Qatar, Dubai: Responding To British Media “Bashing”

In recent weeks reports in the British media about the Gulf states of Qatar, and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, have provoked debate amongst bloggers in both places. BBC Middle East correspondent Katya Adler visited Qatar and described her experience in Trying to lift the veil on Qatar, and the BBC's Panorama made a programme about Dubai called Slumdogs and Millionaires. The most controversial report was by Johann Hari of The Independent, called The dark side of Dubai, which prompted a response in Arabian Business and The Independent by one of the people he interviewed, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi (to whom Hari in turn responded).

Katya Adler's report, in which she describes Qatar as “a veiled society, physically and socially” was received with mixed feelings on the country's blogs and forums. The Qatar Visitor blog says:

[Adler] fails to get under the skin of the country. In many respects she has the same experience as many expatriates here – the people she meets, apart from in an official capacity, are not Qatari. Yet Qataris, when you meet them, are generally friendly people when approached, and while Qatar has its faults hospitality to guests is not one of them.

Marjorie in Qatar also finds fault with some facts presented in the article, as do some commenters on the popular Qatar Living forum, such as Qatari diamond:

The article is a bit pathetic and parts of it untrue. She didn't try very hard to meet locals. […] There are many Qataris who live completely in Qatari circles having only the most minimal interaction with expatriates. I guess they like it like that. On the other hand, there are Qataris who interact at all levels with expatriates. We're a mixed bunch ;) […] Sorry, but on her ONE visit to Qatar she expected a lot with minimal input from herself. Pffft. Are we supposed to be rushing up to expatriates, grabbing them by the hand and saying ‘come meet the natives, see the natives at play?’, whilst sprinkling them with rosewater and offering a cup of kahwa [coffee]. Give me a break.

PaulCowan says:

I'm really a bit confused about what that BBC woman was trying to achieve. Would anyone find out anything more if they jetted into London on a mission to find out what makes society tick? Isn't the concept really a little bit absurd?

The BBC Panorama programme, Slumdogs and Millionaires, focused on the living and working conditions of South Asian migrant workers in Dubai's construction sector. On the UAE Community Blog, John B. Chilton says:

Yes, there are abuses and the downturn in the economy has played a role. But on the whole these workers are here because it's better than the alternative of being home. Why else are they upset when there is talk of limiting the amount of time an expat can work in the country? And when considering how poorly they live consider that most are sending home a large portion of what they earn.

An anonymous commenter responds:

Or they have been DUPED into thinking it would be better than home and into paying a fortune in illegal fees to come here and now cannot afford to leave?

And Bob, NY asks John B. Chilton:

Since you find their working conditions quite acceptable, I'm sure you would have no problem if your son or daughter worked and lived like these workers do, true? Or is it fine only for South Asians to work under these conditions, and not caucasians? You write like the colonialist you are.

The Life in Dubai blog reports that the Panorama programme caused official ripples:

According to Gulf News, the Ministry of Labour will investigate the claims made in the programme that expat workers are made to live and work in completely unacceptable conditions. […] As the Minister points out, the rights of workers is covered by legislation. The problem is that companies ignore rules and laws – not ony in Dubai but just about everywhere – and they need enforcing. It's no secret in Dubai that some labour camps are way below the standards they should be, even the local press has run stories about it. The media can find violations but somehow the inspection teams miss them.

The media report which generated the most controversy was Johann Hari's hard-hitting article in The Independent entitled The dark side of Dubai, in which Hari described Dubai as “a living metal metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing – at last – into history”. Hari interviews both expatriates and citizens, and paints an extremely bleak portrait of the emirate.

At the UAE Community Blog, samuraisam gives examples of how many times “dark side” has been used in headlines about Dubai over the years. Life in Dubai calls Hari's article “the most vitriolic piece on Dubai so far”, and says:

[Johann Hari] reports on a group of Brits – but has obviously been at pains to scrape the bottom of the barrel. […] He doesn't bother to point out that the excesses of a few are outweighed by tens of thousands of extremely hard working expats, from Britain as well as the rest of the world. Tens of thousands who are working and saving, putting their children through school, who know how to behave.

Among the commenters on the post, The Sandman says:

It's getting a bit ridiculous all this Dubai-bashing. It seems like every British paper is sending out a journalist for a three day trip, getting the worst stories they can find, and putting them in an article. People forget that Dubai was a normal town before the boom of the late 90s. It's not like the town has ‘fallen from the sky’ or whatever the article said.

Chris Saul argues that Hari makes a lot of factual errors, and says:

Journalists seem to fall to pieces when it comes to Dubai. Context and balance tend to be thrown to one side and the results tend to be fawning pieces that describe Dubai as the most wondrous place on earth, or sneering hate-pieces filled with stereotypes and dubious quotations. There seems to be little in between.

In Qatar, Hari's article was read with interest; on the Qatar Living forum tallg comments:

Qatar obviously shares many of the same issues, and they are treated in much the same way – look the other way, brush it under the carpet, everything is fine.

FranElizabeth wonders if those living in Qatar are as complicit in exploiting workers as Hari indicates that Dubai residents are:

This has really opened my eyes. Every time I drive on the Dukhan-Doha road I see masses of these workers out in the burning sun – I have always tried to put my mind at rest by thinking that it is their choice to be here.. it's probably only short term… the money they make is probably a fortune to what they would earn at home…I'm just as blinkered! We have made a choice to come here for the money and is just a lottery that we were born Western – but I have 2 young kids to support and that was nearly impossible at home. Is it as corrupt here, do you think???

Gypsy comments:

Articles like this make me feel dirty. […] Whether we agree with it or no, or sound like the @#$&s in that article or no, we do support what happens here. I do think he should cut us a little slack in that, as expatriates we don't have much power to enforce change, however that doesn't make our hands entirely clean, we are still enjoying the slave society.

Johann Hari's article was re-posted and linked to on blogs around the world, and further debate can be read at the Freakonomics blog, Joi Ito's blog, and Boing Boing.

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