I briefly visited the Gulf during a recent stopover from Chicago to Delhi. I raced out of the Abu Dhabi airport as I only had a few hours to experience the city before catching my connecting flight. My transportation to the city’s noteworthy sights was provided by Nabeel, a hip-hop loving cabbie from Lahore, Pakistan. Having never previously stepped foot in the Gulf region, I still had an idea of the people I might see—Emirati men wearing the traditional dishdash and women donning black abayas, with sprinkles of Philippinos, Malay, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, Brits, Americans, and other westerners. I was less prepared for the drastic economic differences that I saw–and that continue to characterize much of the growth in this capital city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and many other oil-rich Gulf countries.
Much of the beauty of Abu Dhabi lies in its ethnic diversity and the myriad of food and other cultural markers that make up this new global meeting point. Fittingly, one of the most widely sited passages of the Qur’an speaks of God’s intent for human differences:
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes so that you may know one another (49: 13)
But was it also God’s intent for the UAE and other Gulf States to serve as the ultimate showcase of income inequality in otherwise wealthy nations? My cab driver, Nabeel, explained to me that the taxi company he works for pays rates not based upon service, years of experience, or any other measure of performance; country of origin determines the pay scale. Even worse, cabbies are segregated by country into single room living quarters, where anywhere between 5 to 50 men sleep. Recruitment officials from cab companies, construction firms, and other labor-intensive industries in the Gulf that are undesirable to locals and westerners, lure local men from their home countries to come to the Gulf to work for slightly above average wages (as compared to the home country rate). In many ways, the practices are similar to the exploitation of some Latinos in the US. The difference is that, at least in Abu Dhabi, it’s completely legal, and seemingly completely socially acceptable.
Abu Dhabi–made up of 50% South Asians, 20% local Emirati, 20% other Arabs and Iranians, and 10% westerners–may be one of the most diverse places in the world. After Nabeel showed me the Grand Mosque, we stuffed ourselves with shwarma and falafel at a popular Lebanese restaurant where Arabs, westerners, and South Asians casually puffed on shisha and sipped yogurt drinks late into the hot summer night. Conservatively dressed Muslims and women in short skirts sat at adjacent tables, with little concern for the other. The scene reminded me of tourist-heavy sections of Beirut or a hookah lounge in Astoria Queens. I liked the mixture of traditions and the cultural awareness that is necessitated by living in such a context.
But it was the blatant injustice that Nabeel and other men like him experience (and he has it alright in comparison to the Bangladeshi construction workers), that kept me from fully enjoying my brief stay in Abu Dhabi. With an indigenous population comprising almost only Muslims and immense wealth, Abu Dhabi, like the Qur’an says, does allow for those that are different to get to know one another. It is my hope that it also opens up the eyes and hearts of those who live there and pass through, to demand more economic equity in the Gulf, and the world as a whole.