Obama's outreach: The view from Dubai


DUBAI — On the dusty outskirts of this glistening city, an army of laborers from all over the Muslim world will trudge back to the crowded dormitories where they scratch out an existence and tune in via satellite channels to hear the message of “a new beginning” that President Barack Obama delivered to the Muslim world.

But while the speech was underway in Cairo, these laborers were busy toiling on scaffolds and mixing concrete and paving roads in the searing 100-degree heat of midday here in a country where a building boom fueled by the riches of oil has suddenly slowed in the wake of the global economic crisis.

These ragged men in their filthy work uniforms are the audience to whom Obama had to speak most convincingly for his powerful and resonant speech to have lasting impact.

These are the people, those representing the masses, who too often go ignored and unheard across the Muslim world.

“I like what he has to say. He’s trying to make a connection with us. That’s good. Just trying to make a connection is better than Bush,” said Nawas Khan, 32, a Muslim fisherman who came to Dubai two years ago for a job cleaning bathrooms at construction sites after his village and its fishing boats in southern India were destroyed by the tsunami.

He caught a glimpse of the speech at the Gents Star Barber where he was getting cleaned up on a rare day off.

Imran Ullah, a 32-year-old member of a construction crew here who hails from Peshawar, Pakistan and sends money home to his wife and two children every month, said dismissively, “It’s the same policies, different name.

“America likes to talk to the world and Obama is good at that. He said these beautiful things. But what we care about are actions, not words,” said Ullah, who listened to the speech on a transistor radio at his worksite.

Within the Muslim world, the United Arab Emirates and its shimmering jewel of a city, Dubai, is unique. In no other country in the world are there so many Muslims from so many corners of the earth, and so many different levels of society as there are here.

From fancy dinner parties in the wealthy enclaves of this oil-rich kingdom to the sprawling labor camps where hundreds of thousands of workers are crammed into filthy, overcrowded conditions, everyone here has been talking about Obama’s journey to the Middle East.

That journey started in Riyadh where he met with King Abdullah on Wednesday and continued in Cairo on Thursday where he delivered an address focused on what he called “a new beginning” between America and the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

Noting that while he is Christian his father hails from a Kenyan family with generations of Muslims, Obama told the crowd, “As the Holy Koran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.' That is what I will try to do today.”

But those who listened across the Muslim world also had truths to share, and hoped Obama was listening to them as well.

And one of the most resonant themes expressed across the economic and ethnic divides here in Dubai about Obama’s words is that as eloquent as they were, he is mistaken if he thinks he can talk to all Muslims at once.

They have different concerns and different agendas and different equations of anger and hope that provide the sum of their lives.

There are many who couldn’t help but share their cynicism about the fact that Obama went to Egypt and was hosted by President Hosni Mubarak, who is viewed by most of the Muslim world as a brutal autocrat who has violated human rights to suppress all political opposition. There are others who scoff at his meeting with the House of Saud, which embodies an American-backed monarchy that revels in profligate waste and excess while millions of Arabs suffer under tyranny, oppression and poverty.

“I like that Obama is here talking and listening. At least, I hope he is listening and not only talking," said Abdul Kader, 40, a Muslim from Kerala, India who works the counter at the Sonapour Grocery.

“America has many words about democracy, but we hope we will see the reality of those words. We are waiting for actions, not words,” added Kader, who was serving a long line of customers.

Many of them were picking up newspapers in Arabic and Urdu with headlines about Obama’s arrival in Cairo, where he gave his powerful, signature speech.

Sonapour is a sprawling city of 300,000 laborers who have come to Dubai to build the new, shiny skyscrapers that seem to fill every corner of the downtown here. The construction companies build the huge dormitories that make up Sonapour, where six men sleep in bunkbeds crammed into one 12-by-6 foot cell without air conditioning in the brutal heat.

The skyscrapers they build, including the Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world, are monuments to the riches of the royal family and testaments to faith in the energy and creativity and cash that fuels Dubai and makes it one of the hottest cities in the world for real estate, finance and trade.

But the United Arab Emirates is a dream built on sand, and the laborers who build it live in a system akin to modern slavery. They come from desperately poor countries, all too often suffering from the corruption and despotism of U.S.-backed regimes in the Muslim world. When they arrive, most laborers see their passports taken and are forced into a kind of indentured servitude in which they must pay back the fees that brought them there before they can begin to send remittances home.

Their lives go largely unnoticed by a gilded class of bankers, hoteliers and oil industry executives who benefit from the riches of the kingdom and the economy it generates.

At an elegant dinner party Wednesday night in the neighborhood of Jumerieh, several of these successful businessmen and women talked about President Obama’s visit to the region as they were served by a butler in black tie.

This is the other side of Dubai, where they were focused on the economy and what Obama is doing here in the region and around the world to help it recover. They are mindful that Dubai’s construction boom has come to a near standstill in recent months, a fact made evident by the scores of cranes at building sites that stand frozen and silent.

Yet, still they also care about the overall message in the region and how Obama seeks to redefine America’s relationship with the Muslim world. The core of the issue for so many of these educated Arabs is Palestine and the appearance that America’s alliance with Israel has made it a less than fair broker for peace.

Lina Dajani Malas, a highly educated Palestinian woman married to an executive in finance here, tuned into Obama’s speech after a luncheon with friends. She said Obama’s speech provided important clarity about the need for Israel to stop building settlements and for there to be a two-state solution.

But she quickly added, “He is a beautiful speaker. He is eloquent. But the truth is we have heard this before. Can he really change America’s policies? Actions speak louder than words. And can Obama lead America to really take on those actions. We’ll see.”