Remarkably, the evacuation was swift and orderly, despite numerous false-alarm fire bells since the tower opened nearly four years ago as another high-rise haven for well-paid expat workers and investors. No one was killed, and only a handful of people suffered smoke-related breathing problems.
The other fire, about 24 hours earlier, was far removed from the glamour promoted by the UAE. Sometime early Friday, a blaze broke out in a tire shop in an industrial corner of Abu Dhabi packed with fix-it garages and warehouses. The flames rose, fed by tires and solvents. They soon engulfed a makeshift rooming house upstairs for migrant workers.
Suresh Kumar, a mechanic from India who lives in the Musaffah industrial zone, heard the screams. Then silence. He watched as the bodies of 10 laborers were carried out.
“There is no fire safety,” he told the Gulf News. “People live cramped in rooms.”
There is more, however, than just the settings separating the two events. It’s another window into the parallel worlds for the millions of expat workers in the UAE and other Gulf states.
One is glossed by a veneer of privilege and propped up by the belief that life here – endless malls, tax-free salaries, plentiful domestic help – offers more than ever possible at home in the West and elsewhere. The other side is found in places such as Musaffah or the barracks-style camps built to house workers, the vast majority from South Asia drawn by the hopes of making enough money to support families back home.
Here, the call of the Gulf has no gilded charm. It's small, cinder-block rooms often packed with bunk beds. It’s being chased away from tourist beaches or malls by police, or gathering at shabby shopping centers in the desert to pay jacked-up prices for a phone call home.
To be fair, such contrasts are hardly unique to the Gulf, particularly in emerging economic powers such as India and China. But no other place depends as heavily on low-cost foreign labor. Every bigger-higher-grander “vision” – a word much in vogue among the UAE’s ruler-builders – literally rests upon the supply of workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere.
And here is where the fire in Abu Dhabi strikes home.
If nothing else, the Gulf leaders pay attention to their global image. The scenes of charred bodies and a makeshift flophouse is certain to bring another round of outcry from human rights groups, which already have sharpened their focus on the Gulf with projects such as Abu Dhabi’s branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, and the venues for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
A report earlier this month by Human Rights Watch noted some improvements in labor conditions in the UAE – including better monitoring of company-run camps – but it repeated complaints about long-standing practices such as withholding workers’ passports so they cannot change jobs and mass firings and deportations after threats of strikes or protests.
UAE authorities have harshly rejected the international criticism, saying they have made strides on job safety and living conditions for migrant workers.
But the accounts from the Abu Dhabi fire show the tragic mix of desperate workers and even more desperate surroundings.
More than 100 people were packed into 12 rooms when the fire broke out, said one worker, Mohammed Daulat from Bangladesh.
“I jumped out of the window and helped other roommates leave, too. This is how I am alive,” he told the National newspaper in Abu Dhabi.
Among the dead were two brothers from Chittagong, Bangladesh. Daulat said their bodies were found holding hands. Others were from Syria, Pakistan and India, authorities said.
Police arrested the owner of the building. Those displaced by the fire were cast adrift, looking for an empty bunk and castoff clothes from friends.
In Dubai, a support center for the Torch refugees was set up on the 97th floor of a neighboring luxury building, the Princess Tower. Nearby restaurants pitched in with free food: pizzas, coffee and warm croissants.