The other day as images of a towering inferno in Dubai appeared on our screens, our immediate response and fear wasn’t just that there was likely to be casualties in the blaze; some were bound to be Irish.
Then, another thought dawned on us. Some of those Irish could be a touring GAA team. At this time of year, in that part of the world, there was bound to be one that was in town, and with that hotel only a puckout away from the world’s biggest building, the Burj Khalifa tower, which some of them were bound to check out, especially on New Year’s Eve with a spectacular fireworks display scheduled...
Thankfully, miraculously, nobody was killed or even seriously hurt in the fire that broke out in the 63-storey Address Hotel.
What we were also surprised — and glad — to learn was that there was no visiting GAA team in the vicinity either.
There’s usually always one, if not two.
Last year both the defeated All-Ireland finalists — the Donegal footballers and Tipperary hurlers — chose the city of bling as their refuge and reward. The previous year, Mayo arrived into town; the year before that again, the Donegal footballers and Galway hurlers.
Other winter visitors over the years to Sheikh Mohammed’s fiefdom have included the Clare hurlers (2002), the Tyrone footballers (2004) and the Kilkenny hurlers (2007).
About the only big teams that have given the place a skip seem to be Kerry, Dublin and Cork, and even their biggest names couldn’t escape the place; not just once but twice this millennium, Dubai has been the destination of choice of Croke Park itself for the football All-Stars tour (2000 and 2007).
There’s a reason we say ‘thankfully’ there were no All-Ireland finalists in this megalopolis in the desert, the last few weeks, just as we can see why others before them have opted for, and been seduced by, it.
A couple of years ago, I was there as the backroom member of an All-Ireland finalist. I had known little about the place beforehand, I just went with the flow and the gang, and enjoyed it.
Primarily, the company I was in, and the hospitality of various Irish hosts, especially Dubai GAA.
The place’s opulence more amused than enthralled or impressed me, but at the time didn’t appall me. While I found the place all bling, little soul, I couldn’t quite identify why it left me rather uneasy.
It would be only later when I’d look up some more about the place that I’d discover why.
The place boasts the most lavish hotels, the biggest buildings and shopping malls in the world; the skyline of Manhattan with the brashness of Vegas. But contrary to what the commentary on the guided tour bus will tell you, it wasn’t the Sheik and his family that built this place. Impoverished labourers did.
There are basically three kinds of people living in Dubai. The local Emirati, that make up only 10% of the population. Expats, like the Irish who, as a gushing George Lee told the nation a few months ago, are much better abroad here than at home; in Dubai, there’s no taxes; anything you make — and you can make a lot — you keep. But then there’s the other kind of immigrant worker. He doesn’t get to party and he doesn’t get to make much.
He’s promised he’ll make money. That’s why he’ll leave his home in south-east Asia: Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India. An agent will tell him he can make about £400 (€543) a month working nine-to- five; all he has to do is pay about £2,250 (€3,000) upfront for a work visa. So he sells his family land, takes out a loan from a local lender, leaves his family behind for a better life for them all.
But then once he arrives at the airport, he may not see his passport for a while. He learns he’ll be working 14-hour days, six days a week, for about a quarter of the wages he was promised. He can’t go home. He can’t afford it, even if he had a passport. He’s stuck.
Our inter-county stars won’t have seen him. Not up close. In the day, he’s up on those scaffolds in the sky; in the morning and night, on a bus that wheels hundreds of thousands like him to their camp out of town, out of sight, in conditions you wouldn’t house cattle.
Labourers make up 80% of the population of the United Arab Emirates. They are the majority. And they are powerless.
Yet sport continues to play in this new Sun City. Liverpool partied there after a disastrous end to their season. The European tour is now all one big race to Dubai. The most regular winner of that race, our own Rory McIlroy, as host of the Irish Open, has secured numerous sponsors for the event from the region, including Dubai Duty Free.
We know Rory means the best for this country’s largest golfing event. Some of the money from DDF will go to the Rory Foundation, and through it, charities across the world. Maybe he’s unaware of the plight of our Indian brethren or maybe like some of the Irish that George encountered on his documentary, he’s convinced himself that these immigrants are still faring better than they would back home.
Golf in this country should feel uneasy about its relationship and dependency on Dubai-based sponsorship. But it is a professional sport, run for and by money.
The GAA should stand for more. As Michael Foley of The Sunday Times pointed out at the weekend, it is a socially and morally conscious organisation, with gate receipts from the Leinster Council’s O’Byrne and Walsh Cup ring-fenced for victims of accidents such as the flooding that has wrecked so many homes recently.
Unwittingly or not, our various All-Ireland finalists and All-Star tours have, by visiting Dubai, also endorsed and legitimised an unjust societal structure and regime. The world’s a big enough place without validating or playing this new Sun City.
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