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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism