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Be Careful What You Wish for Liverfool - You Might Get it.

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Guest Brian M

Why Liverpool fans are wrong to suck up to DIC

DIC is part of one of the world's most undemocratic regimes - does the Kop really want that on its conscience?

James Montague January 25, 2008 11:05 AM

As Liverpool stuttered to an unconvincing draw with Aston Villa on Monday night, their fans held banners proclaiming 'Yanks Out, Dubai In', sang songs attacking Tom Hicks and George Gillett, and all-but-begged Dubai International Capital to rescue the club's soul. To no avail: Hicks and Gillett are about to secure a £350m loan to refinance their takeover, and the prospect of DIC taking over at Anfield now seems remote. To most Liverpool fans, this week's developments are a disaster. But perhaps they should be seen as a blessing. Because while DIC might be more wealthy than Hicks and Gillett, they carry a lot more baggage too.

DIC is the investment arm of Dubai Holding, a wholly government-owned company that has interests in everything from logistics to island building. And by government-owned, we mean almost solely owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the absolute ruler of Dubai, vice-president of the UAE and one of the richest men in the world. Which is the problem. The ethical probity of who buys your football club has been brought in to sharp focus by Thaksin Shinawatra's capture of Manchester City. And when you start to strip away at Dubai's gleaming façade and phenomenal economic growth, one fact glares out: if DIC bought Liverpool, the club would effectively be owned by a dictator. A benign dictator, but a dictator nonetheless.

I'll come clean up front. I have a special affection for Dubai, having lived there for 2½ years, writing for Time Out magazine. And a good time it was too. The sun shone, wages were tax-free, life was good. But soon it became clear that the protestations that Dubai was a liberal, free enclave in the Middle East weren't all that they were cracked up to be. Articles were regularly censored or pulled so that they didn't upset the Sheikh. "You can move around the edges," one editor told me. "But you cannot question Sheikh Mohammad's vision for Dubai".

One piece on Dubai World's purchase of P&O - another Sheikh Mo funded initiative that caused a political storm in the US - almost got me the sack. But that's the problem when you live under a system where one man, ultimately, has absolute power and can take your business off you at a moment's notice: everyone walks on eggs shells to avoid antagonising him.

In fact the UAE is one of the most undemocratic countries in the world, in the same bracket as Cuba and North Korea. Dubai makes up one of seven Emirates ruled by their own royal families. Limited elections were held recently but they were for the largely meaningless Federal National Council and only covered 1% of the 800,000 strong national population. The last index of democracy by the Economist placed the UAE 150th out of 167, two places below that paragon of democratic virtues, Zimbabwe.

Still, for the lack of democracy, you have the Dubai economic miracle to point to. Sheikh Mohammed must take enormous credit for transforming a sleepy little pearling port into one of the richest patches of land on the planet in a few decades. The problem is that Dubai's mega-structures and glitzy, eye-catching projects are built on the backs of an army of grossly exploited migrant workers. Allegations of non-payment of wages, passport confiscations, physical abuse, non-existent healthcare coverage, awful pay and appalling health and safety are rife among the UAE's half-a-million construction workers.

I saw the conditions first hand in the summer of 2006. In a camp on the outskirts of Dubai, a few minutes' drive from the gleaming opulence of the Burj Al Arab hotel, construction workers building the Dubai Mall (the largest and most expensive mall in the world) at the Burj Dubai site (the tallest and most expensive building in the world), sat 10, 15, 20 to a room. Most had come from the Punjab and earned less than £75 a month for back-breaking work in up to 50-degree heat, six days a week. Raw sewage leaked from overhead pipes into the filthy communal bathroom and kitchen. One Indian man, with tears in his eyes, told me he was suicidal because he couldn't return home. He'd taken out a loan against his family's land back home to pay for his visa, as most of these men had done. If he went home, his family would be homeless. The employers knew this, he said, and drove down wages accordingly.

Conditions had got so bad that riots began to break out on the site and Human Rights Watch published a scathing report on labour abuse in the Emirate. "One of the world's largest construction booms is feeding off of workers in Dubai, but they're treated as less than human," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North African director at HRW. "It's no surprise that some workers have started rioting in protest. What's surprising is that the government of the UAE is doing nothing to solve the problem."

A draft labour law was introduced last year but according to HRW it is just a drop in the ocean and key areas, like the right to unionise, have been ignored. Violators of labour laws are rarely punished in any case due to insufficient monitoring, although the negative publicity might now be getting through to the very top. "Sheikh Mohammed is embarrassed by the criticism that the labour issues have drawn," Nicholas Labuschagne, an executive at Dubai Holding, told the US magazine Architectural Record. "We're hoping we can show some very significant progress within the next six months."

But by far the most disturbing story emerged at the beginning of last year. Sheikh Mohammed and his brother, along with others, were served with a class action lawsuit in Miami for their part in the alleged abuse of underage child camel jockeys. (The case was dismissed on the technical ground that the US courts did not have the jurisdiction to try it). The Sheikh is well known in horse racing circles. His Godolphin stables in Dubai are world famous and he hosts the Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race every year. But his penchant for camel racing is less well known. According to the Ansar Burney Trust, a charity that brought the issue to the world's attention, boys as young as four were kidnapped in their thousands from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sudan and forced to ride in camel races. The lighter the jockeys, the better. So the boys were systematically starved and beaten. Others, it is alleged, were raped or beaten to death and buried in a shallow unmarked grave in the desert.

Camel racing in the UAE is huge business, with the top camels changing hands for millions of dollars, but the revelations of the boys' conditions forced some action. Child jockeys were banned and replaced with robots. But according to the Ansar Burney Trust, thousands of young boys are still unaccounted for and unborn children are smuggled into the UAE and Qatar to breed the next generation of jockeys.

You can poke holes in anyone's character given a long enough stick. But the vociferous calls from the Anfield Kop for a Dubai-led rescue mission smack more of desperation than a desire to reconnect with the club's core values. Hicks and Gillett may have made some stupid mistakes, but do they really compare that badly to an owner tainted by controversy and who apparently has little interest in football, only in furthering the cause of Brand Dubai? Sometimes, it's better the devil you know.

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What I wish for that lot and every one associated with them, is the worst of all worst possible scenarios. Can you imagine the sheer bliss I felt reading comments at RedRobKnobRots hideaway voicing fears that the red scum would be going into administration!!! My absolute hilarity at their continued delusion over the clinically obese dodgy-bearded one's manageriab ability? And that they consider Chelsea to be only their temporary rivals in the er... chase for the Premiership title which despite their millenia or two of history, they have not yet won?

I swear if I didn't hate the bar stewards so much, I'd feel sorry for them. They really are quite pitiful, you know. Scummy, but pitiful with it

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