Living in the shadows of Dubai

Figure 1:. Dubai Marina, an affluent residential area in New Dubai. Photograph by Jonathan Ngeh, 2015.  

By achieving economic success while embracing market friendly policies: lower taxes, free trade, privatization and deregulation, Dubai has earned the reputation as a neoliberal success story. As it is typical of neoliberal economic policies, economic growth has not trickled down to the people at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. Rather, inequality has been reenforced, and Dubai consists of two distinct parts: ‘Old’ Dubai housing and representing the distressed and economically disadvantaged, and ‘New’ Dubai where the economically and politically powerful live (see Figure 1 and 2).  Existence of poverty alongside wealth puts pressure on both poor and rich city residents. Among the poor, the kind of pressure they face usually is related to the lack of money to provide basic needs for themselves and their dependents, as highlighted in Dawson’s remarks on Johannesburg (Dawson 2020). On the other hand, the rich (and also the poor) face pressure caused by challenges that are psychological or social or both. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with mostly African migrants in Dubai in 2015 and 2020, focusing particularly on their housing and labour market conditions, this piece’s central argument is that the extreme inequality in Dubai puts economic pressure on low-income migrants, the city’s poorest residents, while the juxtapositions of poverty and wealth right next to each other exert psychological pressure on the wealthy by instigating fear of low-income migrants because of crime concerns.

Figure 2: Deira, a district in Old Dubai where many low-income migrants live. Photograph by Jonathan Ngeh, 2015.  

With migrants accounting for over 80 percent of the population in Dubai and the UAE (de Bel-Air 2015, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2019), the city and country stand out as a leading immigration destination in the world. While some of the Africans I encountered in the UAE travelled for studies or tourism, the vast majority of them had migrated for economic reasons–in search of employment or with the intention to establish their own businesses. Convinced by the prospects of greener pastures in Dubai, these economic migrants spent their savings to pay for the migration journey. In some cases, migrants or family members borrowed money at high interest rates to cover the cost of migration. In either case, the financial obligations of African labour migrants in Dubai increased because of migration. Upon arrival in Dubai, they were shocked to realise that opportunities are limited and the living conditions for the majority of migrant workers are unbearable.

Many of the African labour migrants that I interviewed regretted their decision to migrate, especially in the first few months of arrival, as indicated by a male migrant from Cameroon:

I had this notion that once I leave Cameroon all the stress, bad life, rough situation, poverty and everything around me will just change. But what I experienced when I came here was extremely shocking. The first two days I thought about going back home. It was so bad that I cried. 

The biggest regret for this Cameroonian and several other African migrants in the study was that they left their humble homes for Dubai with dreams of a better life only to end up living in worse conditions than in their home countries. They lived in ‘bed-space’, the most common form of housing for labour migrants in the UAE. It is a form of shared accommodation whereby a room or apartment is furnished with several (bunk) beds, like in a hostel, and residents rent the bed they occupy, hence the name (see figures 3 and 4). Average occupancy in bed-space apartment ranges between four and twenty and the sizes of the apartments also vary with some measuring 1 x 2 meters and others approximately 4 x 5 meters (see also Elsheshtawy 2010). In some hostels there are more people than available bed-spaces. This means people have to sleep on the floor or sleep in shifts or share beds. Aban, a Ghanaian male who was a school teacher before migrating to Dubai described his housing experience in bed-space as follows:

It is really terrifying… where I was teaching in Ghana is not like Accra the capital. It is a small town in the Eastern region. The housing was okay for me though but I was not comfortable. But when I came to Dubai I realised that even where I lived in Ghana was better than this place [Dubai]. 

The question I asked Aban and all those who regretted their decision to migrate was why they chose to stay? Why not return? And the common response was that returning empty handed was not an option. They stayed because of pressure to meet their financial obligations: repay loans that were taken to pay the cost of migration and send money to family and close friends who expect support from them because they believe that there is money in Dubai. In Aban’s case, the advice he received from his mother when he arrived was that he should be strong, that life will get better eventually. For him this meant that his mother would be unhappy if he returned, especially if he did so empty handed. Aban did not dare to paint the full picture of the hardship that he faced in Dubai to his mother because he feared that it would cause her anguish. Instead, after the first month he told her that life was getting better, which was not true. The pressure of toughness was not only directed at men as  it was common for both male and female Africans in bed-space to either avoid talking about their hardship to friends and relatives back home or to simply minimise the severity of hardship in Dubai and pretend that things were better than they were.  The implication of hiding the truth was that relatives and friends continued to request financial assistance thereby increasing the anxiety and economic pressure on migrants.

Figure 3: Bed-space in Deira. Photograph by Jonathan Ngeh, 2015. 

Figure 4: Sleeping arrangement in a hostel at Sonapur – largest labour camp in Dubai. Photograph by Jonathan Ngeh, 2015.  

Besides the pressure to stay in Dubai and send remittances, the migrants in bed-space faced social pressure to be ‘successful’. This was often associated with upward mobility in the labour market and/or conspicuous consumption. The monthly income for migrants in bed-space, working six days a week and 10 hours a day ranged from 1200 AED (303 EUR) to 3,000 AED (758 EUR)[1] while the rent for a single room apartment in cheap residential areas in Diera range between 3,000 AED (758 EUR) and 3,500 AED (848 EUR). The mismatch between wages and housing cost suggests that labour migrants cannot afford the most basic standard housing and is the principal reason why they live in bed-space, which costs about 500 AED (126 EUR) or 1000 AED (252 EUR) a month to rent depending on whether or not it is in a crowded hostel.  Within the bed-space community, as I show in a forthcoming paper on how Africans cope with the challenges of living in bed-space in Dubai (Ngeh forthcoming), social standing is very important. High social status commands respect and authority.  Those with high status (perceived or real) are loved by people in the community. High social status is demonstrated through ostentatious spending and living in a less crowded hostel with four or less bed-spaces (commonly referred to as executive bed-space). Even within crowded hostels it is common to partition a room with a curtain to create two living areas: a small and private living area with one or two beds and a larger section with several bunk beds. Executive bed-space and the private living area in regular bed-space hostels are  associated with high status in the community. African migrants generally consider life in bed-space as temporal because they expect to move up the economic ladder and find better housing after a few years in Dubai. Interviews with economically well-established Africans in Dubai indicate that some of them lived in bed-space when they migrated before moving to standard housing in more affluent residential areas in Old Dubai or luxurious apartments in New Dubai, an indication of upward mobility in Dubai’s labour market (see Ngeh and Pelican 2018). In relation to our discussion on pressure, migrants who continue to live in crowded bed-space hostels for more than two years are seen as ‘losers’. The pressure on them to show progress – in the form of upward social mobility – increases, unless they have other accomplishments to show such as investment in the home country.

Finally, pressure as mentioned earlier is not a problem that is confined only to low-income migrants and in bed-space communities. Interviews with middle class Africans living in upscale Dubai indicates that they have very little contact with the African bed-space communities. In some cases, this seems to be unintentional because Africans in upscale Dubai are mostly professionals with high income jobs that allow them to meet and socialise with colleagues occupying similar positions to their own. Likewise, they spend most of their free time in recreational facilities that are either exclusive for members or inaccessible to low-income earners because of location or high cost. Other middle-class Africans intentionally avoid contacts with Africans in bed-space communities because of the perception that they are prone to criminality.  Nowhere was this reflected more clearly than in the splitting up in 2014 of a Cameroonian national-based migrant association. The split happened because well respected members of the association threatened to leave. They did not want to be associated with an association which they feared was dominated  by fraudsters and/or undocumented migrants. This internal rife resulted in the association breaking up into two main factions, one of them attracting predominantly well established professionals with university education and the other less successful and vulnerable people. The former held its meetings in New Dubai while the latter did so in Old Dubai. As a matter of fact, middle class residents of all ethnicities and nationalities in upscale Dubai mostly reside in exclusive gated communities or middle-classed enclaves both of which are designed to exclude low income migrants, as explained in a study on Dubai by Kathiravelu (2016). In spite of the low crime rate in Dubai, Kathiravelu explained that in Dubai there is a culture of fear against low income migrants. The fear is grounded in the belief that low income migrants will invade and ‘disrupt the order and aesthetics of middle class space’ (Kathiravelu 2016:147). It is precisely because of this fear  that different types of security measures have been adopted in the affluent residential areas in New Dubai. They include the use of surveillance to monitor and police unwanted visitors, construction of gated communities, the introduction of entrance fees to some beaches and parks, limited public transport infrastructure and pedestrian unfriendly streets in order to exclude labour migrants from public spaces in the affluent parts of the city (ibid; Gullerfelt 2016).

In conclusion, we can say that extreme inequality in Dubai has produced a divided city, i.e., New Dubai where the city’s wealthy residents reside and Old Dubai (also labour camps), which is reserved for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. We find in this divide extreme measures of segregation that suggests the presence of low-income migrants in Middle-class enclaves is a cause of concern for the wealthy residents, a problem that is not unique to Dubai (Massey 1996). Paradoxically, the economic pressure of low-income  migrants, which is caused by their marginal position in society, is also causing psychological pressure for Dubai’s wealthy residents.   


[1] XE – The World’s Trusted Currency Authority, <https://www.xe.com&gt; Conversion rate: 1 AED = 0.252556 EUR. Date: 23 April 2020.

Jonathan Ngeh is a Postdoctoral Researcher and a Principal Investigator at the Global South Studies Center (GSSC) Cologne. He received his PhD in sociology from the University of Umeå with a dissertation on the everyday experiences of African migrants in Sweden. He is engaged in research in the field of Human Trafficking within the context of migration from Africa to the Arab Gulf States. Before moving to the GSSC in 2019 he thought courses in Development Theory and Policy at the University of Bamenda, Cameroon.

References 

Dawson, Hannah. 2020. “Under pressure”: negotiating competing demands and desires in a time of precarious earnings.” Developing Economics, December 7th, 2020.

De Bel-Air, Francoise. 2015. “Demography, Migration, and the Labour Market in the UAE”. Migration Policy Centre, GLMM, Explanatory note, 07/2015. 

Elsheshtawy, Yasser. 2010. Dubai: behind an urban spectacle. New York and London: Routledge. 

Kathiravelu, Laavanya. 2016. Migrant Dubai: Low Wage Workers and the Construction of a Global City. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 

 Massey, Douglas S. 1996. “The age of extremes: Concentrated affluence and poverty in the twenty-first century.” Demography 33 (4): 395–412. 

Ngeh, Jonathan. and Michaela Pelican. 2018. ”Intersectionality and the Labour Market in the United Arab Emirates: The Experiences of African Migrants.” Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 143(2), pp. 171-191. XML 

Ngeh, Jonathan. In Review. “‘Bed-Space’ Housing in Dubai: African Migrants,  Ambivalence Towards Authorities and Gender Differences.” Ethnography .

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) 2019. International Migrant Stock: The 2019 Revision. United Nations, New York. (accessed 17 November 2019). 

Wiegratz, Jörg. Dolan, Catherine. Kimari, Wangui. and Schmidt, Mario. 2020. “Urban Africa under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities.” Developing Economics, August 17th, 2020. 

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