In the four years that it has taken laborers to climb more than 150 floors over Dubai's congested freeways and skyline, the U.S. dollar has fallen with equal steadiness. Its decline has helped trigger unprecedented wage strikes and a rock-throwing protest this fall by the foreign construction workers, who are paid in local currencies pegged to the dollar.
To build and tend their kingdom, the Emirates' 800,000 citizens imported millions of foreign workers, including 700,000 construction workers. Nearly one in five people in the kingdom is a construction worker; most are from India.
As recently as last month, some construction workers on the Burj Dubai and other projects made the equivalent of as little as $109 a month. Back home in India, where the dollar has fallen 14 percent against the rupee in the past 18 months, remittances that workers here sent to their families steadily lost value.
It should be noted that the living conditions for these workers are a century behind, reminiscent of 1900s-era American labor, which is ironic given that they are working on 21st-century projects like Burj Dubai:
"I work here, and I can't save anything. I'll ruin my family," said Ram Chandra, 33, a mason from the north Indian state of Rajasthan.
Chandra spoke in Sonapur, outside Dubai. Though its name means "City of Gold" in Hindi, Sonapur is a bleak, sand-blown labor camp housing 50,000 construction workers. Men sleep 10 to 12 to a room in tightly packed rows of concrete barracks. Chandra sat with four other workers perched on cots or squatting on the concrete floor. They wore sleeveless T-shirts and shorts or faded towels worn like the wraparound dhoti skirts commonly found in India.
Other barracks had laundry strung from bare beams. A sewage tanker made its evening rounds of the camp's septic tanks, filling the air with a gurgle and reek.
What bothers me most about this is that Dubai's wealth is built on a service industry that caters directly to the Asian middle class. Wander the ultramalls of Dubai (including the airport) and you find mostly Asians - especially Indians - shopping till they drop.
The workers themselves can exert pressure by striking, since any work slowdown impacts Dubai's image, and an article in the Washington Post is assuredly far more negative press than Dubai's elite would like to see. But a boycott of Dubai shopping districts by Asians would have a complementary, and force-multiplying, effect.
Can we restrain ourselves? For our own sake?