x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Saadiyat video presents an unfair, lopsided picture

It would have been fairer for The Observer to obtain the response of the authorities to their questions on the Saadiyat project before releasing the damaging video

Under the watchful gaze of the composite interests of human rights organisations, envious artists and regional players intent on manipulating certain sections of the Western media, the UAE has long stood firm on the solid ground of wisdom, careful planning and strong vision.

For many years, I bowed to the profound objectivity of the Western media, especially those well-established newspapers from countries who swear to protect freedom of expression.

Recently, however, I am sorry to say my respect has been inverted to dismay and disgust, and I have had to conclude that seeking truth and justice are not always the aims of Western journalists.

Reflecting on the value of truth in some of today’s press, I see the truth as being coined to serve biased interests – a fact that is naively tolerated to varying degrees. But this should not be to the extent of overshadowing reality.

The British newspaper, The Observer, has recently focused its attentions on labour rights at Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island development projects and published a video on The Guardian website criticising both the emirate’s government and the developers of the museums, educational institutes and cultural centres that will soon populate the island.

This type of attack seems to be conducted every time the UAE steps up its development commitments or achieves a significant milestone.

To my mind, it is no surprise that this video was released shortly after Dubai had won the Expo 2020 vote.

The questions of underpaid workers, substandard living conditions and debts related to recruitment costs, have always been at the forefront of concerns raised in regard to construction projects in the region. All of these issues were raised in the aforementioned video, but the UAE has consistently achieved a good regional ranking in terms of human rights protection.

A careful review of the video reveals it to be rather accusatory in tone and lacking in concrete facts. Its release did not seem to herald a genuine humanitarian call, but served as something closer to an overarching criticism of Abu Dhabi’s ambitious Saadiyat project and a thinly veiled attempt to damage the country’s overall international standing.

The UAE Government has been at pains to ensure the welfare of foreign labourers – whether in terms of housing and living environments, wage protection systems, policies or laws to ensure fair treatment, dispute resolution and much more besides. This country consistently ranks highly in terms of human rights protection and development initiatives. This fact puts the hardliners in a very difficult position.

Undeniably, the commitment to stated government policies are likely to vary among subcontractors, who are not always directly accountable to the main developer. For instance, issues relative to recruitment debts accrued outside the UAE are beyond the jurisdiction of the government here.

Developers rarely turn a blind eye to subcontractors and are often in continuous negotiation to address issues related to pay scales and adequate living conditions.

I should also offer some reflections on Arabtec, which has previously faced criticism for uncontrollable labour disputes among its employees.

In this particular video Arabtec has been unfairly criticised.

The real reason for the labourers’ riot was a cultural issue relating to the workers – who mainly hailed from Pakistan and Bangladesh – and who simply refused to reside in the same compounds and rioted as they sought to be segregated.

It is also worth considering the demands of the Gulf Labor organisation, an interest group of artists that has called for a global boycott of the Saadiyat project on the grounds of labour rights abuse.

To me, this seems like a boycott founded on the notion of opposing prestigious projects and museums when they are imagined in places that are not in line with their particular affiliations. I wonder if the Guggenheim was seconded to another city – perhaps Beirut or Beijing – whether such organisations would still come into being.

I have come across severe labour rights abuses all over the world: be they in China, where prisoners are used to work on official projects or in the USA, where migrant Mexican workers are often deprived of their rightful earnings. Pakistan has major issues regarding child labour and domestic labourers’ abuse. In Bangladesh too, basic workers’ rights are routinely abused, to the extent of suffering a trade boycott this year by the USA.

To address such abuse, one would judge and compare the efforts exerted by the authorities to commit to principles and whether steps are being taken to ensure all possible measures are in place. The UAE Government’s efforts have far exceeded the majority of requirements for labour rights. Where areas are under review, the country has ensured measures are in place to address the issues.

On a final note, would it not have been fairer if The Observer’s investigation had waited for the response of the authorities or the Saadiyat project developer to their questions, instead of releasing the video before any answers had been received?