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December 2017 Issue [Report]

“I am Here Only for Working”

Conversations with the petroleum brotherhood in the UAE

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

The guidebook had said:

If you had any doubt as to the oil wealth of the UAE, it’ll evaporate when you see Ruwais, an industrial town about an hour past Mirfa that exists only to serve the massive refineries set up along there. Needless to say, there’s little reason to stop.

Wishing to interview petroleum workers, I decided to go straight there. Ruwais faces the Persian Gulf not far from the Saudi Arabian border and just off Highway E11. Tourists, not that this was their season, passed by, not through, en route to the expensive nature resort on Sir Bani Yas Island.

As I rode away from Dubai that morning, the furry throbbing of the bus felt almost pleasant. I felt happy to be going out into the world, not knowing what I would find. The hazy skyscrapers, which included the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, were as unreal as the mountains in an ancient Chinese painting. The sun glared on the glass of the New Gold Souk. A number of the skyscrapers were narrow, futuristic, and strange, like angular fountain pens with notches in them. Then came glittering car dealerships paralleling Sheikh Zayed Road for a drearily long time, while the sweaty man beside me, who had ignored my greeting, continued connecting with various distant presences on his laptop.

In time, Sheikh Zayed Road turned into Highway E11, which ran through the flat white-and-tan desert, freckled with scrub and the occasional building. On a large screen behind and above the driver, an English-speaking commentator, her pleasant voice amplified for the greater benefit, discussed Donald Trump. We continued west past Emirates Steel, the National Marine Dredging Company, more auto dealerships, mosques, and malls, then reentered that flat tan desert, following signs for Saudi Arabia.

When my bus pulled in under an awning at Ruwais, dusk was near. I asked the driver if there was a hotel here and he said yes, adding that it would be left at the corner and then five minutes straight ahead. I thanked him, slung on my two backpacks, and descended into what the bus’s thermometer still claimed was 95 degrees, although it felt hotter. Well, that was business as usual for me in the Emirates; I stank of sweat wherever I went.

Construction, Ruwais

Just as I rounded the corner, the bus pulled away, with all the other passengers on it, as if they knew something I didn’t. Now I was alone in Ruwais. Everything looked either new or unfinished. Stretching to the horizon were drums, tanks, and such. But the air was hazy and dusty and my spectacles salted with sweat, and I was preoccupied with settling myself for the night.

I approached a new and somewhat grand complex of apartment towers. It took longer than I had expected to get past all that, perhaps because I was hot and tired, but also because the towers were wider and taller than they had first appeared. I began to lose heart. Then came salvation: a lofty guesthouse called ADNOC. This must be what the bus driver had steered me to; I would do well in Ruwais after all.

Relieved, I turned off the wide street, entered a vast, air-conditioned lobby, and approached the counter, behind which sat a pleasant, bespectacled young Filipina wearing a security badge on her chest. She explained that the guesthouse was for workers only: ADNOC stood for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Furthermore, Ruwais offered no hotels at all, and no cabs. To be nice, and to get rid of me, she led me over to a desk on the other side of that great cave, where a courteous young man called a taxi from out of town.

The taxi driver promised that the hotel in nearby Jebel Dhanna would not be expensive, and maybe he imagined that for a Californian, nothing was. The Dhafra Beach Hotel turned out to be the cheaper of two adjacent properties, which jointly offered the traveler a private beach whose fine sand had been thoughtfully decorated with bottles and broken plastic, and whose ocean view included, among other petrochemical structures, the first refinery that I had seen in this emirate.

I took my dusk there on the Gulf shore, which barely smelled of the sea, and which the breeze had cooled to a temperate 80.6 degrees. The sea came in with an almost steady hiss of long and even waves; it had not yet given up being blue, and the sky was a dark dusty purple with two meager wings of cloud across it. To my right, a wall of lights, long and low, went far into the water: a spectacular docking facility for oil tankers. I walked east, until I could see over the low dune at the edge of the Dhafra property to the gruesome fairy-tale lights of the refinery, whose high plumes of peach-colored fire spread out widely while a long trail of smoke blew parallel to the ground. The full moon was a grimy red ball, as well it should have been to preside over such wonders.

The price for my room fell just shy of 500 dirhams — about $135. The calm Filipina receptionist, who was less than enthralled by my sweaty clothes and backpacks, informed me that I could stay only this one night, since they were booked up starting tomorrow. The adjacent, much more expensive resort was out of the question, and the nearest available alternative was in Abu Dhabi.

Not wishing to make that two-and-a-half-hour journey twice each day, I put on my best sad manner, but the young lady could do nothing for me. Fortunately, Ravindra the bellhop was someone who could be reasoned with. On the way up to my quarters, we chatted about Rajasthan: he was from the area around Jaipur, where I had enjoyed the Amer Fort, as I did not scruple to inform him. When we reached the room, I closed the door and gave him a large tip. Next I remarked how downright tragic it would be for me to take the bus all the way back to Abu Dhabi tomorrow, and he said he would see what he could do.

Gas flare as seen from Jebel Dhanna

In ten minutes the phone rang. Ravindra had wangled me a place at the Danat Resort, just for tomorrow, although the price, unfortunately, would be 1,556 dirhams. Afterward I could return here.

Thanking him, I asked whether he had time to visit me again. Once he appeared, I invited him to work for me at 500 dirhams a day, finding petroleum workers I could speak with and interpreting as needed. He knew plenty of refinery types, he told me, several of whom currently boarded at this hotel. And he had a friend who could drive, so I could tour Ruwais in style!

With these details arranged, I set off for the Danat in a golf cart driven by one of Ravindra’s colleagues. There I was informed that tonight I could stay at the Dhafra after all, oh, yes, tonight and tomorrow and possibly without end. Good old Ravindra! Life was breaking my way.

To meet the men I hoped to interview, my driver made a wide turn down the highway that bisected the plain of pinkish sand. There was a black glitter of windows from the white buses waiting to ferry workers to or from their “bedspaces,” which were right here where the land began to thicken with sheds, great spools of orange cable, and low-budget carports. Then came a long high fence whose outward-leaning top was garnished with barbed wire.

“This a camp,” said Ravindra. “All people working here.”

“What’s the name of the place?”

“The camp is IMECO, sir. People are living here. Evening time they are coming here.”

There were more camps: Almarai, and Discovery Camp, and others whose names I never learned. Now, how would I get acquainted with their residents? My task was tricky. The Emirati press appeared to be controlled, and any prudent foreign journalist had better proceed with care. As for touring the two refineries in Ruwais, not a chance! In fact, I could be arrested if detected photographing one.

Ravindra informed me that because of the threat of industrial espionage, the refinery workers were forbidden to bring in cell phones containing cameras. Sometimes they mutilated their smartphones into acceptability.

More difficult than photographing refineries was photographing bedspaces — which I had first seen advertised in Dubai, spelled as one word or two, the notices covering walls, switch boxes, walls, and the backs of other signs. Some offered space to Filipinos only, or to Nepalese only, or to “nice couples.” Some bragged that the partition separating adjacent sleeping spaces was “nice”: it came nearly to the ceiling.

All the workers I interviewed around Ruwais lived in such places, although street-pole advertisements were almost absent there, because employers arranged one’s bunking, complete with convenient ethnic segregation. I had hoped to see the inside of at least one such room. That, too, was prohibited; the workers were afraid of violating the rules.

For that matter, they seemed afraid to be interviewed. We could not talk to anyone in a restaurant, as I should have liked to do, so that I could have bought those workers something. That would have been too public. But each camp teemed with dirt roads, and these roads were rich in men who stood or trudged beneath the sun. Accordingly, we would drive slowly along until my colleagues spotted a prospect. Then Ravindra would roll down his window while the driver leaned across him, sweetly pursing his lips in a commanding hiss or, sometimes, a “Tch-tch!

When I was in India and men attempted to get my attention in that way, I had thought it somewhat rude. But laborers in Ruwais usually came straight up to the window. Ravindra, who now took over, showed a genius for engaging with and persuading people. He could distinguish a Rajasthani on sight, which was helpful, since all the petro-workers we interviewed around Ruwais were either Indian or Pakistani.

Here I should mention that the population of the Emirates is at most 20 percent Emirati. During my two weeks in that country, I met to my knowledge only two locals. The rest were overwhelmingly Pakistani, then Indian; there were Filipinas in retail and at hotel counters; I encountered occasional Bangladeshi or Afghan waiters; and two sweet Russian ladies staffed my business hotel in Dubai. Nepalese whose finances had been ruined by the great earthquake might work in warehouses around Ruwais. Cheerful young Africans, often hailing from Ghana or Cameroon, especially friendly and perhaps a bit lonely, contracted as security guards at museums and beaches. Almost none of these people planned to stay in the UAE for long.

In two years, Ravindra said, he expected to go home to an arranged marriage in Rajasthan. I asked whether he would ever consider marrying a local girl here, and he said: “If I looked at a girl for five minutes and she complained, the police would take me.”

As I have mentioned, the bedspaces were ethnically segregated, and the workers seemed to like it that way. Compatriots stuck together — which meant that when Ravindra began speaking to our latest victim in Rajasthani, which not even the driver, who came from a different region of India, could entirely understand, the man would chat back delightedly. Ravindra would then lead the conversation as follows: “What village are you from? Why, that’s near my village! And do you work in the plant? What do you do there? What’s the life like? Can you tell us about it? You see, there’s an American in the back seat” — at which point the driver would lower my window, and the worker would catch his first glimpse of a chubby, aging Caucasian whose head had been crew-cut against the heat and who smiled and gave him a salaam alaikum.

“No, you won’t get in trouble, he’s only writing a book,” Ravindra would insist. (Needless to say, that book will include this very article, in a somewhat more copious form.) And then, more often than not, the man would answer my questions. On only two or three occasions did a worker enter our air-conditioned van to sit beside me, becoming cooler and safer (I would have supposed) behind those tinted windows. Ravindra said that the rest were too afraid of being seen getting into a strange vehicle. They might also have feared being literally or figuratively trapped by us. Whenever we grew conspicuous, Ravindra would suggest that we leave and look for prospects elsewhere.

I had prepared a template of questions, then ensured that Ravindra understood them all. I would ask, and he would translate the answers into his idiosyncratic English while I sat clattering away on my spare laptop. Once the laptop failed, I was back to writing in a notebook, which was also my procedure when we went out at night, so that the blue glare of the screen would attract no extra scrutiny. I likewise refrained from taking photographs at night, on account of the flash. In the daytime, I asked each interviewee if I could get his portrait. Oftentimes agreement required Ravindra’s reassurance that this was just for a kitab — a mere book.

Mr. Rana Saqib, one of the few to enter the van and sit beside me, was twenty-three years old — not muscular, but agile and alert. He had a wide face, a black mustache that curved down beyond his lower lip, and a brief and narrow beard. Mostly I could not look at him because he sat beside me, facing Ravindra, while I bent over my laptop. But when I photographed him, the way he held himself in that hot glare struck me as both wary and vulnerable, with his arms loosely down and away from his sides, and that steady, patient, glittering gaze of his.

“He says he is a carpenter, from Pakistan.” I asked from where in Pakistan and he looked at me, so I rattled off the names of cities I had visited there, and when I got to Multan he nodded and said, “Multan.”

“He is working in UAE for thirty-nine months,” Ravindra continued. “He come here by agent. They take some money, fifty thousand. They provide visa, they provide job, everything. They came four people together from same village. Now all are in same company.”

Rana Saqib

“Are you happy or disappointed with the life here?”

At this, Mr. Saqib pushed at the back of the driver’s seat.

“Sir, he’s saying, according to his word, when he told this agent, ‘I want to go out of Pakistan,’ at that time, they told him, you have this job. Once he reach here, this job different. But slowly, slowly, he is learning different job. About how much salary they told him, the salary the same. That was true. Salary is six hundred dirham one month, plus three hundred for food, plus overtime also.”

“Does he pay any tax?”

“No. But when he send some money home, that cost twenty dirham.”

“Do you want to stay all your life here?”

“He saying, he was going home. But anything wrong can happen. He cut finger, this one” — and I saw he was missing the tip of his thumb.

“By mistake, his finger come in machine,” Ravindra told me.

“What does the inside of the refinery look like?”

“They don’t allow him inside plant. In the refinery there is some office. He went there for some items. They fix cupboards, chairs, all.”

“So what do you think about oil?”

“He’s saying, it’s very danger for the world.”

“So how should people get electricity?”

“He saying, for power, okay, they use generators.”

Right now, he was off to court in hopes of redress for his injury. Ravindra assured me that he was likely to get some sort of compensation. Maybe he would. But the courthouse was more than thirty minutes away by car, and he lacked a ride, and was missing a day’s work. My companions did not want to drive him, so we thanked him and sent him back out into the heat.

My next interview subject was a long-termer, an Indian from Uttar Pradesh with a round, royal-red face and graying hair, who wore a stained blue shirt with a pen tucked in his breast pocket and identified himself only as Mr. Mahiveer. His eyes looked bloodshot. About his refusal to enter our van, Ravindra later explained that workers were discouraged from interacting with strangers while traveling between their dwellings and their jobs — from what I was told, they were barred from going outside without a resident identity card. Mr. Mahiveer, Ravindra reported, was employed by ADNOC, and had also worked at one of the Takreer refineries.

“What made you decide to come here?” I asked.

“Before he was in Mumbai long time,” Ravindra translated, “and there they make only buildings. He’s saying, now company transfer him here. When he get interview, they said they would pay him six hundred and fifty dirham. In UAE he is working maybe thirteen years. The room is good, with air-conditioning, but food is very big problem. The chicken, they don’t masala inside, they don’t get taste.”

Another problem, it seemed, was the release of gas around the refinery. Mr. Mahiveer addressed this topic in a loud, liquid voice, standing in the sun and touching the front passenger windowsill while Ravindra interpreted: “That gas is very danger, we need oxygen, but we can’t get oxygen!”

“What’s your opinion of oil?”

“For us, oil is not good. For many percent of us working here, it’s not good. If not good for us, one by one, and not for family, it’s not good for world also.”

I could smell volatile organic compounds on the hot air; they offered up a faint nauseous chemical smell. Mr. Mahiveer was telling Ravindra that in two or three months, he would return to India, “because of the gas.”

I asked him what the refinery looked like.

“The plant is near the sea,” came the answer, so this must have been Takreer’s Refinery West. “Gas pipe all, everything there. You can see from our beach.”

He stood there, weary and angry, and from the receding hair on his forehead I suspected that his strength and endurance were waning. I hoped that in the end, he or his family would have something for these years of work.

Cruising through the environs of IMECO, we next stopped a Mr. Sahabudin. He was slender, sunburned, and handsome, with black hair, and he kept holding an empty soda bottle behind his back. He was thirty-six years old. He wore two shirts and tan slacks, all of it very clean. He was barely sweating; only two or three jewels of moisture clung to his forehead.

“He fixes steel inside,” Ravindra told me. “When the people build any plant, they will first put steel, to make plant round, and the other people come and put in concrete. It’s a very big plant.”

On the hot breeze came the smell of crude, that half-sickening, half-pleasant odor.

“You must be very strong, to work steel.”


The man smiled and brushed away an imaginary fly. “He said he will not work here long time. He will work here only for one year and then he will go back. In India, too much things is there, but here, only plant is there.”

“If you want to go to Abu Dhabi to walk around, can you do it?”

“They can’t go alone there. There is a trip. Bus goes every month.”

“What else do they do for recreation?”

“After finish duty they always come room, then food and movie. This area, we have only one mall here, and mall is very small.”

“Can I see inside your room?”

“They don’t allow that for security.”

Mr. Sahabudin had a wife and two children in India. I asked what his wife thought about him being here.

He smiled bitterly. “His wife is saying, she doesn’t want to live alone. She want to live together.”

“And what do you say?”

“That’s why I want to go back.”

The loneliness of these men without their women cannot be quantified, but the following can: the gender ratio of the total population in the Emirates is 2.2 males per female. As for what the Statesman’s Year-Book calls the “economically active labor force,” it is 85 percent male — among the highest percentages of any country in the world.

“Is oil a good energy source?”

Mr. Sahabudin shook his head.

“Do you believe in climate change?”

He grinned and put his hand on his hip. “Now a little bit okay, but in future it’s very danger.”

Mr. Sahabudin was very patient with me. But when I asked to take his photo, he refused and ran away.

When I asked why they had come, the guest workers invariably answered as one might expect: for the money. And so Ruwais was built with such people in mind — people who preferred to send money to their home countries rather than spend it here. What the city’s planners anticipated for the long haul, I could not imagine. Was Ruwais someday to be a “destination” — aspiring to, say, third-rate Dubai-hood, with another mall or two, and maybe even some “fun,” at least for vacationers from Saudi Arabia? Clearly somebody had what executives like to call a vision, given the sheer quantity of concrete rising within the city limits.

And then what? In its latest World Factbook, the CIA referred to “collapsing real estate prices” in the Emirates, a problem compounded by the international banking crisis — and of course the very thing that gladdened American drivers, the oil glut, was a misfortune for the UAE. These three factors surely contributed to the ghostly ambience of Ruwais. Perhaps Takreer and ADNOC and all the rest had simply overbuilt. Because in Dubai, as I have told you, and likewise in Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah, and even adjacent to the moldy corridors around my room at the Dhafra Hotel, scaffolding and coveralled, hard-hatted men offered us daily activity with daily perceptible results.

In Ruwais, there were curving rows of so-called villas, some of them almost entirely built, while the facing structures might be higher, lower, or maybe exactly the same height but still wrapped in scaffolding. All this had been sealed off by a wall that loomed behind and considerably above the streetlamps, and along this wall marched slick renderings of the way these buildings would look once they were finished, but the pictures lacked people. In front of the wall, and covering up the bottoms of the paradisiacal views, ran a row of those movable plastic highway barriers that can be filled with water or sand, as hulking as tanks. And that was all, except for a traffic island of pale sand, and the white sky above.

Refinery, Ruwais

The streets had names like Avenue A. Each name was given in English below and Arabic above. Sometimes, as in the neighborhood of the post office, the buildings leaned toward one another across the empty street like upturned, truncated triangles, so that they formed an aspiring arch with a slit of sky in the middle.

From the wide paved plateau on which the Ruwais Mall had been set, one had an expansive view of the villas, which from that vantage resembled a crowd of mausolea, and far beyond, a horizon’s worth of refinery towers, whose slenderness made them seem like alien fabrications on some low-gravity planet. As far as I could see, nothing moved. It was not a place where I should have liked to live, not even if they gave me my own villa.

At midday, Ruwais could be as still as a radioactive municipality in Fukushima, or a West Virginia town whose coal mines had closed. As the humidity thickened and sweltered, the silent buildings appeared spurious, irrelevant, their dark square windows fading away; the highways seemed to vanish into the sand, while the giant transmission towers lost their power lines, devolving into half-seen fenceposts and shipless masts; finally, on the horizon, Refinery East once more pretended to be a city, like Manhattan seen from the window of a distant airplane on a muggy day.

I was always happy to retreat to my air-conditioned room, shower off the sweat, drink water, and lie down while I cooled off. Perhaps the contract laborers also preferred to lurk indoors once their specialized services to petroleum had been completed for the day. Certainly Ruwais had little fun to offer. Having failed to enter any bedspaces, I had better not rhapsodize about them, except to remark that any human habitation that entirely prohibits visitors deserves my suspicion.

The Punjabi carpenter Shavan Kumar approached the side of the van. His chin stubble had just begun to go gray; he was forty-five years old. His workplace, he told us, was an “electricity room,” and he earned 900 dirhams a month. “I making villa for ADNOC company for both levels of workers for one and a half years.”

“What do you think of oil?”

“Bad. Bad for health.”

“And climate change?”

He grinned. “Climate change is good because oil company will close!”

So he could be a jokester, this Mr. Kumar, the stubble covering his chin and cheeks all the way up to his ears. But those vertical creases above the bridge of his nose were not merry, and for a moment I thought that he might be looking at me as though this was one more procedure more easily endured than avoided. Anyhow, Ravindra put him at ease; he liked Ravindra, and I meant him no harm.

“What is your room like?” I asked.

“One hall and ten people. Blanket one by one. Three bed on wall, like this: top, middle, bottom. Each man has one cupboard with lock, but all money you have you must keep with you. Many bathroom is there; no kitchen. Free, paid for by company.”

Then he repeated: “I am here only for working, only for eating.”

I asked if I could see inside this room. He replied: “Cannot allow this camera. Big security.”

A workers’ camp near Ruwais

There was also Mr. Gafar Khan from Rajasthan, who looked fifty years old and very professional in his blue coveralls, and sat boldly beside me in the back seat while Ravindra reassured and pleased him by speaking Rajasthani. (Their villages were little more than thirty miles apart.) Mr. Khan wore a plastic yellow monitor on his breast. Watching me through narrowed eyes, he allowed me to shake his ice-cold sweaty hand.

He walked the oil company’s pipeline, testing for gas leaks. It was his sixth straight year in the UAE. I asked him what the most difficult part of his job was.

Mr. Khan laughed, showing stained teeth. “Every work is hard, not easy. Sometimes there’s a small gas leaking. But if more than that, this instrument is blinking.”

Ravindra added: “He said it has a bad smell, same as rotten egg.” That would be sulfur, no doubt.

“Is this pipeline for oil or natural gas?”

Mr. Khan replied, “I have no idea where gas is coming from.”

He was the most grizzled and hardened-looking of them all, and yet not brutalized — tempered, tanned, roughened, graying but clear-eyed, watching me with a sort of knowing brightness. Did he believe in global warming? He said he didn’t know, laughing slowly, as if at something that was not for him to work out.

The temperature was falling, and everything felt new and still. We passed a row of long white buses, all bringing workers home to camp. The half-built houses and their concrete teeth were darkening against the sun as we ascended the hill to the Ruwais Mall, and suddenly the wind began to blow cool onto the parking lot. As I stood on that plateau of asphalt and concrete, gazing across the white sandy plain, I heard a bird begin to sing, the empty road suddenly swarming with white buses, and down at the Takreer plant, whose sign proclaimed we refine right, the distant lights slowly gained strength and beauty against the dusk.

Thinking to give the laborers a few more minutes before we pestered them, we drove down into town, and my companions sat in the parked car while I strolled about taking notes. Ruwais had become a living place!

Public park, Ruwais

A woman in a magenta top stood beside a car, chatting through the rolled-down window with the men inside it. The pond, which by day had been turbid and silent within its wrought-iron fence, was now animated by fountains — fountains! — and across the street, a young couple, he in a red uniform, she in green, were bicycling around the traffic circle. Two yellow school buses sat winking their taillights, and two minarets glowed electric green for the muezzin’s amplified call to prayer. At 5th Street West and Avenue E, a lady was following her cat down the street, and another woman strode rapidly toward the mosque — strangely complex, the way the hem of that shadow-black abaya oscillated around her ankle at each step!

Probably if I had stuck around it would only have gotten better and better, but we left the metropolis to its own stupendous devices and pulled back onto the highway. We passed a sign for mega bazar and eased into a huge gravel parking lot. Ravindra reeled in a very dark man in a camouflage headscarf. Once he approached the window, I saw that he wore an orange vest over his tan shirt. As it turned out, he, too, came from a village not far from my fixer’s.

“I mix concrete for the refinery,” the man said. His name was Iawahar, and he was thirty-five years old. “If any pipeline is going, for support we make a concrete pillar, and also some concrete underneath, both for gas and oil.”

“He has been working here for six years,” Ravindra said, “and then visa will close and he will open some business back home. His family is mother, father, wife, baby, and small boy: six persons all together.”

“What do you think about oil?”

He cocked his head, and I watched the rivers of light behind him, through which young male silhouettes kept passing. “Sir, he saying, here all working for money only. All agree, oil is not good, gas not good; for health they are not good. But we are working only for money.”

“Do you send money back home or keep it with you?”

“Send all money home. Only a little bit, like two hundred every month, he keeps.”

The man stood there in the darkness, with a headlight’s reflection flashing behind him on a bus. “But now no loan,” and I could see that the man took pride in this fact. Ravindra explained: “His father is farmer, still alive. What his father earned, he gave this one for agent, and now he has paid money back, sir.”

“What do you believe is the best source of energy?”

“In plant, they always use small golf cart, electronic, no gasoline engine, because so much danger from big fire! If this is safe, it is good for us. Power we can get from the sun. That’s good for us.”

Shavan Kumar

Another long Takreer bus pulled in, all its windows glowing, and as we talked, the parking lot filled up with more white buses, their warm exhaust resembling the breath of faithful dogs. Mr. Iawahar was now a silhouette. Through the open window, I shook his hand, which was hot and wet.

Then, since some zealous bearded men looked unhappy about our presence, the driver put the van back into gear and we went lurching into the darkness, toward another pallid row of water tanks. We returned to the Mega Bazar, where our headlights picked out a crowd standing around fires in a wide sandy lot. I thought they were eating, but the driver considered it inadvisable for us to get out of the van, so we left them. Elsewhere, just inside a doorway draped with Christmas lights, an ATM shone upon a man who was using it, while a horde queued behind him. Behind them in turn, on the concrete steps descending to a parking lot, sat four or five others, chatting. Perhaps their bedspaces were some distance apart, or mutually excluded by “security,” or maybe they were simply enjoying the night air, which smelled now only slightly of industrial chemicals.

The average salary of the men I spent time with worked out to 11,578 dirhams a year, or $3,216. My sample was small, and each man must have made his own decision as to whether to include his overtime pay and food allowance in the number that he gave me. All the same, these salaries lay within a credibly narrow range.

According to the CIA, in 2016 the per capita GDP of the United Arab Emirates was $67,900. What should I make of the fact that the second number is twenty-one times higher than the first? I concluded that the Emiratis were servicing their petrochemical machine at bargain rates.

Would you call these laborers exploited? Mr. Rana Saqib’s missing finger, and that common complaint about not getting enough “oxygen,” not to mention the fear they so often showed, made me feel relieved not to be in their shoes. To work six or seven days a week from dawn to dark, and then maybe go to the Mega Bazar for cigarettes, fast food, or the ATM, after which the destination would be some dirt road, followed by an assigned bedspace; to accumulate money dirham by dirham, so that if all went well, one could start a business back home, or even marry — was that a decent life?

But on this topic, let me quote the kind and gentle Mr. Priyank Srivastava, a refinery safety auditor who commuted between Ruwais and Abu Dhabi. (You will meet him again at the end.) Regarding the gas and the lack of oxygen, he said: “In any area of the world, if you go in some industrial area, they are venting something that is not good for health. In your country and my country, they try to put as much green around refineries as possible, to absorb the toxins. If you’re not planting so many trees, and you have this concentrated industrial area, you may get sick. You may feel some choking or suffocating feeling. But here they take care. If you are below forty years old, you must go at least once every three years for medical evaluation. What are those people noticing? Maybe carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfide excess or maybe just the dust. You are in the refinery, so you cannot get the quality of air that you would be breathing in the jungle.”

Early in the morning, the Dhafra Hotel’s restaurant filled with men in navy-blue Takreer coveralls, whose reflective safety stripes at cuff and seam and Emirati-flag elbow patches indicated their membership in the petroleum brotherhood. Of course, their service to the industry was considerably more remunerative than that of the men sleeping ten to a room in the labor camps. To tell the truth, I would not have sought them out. Easier for the poor man to walk away! But these men, too, were guest workers, and thanks to Ravindra, two of them consented to answer questions in my room at night.

Gafar Khan

They were post-Soviet men, whose broken birthplace had now scrambled their national identity. Mr. Marat Sagimbaev was a Kazakh, and like many of his countrymen, he looked Korean to me. He said: “I am working here as a medical coordinator, which is a totally administrative job, so I’m not using my skills as a doctor. I’m not going into the refinery itself, I should say. I’m dealing mostly with security guys.”

But what was a refinery worker? If Mr. Sahabudin the steel fixer and Mr. Iawahar the concrete mixer were petroleum workers, then so were these other three, none of whom was operating the controls of some catalytic cracking tower. For the Dubai Mall’s skating rink to stay frozen, and for my ailing laptop to stay charged, and for a multitude of other so-called civilized amenities, legions of specialists needed to accomplish tasks that at first sight had little to do with oil.

Mr. Utkir Umarov, the senior process safety engineer, was a trim thirty-seven, with an almost military bearing. “I started in Kyrgyzstan” — his homeland — “as a safety officer, spent ten years in the refinery there, and then got an offer from a firm in Abu Dhabi doing consulting work, and have been doing some jobs for Takreer. I just joined the oil-refining company one year ago.”

At my request, we conversed about the old days, which reliably fascinated me and which I had not seen, having visited Russia and Kazakhstan only after glasnost; to Kyrgyzstan I had never been. They told me family stories of bravery and cowardice in the Great Patriotic War, which I reluctantly omit from this record. Mr. Sagimbaev said, “We had really good things in the old Soviet Union, real friendship and good things with neighbors. The Soviet ice cream is something you miss!” But Mr. Umarov remarked, “You know, I had good memories about my childhood, but I would say that it was in the past, so we should not be going there back.”

As it happened, Mr. Umarov had been near a hot zone. He told me, “There is a city called Mailuu-Suu, which is close to the town where I was brought up, and they have a wasteland” — by which he evidently meant a contaminated place. “It was closed city in my time, but now it is open.” He did not elaborate on the present-day charms of Mailuu-Suu, but they might have informed his views on nuclear power, which ran as follows: “It is probably good to provide a boost to economy of single country, but in the long run, you will have nuclear waste and radiation leaks, and then all the gains will be eliminated.”

Mr. Sagimbaev contented himself with saying, “In my opinion, this is something that can be considered a really clean source of energy, but definitely a security issue.”

Refinery, Ruwais

It frequently turns out that a subscriber to some given ideology of energy use will be likewise sanguine about other fuels, while a naysayer (like me) may well be negative wherever he goes. And in the case of these two refinery men, each one’s position on nuclear power approximated his judgment of oil. I asked them, “Which energy source is more important now, coal or oil?”

Mr. Sagimbaev said, “Definitely oil is much more important in the current moment than coal, because the coal era is ended.”

Mr. Umarov said, “At present, I think oil’s competing with gas, which is being liquefied and used worldwide. From an environmental point of view, gas is more better, but it is not quite practical to switch to gas, economically.”

“And what’s your take on global warming?”

Mr. Sagimbaev said, “In the big perspective, I think we should also understand minor ice age which is now approaching. All things which Mr. Gore mentioned should be evaluated properly. Definitely humans can affect the environment. But it requires more to cause global warming. It’s been proved. It’s a minor ice age that’s been starting, something that comes periodically every seven hundred or five hundred years.”

Not looking at his colleague, Mr. Umarov said, “Looking at the poles, sea level is going up. It’s a clear evidence of climate change.”

Mr. Sagimbaev replied, “I want to say that all these effects, including global warming, need to be properly calculated. We cannot say how it will be in the next twenty or thirty years. The intensity of the ice age will be gradual, but it will compensate. I mean, it’s necessary to have proper calculations, by independent sources.”

Mr. Srivastava will have the last word. This outgoing, studious-looking workaholic became my friend in Abu Dhabi. Since he spent much of his time inside the refineries, I seized the chance to hear what he actually saw at work.

“Ruwais refinery is a big complex,” said the bespectacled young man. “Many companies are working here: oil, gas . . . there’s even a liquid-nitrogen plant! As soon as you enter the refinery, what you see everywhere is huge pipes and columns of metal standing up, and so many things. If you are in the middle of the refinery, you will only see steel structures, and you will hear hammering in the pipes.”

“Do you understand everything that you see?”

“No. I have done my master’s in applied oil and gas management — but if you ask me, what is this unit, I may not be able to tell you.”

“Do all the refineries look different from one another?”

“Every refinery, more or less the same. But if you are in the middle of refinery you will only see pipes, walls, columns, pumps. And some buildings, some offices.”

“What made you decide to get your education in petroleum?”

“In India, many youngs are engineers. So people always will do engineering, some chemical or some mechanical. But one thing I know: I am good in chemistry. Have you heard of the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, in Dehradun? I was enrolled there in a five-year course, bachelor’s plus MBA. I chose and this was how it started.”

“How does oil rank as an energy source?” I asked, looking for a thermodynamic and environmental answer but getting an economic one.

“In 2012 and 2013, when oil prices were above a hundred dollars, people were always running for renewables. But now at fifty dollars, of course, it’s better for me to use oil or gas in my car than renewables.”

“Mr. Priyank, I understand that coal, oil, and natural gas are more or less interchangeable. Apparently you can make anything from one that you can from another.”

“From the oil and gas, yes. Oil is the mother of everything, like the fridge, the watch and laptop, your specs. But you can convert coal to gasoline, to natural gas, to petroleum products. So I will keep oil and natural gas on top of everything, the mother of everything! But indirectly you can convert coal into a feedstock.”

“What would you say about global warming?”

“There is one emirate, Fujairah, and last year there was a snowfall there for the first time. How will you explain this? In the northern part of India, if you go back fifty or sixty years, the intensity of heat was much lower than now. And this is because of deforestation. On the other hand, we are producing tons of carbons, tons every day, and we are creating a huge nuisance. I am twenty-seven years old, and after thirty or forty years, where will I be? Gone. We must preserve our nature for the next ones.”

“Will humans go extinct?”

A worker returning home in the evening, Ruwais

“There will always be evolution. A snake used to have very little hands and feet, if you are talking many thousands of years back. They shed them because they are useless to them. So, actually, if you see this pinkie finger, it’s still somewhat useful for gripping, but over a thousand years or something, this will be gone. So I believe that of course we will survive. Whatever will be the circumstance, even as in zombie movies, we will always survive. We will evolve over the time! If we need eight-feet man, we will evolve like this! If we need four-feet man, we will evolve over time.”

Thanking him, I said good night and prepared to enjoy the accomplishments of petroleum. In the predawn hours, when no sound came from outside but a very occasional faraway motor, I always switched on the bedside lamp and lay listening to the faithful hiss and throb of the hotel’s air conditioner, which it seemed could never fail. I looked around. Electricity controlled my room just as I wished, and steadily. The plastic telephone shone like ivory, ready to carry my voice back to the other side of the planet had I been in that mood. Down on the street a motorcycle passed; after a while, the cars began to come. The dark sky turned grayish-blue. 

’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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March 2015

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