Over this past summer, I found my voice. As a guest host of a show on a talk-radio station in Dubai, I trawled through topics ranging from curtains, cats, comedy and even opera.
Of course, finding one’s voice on a radio show means listening to others’ voices as well. On the 3-hour show, despite the diversity in discussion, listeners were obsessed with roads, rents and inflation — which has ranged between 9% and 15% in the six countries of the Gulf region: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, in recent years.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The UAE — which comprises Dubai, Abu Dhabi and five other sheikhdoms — and Qatar are the worst hit. In 2007, they reported inflation rates at 14% and 11%, respectively, with the UAE’s figure put at the highest in two decades. As the English language daily Khaleej Times reported recently, Gulf-based economists said a further surge in inflation is inevitable. According to the report, the Gulf countries have limited monetary policy tools at their disposal because their currencies are pegged to a then weakening dollar, with the exception of the Kuwaiti dinar, which unexpectedly depegged itself in May 2007.
So the voices that occupied the airwaves complained about spiralling costs in the city. They also complained about Dubai’s government agencies heavily clamping down on multiple cohabitations in its many multi-bedroom villas, forcing many lower middle-class families to leave town and return to their homelands in Asia, Europe or elsewhere in the Arab world.
Because Dubai has long been an expensive place for many middle-class families and individuals, they have shared large villas or even basic two-bedroom apartments. These are partitioned into smaller studio or single-bedroom arrangements to accommodate the large demand for residential space and the limited budgets most expatriate workers have at their disposal.
The reality is that the living situation between unrelated families and individuals does create serious safety, security and social concerns for Dubai’s authorities. The outbreak of a fire in a 45-room villa, which housed numerous bachelors, in late August claimed 11 lives and justified the authorities’ tough action against illegal accommodation. All partitions in the ill-fated villa were not sanctioned by the Dubai municipality, and the entire second floor had been built without the appropriate town permits.
Rents in the UAE and neighbouring Gulf countries are comparable with international city trends. The average monthly rent for a good-quality one-bedroom apartment in UAE capital Abu Dhabi is around $3,000. As for salaries, it is difficult to say exactly what the average is; however, based on a quick perusal of local newspapers’ job opportunities pages, it ranges from $1,000 to $9,600 per month. For a large chunk of the middle class, good-quality independent housing is simply not affordable.
And so, tragic tales of the forceful eviction of families when municipal agencies shut down the villas’ water and electricity supplies make it into the mainstream media. Dubai-based newspaper Gulf News reported evicted residents moving in with friends or spending nights in their cars during the summer, when temperatures cross 45 degrees Celsius, until an alternative was found.
Dubai’s municipality has announced a 30-day deadline for residents sharing villas to vacate them. The local media is replete with comments from affected expatriates ranging from: “I have to send my family back home and look for a bed space”, and “Is it a move to force us to fill up the newly readied apartments in the market?” to “Who will now occupy large multi-bedroom villas?”
The majority of the UAE’s expatriate population is made up of labourers, who hit the front pages of foreign newspapers courtesy of international activists crying foul over their working and living conditions. The super rich also make ample news by way of their extravagances and excesses (typically, top management-level salaries in Dubai can range between $250,000 and $1 million).
In this context, it’s the middle classes that have little voice and no platform as they get pushed down towards poverty, and ultimately out of the country.
It may well be that it’s not a conscious systematic effort to weed out a pivotal section of society. However, there is no doubt that a large group in the middle has been forgotten as the market’s focus has been on the top layer and the media’s focus on the bottom.
Luxury living options litter the property pages of real estate magazines, while middle-class expatriates — regardless of ethnicity — struggle to find the right formula that allows them to stay on in the UAE and other Gulf countries.
The middle class may not figure prominently in the minds of the media or the market, but it’s probably high time to wake up and take stock of the scenario. What would happen if there was no middle between the have-lots and have-nots? How would society sustain itself? But, most importantly, who would go on the city’s radio waves and talk about pressing matters such as curtains, cats and, well, opera?
Vinita Bharadwaj is a journalist based in Dubai. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org