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