Documenting the Spatial Practices of Global Migration



URBAN EXPERIMENTS IN THE SAND

Category : SPACES 06/12/2011

The invisible Side of Development in Abu Dhabi

Al Mafraq, where accommodation for about 130,000 workers is being built, lies in a desert area approximately 1 hour drive from downtown Abu Dhabi.

In March 2011, 130 middle-eastern artists threatened to boycott the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, if conditions for workers on its $800 million construction site in Abu Dhabi will not improve. The artist refer to a Human Rights Watch report on continuing claims about withheld wages, the illegal confiscation of passports by employers, the illegal practice of charging workers for extortionate recruitment fees or fines, if workers want to quit their jobs (Human Rights Watch, 2009). The threat is particularly precarious as the Foundation plans to focus on middle-eastern art in much of its new building and is hoping to acquire art from many of the well-known artists, who joined the boycott. The artist initiative is a rare instance of socially conscious involvement by an international audience observing from a distance the transformation of this middle-eastern city into one of the largest and most expensive tourist destinations in the world.

The Guggenheim project is part of a 640-acre cultural complex on Saadiyat Island (“Island of Happiness” in Arabic), where $27 billion will be invested in the development of institutions such as the branch of the Guggenheim Museum, a New York University Campus, a branch of the Louvre, a Performing Art Centre designed by Zaha Hadid and a Maritime Museum designed by Tadao Ando alongside hotels, golf courses and luxury housing. A formula-one track and several hotels are already completed on neighboring Yas Island. Architecture and design media from all over the world have featured renderings of these and similar projects all intended to transform Abu Dhabi into a center for culture, education and entertainment in the region. With 9% of the world’s crude oil reserves and 5% of its natural gas reserves, it is likely to have a lot more endurance in this process than its neighbor Dubai.

This essay documents a part of the city for the most part absent from the discourse about this transformation: The areas, where hundreds of thousands of workers, the vast majority of the population of Abu Dhabi, live.


Raha Village offers a glimpse at the finished public spaces inside the residential compounds. Streets are empty and clean, even on a mild winter-Friday; lights are solar-powered; European garbage containers line the sidewalks.

Security gates at Raha Village. Residents use ID cards to enter and exit. No visitors from other compounds are allowed inside. 24-hour surveillance cameras monitor all public areas within the compound.

In September of 2007, the government of Abu Dhabi, unveiled Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 a comprehensive development plan that will guide the city’s planning decisions for the next 20 years. The aforementioned projects are part of this plan, as is the development of a new Capital District and several new areas slated for the development of housing, an entire new Central Business District on Al Reem Island, a Convention Center and Masdar City, the first zero-carbon, zero-waste neighborhood dedicated to researching and practicing sustainable living.

The ambitious projects are being realized with the help of approximately 3.5 million immigrants who constitute a massive 80 percent of the population and 90 percent of the private sector workforce in the UAE, predominantly in the fields of construction, hospitality and domestic service. The majority of the working class immigrants are of Asian origin, from countries such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iran and the Philippines. Most workers come for two-year contracts initially, their salaries range from 350 dirham ($95) to 1000 dirham ($273), when working in construction. Until recently, little planning and design was undertaken to accommodate the large numbers of foreigners. Sub-standard living conditions, withheld wages and inadequate health care facilities have been subject to complaints and media reports by human rights activists. In August 2008, for example, public health authorities in Dubai stated that 40 percent of that emirate’s 1,033 labor camps violated minimum health and fire safety standards (Human Rights Watch, 2006).

Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 attempted to address these issues with a set of guidelines developed by the Higher Corporation for Specialized Economic Zones (Zonescorp), a government agency. The guidelines require employers to provide six major facilities to their employees: transportation, decent accommodation, drinking water, food, first aid units and recreation centers in so-called Worker Cities. In 2009, in a response to the Human Rights Watch report about workers on Saadiyat Island, the national government signed a law that requires all employers to provide housing for their workers in developments that adhere to safety and construction standards as describe in the law. The deadline for transitioning ALL workers from substandard labor camps into these government-inspected accommodations is 2013.


Workers moved into this newly built facility a month ago. While much of the public infrastructure is still under construction, this group from Bangladesh and India unanimously appreciated the new facilities and food provided and felt that it improved their living standard substantially.

Abu Dhabi is tenaciously on track to implement this plan. In Al Mafraq, a desert area about one hour from downtown Abu Dhabi, developers are in the process of building housing and amenities for 130,000 workers, a development with the inspiring names “Workers City 1” and “Workers City 2”. On a recent visit to Al Mafraq in January 2011, much of the housing in both developments was completed or nearly complete and about half of it was occupied. Between dormitories, much of the infrastructure and public amenities such as a large mosque, retail or a clinic were under construction. In some areas, the promised central squares of these “cities” with retail and other public amenities were a mere patch of sand with no visible construction even under way. (This, by the way is no different from anywhere else in Abu Dhabi. The entire city is perpetually under construction, entire neighborhoods already present on the city’s map are nothing but a construction fence with a sign announcing such.)

The workers cities are notably in the middle of the desert, the best way to find them, is to follow the caravan of white Tata buses and minivans that transport workers from their construction sites on the islands to their accommodations in the desert during the early evening hours.

The nearest town, Bani Yas can be reached on foot, a 45-min walk through the desert. There is no public transportation available to go to Abu Dhabi proper or anywhere for that matter other than the taxis and minivans, driven by fellow inhabitants, who work for the taxi companies.

In fact the 2009 law explicitly states that workers accommodation should be built at least 5km away from any family residence. Large groups of male congregating in public spaces outside their dormitories were perceived as a threat to family-oriented Emirati neighborhoods and therefore should be placed out of sight.

Massive road infrastructure surrounds the residential compounds.

Fruit Vendors and independent taxi drivers occupy the busy areas in front of the gates to the housing compounds.

Trying to avoid the negative connotations of the word ‘camp’, government officials insist on calling these new areas “workers cities”, a misconception of the word with its etymological root in civitas = “citizenship, condition or rights of a citizen,” later “community of citizens, state, commonwealth,”[i]. It is confusing to say the least. Worker City 2 for instance consists of eleven ‘cities’, distributed over four square-shaped areas, each surrounded by a wide public road. The eleven ‘cities’ are in fact eleven units under different management, so ‘city’ here really equals management company. The management companies provide maintenance, security, laundry, services and food. Employers of the workers pay rent and services at 800 dirham ($218) per person. These costs, which tend to be slightly higher than previous arrangements are the most common reason for reluctance to move in. At the time of our visit, none of the eleven units was fully occupied. Raha Village, the most developed of the eleven units housing 43,000 workers, offers insight into the design and planning principles for these ‘cities’. Public spaces are under 24-hour surveillance, the entire unit is fenced in and ID cards are needed even to exit. Streets are clean and although for the most part are used by pedestrians only, are not built as such. Individual laundry and clotheslines are condemned as an eyesore and have to be hidden in a designated area near the perimeter walls.

The system reveals its blatant gaps in the public areas between and surrounding the individual units. The areas outside of the gates, most frequented by workers to meet, buy and sell fruits or to play a match of cricket are unmaintained, strewn with garbage and, with the exception of road infrastructure, un- improved.

Planning to have housing for 800,000 workers by 2016, the local urban government in Abu Dhabi clearly recognizes the spatial demands of its immigrant population. However, the limited right to the city, to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from the urban culture that is being created with their own labor calls into question the stability of this urban culture. The attempts are admirable in scale and determination, but as with everything in the UAE, this system of providing housing for the low-skilled workers is a ‘learn and adjust as you go’ experiment. While Architects and designers from much of the developed world have happily lent their expertise, capacity and commentary to the experiment of creating a new city on sand. For this experiment to last, it seems inevitable to turn our attention to the places in the desert that will house the majority of its population for decades to come.

A supermarket outside of a residential development in Jebel Ali, Dubai’s industrial zone. Although groceries are available in these markets, most management companies prohibit individual cooking in the residential compounds.

workers playing cricket on a Friday afternoon in the desert surrounding the new housing compounds.

Workers on their way to Bani Yas, the nearest town where they can access services such as retail stores, banks, or a larger mosque. The 45min walk crosses this sandy area and an 8-lane Highway.

[i] Online Etymology Dictionary http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=city


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