Sheikh Mo’s Vision Attracted Global Migrants to Help Build Emirati Nation

My wife and I were drawn to explore the possibility of getting jobs in the UAE in part by the country’s public relations campaign. Way back in 2006, Time magazine named Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum one of the “100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming our world.” Profiling him as “a man of many guises,” including poet and champion horseman, it described “his dream of turning his patch of desert into a futuristic global hub in the span of a generation…another Singapore.”

Sheikh Mo, as he was called by admirers, published “My Vision: Challenges in the Race for Excellence.” He wrote: “I feel increasingly sad about the sorry state of affairs in the Arab world. Only a persistent sense of optimism about a brighter future lifts my sadness. I keep telling others and myself that all this despair, pessimism, and fear are transient, and like a lonely cloud crossing a clear sky, will soon disappear.”

His positive vision of modernity and super-charged regional economic development was heady stuff, a stark alternative to the bleak and murderous vision of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who wanted to turn the region back to the seventh century. Sheikh Mo summoned talented workers of the world to come help him build his nation, which would become a regional hub and exemplar of globalization’s benefits. Those who answered his call would be paid handsomely for doing so.

While living in Turkey, teaching English, we gained experience working in multi-cultural environments with Muslims, challenged and shattered American stereotypes and had a wonderful time. After two years of home schooling in Turkey, our teenage son needed an English-speaking high school. We were ready for a new international adventure in a globalized culture. In the UAE, expats and laborers represent more than 80 percent of the population of seven million. My wife’s new employer, Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, offered to pay 80 percent of the costs for him to attend the excellent American embassy school, with more than 60 nationalities. It seemed like a dream come true.

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Shortly after arriving in the UAE, like Sheikh Mo, we adopted two Saluki “desert dogs.” They would become an integral part of our family.

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The UAE’s public relations campaign continues. It has a lot of money to put its best feet forward. Not long after The New York Times in 2018 followed up on its ongoing expose of the exploitation of migrant worker to build New York University-Abu Dhabi and reported boycotts by journalism faculty due to restrictions on academic freedom, this “paid post” by “Visit Abu Dhabi” was featured prominently on The Times‘ website, with evocative pictures:

A Destination So Captivating Some Visitors Choose to Live There. For American expats, urban glitz, world-class culture and desert adventures are reasons to love Abu Dhabi.” A number of my former colleagues were quoted.

I would eventually find out that this blue-skies depiction was only part of the story.

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