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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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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