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We need slaves,” my friend says. “We need slaves to build monuments. Look who built the pyramids – they were slaves.”

The sun is setting and its dying rays cast triangles of light on to the bodies of the Indian workers. Two are washing themselves, scooping water from tubs in a small yard next to the labour camp’s toilets. Others queue for their turn. One man stands stamping his feet in a bucket, turned into a human washing machine. The heat is suffocating and the sandy wind whips our faces. The sprinkles of water from men drying their clothes fall like welcome summer rain.

All around, a city of labour camps stretches out in the middle of the Arabian desert, a jumble of low, concrete barracks, corrugated iron, chicken-mesh walls, barbed wire, scrap metal, empty paint cans, rusted machinery and thousands of men with tired and gloomy faces.

I have left Dubai’s spiralling towers, man-made islands and mega-malls behind and driven through the desert to the outskirts of the neighbouring city of Abu Dhabi. Turn right before the Zaha Hadid bridge, and a few hundred metres takes you to the heart of Mousafah, a ghetto-like neighbourhood of camps hidden away from the eyes of tourists. It is just one of many areas around the Gulf set aside for an army of labourers building the icons of architecture that are mushrooming all over the region.

Behind the showers, in a yard paved with metal sheets, a line of men stands silently in front of grease-blackened pans, preparing their dinner. Sweat rolls down their heads and necks, their soaked shirts stuck to their backs. A heavy smell of spices and body odour fills the air.

Next to a heap of rubbish, a man holds a plate containing his meal: a few chillies, an onion and three tomatoes, to be fried with spices and eaten with a piece of bread.

In a neighbouring camp, a group of Pakistani workers from north and south Waziristan sit exhaustedly sipping tea while one of them cooks outside. In the middle of the cramped room in which 10 men sleep, one worker in a filthy robe sits on the floor grinding garlic and onions with a mortar and pestle while staring into the void.

Hamidullah, a thin Afghan from Maydan, a village on the outskirts of Kabul, tells me: “I spent five years in Iran and one year here, and one year here feels like 10 years. When I left Afghanistan I thought I would be back in a few months, but now I don’t know when I will be back.” Another worker on a bunk bed next to him adds: “He called his home yesterday and they told him that three people from his village were killed in fighting. This is why we are here.”  (Read the rest)