The Mirage In The Desert

Am I the only one to feel really uneasy at the coverage given to the opening of Meydan racecourse in Dubai, especially some of the near sycophantic coverage being given to the course by certain members of the racing media?

Last weekend the new racecourse at Meydan staged the $10m Dubai World Cup – yes $10m for a single horserace.

To quote the official website the course is, “The brainchild of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, the Dubai World Cup is a fitting tribute to his love of horses and of horseracing.”

A fitting tribute?

There has been no official confirmation of the costs of building the racecourse but the most conservative estimates suggest there would be no change out of £1.6 billion, yes that is billion.

Yet the course has been built in Dubai, a state teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, having to be bailed out by its neighbours.

A state where the head of state, despite the perilous state of the economy, still spends millions of dollars each year following his passion for horse racing.

He spokesmen, by means of justification, say the money spent on racing is from his own personal fortune.

Where does that fortune actually come from though? Is it not inextricably linked to the economy of the country itself?  
I have no problem with individuals spending their money how they see fit but the continued lavish expenditure following a hobby whilst the country is in near financial ruin, makes me think of Nero when Rome was burning.

Even putting aside the financial morality of the situation in Dubai, what sort of racecourse have they built?

Does a racecourse really need a grandstand that is 1.6 Km in length?

Does the car park, indeed the entire site, really need to be built in the shape of a falcon?

The design of the racecourse reminds me of the sort of ostentatious residence that would be built by a footballer or lottery winner to show off how wealthy they are.

Yet for all the outward signs of wealth and the facade which attracts the wealthy and tourists alike, the facilities which make Dubai a prime tourist destination and attracts the “beautiful people” like bees round a honey pot. There is a darker underbelly to Dubai and that underbelly alone should make any decent person think twice before lavishing unfettered praise on Meydan.

Are the fawning journalists and apologists for Meydan and Dubai Racing, most of whom will happily lap up the generous hospitality on offer, really unaware of the reality life in Dubai?

Or are they aware but conveniently choose to turn a blind eye to the realities? 

Do they think the course was built in the same way as, for example, the new stand at Ascot? Where workers were paid a decent wage and had to work in compliance with strict health and safety legislation.

Of course it wasn’t, it was built (as is most of Dubai) by, arguably, the 21st century equivalent of slave labour.

Workers, mainly from the Indian sub-continent, attracted by what to them would be a good wage. Only to find the reality is pittance pay (and frequently withheld) as well as having to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.

In a large number of cases these workers are accommodated in what are effectively shanty towns, cramped with (by any standards) unacceptable hygiene conditions.

If the workers want to protest about their conditions there is actually nothing they can do as membership of a trade union or even striking is illegal.

Should the worker want to return home early (assuming he can afford the fare) they are prevented from doing so as employers frequently  “look after” their passports and “sponsorship” rules mean the workers have to work in Dubai for a minimum period of time.

The BBC Panorama program had a very good exposé on working conditions for migrant workers in Dubai. (

Perhaps those who are kow-towing to the Dubai Racing Club and Dubai rulers ought to look at their consciences before heaping lavish praise on Meydan (or indeed anything in Dubai).

Of course it could be they are too afraid to say anything, after all any journalist who writes a story that is negative about the country or insults the government is liable to face a huge fine or imprisonment.

A report from Human Rights Watch stated, “Hundreds of migrant construction workers die each year in the UAE under unexplained circumstances. The government can account only for a few of these deaths, primarily because it appears not to enforce its own laws requiring employers to report worksite deaths and injuries. In 2004 alone, the embassies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh returned the bodies of 880 construction workers back to their home countries. Yet the Dubai emirate, the only emirate to keep a count of migrant worker deaths, recorded only 34 construction deaths that year, based on reports from only six companies.”

Needless to say there are no official figures as to how many workers were killed or injured during the construction of Meydan.

The Government of Dubai say they are “clamping down” on unscrupulous builders and they have minimum standards laid down. Yet it seems construction companies are allowed to flaunt these laws with impunity.

This strikes me as being somewhat odd as, elsewhere, the law seems to be enforced with a rod of steel.

There seems to be an irreconcilable inconsistency where the law seems not to care a jot about the working conditions of migrant workers, yet an innocent peck on the cheek in public is rigorously enforced with one month in prison.

It isn’t just building workers who are badly treated in the country. Women are bought into the country to work as domestics. However there are many reports of these women being badly treated, not paid and even raped and sexually assaulted.

Yet according to Human Rights Watch there have been no cases of the prosecution in the UAE, of employers accused of raping domestic servants.

“This provides a culture of impunity that perpetuates sexual crimes against domestic workers. Our research indicates that all rape cases of domestic servants that are brought to the attention of the authorities, are settled out of court and no one has been prosecuted,”

Yes Meydan may well be the most impressive racecourse in the world, the top horses and trainers may be attracted with massive prize money but to me it is severely tainted.

No matter how good the racing may be in Meydan, I cannot bring myself to support it or shout from the rooftops how great Meydan is – I am afraid my conscience will not allow it, to me the place is obscene.

As a consequence there will be no coverage of the course or its racing on this site.

Both the Office of the Prime Minister of Dubai and the Dubai Racing Club were invited to comment on the issues raised – both declined to comment. The offer to respond is still open.


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