The city of Dubai has become a major Middle Eastern commercial center. It also has been called the Middle East's "shopping capital."
Moreover, the emirate is one of the world's great transit points. Its airport is a grand melting pot, with passengers heading to South Asia, Europe, East Asia, Africa, and America. I recently passed through on my way to and from Afghanistan.
Dubai also offers a comfortable exile for foreigners fearful of the future of their own nations. Many influential Afghans are thought to have moved their families to Dubai. Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, now called Xe, recently relocated there. The city seems to have everything that a wealthy expatriate could want.
Indeed, the emirate's $80 billion economy is now symbolized by the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, which dominates the city skyline. Of course, Dubai suffered an embarrassing property and debt crisis late last year, which forced an even more embarrassing bail-out by the United Arab Emirates, the seven-emirate federation that includes Dubai. The city also faces pressure from the US to clamp down on trade with Iran. As a result, Iranian businessmen have been moving their business elsewhere.
Still, most analysts expect commercial Dubai to bounce back. The city's debt restructuring has gone smoothly and the emirate remains a seemingly tolerant and stable base for commercial operations.
However, there is a worrisome underside to Dubai's prosperity. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against US intelligence agencies over possible collusion in the UAE's arrest and torture of an American citizen on terrorism charges. The UAE received even more publicity for its recent attack on BlackBerry data services. The formal justification was national security, but the UAE acted shortly after arresting several citizens who used their BlackBerries to organize a peaceful demonstration. The UAE may be tolerant, but it is not free.
Actually, the UAE isn't even tolerant. The UAE has long been famous for cracking down on Westerners who ignore conservative mores in public. Like other countries in the region, women also face discrimination and abuse. Human trafficking has been reported.
Most vulnerable are the foreign citizens who, as in most Gulf states, make up much of the UAE's workforce. Many of these 250,000 people — who lack even minimal citizenship protections — labor in difficult circumstances. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has complained that many of them work in "less than human" conditions. The State Department noted that "the government severely restrict[s] the rights of foreign workers." Amnesty International has also pointed to cases of exploitation and abuse.
Women domestic workers are subject to special abuse. According to HRW, "Women domestic workers are at risk of unpaid wages, food deprivation, forced confinement, and physical or sexual abuse." Migrant workers are often not paid for their labors and are subject to "unsafe working environments leading to deaths or illness, squalid living conditions in labor camps, and withholding of passports and travel documents."
But Dubai's human rights problems go beyond its exploitation of foreign workers. The emirate has no democratically-elected legislative institutions or political parties. Although elections are no panacea, the lack of popular political involvement almost guarantees a lack of accountability.
Last year HRW reported: "While the economy of the UAE continues to grow, human rights progress remains scant. Authorities censor and harass human rights activists, impeding independent reporting that could help curb abuses. Other forms of governmental accountability are minimal." The group added that "The government has on numerous occasions used the country's laws to penalize, fine, and close media establishments." Amnesty International has charged the government with blocking access to websites, punishing journalists, transferring teachers for their political views, and breaking up demonstrations. Moreover, the government has approved only one human rights organization.
The UAE does not murder or "disappear" its people, but it often does mistreat them. According to a State Department report,
There were unverified reports of torture during the year, and security forces sometimes employed flogging as judicially sanctioned punishment. Arbitrary and incommunicado detention remained a problem. The judiciary lacked full independence. The government interfered with privacy and restricted civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press (including the internet), assembly, association, and religion.
When it comes to religion, the UAE falls short in several important ways, though it does better than some of its neighbors. Last year a State Department report stated that
The [UAE] government controls virtually all Sunni mosques and places general restrictions on freedom of assembly and association, including for religious purposes. Nonetheless, religious groups with dedicated religious buildings can worship and conduct business. The government follows a policy of tolerance toward non-Muslim religious groups and in practice interfered very little in their religious activities. Proselytizing and publicly distributing non-Islamic religious literature is prohibited.
The general restrictions on individual liberty are bothersome, but the greatest problem may be individual cases, which often appear to involve torture, incommunicado detention, and other forms of mistreatment. Government officials who employ such practices are generally protected.
Last year, a video surfaced showing Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the brother of the UAE president, beating an Afghan grain dealer with whom he had a business dispute. The Sheikh has allegedly committed several assaults, but he was acquitted in this case for supposedly being under the influence of drugs. In contrast, some of the Sheikh's confederates were convicted.
The UAE may go easy on a member of the ruling family, but it not so gentle in treating the disfavored, whether human rights activists, laborers, or businessmen. Harassment of human rights activists has been common. For instance, HRW pointed to pressure on the Jurist Association, including denying members the right to travel overseas for meetings. HRW also highlighted the case of Hassan al-Diqqi, founder of the Emirates People's Rights Organization (which was not recognized by the government), who faced a dubious and suspiciously timed rape charge.
A professor of religious education, Salem Adbullah al-Dousari, appears to have been punished for his opinions, ending up detained in a psychiatric facility and charged with revealing state secrets. In another suspicious case, human rights activist Muhammad al-Roken was charged with having sex outside of marriage.
Amnesty International has highlighted the case of 17 Indian migrant workers sentenced to death by the government of Sharjah, one of the UAE's seven emirates, for murdering a Pakistani.
Amnesty's Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui charged: "This is a mockery of justice. These 17 men have been tortured, forced to confess, and sentenced to death based on a fake video."
Similar abuses apparently have been visited upon businessmen as well, and in often suspicious prosecutions. HRW pointed out in its 2009 report that "Authorities jailed a number of UAE citizens and foreigners for debt and corruption, with some languishing in jail for months without charge or after completing their sentences." This problem has worsened as the economic crunch has hit the UAE. One businessman worried: "It's all a bit scary. They are looking for people to carry the can." Many foreigners fear speaking publicly about the abuse.
Washington Post reporter Andrew Higgins wrote last year: "scores of expatriate business people in this gleaming city-state ... have been accused of crimes — and, in some cases, jailed for long periods without being charged." Higgins added that "for many expatriates ... the crackdown smacks of a hunt for foreign culprits to blame for the sheikdom's sliding economic fortunes."
Last year, Briton Charles Ridley was arrested in a case in which he and his three foreign partners contended that the Dubai government was protecting local officials. A similar controversy arose in 2009 when Frenchman Herve Joubert fled Dubai in a rubber dinghy to avoid an embezzlement conviction which he argued resulted from "a palace struggle over money." He told the Washington Post: "If I hadn't escaped, I'd be in the same hell as everyone else." Dubai naturally denies the claims.
A Sudanese businessmen, Alsadiq Saddiq Adam Abdullah, was arrested in 2007 for unknown reasons and denied contact with anyone; the government claimed that he was later released, but Amnesty International reported that "nobody has been able to establish his whereabouts." Earlier this year, three Pakistanis, including a dentist intent on finishing a university project, were arrested and detained incommunicado. Amnesty warned: "the arrest and detention of the three men in conditions amounting to an enforced disappearance puts them at a great risk of torture or other ill-treatment."
Americans have not been immune from apparent abuse. HRW reported: "In March 2008 authorities detained American businessman Zack Shahin, the former chief executive officer of Dubai-based property development Deyaar Development PJSC, and he was eventually charged with corruption-related offenses after being held for 13 months without formal charges." He still awaits trial, but, noted HRW: "He says that initially his jailers denied him food for three days, held him in solitary confinement, subjected him to harsh interrogation methods, and threatened him with torture." The State Department indicated that it was "concerned" about his detention without charge and complained that he was initially denied access to U.S. diplomats. The UAE responded that it had followed appropriate procedures in undertaking a necessarily lengthy embezzlement investigation. Shahin's family set up a website to aid his defense — which the government promptly blocked.
(The subject of the ACLU lawsuit, Naji Hamdan, has received substantial international attention. He also claimed to have been subjected to torture and incommunicado detention. The main difference is that Hamdan, who was arrested at his UAE residence, was charged with terrorist rather than economic offenses.)
Some of these businessmen may have committed crimes, of course. But UAE's record raises serious questions. Reported Higgins: "Among those who have been locked up are a JPMorgan investment banker; American, British and other foreign property developers; a German yacht maker; and two Australians who worked as senior executives of what was to be the world's largest waterfront development." In contrast, "well-connected Emirati rarely spend long in jail for economic crimes."
Washington can't force the UAE to live up to its carefree image. But the emirates risk driving away the foreigners who have contributed so much to their prosperity. The threat of economic loss can be a powerful disciplining mechanism. In short, the emirates risk killing the golden goose.
People will still fly through Dubai airport and tourists will still visit to shop. Workers from impoverished lands will still come in search of employment. However, foreign businessmen may increasingly decide that no potential profit warrants risking arbitrary arrest, torture, and imprisonment. It is in the UAE's own interest to reform its investigative and judicial processes. Its own people would benefit, along with those from abroad.