Migrant Dubai and the Bakken

I’ve been working my way through Laavanya Kathiravelu’s book, Migrant Dubai: Low Wage Workers and the Construction of the Global City (2016) thanks to the Kostis Kourelis Reading Group ™. In it, she unpacks the remarkable tension between the global stature of Dubai and its global population and the workers who literally construct this city. Drawing heavily on critiques of the particular brand of neoliberalism prevalent in the Arab World (where the state is a pervasively player in the local economy), she explores the complex strategies of exclusion and control present in this city-state that depends upon both wealthy and poor foreign workers to support its economy, but also seeks to manage the diverse cultural impacts that globalization brings to this conservative country.

I read this work primarily with an eye toward strategies used to accommodate outside workers in the Bakken during the most recent oil boom. While the comparison is not precise as guest workers in Dubai tend to be low-paid and participants in the Bakken boom are consistently middle class, the experience of both living in temporary housing and being excluded in various ways from full participation in the life of the community is intriguing to me. The author, for example, describes the challenge of even gaining access to low-wage worker housing in Dubai and the efforts made to keep this housing at the margins in order to protect Dubai’s affluent and cosmopolitan urban image. Interestingly, gated communities with carefully controlled (and centrally financed and constructed) complexes of apartments serve to insulate affluent foreigners working in extractive industries, finance, and educational sectors from the general population and low wage workers. In other words, practices of exclusion and control shaped the lived experience of both high and low wage worked, but in different ways.

It was also interesting that when Kathiravelu visited a very modest, low-wage workers hut at a work site, she noted that the occupants have taped pictures of affluent gated communities to the walls as motivation. A recent review of A. Ghosh’s Great Derangement, pointed out that the 21st century has experienced a telling inversion in who experiences the future first. For most of the 20th century, the wealthy experienced future in air travel, technologies, and conveniences. In the 21st century, as the gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow and wealth impacts the world in more and more tangible ways, the poor experience the future first.

In Dubai, low-wage and affluent guest workers encounter a regime based on exclusion, surveillance, and transience. In the Bakken, workforce housing located workers in marginal spaces, gated communities, and sometimes on work sites, and the contingent experience of these workers and the spaces where they lived have demonstrated that domestically ideals associated with traditional middle class life are already deeply eroded. The parallels between the living conditions of middle class workers in the Bakken and low-wage workers in Dubai reminds us that global capital has a similar impact on the living conditions of workers the world over, and efforts both to control physically the movement of individuals and to require that they exist in ever more contingent conditions.    

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