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Dubai Delivery Riders Challenge  UAE Royal Family's Absolute Power

Labor strikes are forbidden in the Emirates, but two consecutive work stoppages by food delivery drivers have made news lately. Could it be a sign of challenges to the UAE's unequal and authoritarian economic model?

Talabat delivery riders in Qatar

Talabat is a leading food delivery company in Middle East.

Laura-Mai Gaveriaux

DUBAI — About a month ago, on May 9, the food delivery drivers who work with Talabat (a subsidiary of the German app Delivery Hero) went on strike in Dubai in order to receive a raise of 2 dirhams ($0.54) per delivery run, up from the current pay of 7.5 dh ($2.04).

Yet any sort of labor strike is illegal in the United Arab Emirates.

This act was even more surprising considering that a week prior, Deliveroo workers had stopped working to protest against an announced price reduction on delivery runs. "In the early 2000s, we already had seen strikes on the Burj Khalifa worksite (an iconic skyscraper in Dubai)," observes geographer Delphine Pagès-El Karoui, a specialist in Arab societies at the Paris-based Inalco, the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations.

"What's new is the fact that we talk about it." Articles appearing in the local press are under the strict control of the authorities. "For one reason or another, they let it go," continues the researcher. These two episodes, even though they remained isolated and restricted, still question the viability of the country's development model where 10% of nationals are responsible for economic growth.

United Arab Emirates' foreign factor

During the foundation of the state in 1971, around 300,000 people lived in the territory following Bedouin traditions, with homes made of clay bricks and date palm branches. The United Arab Emirates developed themselves in a dazzling way on an oil windfall and the importation of labor in order to exploit it.

We come, we work, we make money and we leave.

Today, the population has reached almost 10 million people, 90% foreigners who are mostly Asian — 30% Indians and 13% Pakistani, according to embassy numbers. These immigrants usually work in construction (30% of the total workforce), as well as in the service industry (70.6% of jobs in 2020 according to the International Labour Organization).

“Here the social contract is clear,” says a Western diplomat. “We come, we work, we make money and we leave." So there is never any question of integration (the conditions of access to nationality are very restricted) and the financial opportunity is accompanied by a unilateral acceptance of these conditions. This makes for an authoritarian model that does not suffer any challenges.

Food delivery riders in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The roads of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, abound with food delivery riders.

Wong Fok Loy/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Poor working conditions 

Compared to the Indian average monthly salary of $170, the $964 dollar salary that Talabat claims to pay its delivery riders seems like a windfall. But considering the cost of living (Dubai is considered one of the most expensive cities in the world), the opportunity is quite limited.

“In our cultures, out of modesty, we will always say that the people who have left have succeeded, but this really only concerns people with diplomas," notes an Asian diplomat. "Service workers often return at the end of their first work visa, exhausted and without savings."

For a low-skilled migrant from the Indian subcontinent, there are no prospects for development. This is confirmed by the human capital index measured by the World Bank: It measures the economic and productivity potential of the various countries' investment in education, living conditions and health, and stands at 0.67 (on a rating scale from 0 to 1). While this is above the Middle East average, it is below the majority of high-income countries, which hover around 0.80.

Stuck in a paradox 

For Delphine Pagès-El Karoui, “The Emirates are stuck in a paradox; They only exist through an extroverted development model, through labor, tourism, finance but are politically totally closed.” In a globalized economy, where it is no longer possible to keep individuals under censorship, how much longer is this viable?

The bicycle delivery drivers are contemporary social figures, with whom world public opinion can identify.

Marc Lavergne, a political scientist at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), says "these strikes demonstrate a weakness, but they are not unexpected, the Emirates are not impervious to world movements." This expert on the Gulf also adds that “social media enables the spread of awareness on the issue of human rights, which was not possible just 10 years ago.”

Unlike the controversies that have risen in Qatar concerning the working conditions of employees on the construction sites of the soccer World Cup stadiums (which starts in November), "the bicycle delivery drivers are contemporary social figures, with whom world public opinion can identify," adds Marc Lavergne. And this is only because the clients of these services are also, in large part, immigrant workers from the Indian subcontinent, likely to support the cause of the strikers.

Challenging absolute power

Managing the risk could push the Emirates to make a few concessions. Unlike its neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Arab federation has succeeded, until now, in protecting its image. All of this while being as authoritarian and having a leader, Mohammed Ben Zayed, who is just as brutal.

But it will be hard for the authorities to continue to ignore the demands of a more decent life for those who have contributed to building the country. It remains to be seen to what extent the system is ready to change.

Until now, all societal openings have been made in advance of the demands (religious tolerance, access to alcohol, visa requirements), but only on a superficial and surface level, which has never challenged the absolute power of the ruling princes.

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In The News

War In Ukraine, Day 149: What The Grain Deal To End Russia’s Blockade Will And Will Not Include

The accord between Kyiv and Moscow has been in the works all week, signing today in Istanbul.

Wheat harvest in Kherson

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The Kremlin has confirmed that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is in Istanbul today to sign a UN-backed deal with Ukraine over grain exports that could put an end to what the West has called Moscow’s “weaponizing” of food in the war against Kyiv.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Both Ukraine and Russia have sent their infrastructure and defense ministers to a signing ceremony in Istanbul slated Friday for 4:30 p.m. local time (9:30 a.m. ET). U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will also be present.

A member of the Ukrainian delegation in the grain export negotiations says three Ukrainian ports will be included in the agreement on exporting agricultural produce through agreed corridors in the Black Sea.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leaders and experts have been warning of a food crisis as millions of tons of Ukrainian grain are unable to reach the global market.

Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Oleh Nikolenko told Novoe Vremya news agency that Kyiv would only sign a grain deal on the condition that it ensures the safety of Ukraine’s southern regions, strong military positions in the Black Sea, and the safe export of Ukrainian products to global markets.

Beyond what stipulations are laid out in Istanbul, the resolution to the crisis in food supplies will only be seen once implementation begins. Outside enforcement is next to impossible and Russia has reversed course on promises made in the past — and knows that commerce is always a potential weapon of war if deemed necessary.

Still, as with prisoner exchanges, any step taken to move Kyiv and Moscow toward a compromise can help lay the groundwork for future agreements. A truce to end the fighting though still appears very far away.

Google Banned In Ukraine’s Occupied Regions By Pro-Russian Regime

Google Mountain View California


Authorities in the two pro-Russian separatist territories in eastern Ukraine have announced that they have blocked the search engine Google, accusing it of "promoting" violence against Russians.

Denis Pushilin, president of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" ("DPR"), declared on the Telegram messaging app that "inhuman propaganda of Ukraine and the west has long crossed all boundaries. There is a real persecution of Russians, the imposition of lies and disinformation." He added that “If Google stops pursuing its criminal policy and returns to the mainstream of law, morality and common sense, there will be no obstacles for its work.”

For the moment, Russia, Syria and North Korea are the only UN member states to recognise the DPR as a legitimate authority.

Lukashenko Calls For End Of War In Ukraine, Warns Of Nuclear Threat

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko

Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS/Zuma

Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko called for an agreement to end the war in Ukraine to avoid the “abyss of nuclear war." Despite striking out autonomously from the Kremlin, Lukashenko still pins the blame for the war on the West and says any peace agreement depends entirely on Kyiv.

Mr. Lukashenko said that attacks on Ukrainian military facilities had been launched from Belarusian territory, but claims the Russian military did this "in order to protect their units" and not without his permission.

New Round Of EU Sanctions Against Russia Targets Moscow Mayor And Sberbank

Sberbank headquarters


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Quoted in Moscow daily Kommersant, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded by saying that with the sanctions the European Union (EU) "continues to drive itself into a dead end."

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What Turkey Thinks It Can Squeeze Out Of The War In Ukraine

Iranian and Turkish delegations start the summit on the Syrian war in Tehran on July 19

Iranian Presidency/ZUMA

Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan is garnering credit for helping to orchestrate Friday’s deal between Kyiv and Moscow to end the grain blockade.

But with Russia focused on its Ukraine invasion, Erdoğan sees an opening in Syria, where Moscow had been the main foreign military presence for the past five years.

For weeks, the Turkish president has been talking about a new offensive in northern Syria. He wants to create a 30-kilometer-wide buffer zone there and push back the Kurdish militia YPG, which Erdoğan sees as an extension of the PKK, the guerrilla movement based in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq that Europe classifies as a terrorist organization.

At the same time, such a zone would allow him to settle Syrian refugees from Turkey there. This is an issue creating more and more domestic political pressure for the Turkish president. Read more about it in this Die Welt piece in English via Worldcrunch.

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

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