The Emirates is an oasis of materialism in a region mired by poverty, war and human suffering. Can the UAE continue exporting war while flaunting garish opulence at home?

When I first read about the unveiling of the world's most expensive shoes in Dubai, an old Quranic verse almost immediately sprung to mind, ‘The wasteful are brothers of the devil’, as the holy book says, and ‘wasteful’ is perhaps one of the more tame adjectives one could use to describe the creation of these shoes – which are available to buy at an astonishing $17 million. 

The shoes, created by the Emirati-owned firms Jadai Dubai and Passion Jewellers, are made of golden leather and adorned with over 100 carats of flawless diamonds encased in white gold. 

The display pair of the world’s most expensive shoes sit in one of the world’s most luxurious hotels, the only 7 star hotel on earth, in one of the world’s largest buildings. 

Even the very worst autocratic civilisations of antiquity could not have produced such a filthily opulent spectacle as this, but, as ever with the repugnant splendour of the UAE, the media of the petrostate remained blissfully bereft of self-awareness as they pushed this as yet another triumphant moment for their country. 

But this is not a case of mere rich ignorance. One ought not to think of the UAE as the Marie Antoinette of the world – it’s far more malign than that.

Blood diamonds?

The production of these shoes in a world ravaged by fatal poverty would be obscene under any circumstances, but the spectacle is made all the more horrific by the grotesque socio-political and geopolitical nature of the UAE. 

Though Saudi gets most of the blame for the interrelated catastrophes of war and famine that are currently engulfing Yemen, the UAE plays a role almost equal to and even, in some ways, worse than Saudi in this.

The UAE is a key part of the Saudi coalition’s air campaign against the Houthis, one that has involved the indiscriminate murder of civilians (over 1000 since 2015), as well as the targeting of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure. 

The Saudi-UAE war on Yemen, which even before this war was the most impoverished country in the region and one of the poorest in the world, has seen 17 million Yemenis put at risk of famine.

In what the Norwegian Refugee Council called a famine of ‘biblical proportions’ descending on Yemen, it’s estimated that one child dies every ten minutes in the country due to starvation caused by the Saudi-UAE war. Cholera is now ravaging the starving population, with the destruction of sanitation infrastructure by the bombs of Saudi and the UAE.

It’s not even just the case that the UAE merely takes part in this war, but it actively seeks to prolong this suffering for its own selfish ends. 

The Houthis, in their infernal alliance with forces loyal to the overthrown despot Ali Abdullah Saleh, were never any kind of force of liberation, and though Saudi’s war is a reckless and devastating crime, the end goal was always, at least ostensibly, the return of the Hadi government and the democratisation process. 

It was with these guarantees that Saudi was able to gain the reluctant support of the pro-democracy Al Islah, the political wing of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood and one of the leading forces in the revolution that toppled Saleh.

But this won’t cut it with the UAE. The UAE, as with its huge financial support for Sisi’s brutal counter-revolution in Egypt, wants to avert any Islamic force that advocates democracy gaining power. Thus they have little interest in peace emerging in Yemen any time soon. 

They would much rather keep the country in a state of terminal division while sensing an opportunity to cultivate a vassal state in the south giving them a free route to the lucrative trading post in Aden, allowing them to fulfil their long-held ambition to become the main Khaleeji hegemon in the region.

This is why they now use their huge resources to support separatist proxies in Yemen’s South, ones who now commit gross human rights violations and fight a proxy war against Saudi-backed forces.

The net effect is the prolonging of the war and the famine and the suffering in Yemen.

The world takes direct action against ‘blood diamonds’, diamonds that are mined by warlords (often utilising slave labour) and sold to exploitative dealers in the West – the world ought to look upon these shoes in similar terms.

Let them eat cake

On the home front, behind the extravagant mirage of the world’s most expensive shoes, of the skyscrapers, artificial islands and tax havens, you have a country that viciously exploits migrant workers, allowing those rich enough to live there an experience that harks back to the lost luxuries of something akin to the British Raj. 

Foreign workers, mostly from the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh and impoverished Arabic-speaking countries, are, through the kafala system are often kept as virtual or even literal slaves, cleaning the mansions and 7-star hotels. 

They live lives of misery – they receive no protection from the widespread violence and sexual assault at the hands of those who ‘own’ them. If they try to leave, they are arrested and imprisoned for ‘absconding’. 

Though one might dismiss them out of hand, the sheer obscenity of shoes that cost $17 million get to the heart (or lack of) of the UAE. It’s an entity that embodies the very worst of the region – states and enterprises built for ultra-rich people over the bones of starving Yemenis, oppressed South Asian slaves and people who don’t deserve lives of basic dignity, never mind ones of luxury. 

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