All Glitter and No Glory

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It also attracts more tourists than any other destination in Abu Dhabi and rightly so. It is a masterpiece in terms of art and architecture. Just as Abu Dhabi is known for Gold-to-Go vending machines and gold-sprinkled cappuccinos, this mosque has pristine columns with golden palm leaves. Initiated by the late president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, it took 11 years to construct this grand mosque. The mosque and its prayer rooms are open to everyone, irrespective of their faith.

A migrant worker wipes sweat off his forehead after a long day of housekeeping work at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)

Even though it was constructed in 2007, the marble floors and columns with golden palm leaves still glitter like they are new. During a casual visit, I decided to look beyond the touristy side of this majestic structure and understand the secret behind its glittering floors and glistening walls. What I discovered is that while citizens and tourists enjoy the serenity and beauty this mosque has to offer, hundreds of migrant workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal work around the clock as housekeeping staff to keep this place pristine. Through continuous scrubbing and polishing, they make this place glitter. In return, they take home a meager pay but no glory.

A migrant worker performing housekeeping work at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)
Tourists and Emiratis walk past a migrant worker performing housekeeping work at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)
A migrant worker cleaning columns with golden palm leaves at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)
In the courtyard, migrant workers wipe the floors from one side to another usually in groups of three or six. After they reach the other side, they repeat until they clean the entire surface of the courtyard. They seemed to enjoy this walk of solidarity as they talked amongst themselves while they worked. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)
The floor of the courtyard glistens because of the continuous work performed by these workers. Tourists are not allowed to walk on these surfaces, perhaps for religious reasons. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)
Outside the mosque, migrant workers use water spray and floor scrubbers for cleaning. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)
A worker holds a water bucket while another uses a wet cloth to wipe off surfaces of illuminated floor lanterns. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)
A migrant worker looks on as an Emirati  walks by. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)
Humayun work as a security guard at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. He is from Pakistan and his family still live there. He is happy at his job and has no complaints. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)
A security guard at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque looks at an Emirati. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)
A security guard seated in the courtyard to ensure no one walks on the courtyard surface. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)

Housekeeping staff wear a white robe along with a deep blue jacket that reads “HOUSE KEEPING”. All of the workers I encountered were men of South Asian origin, from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and India.

A housekeeping staff walks with his boots for cleaning his feet before heading to prayer room. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)
Just another migrant worker whose identity and personality is unimportant. He is just one of the millions of migrant workers who has to emigrate and take on jobs he would normally not do in his own country. He earns a little and saves a lot to send it home so that his family can have a decent living and his children can go to schools. (Photo by Puru Shah for The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University)

Author’s Note:

I traveled to United Arab Emirates (UAE) in December 2016 for documenting the stories of Nepali labor migrants. Photography and cinematography of migrant workers were strictly prohibited. On one occasion, I was confronted by an official as I was photographing some workers. After that incident, I had to be discreet. However, the authorities at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque were very generous in permitting photography.

This work is part of a student media grant by the Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University.
To read more: see The Confict and Development Center at Texas A&M University.

See previous posts:

Migration in Nepal – Data and Trends

Role of Literacy Rate and HDI on Migration in Nepal

Daily Life of Nepali Migrant Workers in UAE

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Puru Shah

Puru Shah is the founder of Madhesi Youth. For Madhesi Youth, he primarily writes about human rights issues and articles with an emphasis on data analysis & data visualization. His goal is to promote justice, equality, sustainable development, and youth empowerment in Nepal.

Connect with Puru Shah on Twitter (@digitalsubway)