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Report — From the December 2017 issue

“I am Here Only for Working”

Conversations with the petroleum brotherhood in the UAE

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But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

 — Karl Marx

My American neighbors imagined the United Arab Emirates as a vacation spot, and those who liked Las Vegas might feel at home in, say, Dubai, which likewise offered air-conditioned venues separated by traffic and hot sand. One hotel in Abu Dhabi was famous for its lobby’s ATM, which dispensed gold bars, and what my countrymen referred to as family fun could be readily found in, for instance, water parks. We admired the UAE’s architecture, the safety, and most of all (being Americans) the wealth. Since I am myself an American citizen, I should now relay with extra envy and awe the claim by a certain bellhop, with whom you will soon grow better acquainted, that gasoline was so cheap here and the Emiratis so rich that when they went out to dine, they sometimes left the car running. I never witnessed this, nor did the gasoline seem extraordinarily cheap at about two dirhams a liter. (A dollar was then worth a bit less than four dirhams, meaning that Emiratis paid about $2.00 per gallon.)

All photographs from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall

Expressing my national character, I stayed in air-conditioned hotel rooms every night. When I went out for the day, I would turn off the power, like a good Californian; and whenever I got back, the staff would have restored the chill for me. The heat outside, in the fall of 2016, routinely overwhelmed my brand-new laptop and one of my two cameras, so I had to take the former through the dreary sprawl of Dubai to a district called Internet City, where unseen hands in a back room repaired it, and to frequently refresh the latter in air-conditioned eateries (thereby discovering the delights of rose milkshakes). One evening I dined outside at a Libyan restaurant in Abu Dhabi, and although I was the only customer to have made that choice, the kindly waiter insisted on powering up an imposing Chinese-made fan. I inhaled the artificial breeze for forty-five minutes; operating the fan over that interval must have consumed two ounces of oil in some power plant. These were some of the ways in which I enjoyed electricity.

In Dubai, I asked a Pakistani taxi driver, “Is oil good?”

“Of course it is good,” he replied. “Think, sir! This country has no vegetables. It is a very sandy place. Oil is a good thing for the people.”

Well, who could disagree? Having scouted out all seven emirates, the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that their total area contained the merest 4.6 percent of agricultural land, from which someone somehow managed to raise strawberries, flowers, and dates. These were fine export commodities, to be sure, but could they pay the air-conditioning bill, especially for a population that had tripled since 2000? They could not. But no worries! Despite retrenchments, the UAE remained the fourth-largest exporter of oil and gas on earth.

Air conditioners in an alley, Sharjah

The taxi driver agreed that global warming was already in force. Indeed, he even thought that he had experienced the changes himself.

“So, is oil good or bad?”

“Good, of course.”

Naturally! For without oil, there might never have been that touted treasure, the Dubai Mall — not merely the world’s largest but a small city unto itself, which glittered faintly with Muzak, and smelled somewhere between perfume and air freshener. With more than 1,200 retail outlets and a range of world-class attractions, the mall promised to delight, amaze, and thrill you. What held my interest, however, were the shoppers themselves: two beautiful young women in abayas, for example, one with the garment unfurled below the waist like a beetle’s elytra. Here came a middle-aged American couple in shorts, and their slender German or Austrian counterparts, also in shorts, and then a single lady, black-clad from head to toe, with only a narrow slit for her eyes. At the Australian chain restaurant where I ate lunch, my Filipina waitress, still in her first month here, had studied colonic irrigation in Idaho. One could call this a triumph of globalism, or syncretism, or something.

I went to see the famous skating rink. One could look down at it from a café, sipping a coffee or a hot chocolate while inhaling the chill of its ice. Like the ice bars in Las Vegas, it was a prodigious show of energy consumption — for the temperature outside was just about that of human blood. Children and occasional parents skated round and round. Two teenaged Middle Eastern girls skated holding hands, one in a T-shirt that said no boyfriend no drama.

In another decade, especially if the price of oil bobbed upward again, Abu Dhabi’s branch of the Louvre would be booming, there would be even more conspicuous hotels, and the greenery on the highways would appear almost natural, or at least consolidated. As one refinery employee told me, “They use drip irrigation. They’re really doing a great job.”

That was heartening, I admit. Even so, the air rarely felt good to me in the Emirates, no matter where I went. Certainly not in Dubai’s Deira district, where the high-balconied dhows rode the water with their Emirati flags wilting on the mast, while on the quay before them waited mountains of boxed Chinese refrigerators, air conditioners, and yellow-wrapped tires whose rubber gave off that sickly vulcanized odor in the morning heat. As for Abu Dhabi, no, breathing failed to refresh me in that one-star hotel so chilly, dark, and stinking of insecticide.

Perhaps you have read a parable by Ursula K. Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Omelas is a perfect city in every respect but one: its securities and pleasures are predicated on the torture of a single child. Would living there be acceptable to you? In the Emirates, a quarter of GDP derives from oil and gas, whose extraction requires pipe fitters, welders, concrete pourers, leak testers, and any number of other laborers. None of the ones I met were slaves. I never heard of one being tortured. They came of their own will, and many of them intended to renew their contracts. So was the setting of this story Omelas or not? You decide.

Aquarium, Dubai Mall

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’s most recent book is The Dying Grass (Viking). His article “Invisible and Insidious” appeared in the March 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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