I'm not one of those Americans who views the rest of the world as decidedly inferior in freedom. I know better, from jarring experience. As an alleged U.S. citizen, I had my life upturned in 2006 because I could not sponsor my foreign partner for residency because of his gender. Essentially, the law and the government showed up with a clipboard and a checklist and said, "We do not think you should be able to live here with the person of your choosing. We base this mostly on long-held personal tastes rooted in scientifically discredited ancient text from which everyone picks and chooses anyway."
I quit a dreamy job. I left the New York I long had craved. I moved out of the country with my Other Half. It caused untold stress except that then it led to untold adventures and discoveries. Don't pity me.
The law changed at the Supreme Court last June 26, making the United States the 34th country with such rights for its own so-called citizens. As a national slogan, "We're number thirty-four" is clunky, but whatever.
My own ordeal colors any attempt to evaluate the UFC's decision to have another big Friday night in Abu Dhabi, with the accompanying and welcome questions about human rights. Then there's another factor: I lived for two years in both Abu Dhabi and its brethren metropolis Dubai, 80 miles up the wild, gleaming highway. I like the United Arab Emirates in roughly the same way I like the United States: in spite of some things.
The dominant misgiving about living in rich oil states concerns the plight of guest workers. They build the skyscrapers, fix the roads, drive the cabs. They hail mostly from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. They're a huge part of the human-crossroads fabric of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They're everywhere in airports as they come to their jobs or go home to their relatives. Ask them, and they'll often summarize their lives thusly: "work, sleep, work, sleep." Every once in a while, they doze off at traffic lights while driving. I talked to them daily. I co-habitated with one for parts of seven months.
In the spring of 2011, I moved into a bunk-bedded studio apartment with a Filipino hotel bellman after I told him of my apartment search and he told me of his desperation. A change in his living arrangement meant he couldn't pay his rent in a country where indebtedness can lead to jail. In the ever-warped global economy, that rent (almost $700) looked reasonable to me, and as someone frequently abroad for work and play, the lack of space mattered little. I sat with him some mornings and listened even as he persisted in dumping unwanted sugar in my coffee, which he insisted upon making for me. I saw, up close, the pressures and the pining for his two young children 4,300 miles away.
I think it's wrong that employers can keep somebody's passport, as they do with many of these workers. I think it's wrong that some of the construction workers work when the temperature nears 110 degrees Fahrenheit. I think the conditions in which some of these workers live -- my friend later lived a while with 13 others in a one-bedroom -- are wrong-times-wrong. When a Bangladeshi friend cleaning hotel rooms told me his salary -- about $540 per month -- I got shocked. A Nepalese friend I saw lately makes $648 per month.
I also heard the counter-arguments from fellow expats, also true: The global economy is tilted so profoundly that these guest workers often take these same salaries and, back at home, build houses they never could have built without relocating. They line up at airport security lines with their awkward boxes of flat-screen TVs, not something to envy but definitely something to see.
I do think it's time the world had a serious conversation about removing its biggest sporting event from a neighboring country, Qatar, based on the Guardian's excellent reporting about World Cup construction horror. I also think part of that conversation about the 2022 World Cup should be this: Might that same World Cup improve the conditions? If so, doesn't that become the uppermost reason to take it there and mingle the cultures?
When individual liberty turns up against authoritarian restrictions, the former does tend to prevail in most minds. You can see this trivially with Middle East TV channels (circa 2011: Ellen, Glee, the Kardashians), or concerts (Madonna, Elton John, Jay-Z, J-Lo lately at the big horse race). That prevalence is harder to attain once moneymaking is threatened, but the bigger the light on the labor conditions, the better any chance to improve the labor conditions. Embarrassment can be powerful.
And while the worker issues blare, the more occasional stories seem to rouse even more global curiosity. Obviously, the United States and others do have more general freedom. Obviously, a woman shouldn't face prosecution for reporting a rape. A man shouldn't spend a year in jail for making a satirical video. Two guys shouldn't get jail time for kissing in an airport even if a chunk of Americans might agree with the verdict. So it surprises some to learn that Dubai and Abu Dhabi have several thriving gay nightclubs, with some amusing details such as the man with one of the world's most unusual part-time jobs: walking around the dance floor occasionally instructing guys to stop grinding against each other. Expats do learn the local standards and start to question the sanity of those who flout them. After a heterosexual English couple went to jail and splashed through the London tabloids for having sex on a Dubai beach in 2008, their lack of wisdom dominated expat chatter. An English friend said his Britain-based friends were declining to visit him in Abu Dhabi until he asked them, "Can you have sex out in the open on the beaches in England?"
Rationally, you could withhold sporting events from such places, or rationally, you could barge right in and switch on the lights. Cautiously, I've opted to support the latter, in part because it even starts up this discussion. I know it's often just about a whole bunch of money. I know the big Middle East presences of the pro golf and tennis tours haven't quelled labor woes. Still, sport remains the world's greatest bridge, and on balance, I'm glad the UFC reaches Abu Dhabi, just as I was glad when it would reach Las Vegas before last June 26. If a sport can bring attention to an issue and stoke this kind of discussion, then I'll be in support of it.