jamie stewart

Forbidden fruit

As expected last night's Panorama, which I am still yet to see (youtube is my next stop...), did indeed spur a fair amount of media interest in Dubai. Not all of it fair. Such reports have in fact spawned a genre all of their own - popularly known as "Dubai bashing." In the words of a very popular man, to be revealed below, "Only a fruit laden tree has stones thrown at it." So this will be a brief post, but one that I feel a certain duty to write.

Though many aspects of life here should indeed be put under the microscope, it should not be forgotten that the city, and its burgeoning growth, has repackaged the Middle East in the thoughts of many people. The means of its arrival on the world stage were questioned by last night's documentary, rightly so, but a huge experiment is underway , that mixes culture, ethnicity, and religion. It was never going to be easy.

This is a city experiencing ardent growing pains, that had planned to grow when growth became systemically impossible. I've written before that there is no shame in taking a hit due to the behaviour of a posse of greed-fuelled, unregulated, Western-centric, champagne-guzzling, yacht-sailing, cigar-waving bankers, injected to the hilt with bonus cheques and platinum credit cards, too busy getting their nails manicured, their empty suits fitted, their egg-shell-white-with-raised-gold-type business cards printed, and their lazy, sponging sons into the same company as them, to notice that they were dragging not just their partner for the night, but also the entire capitalist system, to its grubby knees.

It's true. The economy of the state of Dubai has taken an unfair battering from the international press of late. Dubai found itself in an unfortunate position when the credit situation turned from crunch to bite. The city was in the midst of inflating a real estate bubble, like many tiger-economies before it.

To draw a parallel, In Hong-Kong, property crashed in 1997, sliding 40%-60% as a result of the collapse of the Thai baht and subsequent Asian financial crisis. Within months, a penthouse overlooking Hong-Kong's Victoria Harbour shed so much value it was worth little more than, well, a shed.

So when the worst global recession since the great depression reared its ugly head last year, and the international liquidity river ran dry, Dubai, busy whistling away, blowing up balloons in the corner of the room and generally minding its own business, found its throat was particularly parched.

Add to this the fact that Dubai has opened its doors to the world, inviting those from all over to come and help build a nation. When you consider that around 90% of the population are non-UAE citizens, you begin to get a hold on the importance of foreign cash (and labour) to the economy. Again, not an easy situation to be in, when a global recession chooses to attack.

Paint a picture, if you will, of a grinning magician - circa Paul Daniels - who came along at the close of 2008 and in a flash swept the tablecloth from beneath Dubai's tea-set. But here's the point. The tea-set is still standing, albeit on shaky ground.

Dubai bashing is a very real phenomenon. I wouldn't be surprised to see it as the exhibition sport at the next Olympics. Now, I'm not one to cast doubt on other's work. But, to raise some choice points from recent articles on Dubai: No, the Palm island is not sinking; No, the streets are not plagued with broke expats dusting the sand from their clothes after another night sleeping in the sand dunes; and I've turned on the taps THOUSANDS of times, and a river of cockroaches has never come pouring out (thank the NY Times for that pearl!)

The point of this post is that it's important to get things in perspective. The lack of media freedom here, that I have touched on numerous times, has the unfortunate side effect of destroying credibility - it is simply not possible to differentiate the truths from the half-truths, and the assumptions from the down right lies, unless you are here, staring it in the face.

That's why I pay my respects to Ben Anderson, the journalist behind Panorama: Slumdogs and Millionaires. Yes, OK, I still haven't seen it, but the man was here, for three months, and he raised a deeply important issue; that of the exploitation of migrant workers. But such sterling work must be separated from that which is less so.

I will not give up on the case of the construction labourers. It's too important and unjust. In three weeks, thanks to an event organised by a good friend of mine Oscar Wendel, I am set to be in the same room as the UAE Minister of Labour Saqr Ghobash. And who else will be in the same room? Ellie Larson, the director of the Solidarity Centre, a US-based NGO seeking to build a global solidarity movement. There will never be a more golden opportunity to raise the labour issue back up the flag-pole of the local media where it belongs.

So rest assured, there is still much work to be done. Wrongs to be righted. Sometimes I genuinely do love my job, despite the occasional frustrations. As for Dubai, as it finds itself again thrust into the international media spotlight - and not out of choice this time - the truth is out there. Allegedly. Maybe it's a place that grew so fast, the wheels of legislation could not keep up. Well if so, they now have their chance.

In a rare moment of solidarity, I'm going to quote Dubai's ruler, who said last year, at the height of the upsurge in Dubai-bashing: "Only a fruit laden tree has stones thrown at it." A most articulate point. But who planted the fruit, that the minority may enjoy?

email: desert_blogger@hotmail.com
jamie stewart

The Panorama appreciation society

It can de difficult to express just how frustrating it is, now and again, to be a journalist in a region that lacks so many basic facets of personal liberty. I'm both deliriously happy, and a little ashamed, to read the synopsis of Panorama: Slumdogs and Millionaires, which will be screened by the BBC in the UK in two hours time, for the highly respected, international current affairs show has chosen to gather its tanks on the lawns of Dubai's migrant labour market.

I'm happy, because, like hundreds of thousands across Dubai, I walk in the shadows of the labourers from the Indian sub-continent (almost) everyday, and while I can't begin to claim to know their way of life, I know of the impossible situation that these men face. I know of their exploitation, while being acutely aware of the glamorous reputation that Dubai manages to convey on the world stage - what Panorama's Ben Anderson calls, "one of the greatest PR triumphs of the past 20 years."

And this too is the source of my shame. As a journalist in Dubai predominantly covering the construction industry, should it not be my job to write the story that Ben Anderson will have the privilege of telling in two hours time? Well, yes, it is. So do we? Well, yes, we do.

Last July, I wrote and we published this article, passionately supportive of the introduction of a minimum wage for Dubai's oversea's labour force. It was very well received; The merest mention of exploitation during an interview I conducted with a local recruitment agent roughly six months ago drew a barrage of criticism from our readers aimed at the poor man. It was a slip of the tongue, though a foolish one; And only last week, our Bahrain editor Ben Millington wrote this excellent piece, exposing the exploitation of migrant labour in fellow GCC nation Bahrain.

To look back even further, our print magazine, which used to be produced in newspaper format, was ordered to become a magazine a couple of years back, after leading with the story that more labourers had died in a single year on the UAE's construction sites, than people had died in the same year in Iraq as a result of the US-led occupation. The report led to our then heroic news editor working closely with Human Rights Watch, aiding the group with research for its paper Building Towers, Cheating Workers.

Many of my interviewees - CEOs, chairmen, etc, have been extremely aware of the conditions in which the workers - often their employees - live. And some of these captaiins of industry, believe it or not, appear to be good men. The problem then is one of economics, as opposed to conscience, or lack of.

With the government maintaining such a large stake in the construction industry, it sets the benchmark in terms of wages. In doing so, its companies, privately owned in theory but in reality little more than an additional branch of government, can bid for contracts based on the wages they choose to pay. They are therefore able to sharply undercut any firm foolhardy enough to attempt to win business while paying its employees a fair wage. The inevitable result of this unregulated bidding war - all hail globalisation  - is that he who dares to exploit the most, remains in business.

You may be earning the right to build and profit from the construction of a gleaming tower that will rise to scrape the edge of the sky, but are you prepared to auction off the dignity of men, in their thousands, in the process? Those who wish to survive in this business, are, and quite often do.

So as I say, we have tried to do our bit. Again, however, to get at the root cause of this exploitation, we must focus on the lack of basic human rights within the state in question. These workers have no voice, no right to protest, or collectively bargain. Their cries go unheard. As their voice-in-waiting, it is the media who should be champing at the bit to fight the good fight for these poor people, yet if you push too far, and threaten NOT to toe the line, you are out.

And this is where the inherent, in-grained, institutionalised stench of self-censorship comes in. Publish the wrong story, convey - in nothing but good faith - the wrong point of view, or, god forbid, criticise the ruler, and it is not just the journalist who is cast into the Gulf without a paddle, but the publication, and most likely the entire publishing company as well.

Like I say, it's frustrating. I remember hearing an American journalist expressing regret that, in her opinion, journalism "failed to ask the right questions" in the aftermath of 9-11, a fact which she felt contributed, ultimately, to the subsequent invasion of Iraq on a trumped-up WMD charge. Tomorrow, after I am able to download and watch tonight's episode of Panorama from some unnamed source, I may well be asking myself: "Do I ask the right questions?"

The difference is that, in the US, you can ask the question...and you can also print the answer. But in certain other states, the "good" journalist is defined through good behaviour - not good journalism. Within a system that is at best unsentimental, it's funny how being "good" can be defined in such very different ways.

*Further to this post, there is an excellent brief interview to accompany the Panorama synopsis here, between Ben Anderson and Dubai-based recruitment agent Almass Pardiwala. Mr Pardiwala - I sincerly hope that you remain Dubai-based after this evening's broadcast.

Email: desert_blogger@hotmail.com
jamie stewart

You talkin' to me?


I ran a little experiment just now, about two minutes ago, in which I was the yardstick, the judge, the petri dish, and the audience, all rolled into one.

I logged into Desert Blogger without the faintest idea what to write about ('tis been a long day, compounded by the fact that Man U snatched a 3-2 win against Villa in the dying seconds of the game) and thought, "well, I'll open a couple of news stories from the region, pass judgement - as is the blogger's self-satisfying right - and post something witty and clever."

The first article I happened across concerned taxi drivers in Dubai, and the Dubai Road and Transport Authority's (RTA) decision to impose a minimum fare, as of five days ago. The minimum fare is not huge - equivalent to £2.50, less than the starting price of the meter in London - but the comments at the foot of the story told more of a Dubai story than the story did. So what is the story, morning glory?

In a nutshell: 
One person disagreed with the policy;
Another spat blood at the flagrant disregard for their human rights displayed by the RTA;
Another thought it wise to point out that the policy was merely under consideration, and yet to be instigated, which was at odds with the report itself; 
A fourth hit out at imposed targets for taxi drivers, and the chunk of the drivers rightly-earned wage that the RTA takes as a matter of course;
Somebody else said "this is completely preposterous";
Somebody else said it was "very reasonable";
Another said "great job";
Somebody else posted an ill-educated comment concerning the positive environmental impact;
And me?

I see the driver's point. They don't wish to be subjected to an hour-long trafic jam for the sake of a few dirhams. The public, on the other hand, don't wish to pay more than they feel they should for a drive to the shops.

Let me add, in the summer here in Dubai, last summer in fact, at 2pm one late July afternoon, the temperature reached 51 degrees c. It's fair enough to play upon the environmental cost of multiple short-distance taxi rides, but at 51 degrees? I consider myself a good, global warming-fearing man, with absolute faith in science. To use the term "god fearing" would be an insult to the IPCC. And to add, I can walk a long, long way. But 51 degrees? The way it stings the roof of your mouth when you breath, and the literal wall of heat that you casually stroll into upon exiting an air-conditioned space, that threatens you with a blunt, wooden club of stolid humidity, has to be felt to be believed.

This is ONE HOT COUNTRY. One with no public transport beyond a scant bus network (although the under-construction Metro system is due to open on 9th September), and the subject of the article, the taxi service.

Now we all know that to build a city in the desert in unsustainable. Say what you will, blow the horn of green construction and sustainable development, life on a city-wide scale, in a place with barely any fresh water, that cannot support the growth of crops without expending copious amounts of energy, is, as we all know, unsustainable. And this, to my best guess, is the source of the complaints and counter-complaints featured in the report in question.

It's hot, so you need a cab.
Everybody drives, because there's no public transport.
Hence, you struggle to find a cab. So many people live here, almost 2 million in a state barely the size of central London. The frustrations of life in Dubai, beyond the tourist existence and glossy brochures, are tolerable, but they exist. And occasionally, they boil, and burn.

The problem is awareness. The line between governance and the subjects of governance, in a state that contains no check or balance mechanisms, is a chasm at best; an utter black hole at worst. One in which your most effective means of exercising any semblance of democratic rights, is to comment on an online story. As Robert De Nero's (my hero!) Taxi Driver said: "You talking to me?"

No. I'm talking to anyone who will listen.

Get that, if you will. Your most effective means of exercising any semblance of democratic rights, is to comment on an online story. As opposed to protesting (illegal), or writing to your representative (without opposition to government, there is no need for representation), or associating with a group (there is no freedom of association), or lobbying (there is no freedom of expression).
And what do the comments on the report tell us..? That nobody has any idea what is going on. Has the law been imposed? Will it be imposed? Is there any way of finding out if this law is law, or merely lore? With no one waiting to take your place, why should you, the man in charge, care about doing an effective job? Does anyone care what I say? Is anyone listening? Or are you all enjoying a cosy siesta? (It is rather hot outside, after all.)

I'm reading a book by Noam Chomsky at the moment. It's a good 'un. While discussing manufactured consent, he picks up on another author's past reference to the masses as "the beast". A beast which leaders have recognised for centuries must be kept in line.

If we're talking human nature, I fail to see the distinction between "the beast", and the wilful voice of a peaceful majority, just trying to get by. Sometimes, if you feel like you're being kept in line, it's easy to wonder just which side of the line this so-called "beast" resides upon.

email: desert_blogger@hotmail.com
jamie stewart

Something to chew over?

What with writing on the subject of the Middle East media, and being a western-educated journalist, it will come as no surprise to see the subject of free expression continually cropping up among these blog posts. Fortunately, with this being an Independent affiliated blog, I can use that phrase without fear.

It was not so long ago I was in fact embroiled in the task of writing a dissertation on the very subject of free expression. To be precise, it was a paper that dipped into the relationship between freedom of expression and economic prosperity, focussed particularly on the UAE, as I was based in Dubai while researching and writing.

There is an interesting sub-plot to the dissertation writing tale, that has evolved into one of my favourite stories to tell when boasting of drunken exploits.* (See foot of page)

Dubai itself presented a fascinating case study, as here was a state that failed to exercise many of the facets of a free media that are taken for granted in the west, and while being typical if not relatively free alongside regional standards, it could be described as nothing less than a Middle Eastern tiger economy. Like the East Asian states and the Celtic Tiger before it, here was an economy that grew exponentially, where you could walk down the street and literally watch it grow before your eyes. A growth that, when juxtaposed with the curbs on media freedom, appeared to offer a potential counter argument to the widespread assumption that a successful economy requires a free media to function and expand. There is however, a rather large and greasy factor to consider. One commonly known as oil, and the accompanying petro-dollars.

To cut a long dissertation short (again, *) I concluded that an economy could grow, and growth could even by facilitated, over the short term, via the considered prohibition of free expression, which was a difficult but necessary conclusion to find myself drawing. But, to create the conditions within which an economy could grow over the long term, at a controlled and sustainable rate, a larger degree of free expression was an absolutely necessary correctional mechanism to employ. (Phew! May as well keep myself in the job while I'm at it...)

There was one argument which struck me, and backed up my conclusion, that I wish to share as the subject of this post. On 3rd May - World Press Freedom Day - 2006, former US Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell delivered a speech to the School of Journalism at the National University of Science and Technology, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

"The Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen offers a noteworthy historical truth that drives home the relationship between freedom and prosperity, especially in the developing world," Dell said.

"Of all mankind’s terrible famines, none has ever occurred in a functioning democracy with regular, credible elections, healthy opposition parties, and an unfettered media.

"Famines historically have been associated with one party states, such as 50s China or 70s Cambodia; military dictatorships, such as Somalia or Ethiopia; or colonial arrangements such as pre-independence India. Notably, not just rich countries avoid famines; poor societies that are open and democratic have never experienced famine either."

Something to chew over. No matter where you are.

By the way, as a postscript, I'd just like to add, here's hoping that 2010's Wall Street and Canary Wharf don't prove the exceptions to Sen and Dell's stated rule.

* I was sharing a flat in Dubai with a friend at the time, and was six days from flying back to London to hand in the dissertation for my MA in journalism, so marking the end of my student days, when it occurred to me to check the word limit, on the advice of a friend. To my horror, my 13,000 words were 5,000 too many. (This may sound like a short dissertation, but in my defence, I included a rather lengthy practical component. Anyway...) It was a Saturday night, around 3am, and I was by this stage well acquainted with my good friend Mr Jack Daniels. "All for the good", I thought, and settled down to a good session of hacking and slashing at my virtually-complete dissertation, forcing upon entire finely-crafted paragraphs - no - entire chapters, the ignominy of entry to the Norton Protected Recycle Bin.

It was surely the first time that a passionate defence of the Laotian government's 1979 stance against and subsequent expulsion of the Communist Party of Thailand has shared the same hard-drive space as an accidentally downloaded version of
One Love by Blue (honestly, I was trying to get the Stone Roses tune of the same name. I was!), five empty folders, and an old photo of me wearing a hat.

I am pleased to report, however, that slashing complete, I promptly fell asleep and woke the next morning to find a rather readable, and alarmingly cohesive, dissertation. The moral - or immoral - of the story? If you've a lot of heavy subbing to do, and it's your own work, and, like a terminally-ill sculptor engaged in his final project, you've injected blood, sweat and tears into the very creation of the text itself,
get drunk first! It makes you not care!

email: desert_blogger@hotmail.com
jamie stewart

Keeping the faith

It may be necessary at this stage to offer the briefest of introductions to the city-state of Dubai, as it is my sojourns through the city and its media landscape that will define the posts that follow.

One of seven Emirates that constitute the UAE, Dubai is defined on the global stage by its audacious real estate projects, building huge tracts of land where before was sea, raising the tallest building in the world - the Burj Dubai - by a comfortable margin, and by the sweet promise of a playground for the rich beneath the year-round Arabian sunshine, where one can snow, sand and surf-board in the same searing hot Sunday afternoon.
But of late, the city has come to be defined by rather more complex issues of a disquietingly polemic nature, which certain areas of Dubai society would prefer to sweep beneath the desert sands, and none of which should be spoken about, at least, not in public, and not within the Emirate.

These issues have arisen as a result of the city's sprint towards an unchartered territory where east and west converge in the 21st century. A society still ruled by the underlying Muslim faith of its founders, yet which has opened its doors to the west, and all the trappings of excess.

Fancy a beer? Every hotel has its bar, some lining the beach, others lined by ladies of a questionable profession. Fancy some pork? The Jebel Ali Club, in the city's original western expat village, will offer up a lump of glorious crackling-lined pig the size of your fist, and your wrist.

But the ripples of an underlying willingness towards cultural hegemony have been spotted sweeping the usually placid waters of the Gulf.

When Israeli bombs were falling on the streets of Gaza last December 31st, Dubai banned any celebration of Gregorian New Year within its borders. On the morning of new year's eve, all bars were ordered to close for the night, fireworks and music were outlawed in public, and the people were ordered to show solidarity with the Palestinians, in the most sombre style - much to the consternation of many who had jetted into the city for their one night of lager, lauding, and Auld Lang Syne.

The issues that have arisen as a result of this most stark, unambiguous cultural clash - none of which we should really talk about remember - include last year's infamous sex-on-the-beach scandal; the banning of Israel's seeded female tennis star Shahar Peer from the Dubai Championships last February, to the severe displeasure of the Women's Tennis Association, on the grounds that organisers "feared for her safety"; and, on a broader scale, the arrival of the global financial crisis on the economy of the Emirate.

In a city that relies so heavily on foreign direct investment, much of it originating from western economies, it was always going to happen.

It is a challenge when raised surrounded by the freedom of expression enjoyed by western media, to see the benefits of the restrictions on the press in the Middle East. The arguments for the correctional mechanism instilled by an open media are well documented, and will wait for my further posts. But of all the issues listed above, the coming of the economic crisis is the one we must not discuss.

A good friend of mine recently lost his job for doing just that. He ran a story quoting from a prominent UK economist and expert on Middle Eastern affairs, suggesting that the recent underwriting of a $10 billion bond - issued by the government of Dubai - by the UAE Central Bank, may have constituted something of a, dare I say it...bail out. The money has since been put to work, firing up many infrastructural projects that had ground to a halt. But can we, do we, dare we say bail out? That depends how far we value our future in the place we call home.

There is no shame in the great east-west experiment temporarily slowing on its manic sprint through the desert, pausing for breath beneath the globe's economic storm clouds. No shame in being a victim of outside circumstance, victim of a posse of irresponsible, bonus guzzling mortgage lenders, smoking guns in hand, or in the desk drawer, depending on whether one still has a desk or not. The only shame, it would appear, is in talking about it.

The great experiment will continue, and the outcome will depend much on the tolerance of the people, regardless of religion and ethnicity. Tolerance of many aspects of life in a cultural and literal melting pot.

Keep the faith, Dubai. Or don't. There's no shame in either.

email: desert_blogger@hotmail.com

jamie stewart

Heads in the sand???

The media in the Middle East is a strange beast. Staffed by journalists who should be frothing at their couscous-stuffed mouths to bite at autocratic systems of government, but who lack the legal teeth to do so, it is difficult to work out at times just what it's underlying purpose is. Declare your journalistic principles at customs as you enter, and cast your romantic fourth-estate ambitions aside. The powers that be are for the most part yet to allow a second or a third estate. Who said anything about a fourth?

Therefore, consider this blog to be the Middle East's fouth-estate in waiting. I am not going to write anything that cannot be printed in the Middle East, as my plane ticket home would swiftly follow. Consider this instead a record - a celebration, even - of all that is unique about Middle Eastern journalism and life in the rapidly expanding desert metropolis of Dubai.

There's a lot to be said in the city-state where journalists, film stars, politicians, captains of industry, titans of commerce and heads of nations share the same 45km-long strip of sand, whiling away the evenings making polite chit chat on man-made islands in the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf. Being able to say it, however, is not necessarily always the case.

As a means of getting us started and to put what happens to follow in context, consider this report from Arab media commentary site menassat.com  A new media law is soon to be inked within the UAE, which many critics assume to be a reaction to the financial crisis, and the ripple effect on the economies of the seven emirates that constitute the UAE. Among it's purposefully ambiguous statements is Article 33, which "imposes fines of up to US $136,127 for broadly defined breeches such as publishing “misleading” articles "in a manner that harms the country's reputation, foreign relations or obligations or defaces its national identity” or “harms the country’s national economy.”

Not a far removal from the 1980 Publications and Publishing Law. The new draft ruling, however, has replaced the old threats of prison sentences with almighty fines, thus magnifying the spectre of self-censorship that hangs over the threadbare pockets of shuddering UAE journalists, many of whom can barely afford a pen, let alone write anything that may "harm the country's reputation" with one.

email: desert_blogger@hotmail.com