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Canadians Abroad: “Karen Andrews”, Destitute in Dubai

April 11, 2009

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?


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6 Comments leave one →
  1. reneethewriter permalink
    April 14, 2009 11:34 am

    Not sure if you’ll see this, Cor, good luck on your field trip. I’ll be delighted to rec’ve your reactions to Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown – a work of fiction that has preoccupied me for decades (hint: Harry Kumar/Harry Coomer)

    I am impressed with your strong moral reaction to Hari’s evocation of expat indifference to socio/economic/political/cultural surroundings and i think Hari’s description is an accurate realization of what “imperialism” feels like, on the ground, in the trenches, at the level of the street.

    I too hope that CDN urban planners, with admirable goals for the greening of such locations as Dubai and UAE, also factor in socio/economic/political/cultural realities in their understanding of what it means to be “green.” This is part of a thread I’m thinking about and hopefully will write about: what does green mean?

    Over and out. Safe travels, Cor.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      April 14, 2009 2:57 pm

      Thanks for the good wishes! I’ll “see” you (and everyone) in a few weeks.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    April 12, 2009 9:45 am

    Wow. Cor, a fascinating, and very disturbing piece – many thanks. Here in B.C., for some strange reason, municipal planners are recruited away to UAE and Dubai etc – all spinning tales of how Canadian urban planners are bringing “eco-correct” green building designs to the super-wealthy in these countries, with little discussion of the kinds of issues alluded to Hari’s excellent piece. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. R

    • corsullivan permalink*
      April 14, 2009 8:49 am

      It’s interesting that so many Canadian urban planners are heading to Dubai and the rest of the UAE, and taking their green sensibilities with them. Based on what Hari had to say about some of the environmental problems in Dubai, it sounds like their expertise should be useful.

      However, I hope that most of these people are setting out with a clear idea of the kind of environment they’re heading into – a place with some fairly harsh and unforgiving rules, as “Karen Andrews” discovered, and with a luxurious lifestyle built on massive exploitation of others. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that they shouldn’t go, or that they should feel obliged to “make a difference” in that very foreign country, but they shouldn’t allow themselves to forget the unpleasantness hidden just below the surface. I thought the most revolting aspect of Hari’s article was the almost willful ignorance and indifference of almost every expat he spoke to – their determination not to look outside their comfortable little cocoon.

      Anyway, this will be the last from me for a few weeks. I’m off tomorrow morning to look for dinosaurs in Henan Province. I’ve already packed a copy of “The Jewel in the Crown”, which you recommended to me ages ago. See you in May!

  3. Haniza Yon permalink
    April 12, 2009 12:22 am

    Thanks,Corwin. This is a very interesting story, sad but true.


  1. Canadians Abroad: “Karen Andrews”, Destitute in Dubai « Canada’s World

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