Whenever I mention that I hope to study abroad in the Middle East, people always offer me advice. One well-wisher suggested that I grow a beard to “blend in,” which, aside from being stereotypical, is impossible, because anyone who knows me understands that my facial hair has no game. Recently, someone encouraged me to travel to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, claiming that it’s the “most civilized area” in the region. His suggestion rendered me speechless. He managed to not only demonize millions of people, many of whom yearn for what we have, but also chose a country known for its terrible human rights record.
When people imagine the UAE, a country consisting of seven provinces, they picture crystal-clear water that ebbs and flows, splashing life on an otherwise barren and lifeless canvas. They imagine skyscrapers and nightclubs illuminating the night sky, casting color for miles. They see wealth, particularly when imagining Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the two most well-known cities in the UAE.
Tourists spent over $52 billion in the UAE in 2012, adding to the coffers of the sheikhs. But behind this wealth lies a dark underbelly sheikhs keep hidden from visitors. What people don’t see when they visit are the slave laborers who have given their blood to build the skyscrapers at which we marvel. They don’t see the foreign women who have signed contracts to become domestic workers, only to be forced into the sex industry and have their passports confiscated. They can’t imagine the malnourished young children kidnapped from countries like Bangladesh, who are exploited as camel jockeys because they aren’t heavy, allowing the camels to run faster.
These egregious human rights violations cut across different parts of society, involving rich families, government employees and criminal organizations. None of these practices are legal in the UAE. It is forbidden to give foreign workers a contract with a deposit to ensure their immigration. It would be a grievous offense to smuggle them in, essentially making them prisoners. It is unthinkable to starve children to ensure that they do not gain weight, which would make the sheikhs lose their precious money that they bet on the camel races.
Don’t misunderstand me: Not all sheikhs, government employees and people have slaves. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Whenever we discuss a particular country’s offenses, we have to be careful not to generalize across the whole country, branding everyone for the evils that certain people have committed.
Nothing is ever black and white. For every person who succeeds, there’s another who suffers. For every rich person in the UAE, there are many slaves. Unfortunately, one person’s paradise often makes another’s hell.