Maheen Behrana

Naked Politics Blogger

Between January and September last year, nearly a million Brits holidayed in Dubai. The city, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a consistent favourite with British holidaymakers, who flock there for the sun, glitz and glamour that the city has to offer. But as many people know, there is a dark side to Dubai; a dark side that I believe should be enough to encourage Brits to seriously reconsider whether they make Dubai their holiday destination of choice. If British visitors are the third largest group visiting Dubai each year (after those from India and Saudi Arabia) then a tourist boycott of the city could make clear to Dubai that British people will no longer continue to endorse a place which, for all its opulence, is responsible for permitting shocking human rights violations.

British people are often aware of some of the restrictions Dubai places on holidaymakers before making their visit. People know not to engage in public displays of affection, and that being openly gay in the city can be a cause for arrest. They also may be aware that Dubai actually has laws against extra-marital sex, and while the city tends to turn a blind eye to foreign, cohabiting couples, occasionally, they too fall into the firing line.

For example, in 2016, a British woman was arrested on charges of extra-marital sex after reporting that she had been raped to Dubai police. As if it was not bad enough to think of extra-marital sex as punishable by law, Dubai officials demonstrated archaic attitudes which ultimately condemned the victim of a very serious crime. The UK charity ‘Detained in Dubai’ has actually urged holidaymakers experiencing sexual assault in the city not to report it to officials, because of the “manipulation when it comes to criminal accusations” and the “racist” preconceptions held against Western tourists, especially where alcohol is involved.

Despite this, a steady stream of tourists continuing to visit Dubai. Perhaps they are unaware of the daily suffering that exists in this exotic holiday hotspot? 53% of the UAEs population is South Asian. Anyone not born an Emirati is afforded the status of an expat. But while western expats can expect to earn high salaries, many South Asians work as low-paid labourers, where they can earn as little as £127 per month.

Considering that Dubai has a GDP of 105.6 billion USD, this figure reveals the vast inequalities that exist in Emirati society. But inequality is not the only problem.  The UAE has a Kafala system which, though recently reformed, in effect, ties low-paid foreign workers to their employers. These workers are unable to keep their passports and can be arrested for absconding if they leave. If they want to leave, they often have to pay their sponsor, and this traps them in a cycle of low-paid and backbreaking work.

Female domestic workers are also at risk. Tied to their employers by the same Kafala system, they are extremely vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and are often trapped inside the houses where they work. Workers in these situations are often left isolated and unable to seek help.

Bearing this in mind, isn’t it time that we as Brits rethought our obsession with Dubai?  If you’ve ever visited the country and marvelled at its architecture, remember that it might have been built through enslaving labour.  If you’ve ever sweltered in Dubai’s unbearable summer heat, remember that construction workers are forced to build those air-conditioned buildings in the very heat that you take refuge in.


If you ever look at wealthy Emirati families and admire their lavish lifestyle, remember that you are admiring a lifestyle supported by workers who have few rights in UAE law.  If you ever feel convinced that Dubai is a paradise of material goods, remember that those goods are inaccessible to vast swathes of the city’s low-paid population.

I know that this can seem like a virtue-signalling lecture, but it is necessary for us to be confronted with the brutal realities behind the shining facade of Dubai.  How can we continue to give our custom to a place that is so wealthy but insists on disregarding the rights of its essential workers?  As a British Pakistani, it is frustrating that Dubai is such a popular destination for the British Pakistani community when so many of the low-paid and exploited workers are Pakistani themselves. To me, it seems like a genuine betrayal to visit a place that continues to allow their exploitation and refuses to apologise for what it is doing.

So, I urge all Brits to think twice about holidaying in Dubai; there are so many other wonderful places in the world.  But with an economy heavily built on tourism, Dubai needs you, and to take your custom away from Dubai and other Emirati cities may be the vital first step that is needed to force the UAE to engage in some genuine reform.

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Last Update: August 30, 2018