It’s 10 PM and I’m in the back of a Dubai taxi, racing home after a shit day’s work. My driver is mumbling something in a mixture of Urdu and English as we thread through T-junctions and traffic lights.
“You have family back home?”
“Just my mom, dad, and sister.”
“How much money do you give to your sister?”
“None?!” he cries.
Mahmud is 32 and from Peshawar, on Pakistan’s perilous border with Afghanistan. It’s the rocky hinterland where the US claims a new generation of Al Qaeda terrorists are being groomed, and only a few hours from the former home of Osama Bin Laden. It wasn’t politics that brought Mahmud a thousand miles across Asia--it was money, and even that's not good anymore.
“Back home I had nothing,” he says. “Here, what I get I send to my sisters, my brothers, and parents.” Mahmud has been in Dubai six years. When he first got here, it was a very different place. Half of it wasn’t standing, certainly not the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world by a mile, an 828-meter middle finger at the western powers that ran Dubai as recently as 1971. Back then the city was home to fewer than 100,000 people concentrated around a pearl-rich creek. Now, as we all know, it’s a sprawling super-city home to over two million, of which barely 20 percent are locals. Scores of South Asian service staff – laborers and taxi drivers like Mahmud, who saw a chance to earn western money in the Middle East and jumped at it.
The metro only has two lines, so everyone gets cabs. But the drivers aren’t making any money, especially after the financial claw-hammer crashed down on Dubai in 2008. On a lucky day, a driver used to be able to make up to a thousand dollars a month in fares. But the state-governed taxi firms make him pay back visa costs, medical check-ups, and car maintenance. The company also fines drivers up to $60 for missing monthly targets–they even pay $250 for their flight attendant-style uniforms.
Now, some months a driver will make $150. Others he’ll barely break even. And this is after working 12-hour days, seven days a week. It’s no wonder the city’s cabs hurtle down highways at up to 140km/hr, making the UAE one of the world’s worst places for accident-related deaths. I try to get Mahmud to pull up outside my local supermarket, on a no-parking zone. “No sir, there is no way,” he protests. “The police see me they fine me 500 dirhams ($135). It is my month over.”
In January, egged on by events across the region, drivers in neighboring Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, decided they’d had enough and went on strike. The police were quickly called: Industrial action is illegal, and protesters can, ironically, face massive fines and even imprisonment for challenging the authorities. The Arab Spring didn’t filter through to this corner of Arabia–the locals are well-looked after by the UAE’s oil-rich oligarchy. It’s the voiceless majority–the Indians, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Pakistanis–that have something to rally against while the rest of Dubai goes on buying Bugattis, yachts, and private islands.
In other countries you’d expect the owners of taxi firms to argue that things are being blown out of proportion, that their drivers are treated well. Not in Dubai. “Drivers work 12 hours, seven days a week because we consider them partners, not employees,” says Metro Taxi's Murraih Ibrahim. This is how the firm justifies raking in cash for anything from tire repairs to license plate registration. He adds that technically the drivers have a salary, but they don't actually get paid. Despite this, Ibrahim is trying to write off the country’s Labor Ministry contract, which pegs drivers’ wages at $80. It’s a wonder anyone makes enough to live. Many don’t.