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Watchers on the dock

Lauren Burfield shares the story of the people hidden behind the glitz and glamour of Dubai's many skyscrapers

Watchers on the Dock, documents the labourers of the old Dubai. I was born and lived in Dubai for 18 years, growing in parallel with the Middle East's rapid boom of tourism and construction. The history of trade within the gulf, stimulated western attraction and ex-patriot culture and living, which quickly transformed Dubai's economic dependency from pearling and trade to tourism within a decade.


By simply mentioning the city of Dubai, westerners immediately associate the Middle Eastern destination with luxury supercars, seductive skyscrapers, elite shopping malls, first-class dining and all-inclusive hotels. Little acknowledgement is granted to the old town where the history of Dubai's free trade and economic position began to thrive in 1902. The warm waters of the Creek became the hub for the Gulf's souks, radiating in the commerce of gold, perfume, spice, leather, textile and coffee.

However, Dubai's historical waterway has grown into a sight for hospitality. Tourists can experience the old town in the twilight where the luminous colours of Arabic lamps are reflected off the water, lit up by maze of the the souk, but many choose to experience the history and culture unfortunately through comfort at a luxurious distance.

There are many images of the Old Dubai, but few who grant acknowledgement to the people who live and breathe the salty air of the Creek and the humidity and smog that persists in the construction sites. Few tourists stop and speak, let alone have time to grant a smile for those who are the first point of contact in trade for your pashmina you are buying for your sister back at home, or effort a conversation with the men selling you your own jar of authentic Arabica coffee.

The masked facade of Dubai’s welcoming image as an international hub is purposefully disconnected from the living conditions, wages, and hours suffered by the blue collar workers that stand behind your luxury holiday destination. Packed and hurried to and from construction sites, employers and trade in cramped labour buses without functioning air conditioning and heavy uniforms, required to carry them through 50 Degrees and 85% humidity, is the reality for most.

Where their living conditions are far from the scale of luxury, defining a more inhumane image of mistreatment which grievously reveals the easy excuses that come with Dubai’s reliance of cheap labour. An unfair trade for how long and hard the working day is, only to return to an overpopulated and cramped shared bedroom in a labour camp, where there is 10 to a room and 45 to an external toilet.

Travelling to Dubai for better opportunities and to provide for their families back home is hopeful, even idealistic, however to meet with the reality of confiscated and withheld passports, refusal of holiday leave, and the contractually binding 14 hour working day, every day, every week, guaranteed was not the promise sold by the agency back in their home country.

There are plenty of articles that reveal the conditions forced upon these innocent expatriate workers, however even with the statistics, descriptions and case studies that surround the lives that are the reality for these men and women, is still paired with images of the urban Middle Eastern skyline, with luxury supercars, seductive skyscrapers, and elite shopping malls. They continuously fail to reveal the faces and connect with those who can actually verify their experience.

Within the Creek, the faces of the traders are the ones that hold the historical ritual of merchantry, some even hold wisdom in memories of what Dubai used to look like two decades ago, however with being so overlooked, these traders receive very little kindness and respect either from their employers, the locals or uncultured visitors, unwilling to be educated.

With living in Dubai for so long, I was in a rush to get out, I was tired of the stigmatism practiced by the conditioned western residents that came to Dubai for reputation and class structure. Up turned noses towards those of a ‘lower class’ or different nationality persists in Dubai’s toxic climate, without any possibility of healing anytime soon. I am very grateful to have been brought up in such an international environment with an appreciation and education of cultures, languages and nationalities. However, with Dubai’s expensive image being broadcasted, it is inevitable that it will attract those that reside there only for money, reputation and social media clout, clouding the dichotomy behind the scenes.


Lauren Burfiled

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