Tiger Woods in Dubai

This past week endured the annual mind-numbing golfing event known, fittingly perhaps, as The Masters. “A tradition unlike any other” is the banal slogan tagged to the event by its corporate sponsors at CBS. This year added an extra layer of historical sentiment in that it marked the 10th anniversary of Tiger Woods’ 1997 triumph at Augusta National that made him both the youngest winner of a major golf tournament as well as the first minority to wear the storied green jacket given every year to the Masters’ winner. New York’s Daily News, among other media outlets, has spilled a great deal of recent ink explaining how Woods’ success, starting with that first Masters title, has revolutionized golf in ways ranging from minority interest, to marketing, player fitness, and equipment use. Indeed it has been suggested by many that Woods’ may safely be considered the greatest and most influential athlete of his generation.

In addition to golfing achievements that will in time rewrite the sport’s record book, Woods’ is also on his way to breaking new financial ground by becoming, in a matter of time, the world’s first billion-dollar athlete. It was apparent from the time Woods joined the professional tour that his career would be more than pure golf as he immediately signed unprecedented endorsement deals with Nike and Titleist; many other soon followed making Woods the golden boy of corporate advertising.

It was late last year when Woods’ announced that he had grown out of being just a golfer and pitch-man and formed his own business: a golf course design firm called Tiger Woods Design. Only a few weeks later he named the city of Dubai as the site where he will develop his first golf course, to be rather boringly called The Tiger Woods Dubai. Yet despite its unoriginal name, and like the rest of Dubai endless building projects, the course will be nothing if not grand: a 7,770, par-72 course with a golf academy, 320 exclusive villas and 80 suite boutique hotel.

The Tiger Woods Dubai course would seem a perfect fit for a city currently building the world’s largest skyscraper, named the Burj Dubai slated to be a half mile high, several of the world’s largest shopping malls, Dubailand, a theme park twice the size of Florida’s Disney World (of which Woods’ course will be a part), a collection of 300 man-made islands in the shape of the world (to go with another man-made island configuration in the shape of Palm trees), and the world’s first, soon to be completed, underwater hotel- the Hydropolis (rooms will be 66 feet below the sea surface surrounded by plexiglass where visitors will pay thousands per night to be treated to various aquatic scenes). While specifics aren’t known, Sports Illustrated cites rumors that Woods’ end of the deal will be as much as $45 million (Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai outbid the interests of the world’s other enlightened despots in China for the honor of building Woods’ first course).

It’s a solid bet that whatever the amount Woods pockets will be exponentially higher than the amount given to the hands who will provide the labor in sweltering heat to construct the course. As Dubai rapidly builds itself into a mixed steroid cocktail of Las Vegas, Singapore, and Bangkok, the many tourists who bask in temperature controlled beaches and giant indoor ski slopes may also catch a brief glimpse of a group of Filipino and Indian migrants waiting for buses to return them to lodgings in decrepit work camps after working 12-hour shifts. Perhaps many of these wealthy tourists (Dubai has overtaken Vegas as the world’s fastest growing hotel market) would be slightly surprised that those same migrants and their families make up around 80% of Dubai’s resident population and 95% of the private sector workforce of the whole United Arab Emirates (including hundreds of thousands of “domestic” workers).

In comparison to the ultra-luxurious hotel suites, a November 2006 Human Rights Watch report titled Building Towers, Cheating Workers reveals:

During visits to the two largest labor camps in Dubai, Al Quoz and Sonapar, Human Rights Watch researchers visited six establishments housing construction workers. A typical dwelling was a small room (12 by 9 feet) in which as many as eight workers lived together. Three of four bunk beds represented the only furniture in each room. The workers used communal bathrooms and showers outside their rooms.

While spending their days in hard labor and nights in squalor, workers are barred access to their glitzy finished products. Naturally all unionizing is strictly banned and any restless stirrings can be met with the threat of deportation (worker visas and passports are confiscated upon arrival). In addition to often being in debt to “recruiting” agencies for loans with exuberant interest rates, workers have to contend with low pay, months of unpaid wages, and harsh limitations on their movement. A New York Times article in March 2006 reports that the Indian Consulate has documented dozens of suicides by South Asians in Dubai each of the past few years.

These conditions have led to brave periodic outbursts of protest, most notably in September 2005 when 800 workers marched down a main highway to protest four months of unpaid work by a leading local construction agency called Al Hamed Development and Construction. Since then there have been numerous other strikes, including a mass action at the site of the Burj Dubai where workers broke into offices and wrecked construction machines and computers to demand better pay and conditions. The strike spread to workers at an airport construction site on the other side of town.

Unfortunately, despite some negotiations, these heroic demonstrations haven’t yet brought lasting results. Last month a Human Rights Watch press release analyzed the newly proposed United Arab Emirates labor law:

The United Arab Emirates proposed labor law falls short of international standards for workers’ rights. In blatant contravention of international standards, the proposed law contains no provisions on worker rights to organize and bargain collectively and explicitly punishes striking workers The draft law also violates international standards by arbitrarily excluding from its purview all domestic workersleaving them at risk of exploitation.

Predictably Dubai’s growth rate and promise as a globalized Eden of excess for the world’s elite (not to mention a shadowy banking system for possible terrorist money laundering networks), without the intrusion of democracy and labor unions, has drawn the praise of many from Bill Clinton to Rod Stewart- the latter reportedly purchased the ‘Britain’ section of the artificial island globe for $33 million. Still it appears that Tiger Woods has taken the early lead in cashing in on neo-liberalism’s new paradise. Quoted in the International Herald Tribune last December, Woods expressed great enthusiasm for his venture: “I have been amazed by the progress of Dubai. From the first time I came to play here in 2000, I wanted to be a part of this amazing vision.”

It was over a decade ago in 1996 that Woods’ father Earl Woods, who before his death humbly wrote the world two books on parenting, gave an absurd and much ridiculed reply to Sports Illustrated when asked if his son would have more impact on the world than Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, or Buddha:

“Yes, because he has a larger forum than any of them. Because he’s playing a sport that’s international. Because he’s qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish Miracles. He’s the bridge between the East and WestI don’t know what form it will take. But he is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.”

While its far too easy to allow oneself a laughing fit when revisiting that quote, perhaps the world is learning something about the power of Tiger Woods, though it’s fair to inquire if the world for the moment may be better off without it.

JOSEPH GROSSO is a librarian and writer living in New York City. He can be reached at: ax4130@aol.com


Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).