Portions of the included interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Dubai, a city located in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is considered to be the richest city in the Middle East and one of the wealthiest in the world. From soaring skyscrapers to beautiful beaches, Dubai is a major hub for economic activity, bustling tourism, and expatriates

However, this description paints a surface-level picture of the city. In reality, a side of Dubai exists that is characterized by stark social stratification, appalling living conditions for migrant workers, environmental problems, and the lack of freedom of speech, among many other issues. In an interview with Spheres of Influence, Shawn B., a South Asian Canadian student at Western University who lived in Dubai for 9 years, discusses the city and its “dark” social environment.

Social Stratification in Dubai

There are three distinct social classes in Dubai: the Emiratis, the upper class consisting of the wealthiest citizens; the expats, the middle class consisting of foreign workers such as merchants; and the migrant workers, the lower class consisting of impoverished laborers working and living in horrifying conditions

Dubai’s upper class exemplifies the romanticized image of Dubai, the one with high-rise buildings and transcendent scenery. “Dubai has one of the highest densities of millionaires in the world,” Shawn says, “and they live really lavishly.” These affluent people own things like gold-studded cars, ATM machines that dispense gold, and even exotic animals in their private homes. 

The middle class is further stratified with upper and lower-class expats. Shawn himself belonged to the upper class of expats. His parents are Canadians that moved to Dubai in order to seek work opportunities and build their current business. “We lived pretty good as upper-class expats. We had maids and cooks and chauffeurs running our entire household and we could go shopping a lot,” he says. The high salaries and low tax rates attract many foreign nationals to continue their businesses or seek further work in Dubai, which just makes the rich richer.

However, most expats belong to the lower class. “They work low-income jobs, such as in restaurants, fast-food places, construction sites, roadside cleaning, just to name a few,” Shawn details. “It’s crazy because most people in Dubai are expats who belong in this class and the local Emiratis only make up around 10% of the population, but the city runs smoothly because of the expats and the jobs they perform.”

The “Dark Side” of Dubai: Migrant Worker Conditions

It’s the lower class, that migrant workers belong to, where the largest issues lie. Migrant workers are subjected to horrifying working and living conditions, and Dubai’s arid climate does not help. “They’re forced to live in homes with very low standards of living, with multiple workers sleeping in one room,” says Shawn. “And there are plans for a new mall or skyscraper all the time, so these workers are forced to work quickly and exhaustingly for long hours in harsh conditions, 50°C weather and under blaring desert sun.” A worker interviewed by The Independent echoed these sentiments; the worker lives in a small, unventilated, and non-air-conditioned room with 11 other men and works 14 hours a day in desert heat that can reach up to 55°C. 

To make things worse, the city tries to hide these horrible conditions. “I lived in the urban cityside which was super glamorous, but the side where the migrant workers lived was ‘tucked’ far away from any urban spaces,” Shawn describes. “I went to a large private school on a piece of land far from the city, and so on my way to school, I would see these areas and busloads of workers being transported to construction sites.” One of these areas Shawn refers to is Sonapur, a labor accommodation for workers in Dubai. Sonapur houses several buildings with horrible sanitation and damaged amenities, such as overflowing toilets, and exemplifies the worst of the migrant workers’ living and working conditions.

Freedom of Speech (Or Lack Thereof)

A daunting issue that affects all social classes in Dubai and the UAE is the lack of freedom of speech and expression, especially in mass media. When he lived in Dubai, Shawn noted that “the major journalism companies were heavily influenced by the government, which means that there were never any articles against the government.” For example, a former teacher tried to promote greater individual freedom on social media platforms by critiquing the activity of the city’s State Security Organization. This warranted his arrest because he was seen as promoting speech that disrupted “national unity and social peace.” Similarly, many arrests related to freedom of speech are due to individuals criticizing the government. In addition, new cybercrime laws that went into effect in 2022 forbid mocking the nation and harming its reputation. The laws also banned acts that would “incite public opinion,” which has been heavily critiqued over fears it could lead to the unjust arrests of human rights activists and journalists.

Pollution and Rising Temperatures

In addition to social issues, Dubai also faces pressing challenges regarding its physical environment. Dubai is listed as having one of the world’s worst air qualities, which is in part due to widespread vehicular emission and the exploitation of the country’s oil reserves. “Pollution was always a big problem in Dubai,” Shawn echoes. “We had smoggy days every few weeks and being a city near the desert without vegetation or large oceans, it was very obvious when pollution was affecting us.” 

Rising temperatures are also a major concern in the city. “When I was only a few years old, I remember Dubai having desert winters, so it would be a little chilly and would snow and rain once in a blue moon. But nowadays, there are just warm ‘winters’ with no snow and almost no rain,” Shawn says. The UAE has an extremely arid climate and has even resorted to using aircraft to produce artificial rain for the country. Moreover, it’s predicted that with current temperature trends, heat stress conditions may develop to the point where humans won’t be able to survive in the climate. This is especially alarming for the migrant workers who do not live in the urban cityside with access to air-conditioned housing and climate-controlled places.

How is Dubai addressing these issues?

The UAE government and the Dubai Municipality have addressed some of the issues faced by migrant workers. In 2007, the Dubai Municipality started assessing housing conditions in labor accommodations to see whether companies are complying with health and safety regulations, and punishing those that aren’t. In addition, the Federal National Council passed a bill in 2017 that gave migrant workers better rights and more protection, such as paid vacation days, medical insurance, and fair contracts before employment; while promising, these measures are still not enough to address the fundamental issue of wealth inequality. Moreover, the lack of freedom of speech persists to this day.

Environmental issues have also been addressed by the city’s leaders and policymakers. While actions speak louder than words, Dubai officials did sign a pledge to make public transportation and other energy-conscious means of transportation more accessible and created plans to cut carbon emissions in the future. 

As Dubai is governed by an absolute monarchy, meaning citizens do not have a democratic say in the government’s decisions, impactful change can only emerge when people at the top take action. Whether or not they will take further actions on the reforms and solutions they’ve promised, we’ll just have to wait and see. ​​While we cannot directly provoke change, as outsiders who are only privy to the mass media that only romanticizes Dubai, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves by recognizing the adverse problems that continue to cloud the city.

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Light Naing

Light (he/they) is a first-year Media, Information and Technoculture student at Western University. He was born and raised in Myanmar, but immigrated to Canada in order to escape the political turmoil...