Canadians Abroad: “Karen Andrews”, Destitute in Dubai
Johann Hari, in the Independent, has an absolutely engrossing piece on the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai. Dubai is a wealthy place sometimes held up as a shining example of modernity and development in the Arab world, but Hari sees Dubai’s success as both flimsy and immoral. He builds his case around a series of conversations: with migrant workers who were tricked into something approaching slavery, with complacent Western expatriates, and of course with the Emiratis themselves.
The first conversation in the article is with a Canadian woman whom Hari calls Karen Andrews. At the end of the piece he warns that some names have been changed, so I assume this is an alias. Be that as it may, “Andrews” arrived in Dubai in 2005, when her husband got a job there, and at first things were terrific:
“Life was fantastic. You had these amazing big apartments, you had a whole army of your own staff, you pay no taxes at all. It seemed like everyone was a CEO. We were partying the whole time.”
Things got grim, however, when a brain tumour began to affect her husband’s behaviour. The big problem was that he mismanaged their money, leaving them in debt. They were evicted from their apartment and told they couldn’t leave the Emirate. Andrews’ husband went to jail after a trial conducted entirely in Arabic, and Andrews herself now lives in a Range Rover. Apparently she asked Hari to buy her a meal.
It’s hard to know what to think of someone in Andrews’ position. Obviously the events that took her from the amazing big apartment to the Range Rover were little short of nightmarish. On the other hand, at least Andrews never had to go through anything quite like this:
[An Ethiopian woman Hari spoke to] was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. “But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: ‘You came here to work, not sleep!’ Then one day I just couldn’t go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn’t give me my wages: they said they’d pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn’t know anybody here. I was terrified.”
She ran away, in the end, but is still – like Andrews – trapped and destitute in Dubai. Hari explains that this kind of experience is far from unusual, for foreign labourers as well as domestics, and goes so far as to describe Dubai as a “slave society”. When Andrews was doing all that partying, did she take the time to look up and notice?