Emirati free speech activist Ahmed Mansoor, left, with artist and reporter Molly Crabapple. (photo via Instagram/mollycrabapple)

Emirati free speech activist Ahmed Mansoor, left, with artist and reporter Molly Crabapple (photo via Instagram/mollycrabapple)

Artist Molly Crabapple has just published an extensive report on the conditions on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, where franchises of the Louvre of the Guggenheim museums will open in the coming years. Reporting for Vice, she explores the conditions of workers, but unlike most reports, she focuses on efforts by workers to better their situations even when confronting massive obstacles.

“While workers may be lied to and forced to live and work in brutal conditions, they also — improbably — are fighting back,” she writes.

A sketch of a crowd of migrant workers in Abu Dhabi by Molly Crabapple (sketch courtesy the artist)

A sketch of a crowd of migrant workers in Abu Dhabi by Molly Crabapple (sketch courtesy the artist)

“Abu Dhabi is the most censored country I’ve ever done journalism in,” Crabapple told Hyperallergic about her Vice article. “The royal family are eager consumers of American spyware, communications are monitored, and undercover police swarm workers’ gathering areas. A worker was grabbed by undercover police for speaking with me, something for which I will feel guilt forever. With the exception of a previously imprisoned dissident, no one on any level of society could speak frankly with me, for fear of deportation, arrest, or professional consequences. Workers’ salaries are brutally low, but more problematic is the complete ban on labor activity — strikes, unions, or workers’ councils. While Western institutions like NYU consider themselves zones of intellectual freedom, the arrest of a Sorbonne lecturer in 2012 for pro-democracy activity makes me skeptical of their claims.”

The Vice piece reinforces a number of things that have been previously reported about labor conditions in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) by Human Rights Watch, Gulf Labor, the Guardian, and the New York Times, including these points (quoted from Crabapple’s article):

  • … when Tariq arrived, Regal didn’t need him. For 24 days, he waited without pay, living in a squalid workers’ camp. When work finally materialized, he learned he would make only $176 a month. His boss confiscated his passport so that he couldn’t change jobs or leave the country.
  • … Bangladeshi workers, who were alleged to have helped organize the strikes, were banned for an indefinite period from seeking UAE visas.
  • In response [to protests], Arabtec promised a 20 percent wage hike. No worker I interviewed had seen the promised cash.
  • Despite laws to the contrary, many buses have no air conditioning. Commutes last up to two hours, and the temperatures often reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • In some countries recruiters dodge local labor laws by hiring subcontractors, who trawl villages for the illiterate, the desperate, or those simply frustrated enough to risk the dangers of the Gulf.
  • The Guggenheim Museum’s PR team claims, incorrectly, that labor is not a problem because construction has not yet begun on the Abu Dhabi outpost. Conversely, NYU asserts labor is not a problem because construction is technically over. I saw men working on both sites.

But there are a number of new tidbits that give a fuller picture of the social conditions faced by workers:

  • Some workers sleep with each other. Several of Ibrahim’s acquaintances have been jailed for having romantic relationships with other men. To save face, one of them, a Pashtun, told his family he’d been charged with murder.

And she goes beyond the stereotypes to explore Western biases in discussing the UAE:

  • The most simplistic accusation against Abu Dhabi is that by building branches of the Louvre or Guggenheim, the city is buying culture … Those accusations also perpetuate another myth: The UAE has no culture of its own.

But not all Emiratis are happy about the new developments:

  • When I asked him about the Western cultural institutions being built on Saadiyat, he told me, “All these glittering buildings and huge names are there to hide an ugly face … Artists around the world appreciate the human struggle for freedom. In the UAE, we are only buying the image.”

Kudos to Crabapple for continuing her commitment to social justice, both stateside and abroad. The article paints a vivid picture of the lives of the workers building the “world-class” cultural institutions.

“For this piece, I want to thank Ibrahim, my translator, Tom Blake, who facilitated all the interviews with construction workers, and the workers themselves, who risked so much to tell me their stories,” she added. “Unfortunately, for safety, I cannot thank them by their real names.”

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.