On My Way to Abu Dhabi

I am on my way to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE – the United Arab Emirates. Earlier today in New York I spoke to a Nigerian worker at a bank who thought Dubai was a country and Abu Dhabi its capital – just to show how this country, formed in 1971, and particularly Dubai, has become so well-known across Africa. I am on Etihad Airways, the UAE’s national airline. A really nice airline, with wifi on board and, I am told, the ability to use your mobile phone while on the plane.

As I think about the UAE, there are the usual two sides of the economic development debate that mention of the UAE always brings about. On the one side of the debate you will find many Africans: we are impressed with what they have been able to do with their resources. There is a very efficient economy, gleaming skyscrapers, roads that have no potholes. As I think back to the demise of Ghana Airways, most certainly due to mismanagement and corruption, I am impressed with Etihad and its wifi offerings. I had an argument with an African colleague a while back as to whether to consider the UAE a success story. I wrote a paper making that case for UN WIDER (Click Here for Paper).

On the other side of the debate, of course, is the almost instantaneous and, may I say knee-jerk, reaction that many have as soon as the word UAE is mentioned: the large number of migrant workers and their presumed total abuse and exploitation on the one hand, and the monarchy and the complete lack of democracy on the other hand. I always get myself into trouble when I try to explain that the real world is much more nuanced than a simple black and white picture. At a reception, I recall a UC Berkeley professor who had never been to the UAE, or probably spoken to anyone from there, screaming at me because I said that as academics we should try to understand and get at the truth, and the nuances. I thought professors were supposed to teach and practice critical thinking – ah well.

Perhaps I am a little biased, as I have been both a temporary migrant worker and because I come from an African tribe that is proud of its monarchy. Anyway, on the labor front we are working towards getting a better understanding of what is going on in the UAE. Visit our Global Labor Markets page (Here), and keep an eye out for joint research with Suresh Naidu at Columbia and Shing-Yi Wang at U Penn.