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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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.