The United Arab Emirates has a long tradition of bringing in workers from other countries, particularly for construction jobs. Many come from India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, among other countries. Some stay only until their job is done and send most of their wages back to their families in their home countries. Others bring their families with them and remain for generations. None of these immigrants, regardless of the length of their stay, are able to attain citizenship in the UAE, even though they now make up 85% of the population.
Recently, the New York Times investigated the treatment of those workers in the construction of NYU’s new campus in Abu Dhabi, and found that they live and work in shockingly poor conditions. Despite the labor protections set forth by NYU to their contractors in Abu Dhabi, many of these workers work 11 hours a day, 6 days a week, and can live with up to 14 other men in a room.
The UAE’s disregard for the rights of its non-citizens is not new. In Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora, Neha Vora draws on her ethnographic research in Dubai’s Indian-dominated downtown to explore the lives of these “temporary guest workers”, who have flooded into the UAE since the 1970s. While their legal status defines them as perpetual outsiders, these workers are integral to the Emirati nation-state and its economy. Vora notes, “Certain expatriates are welcomed into the UAE and governed through technologies and rhetorics of a free and open market that purportedly allows anyone to succeed if they perform neoliberal self-enterprising subjectivities, while others are deemed insignificant and invisible to the fabric of the city-state. …Those who constitute exceptions to citizenship, like Indians in Dubai, are, by virtue of their exclusion, necessary to defining the parameters of citizenship and the legitimacy of the state. That is to say, their everyday practices, performances, and rhetorics actually prop up the citizen-noncitizen divide and the authoritarian patrimonial governance system through which they are regulated as outsiders.”