It was the birth of his second daughter that finally forced Raju Singh's decision to leave home. The stonemason borrowed about $2,500 from a labor recruiter in his village in Rajasthan to pay for an air ticket to a place that seemed sure to provide a secure future Dubai. Weeks later Singh was gawking out of an airplane window at towering skyscrapers that stretched for miles into the desert. "I had seen people come back from here and build houses in Rajasthan," he recalls. "I said: 'I can do the same.' "
Three years on, his dream seems as elusive as a desert mirage. For sure, Singh, now 27, has built houses since he arrived in the Gulf mansions on Palm Jumeirah, a man-made island shaped like a gargantuan palm tree that is set in the pale waters off the coast of Dubai. But the contrast between the sumptuous world Singh is helping to create and his own hardships could scarcely be more jolting. He has yet to lay the first brick on his house in India. In February he finally paid off his debts to the labor recruiter in Rajasthan, including 42% interest on the loan. Sitting in a labor camp in the sprawling workers' district of Sonapur outside Dubai, Singh says he now spends most of his monthly income of about $190 feeding himself, rather than his wife and two small children back home. Six days a week he wakes at 4 a.m. to travel to the building site, where he begins his 11-hour day at 6.30 a.m. At sunset he sinks exhausted onto his bunk bed in the room he shares with seven other men miles from the neon lights that bathe Dubai's night sky in a metallic sheen. "We are building villas which cost 18 million dirhams [$ 4.9 million]," says Singh. "We should at least get something from this. But we are getting nothing."
That bitterness reflects a problem that has gained intense urgency across the Gulf in recent months. The challenge: to sustain the region's spectacular boom while calming volatile labor protests and avoiding deep social disruption in the most peaceful part of the Middle East. The Gulf's dazzling new architecture, sleek airports and high-speed freeways have all exacted their human cost, producing another kind of gulf a social and economic one dividing the rich élite from the ill-paid workers whose labors have made the region's transformation a reality. About 17 million migrants most of them from South Asia, including some 4.5 million from India alone now work in the Gulf, typically as construction workers on the grandiose projects that have proliferated as the region's oil and gas revenues have soared. The Gulf's new wealth has also brought in hundreds of thousands of housemaids many from Asia but increasingly from Africa too who work largely behind closed doors, invisible to outsiders. More than a third of the Gulf's 37 million residents are foreign, and in the United Arab Emirates just 17% of the population are locals.
The Gulf is so dependent on the labor of these low-paid immigrants that the boom might have been impossible without them. "If they decided to go work elsewhere," says Nabeel Rajab, a Bahrain contractor and human-rights activist, "the economies of the Gulf countries would collapse." Until recently, such fears might have seemed far-fetched. Gulf citizens and foreign workers have coexisted for years in a relationship of untroubled interdependence. But lately, migrants' frustrations over low wages have turned to fury. At great risk, tens of thousands of them have protested since late last year. Thousands of these protesters have been deported and ordered not to return. Last Febuary a Dubai court handed out six-month jail terms, followed by deportation orders, to 45 Indian construction workers for violence during a strike. In October, thousands of construction workers in Dubai's Jebel Ali free-trade zone smashed police cars and blocked traffic. Within weeks, about 40,000 migrants in Dubai had staged strikes to demand pay raises, including for work building Burj Dubai, the world's tallest skyscraper. In Bahrain in February, 1,400 workers building a luxury housing complex went on strike demanding a minimum wage of about $265 a month. And in March, hundreds of workers clambered atop building sites in the emirate of Sharjah and hurled bricks at police officers below.
A Combustible Mix
So far, the protests have drawn in just a small fraction of the millions of workers. But political analysts warn that they could spread quickly, fueled by events far beyond the region and beyond the control of Gulf officials. As the value of the dollar has plunged over the last year, workers in the Gulf states whose economies are pegged to the U.S. currency have found their wages worth ever-shrinking amounts back home. If the dollar's fall continues and real wages slip further, the workers' anger is liable to combust. "There is no guarantee that the majority will stay peaceful and calm," says Mohammed al-Roken, a lawyer and human-rights advocate in Dubai, who is a strong critic of the U.A.E. government. "There is a fear among citizens that someday this could all explode in violence."
Shut off from the Gulf's booming cities in closed labor camps, the slow boil of migrant disaffection continues out of sight of locals and visitors. The gates and high walls of the labor camps built and monitored by the workers' employers and guarded by their security men are designed to seal off the camps from outsiders. When TIME ventured into labor camps in Dubai and Bahrain in March and April, dodging security guards and police patrols, the misery quickly became clear. Dubai's huge influx of migrants has created entire all-male, all-foreign districts within its borders. The biggest is Sonapur, about a half-hour drive into the desert from downtown Dubai. Here, hundreds of thousands of workers including Singh, the Rajasthani mason live in hundreds of concrete buildings with small windows. Piles of garbage sit amid the dirt tracks, and there are fetid puddles of raw sewage from leaking pipes. On Fridays, the workers' one day off, patches of open ground are turned into makeshift cricket pitches about the only entertainment available.