5. #GlobalizationCroissant, and other scenes from Dubai

Isaac Wurmann


On my last day in Dubai, I ate dates and baklava on a park bench before rushing to catch my bus back to Abu Dhabi. In the afternoon stillness, the muezzin of a nearby mosque sang the call to prayer, and labourers who were sweeping the stone ground stopped what they were doing and instinctively knelt to face Mecca.

The most salient account of Dubai I have encountered since returning from the United Arab Emirates is that it is a city consumed by a “mystified promise of globalization.”[1] To that I would also add that it is a city of extraordinary juxtapositions, including, but not limited to, a gentle demeanour that has been masked by a veneer of industry and opulence.

For many outsiders to Dubai, including myself, some of the main signifiers of globalization in the Gulf metropolis are also the most obvious: gratuitous architecture projects or megamalls where ski resorts sidle up to gold merchants, for example. Coupled with the city’s enormous diversity—a woman I spoke with told me it was the most cosmopolitan city she had ever lived in, beating out London and Montreal—it’s easy to be tricked into thinking Dubai represents a future in which borders and identity politics become meaningless.

But although Dubai may be a fascinating place to consider the phenomenon of globalization, Nadia Mounajjed writes that this environment also produces “segregated landscapes of management, consumption, and production.”[2]

* * *

On my second day in Dubai, I found globalization in a croissant.

In the historic Al Fahidi neighbourhood, a cluster of buildings adjacent to the Dubai Creek has been saved from the booming growth that has transformed the city in recent decades. The narrow streets, stone and teak buildings, and wind towers stand in stark contrast with the modern city’s downtown just a few kilometres to the south.

Historically, these buildings were used by Iranian merchants in Dubai, but in recent years they’ve been gentrified by art galleries and restaurants that are bridging the gap between old and new in the Gulf.

It was at a café in a courtyard tucked between two shaded Al Fahidi streets where I found the croissant of my dreams.

It struck the right balance of being flaky, but not too dry. It crumbled, as a croissant should, but still had enough moisture that I could sink my teeth into its flesh before letting it melt on my tongue.

Like any good millennial, I quickly posted to Facebook and Twitter about the experience: “I’m in Dubai, eating the best croissant of my life,” I wrote. “Is this the ‘globalization’ my poli sci prof was talking about?”

Absorbed in my 30-dirham pastry, I had almost missed the crowd of Indonesian tourists who were filtering through the café, or the Filipino man who had served me singing along to Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” that played over the loudspeaker.

Since Arab governments began adopting neoliberal policies in the 1990s, Gulf states have found themselves in a “pivotal position” in the structure of imperialist power. This has resulted in an internationalization of the imports and exports of countries such as the UAE, which may explain the appearance of a world class French pastry in Dubai.[3] 

This city’s “mystified promise of globalization” is reproduced in these moments, when the boundaries between diverse social geographies become blurred.

* * *

On my third day in Dubai, using tinned anchovies bought from the supermarket across the street, my Nigerian roommate made jollof rice in our hostel’s tiny kitchen.

The hostel was an inconspicuous affair, located in a residential building in one of the city’s most densely populated neighbourhoods. The surrounding landscape was saturated with Indian restaurants, dry cleaners, and banks offering international money transfers.  

Our chef grinned bashfully as he served us the meal on paper plates. He had remembered the recipe from memory, he told us proudly.

Over plates of jollof rice, an Afghan and a Pakistani commiserated about job-hunting in Dubai. From one of the lower bunks, a Brazilian offered information about a job fair for workers in the health sector. They were all in the UAE looking for a contract that would secure them a visa to stay in the country.

Since the discovery of oil in the Gulf, coupled with an increasingly international demand for oil, countries such as the UAE have played central roles in the global economy. Migrant workers have flocked to the Gulf hoping to benefit from its position at the intersection of global capitalist markets.[4]

In 2015, the population of the UAE was estimated at just over 9 million, with immigrants constituting nearly 90 per cent of that number.[5]

Precise statistics about UAE demographics are few and far between, but estimates from 1982 were that half of the country’s population was from South Asia, with significant numbers of people from other Arab countries, Iran, and the Philippines.[6]

The rise of capitalism in the UAE is inseparable from the rising number of migrant workers in the country. The lack of national labour power has resulted in foreign workers constituting 96 per cent of the labour force, according to some estimates.[7]

Just as capitalism has produced the circumstances to enjoy a croissant in the Gulf, it has also produced segregated landscapes where migrant workers have been reported to live and work in miserable conditions as they labour on the projects—new branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, for example—that are positioning the UAE as a major player on the world stage.[8]

* * *

“Update: Went back for another #GlobalizationCroissant,” I posted on Facebook the day after first enjoying the French pastry in the Al Fahidi neighbourhood.

The Filipino man—he introduced himself as Jordan—was working again, and anticipated my order after remembering how I had raved about the croissant the day before. “This is the best croissant I’ve had in my life,” I had told him, before also repeating it to the man cleaning the bathroom and the woman working in the art gallery down the street.

When he found out where I was from, Jordan told me he was only staying in Dubai until he could get a job in Canada. He had been in the UAE for years, and was waiting on the slow Canadian immigration system. His story is not unique in the Gulf, Jordan assured me.

While writing about capitalism in the Gulf states, Adam Hanieh writes that “social relations are not neatly circumscribed within national borders—flows of capital and labour, and the various policy frameworks that mediate them, act to tie different spaces to one another within a totality that transcends any state.”[9]

But imagining this borderless world also masks many of the challenges faced by migrant labourers in the Gulf, where the ability to work is precariously linked to the ability to continue living in this desert sheikhdom-cum-wonderland.

As my bus back to Abu Dhabi barreled down the wide Sheikh Zayed Road, my fingers still sticky from my dates and baklava, I was keenly aware of the segregated landscapes that underpin this global city. I was also disappointed I had not bought another #GlobalizationCroissant for the road.

 

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[1] Nadia Mounajjed, “Dubai’s Mystified Promise of Globalization,” Ibraaz, 8 May 2013, http://www.ibraaz.org/essays/61.

[2] Nadia Mounajjed, “Dubai’s Mystified Promise of Globalization.”

[3] Adam Hanieh, “A Petrodollar and a Dream,” Jacobin 13, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/a-petrodollar-and-a-dream/

[4] Serhat Yalcin, “Adam Hanieh: Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States,” Capital & Class 39 (1): 167.

[5] Central Intelligence Agency, “United Arab Emirates,” The World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ae.html.

[6] Central Intelligence Agency, “United Arab Emirates,” The World Factbook.

[7] Serhat Yalcin, “Adam Hanieh: Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States.”

[8] Molly Crabapple, “Slaves of Happiness Island,” Vice, 4 August 2014, http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/slaves-of-happiness-island-0000412-v21n8.

[9] Adam Hanieh, “A Petrodollar and a Dream.”

 

Isaac Wurmann is a journalism and human rights student in Ottawa, Canada. His writing can be found at www.isaacwurmann.com and he can be reached on Twitter at @isaac_wurmann.