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[April 21, 2006]


(Daily Mail Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)THE morning sun is nearing its peak.

It is 36C in the shade and, as the woman gazes dreamily across the shimmering bay at rows of gleaming skyscrapers, three beads of sweat have formed on her immaculately smooth brow.

Quick as a flash, a poolside butler is at her side, liveried arm brandishing a cold towel, with Evian facial spray and a cloth to buff her Gucci sunglasses. Crisis averted, she flips over on her padded sunlounger, adjusts her purple thong for maximum exposure and starts planning the rest of her stay at Dubai's Burj Al Arab, the world's only seven-star hotel.

Perhaps she should make a trip to the world's biggest shopping mall in her chauffeured white Rolls-Royce, or try a spot of skiing at the indoor ski resort, complete with real snow, a black run and a bobsled track? Or perhaps she should settle for room service in her E42,000a-night suite, complete with sweeping 22-step staircase, butler, business centre and a hefty share of the hotel's 1,600sq m of gold leaf.

This is life as advertised by giant hoardings all around the city: 'Dubai: Invest In You.' 'Dubai: Love Life, Come To Life.' Shaped like a billowing white dhow sail, the hotel has become the symbol of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's emirate - a billionaire's paradise on the Gulf of Arabia that, in the past few years, has also become a favourite destination for those in search of year-round sun.

Increasingly fashionable with Ireland's superrich - Clodagh Keane saw in the New Year there with friends - it is also a hot new destination for property seekers.

A few short miles away on the Sonapur labour camp, however, the day is panning out rather differently. Mohammed Gurang, 34, wakes at 3am to join the 60-deep queue for the filthy bathrooms.

The stench of the sewers makes you gag, the water in the showers is a dirty trickle, and there is no electricity.

He shares his fetid 12ft-by-12ft breeze block cell with 11 other Indians.

Eight have beds, the others sleep on dirty blankets on the concrete floor.

A broken fan hangs limply from the corrugated iron ceiling. The one window is boarded up with a construction site sign, and stacks of clothing, bedding and dented cooking pots clutter the room.

The only decoration comes from three tired pieces of tinsel hanging from one of the metal bunks, a neat line of pink and white soap dishes on the window sill and a torn and yellowing 'Happy New Year 2003' banner.

Unlike the well-heeled patrons of the Burj Al Arab, or the thousands of holidaying Irish fanning out by Dubai's hotel poolsides, Mohammed, from Kerala, has little to look forward to.

He has been in Dubai since 1998. It is five years since he last saw his wife, Orchita, 23, and daughters, aged nine and seven. He has never seen his four-year-old son and has nightmares that he will forget all his children's faces. All he wants is to go home.

Like hundreds of thousands of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, Mohammed, a qualified electrician, was lured into construction work by the promise of a daily wage of $4 - far more than he could earn at home - and the hope of a better life for his family.

LIKE the others, he was forced by a recruitment agency in Kerala to buy his visa - a E2,100 cost that, legally, his employer should have covered. He raised the money by selling his few possessions, moving his wife and children in with his parents and visiting a loan shark.

With a 38 per cent interest rate, it took him the first four years just to pay back the loan. He earns just E135 (450 dirhams) a month.

'Now I've paid off the interest, I send most of my earnings home and just keep enough to live on,' he says. 'I was told I would count as skilled labour and get paid E180 a month, working eight hours a day, with flights home and a month off every year.' Instead, at 4.30am, six days a week, 52 weeks a year, he blinks blindly in the dark, dons his blue boiler suit, grabs his hard hat and joins another enormous queue - this time for a seat on one of the thousands of old school buses that will transport him and the estimated 800,000 other labourers on the hour-long drive into the city.

There they will work a gruelling 12-hour shift in blistering 45C heat, risking injury and death, to build this gleaming, marble-clad, tax-free city of dreams.

With oil reserves dwindling, Dubai's ruling family, the Maktoums, have reinvented their tiny fiefdom as a financial centre, trade hub and tourist hotspot, where luxury properties, built by workers such as Mohammed, have already been snapped up by the likes of David Beckham, Rod Stewart and Michael Schumacher. By 2015, the emirate,

which has a population of 1.67million, hopes to attract 40million visitors a year, eight times the current figure. But there is a dark side to the Dubai boom - and it is a side that holidaying Irish rarely see.

Take the case of Khalid, 28, a carpenter from Kerala. 'I've been here four years,' he says. 'I was excited at first because it is a very famous place and I thought I could become a big success here and make lots of money. But it hasn't worked out as I thought.

'They take us to the site, we build, we return to the camp and that's it.

This isn't a real life - it's a nightmare. They treat us like animals. I was told it was the city of dreams.' And so it is, for the Rolex-wearing building contractors, who can't build it quickly enough. Forty-storey tower blocks go from conception to opening ceremony in just two years.

Half the world's supply of cranes are here working flat out on projects worth a staggering E105billion. The skyline is dominated by half-finished skyscrapers.

Every day, hundreds of trucks arrive laden with ready-grown palm trees, acres of emerald turf and thousands of tons of marble.

Work on many projects takes place round the clock and the constant soundtrack to the city is the banging, crashing and whirring of cement mixers and power tools.

Among current developments are Burj Dubai, which will be the world's tallest building (38 storeys this week, but shooting up a floor a week), Hydropolis, an underwater hotel, and the E5.2billion Dubailand - an Arab Disneyworld which will be bigger than Monaco.

Not forgetting The Palm Jumeirah and The World - two manmade archipelagos in the Arabian Gulf which will more than double Dubai's coastline from 45 to 120 miles.

One is shaped like a giant date palm and will house 100,000 people in luxury apartments, villas and hotels.

The other consists of 300 manmade islands in the shape of different countries, available to buy from E16million to E54million each.

It is like Vegas-on-Sea (without the gambling) and despite warnings that the bubble will burst within months, the money is still pouring in.

MONEY, it seems, that can buy pretty much anything - apart, that is, from a proper share in UAE's financial success for the foreign-born workers who have made it possible.

Around 80 per cent of the population are foreigners, from 160 different countries, and the Maktoums are happy to let it stay that way. And why not?

They own everything, there is virtually no political or press freedom - journalists complain their telephones are tapped - and they favour their own.

UAE citizens receive free healthcare and education, and even a house (provided they marry another UAE national).

But the real graft is done by ex-pats.

Contractors confiscate their passports on arrival to stop them absconding, and many workers have become trapped here, afraid to leave for fear of being punished for breaching the terms of their visa.

'The contractors won't give them back so we can renew them,' explains Mohammed wearily. 'It's all a big trick. When they've expired they say we can go home, but by then we can't go anywhere for fear of jail or a big fine. So we have to carry on working and hope they pay us.' Which they don't always.

Site safety is woeful. Official figures put site deaths at 39 for last year - 22 simply fell from buildings, overcome by heatstroke. One construction executive was reportedly overheard at a drinks party bemoaning the fact that four of his workers had fallen to their deaths in a single month last year.

Unofficial site death figures are closer to 300. Last year, suicides accounted for a further 84 lives.

The insurance position appears equally sketchy. Sanjit Prashat, 31, an electrician from Mumbai, tells of an accident when a construction crane toppled, killing one man and critically injuring two others.

'Despite promises, the company did not repatriate the deceased's body back to his family, so in the end we collected the money ourselves.' In recent months, however, fuelled by despair and poverty, the tide has started to turn.

Last September 700 workers blocked a major road, complaining of poor pay and squalid conditions, and at least eight other incidents have followed. But such protests are not without risk.

THREE weeks ago, another group of Asian workers, who had not been paid for a year, complained to a labour court and won their case. Their employers responded by stopping their food.

It was a fortnight ago, however, that the years of frustration truly boiled over when more than 2,500 unpaid workers at the Burj Dubai site downed tools and rampaged through the building complex, overturning dozens of cars, attacking security staff, breaking into offices and smashing up equipment.

They caused E1.1million of damage and then did the unthinkable in Dubai - they went on strike.

Lieutenant Colonel Rashid Bakhit al- Jumairi, an interior ministry official who works on labour issues, was appalled by this rash of uncharacteristic militancy. 'They have no right to continue this strike,' he said. 'I don't know why they don't realise that.' Theoretically, the labour laws in Dubai do offer some protection: a day's shift should be just eight hours long; there should be medical care, proper housing, 30 days' annual holiday and employees should not be made to work during the searing midday heat.

But you need only look up during the scorching midday hours to see thousands of blue-clad labourers working away, like flies in the cobweb of cranes.

Contractors, facing huge penalties for late delivery, force the workers to press on.

One ex-pat recalls his New Year's Eve celebrations. 'It was midnight.

We were on one roof terrace, drinking champagne and toasting 2006, and on the next-door building hundreds of labourers were working under spotlights.'

An industry insider adds: 'There's another rule that no one must work outside if temperatures hit 50C. The trouble is, however hot it becomes, it never officially reaches 50.' For a government desperate to be recognised as a serious world player, and even touting itself as a possible Olympic 2016 host, the labourers' riots are, at best, a PR nightmare - in a shock announcement last week, a clearly rattled UAE minister of labour and social affairs insisted that trade unions (albeit controlled by the government) would soon

be permitted. At worst, however, their plight demonstrates that something is very wrong in this promised land. It is not just the labourers who have found things less golden than they'd hoped. Many ex-pats complain of suffocating governmental control. Some even have their passports confiscated by their employers on arrival and visas are reportedly withdrawn at the first sign of dissent.

'We may live in nice apartments and earn good money, but just like the labourers, we'll only ever be the hired help,' says David, 38, a financier from London. 'Many of us have been here for years, but we'll never have any rights.' When, last August, Construction Week published the results of a three-month investigation into the abuses in the labour market, they received a call from 'the Ruler's Office', demanding the offending material be removed from its website for fear of attracting the international media.

It was made clear that failure to comply would result in closure of the publication and deportation for the staff.

Another fear is terrorism. For the West-loathing jihadists hellbent on destruction across the Gulf in Iraq, this billionaire's playground, brimful with McDonald's and Gucci and acres of oiled flesh, must stick in the throat.

So far, it has been ignored by al-Qaeda, but after the attacks in Saudi Arabia, for some, the private swimming pools and six-figure tax-free salaries aren't looking quite so appealing.

There are rumours that a terrorist plot was foiled last year, but given the impregnable nature of the government, there is no way of knowing whether it is true or not.

Locals, when asked, will simply change the subject. Peter, 32, from London, who works in the construction business, says: 'Any government that has cherry-picked Islam to the extent Dubai has, and dares to erect the world's tallest tower just down the road from the world's biggest shopping mall, not to mention those ridiculous islands, must surely have done a deal with al-Qaeda. I'm not going to hang around to find out, however much money is sloshing about.' Even on that front, however, all is not so rosy.

As one construction expert told the Mail: 'Analysts have been expecting a crash for years and it is now expected as soon as the end of this year.

Development can't be sustained on this level. You just have to look up to see that - who's going to live in all these skyscrapers?' Given the sheer scale of the developments and factoring in an increasingly resentful and, as of last month, violent workforce, the stakes are higher than ever for the money-obsessed Maktoums. While many can choose to leave, for those like Mohammed, toiling away on his 38-storey building site, there is little hope that conditions will improve any time soon.

It is now 6pm and his shift is over. Shattered, dirty and broken, he boards the dusty bus for the hour-long journey back to the doss house and stares blankly out of the window, gazing up at all the five-star hotels he and his friends have helped build and a huge hoarding that promises 'Dubai Cares'.

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