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Another economy in the shadow of skyscrapers

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Another economy in the shadow of skyscrapers

In Dubai, the disputed location of the UN climate conference, a company inspired by the model promoted by the Focolare Movement focuses on solidarity and attention to creation. «By going against the tide, our productivity has soared»

Workers forced to work even during the hottest hours of the day – in violation of local laws – to finish the construction of the buildings destined to host the UN climate conference in Dubai on time. Yet another scandal on the exploitation of workers in the Persian Gulf concerns the United Arab Emirates and has to do with COP 28, an event that should relaunch international efforts against global warming and in which Pope Francis has also expressed his intention to participate.

The story, brought to light by the report of the London-based human rights organization Fair Square, crosses many contradictions of this area of ​​the world that is increasingly a global player, in which dazzling development and violations against millions of workers coexist immigrants, technological excellence at the service of renewable energy and business still firmly anchored to the export of fossil fuels. Yet, even here, a model of solidarity and sustainable economy is possible. To realize this, a visit to the Mas Paints warehouses, in the industrial area of ​​Al Quoz, not far from the Burj al-Arab, the iconic sailing building symbol of Dubai, is enough. 250 people work in this company that produces paints, all immigrants from all over the world: Asia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa. Most of them have the same background of the nine million foreigners (out of ten million total inhabitants) who are materially building the development of the Emirate. Their stories, however, are very different from those, sadly common in these parts, which tell of trap contracts, inhumane working hours, daily lives confined in ghetto neighborhoods where – despite the progress of the last decade – the conditions of accommodation often remains harsh and alienating.

«Here, all our employees receive decent salaries, five or six times higher than the market price, everyone is paid for healthcare costs for themselves and their families, as well as the costs of their children’s schooling: every year last year we celebrated the first generation of kids who graduated by studying for free from kindergarten to university!”. Abdullah al-Atrash, an Italian-Syrian manager who grew up between Saudi Arabia and Italy, who took the reins of the family business, founded by his father in Dubai, tells it with pride. And he progressively transformed it according to the principles of an economy “that put man at the centre, respect for nature, the value of dialogue”.

Abdullah, now 45 years old, in his youth had been profoundly influenced by a master’s degree at the Adriano Olivetti Institute attended after graduation: «There I encountered a model very different from the capitalist one, a communitarian ideal in which freedom is balanced with solidarity», explains. «I am not religious – he begins – but since I was a boy I had been involved in volunteering and I felt a strong aspiration for social justice and peace, values ​​which I then shared with what would become my wife Manuela, involved in the Focolare Movement since the of the university”, he says. So, when he arrived in Dubai to take over the family business, the young aspiring manager was “shocked”: “The workers were paid very little and each of them had to support an average of about ten people in their country of origin . Not only that: the employees breathed toxic chemicals, risky to their health, and the working conditions were dangerous. Furthermore, the company was polluting. Faced with that scenario, I refused to get involved in the enterprise.”

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It was at that point that Abdullah’s father offered him a deal: “He told me that if I managed to manage the business for a year while keeping the balance sheet in profit, I could use part of the profits to make the changes I considered important.” Needless to say, the enterprising economist won his bet. And he began his personal revolution, starting by listening to the needs of employees. «I discovered that their families, in their countries of origin, very often lived in terrible housing conditions, so I proposed zero-interest forms of credit to build brick houses, without having to turn to banks that asked for exorbitant rates, or even worse to loan sharks. Today, everyone has decent homes, equipped with heating or air conditioning, as well as pumps to purify water.”

Al-Atrash also took action to achieve standards of environmental sustainability and workplace safety that were completely new in the Emirates: «With adequate forms of waste disposal I have eliminated pollution, I have purchased expensive machinery from Italy to protect the health of workers , I applied fire-fighting systems and guaranteed personal protective equipment to avoid accidents.” At Mas Paints everyone, from managers to technicians, from sales staff to workers, are considered first and foremost people, with the inalienable right to have a satisfactory standard of living for themselves and their families. Each according to his needs: «How much should employees be paid? The answer is: based on needs. And so it can happen that, in our country, a worker earns more than a manager: the salary depends on how many children you have, your personal situation, the purchasing power in your country of origin, but also on macroeconomic scenarios, such as ‘impact of climate change and natural disasters which unfortunately occur often and with tragic consequences in certain areas of the planet.”

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Only after the start of his “revolution” would al-Atrash realize that the business model he aspired to coincided in essence with that of the Economy of Communion, marked by gratuitousness and reciprocity, promoted by the Focolare Movement, of which today , together with his wife and two teenage children, is among the most active exponents in the Gulf. «We organize meeting moments and initiatives with many friends from all over the world who refer to different cultures and faiths», he explains. Dialogue and the ideal of communion are always at the centre, even in productive relationships. “Little by little we have brought together many entrepreneurs, large and small, who share our same values ​​and aim to share them externally too.” Abdullah, who today is the coordinator for the United Arab Emirates of the Economy of Communion and also of the Economy of Francis – the international movement inspired by the saint of Assisi promoted by the Pope -, teaches this model in various local universities.

What is the reaction of the students? «The first question I hear is always: “But in the most liberal country in the world, where there is no welfare state for foreigners and all the costs for healthcare and education weigh on your company, how can you not fail and be competitive?”. The answer is very simple: if you treat people well, pay them the right amount, create a peaceful environment without those ghettos that often arise in contexts with many minorities, they work harder and better. My employees truly feel part of the company, they are often the ones who find the solutions to problems or the most effective market ideas: in short, in the jargon of economists, our productivity has skyrocketed.”

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An eloquent message, in a context in which immigrant workers are often invisible and remain cut off from the well-being that they contribute to creating every day. It is a model, also applied in relationships with customers and suppliers, which has proven to be contagious, if it is true that “from four or five companies involved in the Economy of Communion in the Emirates, in ten years we have reached more than eighty”. In the shadow of the skyscrapers, a company with a human face grows silently.


The story of Abdullah al-Atrash and his commitment to a fairer economy in Dubai is at the center of the latest episode of “Finis Terrae. Stories beyond borders”, the video program created by the editorial staff of “Mondo e Missione” and available for this link

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