VIP Dubai – From the Archive – Rapid Change, Emphasis on Business Overshadow Concerns on Rights
Posted by 7starsdubai on September 20, 2009
original source Washington Post May 2007
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Mohammed al-Roken is perhaps the most prominent human rights activist in Dubai. That distinction has cost him. He was arrested twice. The government forced him out of his job as a professor, canceled his public lectures and banned him from writing in newspapers. Nine months ago, his passport was seized, barring him from traveling abroad.
That’s not the tough part, the lawyer said. Far more difficult is the loneliness that comes with political work in a brashly exuberant city-state that prides itself on having no politics. “An activist might be praised, might be congratulated for his work, might be clandestinely supported, but there will be no uproar if something happens to him,” Roken said.
Roken, a tall, bearded Emirati whose few softly spoken words belie a steely determination, is trying to create a political movement in the world’s biggest boomtown where virtually everything — from the import of cheap, often mistreated labor to the prevalence of English — is dictated by the logic of capital. Yet on the margins of Dubai’s culture of superlatives, with double-digit growth the norm and unbridled optimism a mantra, politics are timidly, fitfully but gradually coalescing in a place where notions of borders, citizenship and rights have become murkier.
“This is an apolitical city, but it will probably not stay that way for too long,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University. He added: “Politics brings out the good and the bad.”
In a region beset by war and crises, Dubai sits like an oasis of confidence along the turquoise waters of the Persian Gulf. If Cairo was the Arab world’s ideological capital in the 1950s and ’60s, and Beirut its cultural capital until the Lebanese civil war erupted in 1975, then Dubai is now its economic capital, drawing legions of the Arab world’s best and brightest from the malaise of their own countries. It has posted growth higher than China and India, with per capita income greater than Singapore. It has reaped the windfall of the region’s oil wealth, despite having scant reserves of its own. Its leaders, a modernized tribal dynasty, style themselves as corporate executives running Dubai Inc
“This is the nature of things here, the nature of the beast. Dubai has a focus. Unlike all other cities, it has a focus and it’s clear, perhaps clearer than it’s ever been: economics, stay the course, our business is business, our business is growth,” Abdulla said.
But with that growth have come pressing issues that no other Arab locale has had to confront so quickly. Its own citizens have become a tiny minority in a city where English, not Arabic, is the lingua franca. In the heart of one of the world’s most socially conservative regions, prostitution and alcohol are rife.
Tens of thousands of newcomers arrive in the city each month, joining hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, many of whom toil with few rights and at little more than subsistence wages. Their cause has become one rallying point.
‘No Civil Society Here’
“Get out of the house,” Sharla Musabih, a 46-year-old activist, pleaded into her cellphone on a recent day. On the other end was a Filipina married to an abusive Egyptian man, Musabih said. “Go to the hospital, then come to me.”
“This is every day,” Musabih said after hanging up the phone. “Every day.”
In a city of spectacles, Musabih stands out, an occasionally lonely activist trying to forge protections and safeguards for migrants. Born in Bainbridge Island, Wash., she has lived here for 24 years with her Emirati husband and six children. She has an exuberant touch: Her hands are in perpetual motion, and the woman on the other end of the phone is “Sweetie.” “Excuse me, honey,” she beckons to a waitress, grabbing her hand in both of hers. “I’m dying for a latte.”
Her first case as an activist was an incident of domestic violence she followed in 1991. Since then, she has taken on more of those cases, as well as of children working as camel jockeys, domestic servants mistreated by their employers and women forced into prostitution.
In 2001, she set up Dubai’s only shelter, the City of Hope, a two-story villa where two dozen women are staying. As part of her work, she said she has had to run a gantlet of harassment from lower-level police to angry husbands. A criminal case was filed against her — politically motivated, in her view — and she counts death threats among her workplace hazards. Years later, she still awaits recognition from the government that would bestow legitimacy in her endless tussles with the legal system.
“You run around like the Tasmanian devil and try to have a very big smile,” Musabih said, her face framed in a brown veil.
But she added, with a slight edge to her voice, “I’m not an outsider pointing a finger. I’m an insider.”
The challenges are many: She is one of the very few activists not only in Dubai, but also in the six other sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates. In Dubai, the vast influx of migrant workers is testing a court system never equipped for a city with more than 170 nationalities; workers complain about unpaid salaries, dangerous conditions and an ever-present threat to deport them if they protest. One especially intricate case Musabih has taken: a Pakistani woman entangled in a custody fight who faced everything from a travel ban to a passport stolen by a vindictive husband.
“They’re new at this,” she said of the government. “There’s a good intention, but a lack of experience.”
Her assistant, Seher Mir, 27, was blunter. “There’s absolutely no civil society here. There are no [nongovernmental organizations] here, people don’t understand what human rights are. Human rights, women’s rights, when you mention it to people, they say it’s not my problem.”
City in Transition
In recent years, Dubai has attracted attention for its ambition. It has built or is building the tallest skyscraper, the largest shopping mall and the biggest artificial island. “Once again history is created,” reads a billboard promoting the Dubai World Trade Center. There is little that might be called traditionally Arab in its commercialized ambience or cityscape of manicured roundabouts and 14-lane avenues lined with mimosa trees and purple periwinkles, save the street names: Sheikh Zayed Road, or Khalid Bin Walid Street.
Divisions lurk in the background: between expatriates, for instance, and Emiratis, and between Emiratis who trace their origins to the Arabian Peninsula or Iran. But Dubai lacks the poverty of Egypt, the sectarianism of Iraq or Lebanon or the divisions of Jordan, a country still unreconciled with its Palestinian majority. Dubai feels transient, enticing many of its residents with the promise of money or a climate more socially liberal than in neighboring countries.
“Things are not deeply or well established because of the mood of transition. People come and make money and go,” said Suleiman Hattlan, editor in chief of Forbes Arabia in Dubai. “They are interested in either the sun or business.”
Added Yassar Jarrar, executive dean of the Dubai School of Government: “You would struggle to start a political movement here.”
But that sense of depoliticized space conceals a simmering backlash in Dubai among Emiratis who are a tiny minority in their own city and who are often bewildered by the pace of change in a country that, within some of their lifetimes, once relied on pearl diving and fishing. Like Musabih, who tries to instill a legal culture of human rights in an unaccustomed court system, some Emirati activists such as Roken are trying to understand how to safeguard their identities from the encroachment of a globalized culture.
Abdullah, the political scientist, described it as a mix of pride in what Dubai represents and fear at the costs it entails.
“There is hardly anybody in the city who doesn’t feel a bit of fear inside him, a fear of losing it all at a time when we have it all,” he said. “Do you call it alienation? It’s much beyond that. We live in the best of times and, in some ways, the worst of times.”
For Roken, the challenge of alienation is an unusual one. He wants to embolden citizens — a distinct minority — to raise their voices against an authoritarian government he says caters to expatriates, the majority. The government provides Emiratis with generous housing loans, pays for schooling and ensures free health care. But Roken is more unsettled by the intangibles: entering a mall where virtually everyone is a foreigner, beaches populated by swimmers in dress he considers immodest, and wine-tasting parties at luxury hotels. Only a more democratic polity, albeit entrusted to a minority, can stanch what he sees as Dubai’s more flagrant excesses.
“The majority sets the rules of the game,” the 44-year-old lawyer said. “If we keep ourselves passive, the identity, the culture will fade away very quickly. Activism is a way of protecting our identity and our culture, in a positive way.”
“A one-voice society has been tried in other countries and failed,” he said. “We shouldn’t repeat other people’s failures.”
As a way of adding voices, Roken has pushed for a more aggressive role by professional unions, often the arena of activism in the Arab world. But he said the government has imposed restrictions on their work. The government has canceled activities, including his own talks; security forces, he said, sometimes vet the names of participants in conferences abroad.
“The space for freedom has become smaller and smaller,” said Mohammed al-Mansoori, who heads the Jurists Association.
Like Roken and others, Mansoori laments the loss of what he says was an intimacy with the ruling families a generation ago. Since the 1980s, he said, the clans that run the Emirates have increasingly assumed the trappings of power, distancing themselves from those they govern. As the traditional society fades, Mansoori has pushed for a more modern alternative: an independent judiciary, human rights and labor laws consistent with international standards and freer elections.
Among his pursuits: ways to protect the country’s identity.
“Nobody wants to listen,” he said.
Mansoori, 49, fled to London last July after a disagreement with a government official he says was politically motivated. It followed several official warnings, he said, to stop speaking to foreign media about topics from Musabih’s shelter to wildcat strikes to the rights of children of Emirati mothers. He plans to return, with a British lawyer, in coming weeks.
“It’s normal to be nervous,” he said. “But I’ve prepared myself to face anything.”
He paused on the phone for a moment, with a hint of unease. “We’ll see.”
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