Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dubai Travelogue

And now for something different: Richard's trip to the Middle East!

After a delicious salmon dinner in a Kennedy Airport restaurant with a surprisingly chic feel to it, I located the discreet entrance to the business-class lounge used by Emirates Airlines, Aer Lingus and others, where I indulged in wine-and-cheese largesse until my business associate arrived, not long before boarding the airline’s wide-body Airbus.

Once airborne, I forced down the evening light meal, secure in the knowledge that the bathroom was only a few steps away from my aisle seat. After determining that the seat-to-seat phone was out of order (my companion being seated at the far end of the cabin, beyond the bathrooms), I focused on understanding the articulating motorized chair. The personal video apparatus kept tempting my attention, but eventually I got the footrest to extend enough to straighten my legs. I said a silent thank-you and wondered what I would have done back in coach class, with my recently-arthritic left knee jammed up against the back of the seat next forward for thirteen hours (fourteen on the return). I decided I would have had to be sedated.

The most valuable of the many things I collected during the flight, besides a lot more calories from what seemed like three more meals – but the wine was flowing and I tend to lose count at three glasses (or was it four?) and so also at three meals – was the elegant white canvass toilet bag (and another one on the return). Six months later, I am still using the after-shave, cologne and several other items. (But not the razor – it had an old single-edge disposable cartridge which scraped from the first. Makes me wonder if Emirates has been slowly doling out the kits from some gargantuan purchase order of the 1960s.)

English was the primary language, though Arabic took precedence in signage (with French nowhere to be seen). The crew made its announcements, such as of meals and toilet kits, in English (recorded safety announcements began with Arabic and included several other languages after English). By their accents, the crew were not native English speakers. I wondered whether the preference for English stemmed from the period of British hegemony (before gaining independence in 1971, the Emirates’ were the Trucial States, a protectorate of the Crown) or whether it simply reflected English as the “world” language. (John McPhee would have tracked down the answer rather than make guesses.)

Our midnight arrival at Dubai International Airport saved us from immediately being subjected to the full light of the desert sun. On the gangway between the plane’s exit door and the long exit ramp, the midnight air felt warm and soft, reminding me of my two years in Liberia (or at least of my fonder memories of tropical breezes wafting through my little house by the ocean).

The surprising humidity continued inside the terminal, where we breezed through customs without purchasing visas and without inspection of our carry-on bags. Some of this should be attributed to our business-class tickets (reportedly costing four thousand dollars, though I did not pay the freight and so cannot speak with authority). Also, I am told that during daylight hours the terminal is jammed. The inspectors spoke to us in English, and seemed happy to see our US passports.

At our hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road (the main drag, only recently upgraded to multi-lane, divided-highway status), a letter from management, handed over with our card-keys, wished us “a memorable stay during the Holy Month of Ramadan” and then detailed the procedures concerning acceptable modes of dress and venues for eating, drinking and smoking (also don’t chew gum in public).

Certain areas, curtained off between sunrise and sunset, were reserved for off-limits activities (though none permitted consumption of alcohol during daylight hours) so that non-Muslims would not be forced to forego their meals until sundown for nearly thirty days running. Despite these warnings, one morning I absent mindedly donned my accustomed baseball cap prior to my workout (it clamps down my headphones and covers my balding pate) and had to be asked to remove it when I emerged from the locker room into the health club.

In the evenings, nightlife resumes; indeed, I am told and have read that during Ramadan nightlife takes on an extra savor and energy. Dubai’s great malls (new ones being built all the time) open up at sundown and stay open past midnight. The flood of shoppers is remarkably reminiscent of Herald Square in December. Not surprisingly considering that the daylight hours are supposed to be a time of fasting, the evenings also bring peak activity to the restaurant trade. Bars for the most part remain closed, which has resulted in a trend to do one’s drinking in restaurants that have liquor licenses (most of which are attached to the large hotels, which have justified the licensing on the basis of the tourist trade that is so vital to them).

In my hotel, one of the city’s larger luxury high-rise establishments, the Western-style sports bar was open, as well as the hotel’s several restaurants. I do not know how this was justified, although there is always the excuse that, like most sports bars, copious amounts of nachos and other munchies are downed every hour. What remained shuttered 24/7 throughout the Holy Month was the hotel’s piano bar. Even though Dubai has relaxed much of the restrictive character of Ramadan, the combination of alcohol with live entertainment still crosses the line of being deemed unseemly, even in a tourist establishment.

But there was another exception to the Ramadan restrictions. This was an establishment called “Cyclone, The Club,” which, judging by my cover-charge receipt (sixty dirhams, about sixteen dollars) is a part of a larger local entertainment firm called Al Nasr Leisureland. Cyclone was, needless to say, ready, willing and able to do business as a bar throughout Ramadan. On the evening of my appearance there, we had completed a lengthy post-sundown dinner with enough drinking to make us tell our host we’d like to see “something different.” When we arrived, we were told that the club had just opened for the evening, and it was implied that it would be open all night.

To get in, not only was there the cover charge but also a walk through a regular airport-style metal detector and a frisking by bouncers with what looked and felt (going up and down my legs) like nightsticks. (They also used one of the handheld metal-detector wands.) Opening the front doors of the two-storey building brought us into a long, narrow lobby with two sets of saloon doors, one on the right and one on the left.

We chose the right-hand doors and swung through in the time-honored style. Coming in behind my two hosts, I let the door swing back behind me then looked up and my jaw dropped. Slightly to my right was a long, U-shaped bar surrounded by what seemed like dozens of blondes in tube tops about whom I could hear my local host, a transplanted Brit, explaining, “Russians on the right.”

To my left, a few steps farther than the Russians but not many, was another U-shaped bar, this one surrounded by a like number of women in the requisite tube tops (the scantiest allowable mode of dress?), except that these women’s ancestry was plainly Asian. Hence, my host continued, “Asians on the left.”

While my Texas host (himself a transplanted Canadian) and I were recovering, three of the left-hand crowd took the bull by the horns (perhaps it was still early in the evening for the Russians) and stepped over close to us, smiling broadly. Squaring off, the taller one faced me and got out the words, “How are you?” in halting English.

Because of the usual bar noise, I couldn’t hear our British friend’s conversation at all and could carry on with Alan (not his real name) only when he and his partner sidled in close to me and mine (and then only by slowly piecing together the conversation for each of the girls). When Alan turned toward the bar for another round, his self-nominated escort would concentrate on me, giving me two to deal with, and in those moments I learned a bit more about her. (The beers were thirty dirhams, so we nursed them, but bouncer-like employees circulated among us, leaning over to check our bottles and offering to get us another when we were approaching halfway through.) Most of the time (we are talking about a half-hour max), I had to make conversation with my volunteer, piecing together the meanings and trying to check her for understanding.

My escort had arrived in Dubai six weeks before from Beijing and was Mongolian. (Alan’s comrade hailed from Taiwan and was a month in-country.) My partner, whose name was very clear to me for at least a week after I got back to the States but is now lost in the vagaries of memory, claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan. I tried to establish whether she was Mongolian by nationality as well as by descent, and I think it came out that her parents’ village was on the Chinese side of the border (Inner Mongolia). I asked about the Great Wall but am not sure she understood to what I was referring. The name of her village sounded like the old Mongol capital Karakorum, but she did not understand about that, either.

As the minutes passed, she began touching my arm and my midsection while describing herself as an expert in Mongolian massage. Feeling myself inexorably being backed into the proverbial corner, and knowing the way these things ended from encounters deep in the past with the much more aggressive women in Liberian bars, I quietly asked Alan for cab fare. He said, “Yeah, I’m not staying much longer myself,” and handed me a hundred dirhams. (Alan bankrolled me in everything I did in Dubai, it being understood the trip was on his company tab.) I slipped the bill in my pocket, feeling sure that, because of the language barrier, my attentive companion had no idea of my plans for it. Then I waited for her to smile, smiled back and said goodnight, using her name, then patting her hand and at the same time turning for the door a few steps behind me, not stopping until I was out in the night air. A taxi roared up and soon I was back in my sanctuary at the hotel.

Some of my questions to her concerned how she had come to leave her village and go to Beijing and how thence to Dubai. She seemed to be saying that something had happened to her village; her parents had had to move. (Shades of the rural land grabs that are a hot issue in China?) Of Beijing, she said there were no jobs. This may seem incredible, but I judged her age to be about twenty, and Beijing may not have been welcoming to a twenty-year-old female without much education (and possibly without much grasp of Mandarin). In fact, for her, being very pretty, and much in need of accommodation, all roads in Beijing may have seemed to lead to the brothels. In that light, Dubai, probably described in terms of all the new people arriving all the time (which is true) and all the money that’s building whole new neighborhoods (also true; they seem to build whole business districts at a time and boast that twenty percent of the world’s high-capacity construction cranes are engaged on Dubai projects), could very well have been made to seem a place of true possibility that contrasted mightily with the realities of Beijing.

The question is, and this question did not really sink home to me until afterward, what compromises did she and Alan’s girl from Taiwan and the dozens of Russians have to make in coming to Dubai? In entering through the security gate, inside the cordon of truncheons, was I in effect entering a prison? What if I had wanted to avail myself of her? Would I have taken her with me in the taxi, or, as seems likely, been escorted through a door at the back of the bar and shown to a room?

As against this, it is interesting that both girls were so recently arrived in Dubai. Could it be an indication that such arrivals are quickly paired off, departing the likes of the Cyclone for a life with a member of the Emirate’s largely immigrant work force, also newly arrived but with a reliable construction job?

The prison-like character of the nightspot would seem to argue against this, but, to push further down a speculative trail, there is some evidence, though very slight, that may indicate there’s yet something in this matching-up idea. The evidence, stamped right onto the aforementioned admission receipt (that I keep pinned to the wall next to my desk here at home), is the words, in Arabic and English, “Department of Tourism Commerce Marketing… Entertainment Control.” Could it be that Dubai imposes some kind of time limit on the proprietors of places like the Cyclone, after which each woman brought into the Emirate must be released? The time limit might be long enough for the proprietors to recover – from the women’s services – the cost of the recruiter middlemen (and their sources, going all the way back to Beijing and Taipei and dozens of other cities), plus, of course, a healthy profit.

Having tossed out all these guesses, it seems only right to add, once again, that John McPhee would have gotten answers rather than settle for guesses.

Perhaps that can be the next direction of this travelogue. I can do a little homework on the international female slavery market and try to find out if Dubai has a mercenary but still somewhat humanized way of dealing with it.


Blogger Jim H said...

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000: Trafficking in Persons Report places the United Arab Emirates in Tier III, a collection of the worst offenders against human trafficking. Here's what it says about UAE:


The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) is a destination country for women trafficked primarily from South, Southeast, and East Asia, the former Soviet Union, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, and East Africa, for the purpose of sexual exploitation. A far smaller number of men, women, and teenage children were trafficked to the U.A.E. to work as forced laborers. Some South Asian and East African boys were trafficked into the country and forced to work as camel jockeys. Some were sold by their parents to traffickers, and others were brought into the U.A.E. by their parents. A large number of foreign women were lured into the U.A.E. under false pretenses and subsequently forced into sexual servitude, primarily by criminals of their own countries. Personal observations by U.S. Government officials and video and photographic evidence indicated the continued use of trafficked children as camel jockeys. There were instances of child camel jockey victims who were reportedly starved to make them light, abused physically and sexually, denied education and health care, and subjected to harsh living and working conditions. Some boys as young as 6 months old were reportedly kidnapped or sold to traffickers and raised to become camel jockeys. Some were injured seriously during races and training sessions, and one child died after being trampled by the camel he was riding. Some victims trafficked for labor exploitation endured harsh living and working conditions and were subjected to debt bondage, passport withholding, and physical and sexual abuse.

The U.A.E. Government does not collect statistics on persons trafficked into the country, making it difficult to assess its efforts to combat the problem. Widely varying reports, mostly from NGOs, international organizations, and source countries, estimated the number of trafficking victims in the U.A.E. to be from a few thousand to tens of thousands. Regarding foreign child camel jockeys, the U.A.E. Government estimated there were from 1,200 to 2,700 such children in the U.A.E., while a respected Pakistani human rights NGO active in the U.A.E. estimated 5,000 to 6,000. The U.A.E. Government has taken several steps that may lead to potentially positive outcomes, such as requiring children from source countries to have their own passports, and collaborating with UNICEF and source-country governments to develop a plan for documenting and safely repatriating all underage camel jockeys.

The Government of the U.A.E. does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. Despite sustained engagement from the U.S. Government, NGOs, and international organizations over the last two years, the U.A.E. Government has failed to take significant action to address its trafficking problems and to protect victims. The U.A.E. Government needs to enact and enforce a comprehensive trafficking law that criminalizes all forms of trafficking and provides for protection of trafficking victims. The government should also institute systematic screening measures to identify trafficking victims among the thousands of foreign women arrested and deported each year for involvement in prostitution. The government should take immediate steps to rescue and care for the many foreign children trafficked to the U.A.E. as camel jockeys, repatriating them through responsible channels if appropriate. The government should also take much stronger steps to investigate, prosecute, and convict those responsible for trafficking these children to the U.A.E.


During the reporting period, the U.A.E. made minimal efforts to prosecute traffickers. Despite the ongoing trafficking and exploitation of thousands of children as camel jockeys and women in sexual servitude, the government made insufficient efforts in 2004 to criminally prosecute and punish anyone behind these forms of trafficking. The U.A.E. Government announced in April 2005 that it would soon enact a new law banning underage camel jockeys. Currently, the U.A.E. does not have a comprehensive anti-trafficking law. The government can use various laws under its criminal codes to prosecute trafficking-related crimes effectively, but there have been only a few such cases prosecuted. In 2004, U.A.E. officials declared that the 2002 Presidential Decree against the exploitation of children as camel jockeys was legally unenforceable — effectively asserting that the U.A.E. had no legal mechanism to address this serious crime. The U.A.E.’s new law, when enacted and implemented, is expected to enable enforcement of the Decree.

In 2004, according to an NGO, immigration authorities worked with source-country NGOs, embassies, and consulates to rescue and repatriate 400 trafficked former camel jockeys to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sudan. The government transferred the anti-trafficking portfolio from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Ministry of Interior — a ministry with a law enforcement authority — and created a designated anti-child trafficking unit within the Ministry of Interior. In December 2004, the government opened a rehabilitation center for the care of rescued child camel jockeys, and from December 2004 to April 2005, rescued approximately 68 children and repatriated 43 of them to their countries of origin, primarily Pakistan. However, the number of rescued and repatriated children through these efforts is insignificant compared to the huge number (estimated in the thousands) openly exploited at camel racetracks throughout the country. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the government investigated, prosecuted, and punished anyone for trafficking, abusing, and exploiting children as camel jockeys.

The U.A.E. Government’s efforts to prosecute crimes relating to trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation were equally disappointing. Despite a few arrests and prosecutions of those involved in such crimes, including travel and employment agencies that reportedly facilitate the trafficking of victims, U.A.E. law enforcement efforts during the year focused largely on the arrest, incarceration, and deportation of over 5,000 foreign women in prostitution, many of whom are likely trafficking victims. The police do not make concerted, proactive efforts to distinguish trafficking victims among women arrested for prostitution and illegal immigration; as a result, victims are punished with incarceration and deportation. Although the U.A.E. criminalized the withholding of employees’ passports by employers, there is inconsistent enforcement of the law, and the practice continues to be widespread in both the private and public sectors. The government claims to have taken civil and administrative actions against hundred of employers who abused or failed to pay their domestic employees. The government does not keep data on trafficking and related investigations, arrests, and prosecutions.


The U.A.E. Government’s efforts to provide protection and assistance to victims of trafficking were minimal during the reporting period. Its efforts to protect child camel jockeys were limited to the opening of one shelter in Abu Dhabi in December 2004 and the repatriation of approximately 443 rescued child camel jockeys. Given the estimated thousands of boys being openly exploited in the country, the total number rescued and repatriated so far is small. Following increased public attention to the camel jockey situation and rescue efforts by the government, an international NGO alleged that some camel owners are hiding a large number of child victims in the desert and in neighboring countries. However, there is no evidence the government has taken action to investigate and prevent this crime. The government is also working with the Governments of Bangladesh and Pakistan to establish U.A.E. Government-funded shelters in those countries to receive and care for rescued and repatriated children.

The government’s efforts to protect and assist victims of trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation have also been minimal. U.A.E. police continue to arrest and punish trafficking victims along with others engaged in prostitution, unless the victims identify themselves as having been trafficked. The U.A.E.’s numerous foreign domestic and agricultural workers are excluded from protection under

U.A.E. labor laws and, as such, many are vulnerable to serious exploitation that constitutes involuntary servitude, a severe form of trafficking. The government does not have a shelter facility for foreign workers who are victims of involuntary servitude, but relies on housing provided by embassies, source-country NGOs, and concerned U.A.E. residents. The U.A.E. Government states it offers housing, work permits, counseling, medical care, and other necessary support for those labor victims who agree to testify against their traffickers. However, few victims reportedly benefited from these government-provided services. In 2004, the Dubai Police Human Rights Department reported assisting such victims in 18 trafficking cases. The Dubai Police also assigns Victim Assistant Coordinators to police stations to advise victims of their rights, encourage victims to testify, and provide other essential services to victims.


The U.A.E. slightly increased its trafficking prevention efforts over the past year, particularly efforts to prevent the trafficking of children to work as camel jockeys. Prevention measures reportedly included closer screening of visa applications by U.A.E. embassies in source countries, distributing informational material directly to newly arrived foreign workers, supplying brochures to source-country embassies and consulates to warn potential victims, conducting specific anti-trafficking training for police and various government personnel, and conducting training for immigration inspectors in document fraud detection methods.

In March and April 2005, the U.A.E. Government announced a variety of measures to begin to address the country’s serious trafficking problems more effectively. The government announced in April that a new law, similar to the Presidential ban already in place but not enforced since September 2002, would be enacted soon. The law reportedly would ban jockeys under age 16 from participating in camel races and stipulate that a jockey’s weight must exceed 45 kilograms (99 pounds). At the time of this writing, the law had not been enacted. The U.A.E. Government also announced in April new procedures to facilitate the repatriation of those underage foreign camel jockeys already in the country and to prevent new ones from entering. Beginning on March 31, 2005, camel farm owners would have two months to repatriate all underage foreign camel jockeys working on their farms. After this grace period, the government would begin levying fines against anyone harboring underage camel jockeys. The government stated in March 2005 that it would enforce a new requirement that all source-country expatriate residents, including children, have their own passports. The government reportedly instructed ports of entry to ensure that no underage children enter the country for the purpose of being used as a camel jockey. It also stated that a medical committee would begin conducting tests on all jockeys as part of the pre-race handicapping. The government reported that it had identified adequate shelters in Pakistan and Bangladesh to assist underage camel jockeys who had been repatriated to those countries, and that it would provide financing to source country organizations to handle such repatriations. From October 2002 to January 2005, the U.A.E., through the use of iris recognition technology and document fraud detecting methods, prevented 26,000 potential illegal immigrants from coming into the country, some of whom were likely trafficking victims.

March 20, 2006 1:19 PM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

Oh my. What can I say?

The State Department site also has a photo gallery:

Of particular interest is a factoid that captions one of the pictures in the gallery. It points out that US citizens who, while abroad, act as customer/exploiters of trafficked minors are committing a felony offense.

Dubai and the UAE definitely are dragging their feet; how stunning that an authoritarian regime proposes legislation on such fundamental rights, such a grievous problem, such outrageous inhumanity, and then seems unable to enact that legislation. Something or somebody (high in the regime?) must be standing in the way. Meanwhile, at the Cyclone, the Entertainment "Control" people continue to collect their share of the cover charges (and never mind about the women on the far side of those saloon doors).

March 20, 2006 5:15 PM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

There has been a complicating development in the Cyclone story. Based on a more recent conversation with "Alan" it appears that, after my departure, our host, with no trouble at all, brought his escort out to the street, popped her in a taxi and sped off.

Does this mean the girls are free? The answer could be that, in authoritarian Dubai, surrounded by desert, the women are controlled, for all practical purposes, just by confiscating their passports when they arrive.

It would be interesting to know (but impossible to find out) exactly who is taking possession of the passports. Presumably, that would be the traffickers, but consider the possibility that "Entertainment Control" or one of its sister agencies is holding onto them at the traffickers' behest.

May 07, 2006 10:22 AM  

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