Bringing the Thrill of Soccer to Real Estate

DUBAI — The clean-cut face of England footballer Michael Owen peers over his shoulder from the cockpit of his helicopter.

By Martin Croucher

Published: Thu 16 Apr 2009, 1:49 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 9:16 AM

“I am going to take you on an aerial tour of Dubai,” he says. “Buckle your seat belts.” Breath-taking panoramic views of the emirate’s gleaming skyscrapers unfold for the next 10 minutes of the simulation, while Owen gives a typically wooden narration about the different areas of the city.

The Newcastle United striker is also known as the ambassador for The First Group, a real estate developer that last week was criticised over the pay of its contracted labourers. However, the fallout from a BBC documentary aired last Monday has done little to dissuade Owen from breaking a contract with The First Group that insiders claim to be worth a “substantial amount”.

“We continue to enjoy a positive working relationship with Michael Owen,” said Rob Burns, senior marketing manager for The First Group. “He will be here in July to open the Bridge Tower in Dubai Sports City, where he has an apartment.” Owen’s manager, Daniel Ullmann, declined to comment but referred any queries over his contract to The First Group.

BBC crews were denied access to labour accommodation owned by United Engineering Corporation (UNEC), one of several contractors for The First Group. However reporters interviewed UNEC labourers who claimed they worked 12-hour days for Dh650 a month. During the documentary, The First Group claimed that workers were only asked to work 12-hour shifts in “exceptional” circumstances.

One construction industry insider confirmed that the wage was typical of the industry. In addition it is believed that UNEC’s labour accommodation is of a reasonably high standard.

As a sign of the company’s good will, Burns said that 250 labourers from UNEC have been invited to watch the Pakistan—Australia cricket match on April 24. The match will take place in Dubai Sports City, where the labourers have been working to build the Bridge and the Diamond developments, owned by The First Group.

“Around 50 of our staff will go and watch the match and we thought that it would be a nice for the workers to see it also,” said Burns. “They won’t have to worry about food or drink while they are there either.”

Arabtec, the contractor for Leisure Corp on its Jumeirah Golf Estates development, was singled out in the BBC documentary as allegedly having poor conditions in one of its labour camps. Riad Kamal, CEO of Arabtec, said that the documentary was unfair and depicted only a temporary camp, from which labourers would be moved in the coming months.

UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was due to have two restaurants in the development. His spokesman said that Oliver had been “disturbed” by the documentary but reassured by the government’s declaration that the claims would be investigated.

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