Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes about the plight of South Asian migrant workers toiling under slave-labour conditions in the building boom in Dubai. As you would expect, Ahad writes sympathetically about their appalling working and living conditions and goes into depressing detail of their perdition.
Then he writes about having dinner at the home of an Arab aquaintance:
One evening in Abu Dhabi, I have dinner with my friend Ali, a charming Iraqi engineer whom I have known for two decades. After the meal, as his wife serves saffron-flavoured tea, he pushes back his chair and lights a cigar. We talk about stock markets, investment and the Middle East, and then the issue of race comes up.
“We will never use the new metro if it’s not segregated,” he tells me, referring to the state-of-the-art underground system being built in neighbouring Dubai. “We will never sit next to Indians and Pakistanis with their smell,” his wife explains.
Not for the first time, I am told that while the immigrant workers are living in appalling conditions, they would be even worse off back home – as if poverty in one place can justify exploitation in the other.
“We need slaves,” my friend says. “We need slaves to build monuments. Look who built the pyramids – they were slaves.”
It would be a mistake to think that Ali’s casual racism towards Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis is unique or particular to one person in Dubai; if anything racism against South and South East Asians is not only widespread across the Middle East, it is institutionalised.