A very perceptive piece was recently written by an Arab News columnist Abeer Mishkhas on the fact that Abu Dhabi was concluding an agreement with the Louvre Museum of France, to open a branch in the Gulf Emirate for $1 billion. The writer lamented that, for many critics, it seemed that Arabs are “buying the souls” of others, and asked the question — where is the “Arab soul” that should be reflected in local museums, highlighting local culture and tradition? It is just possible that the move by the Abu Dhabi could herald the beginning of a stirring in the region’s artistic taste for masters such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Matisse, Gogh, Turner, Rene, or Monet- but why stop with the Louvre? With apologies to the many fine museums around the world, why not have branches of the Shanghai National, Acropolis, Van Gogh, Topkapi, Tate Gallery and Guggenheim museums in the Arabian Gulf? Who knows, we might even offer package tours for citizens of these countries to visit “their” museums in our region, helped by a bit of duty free shopping to add some local “flavor”. Investment in the Gulf, particularly in real estate, whether commercial, residential or shopping malls, is booming to an extent that it is getting out of control for some Gulf countries.
Such real estate projects often seem to exude an allure of quick money ready to be made. For some it is dreams come true, as there is also an insatiable demand for quality properties. But these projects are going up at a price. Regional cities that were once tranquil, clean, quiet and prosperous in their way, are now transformed into hideous, noisy, crowded and very expensive places — often indistinguishable from other cities around the world, but without local “soul”. Some locations in the Gulf aspire to be something different from others, and transfer themselves into a veritable twenty four hour shopper’s paradise, a playground for the rich, and a tourist haven for the “right type” of tourist or expatriate. The new buzzword for such developments is “quality” tenants, or “quality expatriates,” or “niche” markets, as one Gulf city copies and tries to outdo the other.
In this mad rush to fill the skyline with even taller buildings, part of our ethics and social responsibility, especially to those who are helping us construct these dreams is being lost. The recent fire incident and tragic death of construction workers at the Jumeirah Lake Towers in Dubai, has served as a reality check on the mad rush development now taking place in the Gulf. Questions are being raised about the standards of safety, health and labor rights of the hundreds of thousands of expatriates working on these projects, not to mention the nightmare scenario of how to evacuate residents and workers, using helicopters in such high density, tall rise buildings.
Some will argue that no one ever forced these workers to come and be exploited, and that the remittances they send back home play an enormous role in the economic development of their countries. This is true but not the point. While new laws have recently been introduced to improve workers’ situation, to counter criticisms that they are being exploited and poorly looked after, there is still a feeling that exploitation of the majority of migrant workers is rampant, especially in the Gulf construction industry, and which makes a mockery of slogans such as this or that city “Cares” in glossy PR campaigns.
A quick way of recovering our “soul” is to ensure that economic apartheid is not tolerated, and that ethical considerations predominate in our business dealings. One has not to go far to search for such ethical considerations, for Islam forbids exploitation, and for this to happen amongst the trappings of luxury is an abomination and a stain on our character. One marvels at how international companies operating in Saudi Arabia such as Schlumberger, Siemens, Proctor &Gamble, ExxonMobil or Dow to name but a few, insist on a strict policy of fair working conditions, not for themselves, but from their sub-contractors. It makes not only ethical sense, but good business sense too — a contented sub-contractor work force that is both well paid and well treated, will be more productive and less prone to industrial accidents, delays and contract cancellations if proper standards and procedures are firmly insisted upon.
The choice facing us in the Gulf and the Kingdom is a simple one — continue to make “easy” money out of such investment projects, knowing the hidden costs to others, or accept a smaller profit, but live with a clearer conscience. Saudi Arabia might be accused of many things, such as not having the most nimble bureaucracy, or a lack of “e-government” processes, or the most multicultural sophisticated immigration officers for example, but compared to some others in the Gulf, the Kingdom’s labor laws and protection of workers rights is probably on the right side, despite some individual cases of labor abuse. The recent announcement of the Saudi minister of labor that companies would have to prove that they are financially viable first, before they are allowed to import more foreign labor is to be welcomed, and the minister emphasized that the payment of salaries to foreign workers was a top priority for his ministry.
Some also argue that, in the long run, globalization and economic forces will right the situation by itself. As the Asian economies grow, especially that of India, which is the largest exporter of migrant workers to the construction industry in the Gulf, there could soon come a day when fewer Asian migrants will come to the region, but decide to stay at home to take part in national development projects. This is already happening in the IT sector. If this materializes, then the building boom based on cheap foreign labor, and the era of easy money witnessed today will soon become a thing of the past. All that would remain will be a collective memory of whether the projects standing were transacted in an ethical manner or not. (Dr. Mohamed A. Ramady is visiting associate professor, Department of Finance and Economics, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran.)