The shocking case of Marte Dalelv shows why we should be boycotting Dubai

The handling of rape cases is just one reason why we should be using our economic leverage to force Dubai to clean up its act.

If there's one positive message to come out of the shocking case of Marte Dalelv, the Norwegian woman sentenced to prison in Dubai for the crime of unlawful sex with her alleged rapist, it's the speed with which she was pardoned once the story became an international scandal at the weekend. That happy outcome is largely due to her own courage in speaking out and to the worldwide storm of protest her case unleashed. Strong if belated criticism from the Norwegian government may also have played its part. With thousands of people signing petitions and threatening to boycott Dubai, her treatment threatened to wreck the state's carefully-tended and commercially vital reputation as one of the more open and progressive places in the Middle East. The authorities were shamed into doing the right thing. Dalelv's release proves that pressure works.

Others have been much less fortunate. Australian Alicia Gali, for example, who reported being brutally raped while working at a hotel in the Unite Arab Emirates 2008, spent eight months in a fetid and overcrowded jail cell after (she says) being tricked into signing a confession. She has since been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. 

The circumstances of Gali's reported rape were chillingly similar to that of Marte Dalelv. Both women were assaulted by co-workers; both received limited help, at best, from their employers. But there was one crucial difference. Throughout her ordeal, there was no publicity in Gali's native Australia, nor anywhere else. Her mother has claimed that the Australian government "actively tried to suppress the story". Certainly the family was "strongly advised" not to alert the media to what had happened. As a result, Gali was left to languish in jail, at horrendous cost to her mental and physical health.

Such cases are far from unique in a state whose legal system embodies attitudes to women that are aggressively medieval. When a British woman celebrating her engagement reported being raped in a hotel toilet early in 2010, the only people to be arrested were her and her fiancé. Charges of drinking and unlawful sex were only dropped after she withdrew her testimony. In an interview on her return to the UK, she described her interrogation at the hands of five "sniggering" male police officers who seemed interested only in quizzing her about her preferred sexual positions. Nor are unsuspecting Westerners the only victims: in 2010, for example, a court in neighbouring Abu Dhabi jailed an 18 year old Emirati national who had reported being gang-raped by six men, one of them a police officer.  

The law in Dubai, which is part of the United Arab Emirites, puts rape complainants in an invidious position. Proving rape is virtually impossible: it requires either a confession or, even more improbably, the testimony of four male witnesses to establish guilt. And premarital sex is a criminal offence. As a US State Department report into the UAE's human rights record released last year noted, any woman who reports a rape runs the very real risk of being charged herself with unlawful sex. Knowing this, and fearing family dishonour if they are publicly identified as "impure", Emirati victims of sexual assault rarely bother to report it. The report also highlighted a particular problem of foreign domestic workers being raped or assaulted with impunity by their employers. 

However welcome Marte Dalelv's release, in itself it changes nothing. As Rori Donaghy of the London-based Emirates Centre for Human Rights pust it, "Until laws are reformed victims of sexual violence in the UAE will continue to suffer in this way and we will likely see more cases such as this one."

But how are such things possible in a sun-drenched and hyper-modern resort of the rich and powerful, home to some of the world's tallest buildings and swankiest hotels, an international business hub described by its tourist board as "the dynamic nucleus of the Arabian Gulf region". It's not enough to answer, as many do, that beneath the skyscrapers and swanky hotels Dubai remains at heart a conservative Muslim state. The territory prides itself on its cosmopolitan ethos, its relative liberalism and the freedoms it offers women, at least when compared with nearby Saudi Arabia. It also claims to take human rights seriously. And there is, or should be, no contradiction between Islamic values and basic standards of justice when it comes to the investigation and punishment of serious sexual assault. 

The legal jeopardy facing rape victims is only one of the questions over Dubai's human rights record. Many Western tourists, as well as professionals lured by Dubai's high wages and almost nonexistent taxes, have fallen foul of the state's strict, if erratically enforced, bans on alcohol or public displays of affection (one British couple found themselves jailed for a month for the "crime" of kissing in a restaurant). 

If such things are potentially off-putting to tourists, there are more serious concerns. Political liberties in Dubai erratic at best.  The State Department report (pdf) singled out arbitrary arrests, the use of incommunicado detention, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly and citizens' inability to change their government as major issues. Dubai's prisons were said to be the worst in the Emirates and there were widespread and convincing claims of police brutality, including torture. LGBT inmates - as in most of the Middle East, homosexuality is illegal in the UAE - were said to face "severe mistreatment including physical abuse and rape." 

Non-citizens, especially non-Westerners, face particular discrimination. Dubai's glittering skyline was built by the labour of migrant workers lured on a promise of riches and then underpaid and housed in conditions that have been unfavourably compared to slave labour camps. The long-running scandal must rank as one of the world's worst legal human trafficking operations 

All this, of course, is sharply at odds with the image that Dubai wishes to present to the world - an image on which its economy largely relies. The state's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, is a close friend of Prince Charles and is often to be found exercising his horses on England's most prestigious racecourses. Dubai rolls out the red carpet for the world's celebrities - Brad Pitt and David Beckham are among those lured to rent apartments on the luxury development dubbed Palm Island - and serves as a lynchpin of the global travel industry, as well as offering headquarters to numerous businesses.

It needs them. Dubai's dependence on international goodwill was starkly demonstrated after the banking crisis of 2008, when a sudden drying up of income almost led to the emirate's bankruptcy: only subventions from its oil-rich neighbour Abu Dhabi saved it. The economy has recovered and is now powering ahead, but nervousness remains. These factors ought to make Dubai more amenable to international pressure than China or Saudia Arabia. It might be a pleasant place to work or play, with world-class facilities and a lovely climate, but no-one needs to go there. Businesses can do their business somewhere else.

Perhaps it's time for companies and individuals to exert their economic leverage and force Dubai to clean up its act. There must be no more Marte Dalelvs.

Editor's note: This article was amended on 13 August 2013 to reflect the fact that Alicia Gali was working in Fujairah, rather than Dubai.  

Marte Dalelv after her receiving pardon on 22 July. Photograph: Getty Images
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I am an immigrant

 A seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious because we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

I am an immigrant. I came to the UK 20 years ago from the US to teach philosophy at the University of Sheffield, where I am now a professor. My American accent remains very strong. I used to be surprised when, despite hearing me speak, people would express anti-immigration sentiments to me, with a clear expectation of agreement. I would tell them that I am an immigrant. “I don’t mean you”, they’d respond, surprised that I count myself as an immigrant.

This shows that seemingly neutral words – like "immigrant" – are not always used in a neutral way. The supposedly neutral word "migrant" is increasingly used by the media to describe the large numbers of desperate people travelling into and across Europe, fleeing war and persecution.

But this use has recently come under attack.

To some, this attack is baffling. A migrant is just a person who migrates, surely, and these people are migrating. What can be wrong with this truthful description? One thing that might be wrong with it, however, is that, according to the UN, that’s not what a migrant is:

The term 'migrant'… should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor.

While maybe among the desperate risking their lives to escape places like Syria and Afghanistan, there is a person or two who has joined them for reasons of “convenience”, these people are surely vanishingly rare. According to the UN, then, it is simply factually wrong to call these people migrants.

But why, a more compelling objection goes, should we even care about language? People are dying and need help, and there goes the left again worrying about words. The reason to care about language is that the language we deliberate in shapes our deliberations. We’d see this without hesitation if racial slurs were being used to describe these people. And few people of good will would defend Katie Hopkins’ use of the term "cockroach". We know all too well how such clearly dehumanising words help put in place patterns of thought that make genocide possible. But "migrant"? "Migrant" is not a slur. 

Those who study the intersection of language and politics, however, have become increasingly aware that terms that seem innocent, like "migrant", can do some of the worst damage. This is because we are not aware of the ways that they are affecting our thought. Almost all of us, below our consciousness, are prone to ugly biases that we would reject if we were conscious of them. We see this in studies showing that people presented with the same CV judge it to be less attractive if the name at the top is a typically black one.

Apparently innocent words can come to function as dogwhistles, speaking to our unconscious in ways that our egalitarian conscious selves would reject if only we realised what was going on.

In America, the apparently race-neutral term "welfare" has come to be so strongly associated with black people that attitudes to any policy described using this term correlate with racial attitudes. Fascinatingly, adding an explicit reference to race removes this effect – if it’s too obvious, our conscious egalitarian selves step in. And this is why a seemingly neutral term like "migrant" is so potentially pernicious: it is not, as the UN recognises, actually a neutral term. But it seems like it is – which means we don’t take the kind of care we should in assessing its effect on us.

The suggested alternative terms are "refugee" – which calls attention to the fact that these people are fleeing intolerable conditions of violence; and the simple "human being" – which reminds us of our moral obligations. Either of these is an improvement on the inaccurate "migrant", which threatens to distort our discussions without our even realising it.

Professor Jennifer Saul is head of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield