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Analysis: From sprawling labor camps to the wealthiest enclaves, Dubai's Muslims react to Obama's speech.
DUBAI — On the dusty outskirts of this glistening city, an army of laborers from all over the Muslim world will trudge back to the crowded dormitories where they scratch out an existence and tune in via satellite channels to hear the message of “a new beginning” that President Barack Obama delivered to the Muslim world.
But while the speech was underway in Cairo, these laborers were busy toiling on scaffolds and mixing concrete and paving roads in the searing 100-degree heat of midday here in a country where a building boom fueled by the riches of oil has suddenly slowed in the wake of the global economic crisis.
These ragged men in their filthy work uniforms are the audience to whom Obama had to speak most convincingly for his powerful and resonant speech to have lasting impact.
These are the people, those representing the masses, who too often go ignored and unheard across the Muslim world.
“I like what he has to say. He’s trying to make a connection with us. That’s good. Just trying to make a connection is better than Bush,” said Nawas Khan, 32, a Muslim fisherman who came to Dubai two years ago for a job cleaning bathrooms at construction sites after his village and its fishing boats in southern India were destroyed by the tsunami.
He caught a glimpse of the speech at the Gents Star Barber where he was getting cleaned up on a rare day off.
Imran Ullah, a 32-year-old member of a construction crew here who hails from Peshawar, Pakistan and sends money home to his wife and two children every month, said dismissively, “It’s the same policies, different name.
“America likes to talk to the world and Obama is good at that. He said these beautiful things. But what we care about are actions, not words,” said Ullah, who listened to the speech on a transistor radio at his worksite.
Within the Muslim world, the United Arab Emirates and its shimmering jewel of a city, Dubai, is unique. In no other country in the world are there so many Muslims from so many corners of the earth, and so many different levels of society as there are here.
From fancy dinner parties in the wealthy enclaves of this oil-rich kingdom to the sprawling labor camps where hundreds of thousands of workers are crammed into filthy, overcrowded conditions, everyone here has been talking about Obama’s journey to the Middle East.
That journey started in Riyadh where he met with King Abdullah on Wednesday and continued in Cairo on Thursday where he delivered an address focused on what he called “a new beginning” between America and the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
Noting that while he is Christian his father hails from a Kenyan family with generations of Muslims, Obama told the crowd, “As the Holy Koran tells us, 'Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.' That is what I will try to do today.”
But those who listened across the Muslim world also had truths to share, and hoped Obama was listening to them as well.
And one of the most resonant themes expressed across the economic and ethnic divides here in Dubai about Obama’s words is that as eloquent as they were, he is mistaken if he thinks he can talk to all Muslims at once.
They have different concerns and different agendas and different equations of anger and hope that provide the sum of their lives.