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Life of an expat worker in the GCC.

For most people, the year 2008 evokes memories of global economic collapse.

Personally, that was the zenith year of my career and I directly attribute it to being recruited to work in the Middle East.  Nothing could have prepared me for witnessing the prolific amount of construction activity, real estate development, conspicuous wealth…as well as the horrible, abject poverty.

Arriving for the first time in Abu Dhabi, the 24-hour flight from Houston, Texas landed in the early morning.  My company provided a personal escort to navigate me through the airport, Customs Department, and out to my awaiting private driver.  The chauffeured car was a luxurious new 700 Series BMW and not a “crazed taxi driver from Abu Dhabi” as I had envisioned from the 70’s American TV show, Taxi. 

The velvety black night sky was lit up only by street lights and few buildings.  When we drove past the Grand Mosque, it magnificently dominated the view.

Abu Dhabi Mosque This gloriously awe-inspiring structure took 20 years to build as the shrine and accolade to the late and most beloved Sheikh Zayed.  Within my stay in the United Arab Emirates, I would see all the grandest architecture/construction wonders of the country including the two largest shopping malls and the tallest building in the world.  As a professional interior architect, discovering these buildings first-hand was a rewarding endeavor.  I knew that I had finally found and lived in “the promised land of milk and honey.”

By the time of my last trip to UAE in 2014, I had a turn of fortunes and a first-hand experience of living in poverty and how discrimination impacted the lives of other people.

Going from a $5,000 per month luxury hotel stay to staying in a an expat workers flop house with 20 roommates (of Indian, African and Philippines descent), I flew out of Dubai financial broke, traumatized and forever enlightened.

These housing accommodations are not apartments for rent, or rooms for rent, instead they are a single, twin-sized mattress or top/bottom of a bunk bed for rent, sharing one and a half bathroom, one kitchen and one small dining table…and no common living room nor closets, wardrobes or dressers.

Typically, they are one or two bedroom apartments that are converted to high-density living quarters for the many minority laborers.

Privacy between the beds was arranged using hung  linen sheets.  Many married couples shared a single bed and there were eight adults in one room where I stayed.

Eventually our landlord provided thin metal space partitioning dividers that were approximately 7’ high.  These enclosed tightly around each bed leaving approximately 18” space in front of one side of the bed as our personal, circulation space.  Having the enclosure with a sliding door was a relative upgrade and a very much welcomed improvement…for which the monthly rental amount was doubled.

The outside open patio was a makeshift closet to hang all clothes…not just the wet ones.  The smells of cooking rice and fried fish and shrimp constantly permeated the air as the residents worked all hours of day and night, coming back at different times and start with a cooked meal before hitting the pillow and sleep off the rest of the day or night.  The kitchen sink and counters were usually filled with pots full of preparations of exotic ethnic foods.

Expat workers rightsRegardless of their countries of origin, everyone living in our home was fluent in English and eager to speak and share their experiences and food with one another.

It was an absolute squalor by European and American standards but it was no doubt a common way of life for the expatriate working class of  the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Africa who migrate to the rich lands of the Middle East in search of employment and a better standard of living.

How much did all this cost?  600 AED or $163.36 in USD per month .

The sight and sounds of the low-flying jets that flew over my apartment…every few minutes…kept me hopeful that one day maybe, I would, after falling from riches to rags, be able to go back to my usual riches.

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