Dubai: Sports Playground for the Ultra-Rich

While these expats go see "Mummy" in the Bubble Lounge on the north side of Nad Al Sheba, native men in rich ivory robes watch the races attentively from the reserved seating section across from the finish line. A far different group crowds the south side. Admission to this section of the track is free and thousands crowd the grandstand and the infield. Families sit with legs crossed, studying the race card. Women in black abayas stroll by with their children. Men in dishdashas blue jeans, T-shirts, Arab headwear and baseball caps review their Pick Seven choices. A few entrepreneurs offer cigarettes for sale, spreading their packages on the ground.

Mummy hasn't bought any champagne for these fans.

These are largely the foreign workers who come from all over south Asia and north Africa, the ones who work the low-pay service and construction jobs that keep Dubai growing. They are here for the horse races, a cheap night out and the slim hope of winning the Pick Seven. Betting on the horses is illegal, but the free Pick Seven is not. Pick all seven winners on the card correctly and you take home $14,000. The odds, of course, are astronomical, but $14,000 can represent four hard years of wages for some of these workers, who live in overcrowded work compounds outside Dubai. They bus in early each morning, six days a week, some riding two hours each way in the heavy traffic.

"They live eight to a room," my taxi driver said when we passed a work compound one day. "They make maybe $250 a month. I hear that some of them come here just so they can eat."

When he says this, I think of Peter Vittuli's description of the horse barns. Trust me when I tell you, I've stayed in places that aren't as nice as the stalls.

It has been alleged that some of these workers cannot leave because their work sponsors "misplace" their passports. They cannot earn citizenship no matter how many years they work in Dubai, nor can their children. The suicides of depressed workers have received international media attention. The Gulf News just reported that meningitis cases are rising among laborers and the government is considering mandatory vaccinations. Still, the wages are far better than they can earn in their homelands, and even if the conditions are poor, thousands more stream in each year to join them.

Pakistani workers line the front row of the grandstand, prominently holding posters of Sheikh Mohammed on an enlarged cover of "Horse and Horseman" magazine. They tell me someone came by and handed the posters to them. Whether the posters are a plant or not (these men are standing conveniently by the main press access to the winner's circle), the Pakistanis are delighted to hold them up and show their appreciation for Sheikh Mo.

"My brothers and I didn't have anything before we came here 19 years ago," says Asif Hussain, a salesman of building tools. "Sheikh Mohammed is a genius person. He is beloved. We love him very much. Dubai is a not a small country, it is a small world. Everyone is enjoying their life here."

The workers living eight to a room might disagree with that last bit.

Sports also play a part in Dubai's plan for foreign workers. In addition to attracting world-class events, Rashid Al Kamali says, the Dubai Sports Council wants to increase sports participation among the foreign workers and their children. "Sport is the perfect way to communicate with all the cultures and nationalities."

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