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.