The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What is it like to live in a modern surveillance state? Look to Dubai.

The Jumeirah Palm Island luxury villas are seen by their private beaches in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 6, 2018. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Yasmine Bahrani is an independent writer.

“The CIA doesn’t spy on the United Arab Emirates,” read a partial headline on a recent Reuters article. As someone who has lived in the Gulf, I had to laugh. There is plenty of spying in the Emirates — especially by the Emirates themselves. The government is keeping a close eye on the people who live there.

It may come as a surprise to many outside the region, but Dubai and Abu Dhabi are among the most closely surveilled cities in the world. Abu Dhabi has an estimated 20,000 security cameras aimed at its 1.5 million people, while Dubai has some 35,000 cameras watching a population of 2.8 million people. To compare, the estimated number of security cameras in Washington, D.C., is 4,000. There are more closely watched cities per capita, but most of them are in China.

There are arguably some upsides to this level of surveillance, the most obvious of which is the low level of crime. While I was a teacher in Dubai, a student from Nigeria told my class a story about how she once left her handbag on a bus stop bench. When she finally returned to the bench, she found her bag waiting for her, complete with all of her cash. No one was surprised. We all knew that Dubai is considered one of the safest places in the world. Everyone knows that there are cameras everywhere.

Usually, however, knowing — or suspecting — that someone is watching or listening to you is not a good thing. Only 15 percent of Dubai’s residents are native Emiratis. The rest are foreigners and, like me, most are grateful for the job and life the UAE offers. Nobody wants to make any mistakes that might lead to job loss, deportation or jail time — and there was plenty of reason for us to develop a certain level of paranoia.

For example, when I first flew into Dubai to take up my teaching job in 2014, my introduction to the country involved the immigration agent immediately scanning my eyes — never mind how sleepy I was or how smeared my mascara. Next, I was told I must either buy a SIM card or a cellphone on the spot. This also happened to my colleagues. Nobody explained why it was necessary, but we noticed some of the results: Whenever we traveled outside the country, we would receive text messages on our mandated cellphones that said something like: “The UAE embassy welcomes you to Frankfurt, Germany.” And, upon returning to Dubai, we would get cheerful texts reading, “Welcome back to Dubai.” These messages were friendly — but the underlying implication of being monitored was not.

Then there were the known opportunities for online monitoring. In January, Reuters reported that the UAE had pulled together a team of American mercenaries — many of whom were former National Security Agency operatives — to hack and monitor critics and journalists. According to the New York Times, the UAE government was a client of the cyberintelligence company NSO Group, and was once caught installing its spyware on the phone of a dissident.

It wasn’t just our devices and Internet activity that we had to pay attention to. Not long after I arrived in Dubai, a surprise visitor came to my office. He seemed too old to be a student but said he wished to enroll in my class. I explained the different courses available and the career opportunities they could provide. He thanked me and then politely reminded me to take my cellphone with me everywhere. Then he moved the conversation from a chat about classes to one about political matters, and after a while left. He never did enroll in the program.

You can imagine the effect that all of this had. When my colleagues and I went home to our employer-supplied apartments, we started self-censoring our emails and watching our words, as if someone were reading over our shoulders or listening in on our conversations. We weren’t writing anything subversive — or at least I wasn’t — but that didn’t stop us from being careful.

It became normal to speak in whispers when discussing politics — or not talk about it at all. The feeling was so common that an Egyptian student of mine told me that her family takes all their cellphones and puts them in a room, closes the door, and then gathers in a different room to engage in all sorts of conversations without worrying that someone was listening.

But if we wanted to talk to loved ones, we had no choice but to use phones. Skype or FaceTime calls? Not allowed in Dubai.

And so we would drift off to sleep hoping we didn’t dream anything subversive. We would say to ourselves, we can do this until our contracts finish. Then we can move back home, where our purchases are studied by marketers, our Internet activity is collected and resold by data brokers, and our health history is recorded.

We can run, but Big Brother is in our pocket now.

Read more:

Yasmine Bahrani: My students in Dubai always admired the U.S. Now that’s changing.

Brian Dooley: How the United Arab Emirates contributes to mess after mess in the Middle East

Anwar Gargash: We’re proud of the UAE’s military role in Yemen. But it’s time to seek a political solution.

Oussama El Omari: Interpol’s ‘red notices’ are being abused. One ruined my life.

Shoshana Zuboff: ‘Surveillance capitalism’ has gone rogue. We must curb its excesses.