Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Some countries with very different priorities have an easier time building first-rate infrastructure.
One undisputed winner emerged from the presidential debate Monday night: Dubai International Airport. The Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump praised the facility as he slammed beleaguered U.S. aviation hubs. “Our airports are like from a third world country,” he said (echoing comments Vice-President Joe Biden made in 2014). “You land at LaGuardia, you land at Kennedy, you land at LAX, you land at Newark, and you come in from Dubai and Qatar and you see these incredible—you come in from China, you see these incredible airports, and you land—we've become a third world country.”
This was one of the few moments of factual clarity in 90 minutes otherwise marked by Trump’s word-salad-tossing and Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s stunning poker face. Dubai International Airport is indeed a very, very swanky place. It’s estimated that one in every twenty households in Dubai is a millionaire, a fact that the state officials who run the 7,000-acre airport—which opened its fourth concourse earlier this year and surpassed London Heathrow as the third-busiest* in the world for passenger travel—seem keenly aware of. Instead of Cinnabons, a kiosk in one terminal sells gold by the ounce. Concourses feature waterfalls and indoor gardens, the largest duty-free retailer in the world, and a concierge service that allows travelers rich enough to use “VIP” arrival and departure facilities. Meanwhile, aging LaGuardia, which is currently enduring a traffic-snarling $8 billion renovation, enjoys some of the worst arrival delays in the country.
But there are some obvious reasons why U.S. airports suck, while Gulf airports wow. The former are run by entangled webs of local transportation authorities and quasi-private operating boards. Any effort to improve or expand these airports is subject to the same competing political interests, tax-tinkering, and fund-scrounging that most major infrastructure projects in the U.S. face. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar, on the other hand, are governed by petro-monarchies (substitute “authoritarian-capitalist regimes” for China, which has been on a fancy-airport-building tear) with seemingly limitless capital to pamper American plutocrats bearing golf-course plans. (OK—not quite limitless; Dubai International enacted its very first passenger fee earlier this summer to pay for its expansion, a sign of the region’s dwindling oil revenues.)
These countries can also build their billionaire playlands with the help of inhumane labor practices. In the UAE, according to research by Harvard University, migrants make up roughly 90 percent of the labor force. They’re legally bound to work only for the employer who sponsors them, without any kind of minimum wage protection. Worker protests over payment delays have broken out at Dubai International over the years. While the exact accident and fatality rate among guest workers around the Gulf is hard to assess, at least 600 laborers died every year building Qatar’s World Cup facilities. It’s been estimated that of Indian expat laborers in Dubai, two commit suicide every week. China has labor laws which the government routinely fails to uphold.
No doubt, Trump has had extensive opportunity to visit Dubai International, as well as Doha’s Hamad International and East Asia’s many lovely aero-tropolises. He owes some part of his undisclosed fortune to business partnerships with companies and individuals in the oil-rich Gulf, between his golf-course and hotel-building ventures and the Manhattan office space he reportedly rents to Qatar Airways. His clothing and souvenir goods are manufactured in China, and Hong Kong billionaires saved Trump from the brink of bankruptcy in the 1990s, so he’s probably killed some time at Hong Kong International, which was built on an artificial island and was the most expensive airport in the world when it opened. As a man who openly admires dictatorships, Trump would naturally see the gleaming facilities that can emerge from them as appropriate examples to illustrate America’s infrastructural flaws. Of course, non-repressive governments can make great airports, too. And U.S. airports, and the authorities that operate them, can certainly stand improvements. But under a Trump administration, it seems like progress would come at the cost of the basic commitment to democracy (however flawed) that keeps people flying.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that Dubai International was the busiest airport in the world.