from the future. It embodied the cosmopolitanism of the Muslim world, vital with the energy of this young country.
For this piece, I met with several Emiratis involved in culture. None would speak on the record. They were charming, passionate about the arts, proud of their country. But when I asked them about workers, they frowned with irritation. Why did the press keep picking on them?
They would prefer to talk about charity: free Bollywood movies, free food baskets for Ramadan. The Radisson Blu's Box project distributes boxes of toiletries. Their Facebook page shows a grim Emirati handing a box to a grim Bangladeshi worker. It's turned logo-side toward the camera.
Charity can get you cheap Facebook photos. But what does it fix if workers aren't paid enough to afford a bar of soap?
The Guggenheim Museum's PR team claims, incorrectly, that labor is not a problem because construction has not yet begun on the Abu Dhabi outpost. Conversely, NYU asserts labor is not a problem because construction is technically over. I saw men working on both sites.
Andrew Ross from Gulf Labor stressed that an institution's responsibilities don't end with construction. "If you visit Saadiyat, you find NYU is the only finished building. Apart from the workers' village, it's surrounded by nothing. It will have construction going on for 20 years around it."
When I asked the Guggenheim for comment on workers' conditions, the director, Richard Armstrong, did not respond to my queries. The chief of global communications, Eleanor R. Goldhar, told me that construction workers were subcontractors.
"The main construction contract has not yet been awarded for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. We are working closely with TDIC so that existing labor laws and high standards are enforced on all aspects of the project," Goldhar wrote.
Our world runs on subcontractors. How could any client know what they were up to, except that everything was too cheap to be true?
"You know how Ford said you can have any car you like as long as it's black? In the UAE they can make whatever you want, as long as it's a building. They can't make free speech or human rights," Ahmed Mansoor told me in the curtained-off back room of a Dubai restaurant.
An engineer by trade, Mansoor spent about eight months in jail in 2011 for running a website that allowed those living in the Emirates to speak frankly about politics, religion, and culture. It was at one time the most popular public forum in the country.
Mansoor and his co-defendants, known as the UAE5, were arrested for "publicly insulting" Abu Dhabi's president, vice president, and crown prince. At the same time, the government mounted a smear campaign, allegedly bribing sheikhs to organize petitions denouncing Mansoor. One of his co-defendants was a lecturer at the Sorbonne.
In prison, guards gave Mansoor a wheelchair lined with infected fabric. He caught scabies. Guards denied him access to a dermatologist for months. After nearly eight months of incarceration, Mansoor and his co-defendants began a 16-day-long hunger strike that finally led to their pardon. He still hasn't gotten his passport back.
Ever since Mansoor's release, he's suffered unfortunate coincidences. Thugs attacked him twice—once, brutally beating his head. A hundred and forty thousand dollars disappeared from Mansoor's bank account, and his car was stolen. The police have not found a culprit for any of these crimes.
When I asked him about the Western cultural institutions being built on Saadiyat, he told me, "All these glittering buildings and huge names are there to hide an ugly face... Artists around the world appreciate the human struggle for freedom. In the UAE, we are only buying the image."
Can you have art without freedom? Splendid objects get made for the highest bidder. Challenging ideas require something more than the Emirates may care to provide.
I put this question to a young artist born in the UAE. He told me: "By entertaining any vision of a culturally engaged metropolis, [the UAE] has opened up a Pandora's box. Critical culture is forced into a more subversive form. This subversion itself can be a form of poetry. I have to think like this, because I live here and I need to survive the aftermath of my own thoughts."
The artist is well off but not a citizen. Afraid of being deported, he asked me not to use his name.
One morning Ibrahim took me to a market in Musaffah, a port city southeast of Abu Dhabi. Construction workers sweating it out on $170 a month spent their free day going to Dubai to buy flash drives or watermelon, which they sold to other workers in Musaffah's markets. This would earn them an extra $10 a day. One man sold dolls for workers to take home to the children they'd left behind. Each vendor said he was there because his salary was too low. No, they had no rest. Yes, they were tired.
As we got farther in, we passed homemade roulette wheels and porn. The market was illegal but tolerated. As I spoke to vendors, more and more men gathered around me. In all-male Musaffah, a white girl might as well be an alien.
I asked a butcher the price of a cow's head. The crowd screamed as undercover cops yanked him away. The butcher was arrested, seemingly as punishment for speaking to a Westerner. Terrified that he might also be arrested, Ibrahim suggested that we leave the market quickly.
"I will leave this fucking country. I never want to come back to the Middle East in my life," Ibrahim poured out to me as we drove away from the market. "This is a prison. People see the world's tallest building, not the people who built it."
"I have nothing to do with the workers," said Zaha Hadid, the star architect behind one of Qatar's phantasmagoric soccer stadiums being built for the 2022 World Cup, when the Guardian asked her in February 2014 about the deaths of 882 migrant laborers constructing her design. "It's not my duty as an architect to look at it." Hadid is now designing the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre on Saadiyat.
The West's museums lie atop metaphoric graveyards. Art's temples have always been built on the backs of the poor. The Louvre in Paris touts its history in the passive voice on its website: "Was built to the west of the city"; "wings begun under Louis XIV were partially completed." But what of the peasants who sweated and died in the construction? Of them, official histories have little to say. Neither do official histories mention the miners who mined the fortune that let Solomon R. Guggenheim build the museum that bears his name.
Defenders of Western institutions in Abu Dhabi are right about one thing. They are not unique. The labor abuses at the Louvre or NYU are the same labor abuses that are happening throughout the UAE. The UAE is not the worst country for workers in the Gulf, and the Gulf is not the worst region for workers in the world. Most countries sustain themselves on the labor of transient, disposable people. This may be unofficial, as in the United States (our agricultural industry would collapse overnight without undocumented migrants), or it may be institutionalized, as in the UAE.
"Capital is global and derives its velocity from replicating the same model everywhere. Gulf Labor is arguing for a global, humane, and fair standard of labor and migration regulations to accompany, and slow down, global capital," said Naeem Mohaiemen, a New York–based Bangladeshi artist who is a member of Gulf Labor. "The implications can be staggering. If Saadiyat implemented world-standard labor and migration rights, that could become a precedent for implementing the same standards in the entire region. Then people would ask, what about migrant labor in Malaysia? In Texas? And so on..."
On my last day, Ibrahim and I drove out to the Guggenheim site on Saadiyat. Even though he was exhausted, Ibrahim grinned. After nearly a year in the UAE, he'd paid off his debts to recruiters. Once his contract concluded, he'd be free.
We interviewed Vijay*, a worker building a tunnel that will lead into the Guggenheim. His group of workers are laying the infrastructure that will feed the museum, and we believe he's the first Guggenheim worker to speak about the conditions working there. In the back of our car, Vijay gulped water. He'd wrapped his head in wet cloth. His skin was beaded with sweat.
Vijay came to Abu Dhabi in 2004. His family was eking out a living growing vegetables on a small farm they owned near Chennai, India. Vijay has three sisters. Since he's the only son, his father decided he would work in the Gulf. Vijay's family rounded up $2,100 to pay a recruiter.
By 2008, his salary had peaked at $435 a month.
Then came the 2008 financial crash. On the pretext that there was less work, Vijay's company slashed his monthly base salary to $217 (up to $326 with overtime), though his hours remained the same. His wages have not risen since.
"Some days I start at 7 AM. I never know when I will get done. We sometimes work past midnight. I sometimes sleep for only two or three hours," he told me. "Yet we cannot complain."
Vijay works seven days a week. His company withholds salaries for months at a time, especially if workers visit home. He believes that his company is cheating workers on overtime, denying them access to the ledgers in which their hours are marked.
"I don't know how much longer I can go on like this. My body is on the verge of giving up, but I cannot leave my job because I am responsible for my sisters," he told me.
Vijay dreams of getting married in India and returning to his family's modest farm near Chennai. But first, he wants to get a license to drive a minibus. Drivers are paid better and can work out of the sun, sitting down.
They say Sheikh Zayed built Abu Dhabi, just like Louis XIV built the Louvre. But this is a myth. Vijay built Abu Dhabi more than Sheikh Zayed did. He built it growing deeper in debt each day, his feet sinking into the lunar sand.
An Emirati curator told me that these museums were Abu Dhabi's "gifts to the region." She refused to go on record, certain my article would overplay the UAE's labor problems. But she allowed that quote.
She is wrong about the giver of the gift. Saadiyat is a "gift" to the UAE from Vijay, from Tariq, from Ibrahim—from all the men whose hands have built these cities. But migrant workers' names are never engraved on donor lists.
In a few years Saadiyat will be open for business. Artists and patrons will mingle at the Louvre and Guggenheim's opening galas. The fresh buildings will sparkle like starlight.
Unfortunately, Vijay will not be in attendance. He will be working elsewhere, still trying to pay off his debt.
*Name has been changed.