Saturday, February 18, 2017

What I learned in Duba

You probably know of Dubai as the city with the tallest building in the world. Perhaps you know
where it is on our planet, or have a vague notion. It is not on the no-immigration executive order.  Trump buildings are going up there.

I never expected to go to Dubai. In fact, I never had the desire. When the invitation came, I first ignored it, then responded with a polite no. But somehow I found myself in Dubai, invitation accepted, attending the Global Dialogue for Happiness and participating in a working group (I think it was the working group on happiness measurements that got me).

On February 14th, the eve of my departure of a five day stay, I asked myself what was the main point that I came away with. I expected my reply (to myself) to be something thrilling, foundational or groundbreaking about the happiness movement. (To see my first post about the Dialogue for Global Happiness, see here.)

After all, the World Government Summit in which the Dialogue for Global Happiness was nested, had been seeded with speeches and panels from a veritable who's who in the happiness movement: Stieglitz, Sachs, Helliwell, Layard, Diener, Buettner, Ura, Tobgay, Seligman, Csikszenthihalyi... Instead what came up was Dubai itself - its growth, its development.
Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

The tallest building in the world stands like a general pointing his soldiers a march into the future in every direction. Everywhere you look, Dubai is burgeoning into "little cities," even in the sea on man-made islands. Hundreds of skyscrapers, gated communities, strip malls and malls as big as towns are popping up in "little" cities what was once sand. Many of these little cities are formed by theme: TECOM, Academic City, Media City, Healthcare City.... Take a ride across the city and you see as many cranes hovering over bones of buildings as buildings. 

In Dubai, about 90% of the population is "expats" (the term used by everyone). An expat is anyone not an United Arab Emirates national. Statistics show that 200 nationalities live and work together in this city. Out of the 2.7 million population, 75% are men, due to the amount of migrant labourers working in the construction sector. It is true that in a restaurant, the servers will likely be from the Philippines. The wait staff at the conference was mostly from India, the drivers for the hotel's buggies from Bangladesh. Australia, England and the U.S supply the education industry. And so on.

I had heard about human rights violations before I came, so asked Edurne, a Basque Spanish expat living with her Turkish - Belgian husband in a gated community about this. Where workers' passports withheld from them and wages not paid?  She mentioned that the construction sector here, like in other neighbour countries, is under international scrutiny. Despite laws banning public protests, labourers took to the street to march for fair treatment and better working conditions. The most recent event took place in 2016, and led to an improvement of Dubai's labour laws. These now include the obligation for the employer to pay monthly wages on time, a definition for overtime rates, improved health and safety conditions, and new mechanisms to help workers notify about infringement of labour rights. 

In my hotel, I asked people in housekeeping and the buggy drivers who ferried us from the hotel to conference how long they had been in Dubai, if they had their passports, and if they were paid. Naeem told me that he had been working in Dubai for 7 years. He went home every year for one month, and the company paid his airfare every other year.  It also provided housing and food. He worked 11 hours a day, driving for 8 hours, break for 2 hours and half an hour on either end of his day to clean the buggy. He was 19 when he came to Dubai. Another buggy ride between hotels and I met Treevannakah, who is planning to work one more year in Dubai. She has already worked for 4 years, and bought land to farm with her earnings. Her last year will give her enough to buy an irrigation system and the equipment she needs to run a farm. She plans to grow water melons, or "sweet melon" as she calls them. She has the comportment of a highly successful person, and I suspected that some day soon, one can expect to hear her speaking at a conference such as the one she was driving people to and from.  The driver from the hotel to the airport was saving money to marry, and would bring his wife to Dubai so he could work and support a family once he did marry. I asked him if he ever felt he was treated rudely, and he said that at home, in Nairobi, his boss would yelled at him at work, but here, he felt respected and respected others. He said with a nod about his boss and himself, "Muslim." 

3D food printing - on the market by 2050?

Other stories had bothered me as well. One involved 6 year old children used as camel jockeys for camel races. They would be injured in the process. I asked Edurne about this. Edurne is a sustainability expert working for a non-for-profit organization called Surge for Water. She is one of those people whom you instinctively feel you can trust, and who gets the connection between treatment of people and treatment of our environment. She told me that the UAE banned the use of child jockeys in commercial camel races in 2002, following allegations of human right abuses and child trafficking. UNICEF and the government of UAE put in place a plan to return children formerly involved in camel racing to their countries of origin and reintegrate them into their communities. Today, robot jockeys are used. In any other setting, I would have been suspicious. However, I had just been to the Museum of the Future and eaten 3D printed food, played with a lawyer-bot, interacted with vision plans for 3-D printing bots that created or re-created cities and towns in deserts or disaster zones.

Outside the museum was an air taxi (no rides offered.) UAE Prime Minister Mohammed bid Rashid Al Maktoum had announced during his keynote for the conference that the city would see these in the air soon. One of the give-aways at the conference was a little glossy book with pictures showing how to colonize Mars by 2117.

Dubai as it stands today sprang from the desert 20 years ago.  While I am no historian, my sense is that the country, or perhaps just the city, is a lot like America was 150 years ago. A land of opportunity. A land where one can go and make a future for oneself, although there are dangers (as there were and still are in America).  This is not to say that the area does not have its challenges, and its shadow, the treatment of women among them. But even here, there is tangible, palpable evidence that things are changing with a plan and aim for a better future for all people.
Plans for colonization of Mars
So, in response to my question to myself about the main point I gathered from Dubai: my eyes have been opened, my perspective changed. I have a thought, hope and feeling that perhaps the Middle East, lead by a few visionary leaders - both male and female - is poised for a renaissance.  Such a renaissance will ripple through the world, just as the investment of the Medici's into art, science and architecture - da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Lippi, Botticello, Galileo, Vasari, Brunelleschi - did four or five centuries ago.  Such a renaissance will radically change how we live in cities.

Just in the last couple of years, Dubai embraced Happiness, Sustainability and Tolerance with ministries created and vision and plans in formation. It is a country rich not only in the resources of oil, but also wind and sun. No doubt soon they will harness this energy.  On my drive across Dubai with Edurne, I remember a sadness in her when we talked about the city and sustainability.  But I think her hopes and dreams of a city that really is sustainable may come true. When I asked her about this tension she said "“UAE was founded in 1971. It is a very young nation. It has developed very fast, and it is developing farther. Yes! As you said they are planning to go to Mars! Fast development does not mean perfect development. There are some flaws, and cultural constraints, like everywhere. Socio-political conditions in the Middle East are unique. Some of the fundamental pillars of societies here are based upon what might be shocking to someone from a western perspective. The other way around is also valid." 

Hopefully they will transform our urban environments from grey to green. They, if anyone, can and will find ways to reengineer old buildings and build new buildings so they are closed-loop living systems that provide urban agriculture to feed a people within their urban jungle, revitalize the biodiversity of a city so humans and other life forms thrive together, integrate water into our built systems so that water scarcity is no longer a threat, and rethink transportation so that we do not compromise our quality of life and the ability of future generations to meet their needs to get to work or go play. Perhaps it is Dubai, and the Middle East, that will transition our governments from the whipping boys of commerce and corporations to the leadership that makes every nation great and our planet healthy, happy and sustainable.

By Laura Musikanski, Executive Director of the Happiness Alliance, with contributions from Edurne Gile de San Vincente

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