Rule of Law in the United Arab Emirates: 2010 in Review

Some great things are happening in Abu Dhabi and the other members of the United Arab Emirates.  Vibrant economies are being built, employment opportunities are being created, and joint ventures are being set up with leading international companies and institutions. They will - hopefully - someday lead to genuine technology transfers to the domestic economy.  There is little point in me covering any of the above, however, as most of the good news is adequately covered by the UAE's various state-owned and state-affiliated newspapers.  In particular, Abu Dhabi's The National is fast becoming the region's newspaper of record for all things relating to business and the economy.

What does require comment is the rule of law, a subject ignored by the state's media outlets and rarely addressed by the country's largely incapacitated civil society organizations.  Indeed, rule of law in the UAE has always been a painful topic, and if anything has been eroded rather than bolstered over the course of 2010.  So much of what Abu Dhabi and Dubai are trying to do with their economies is underpinned by having a sound international reputation, and the current abuse or absence of rule of law will very soon catch the state's leaders out. This will likely lead to a rapid deterioration in the country's economic prospects, especially in terms of attracting foreign direct investment, tourism, and joint venture partners.  Ultimately, therefore, all UAE citizens and expatriate "stakeholders" will lose out unless the situation is soon redressed. 

Thus far, there have been a few tests of conscience for the major educational and cultural institutions of the world's greatest democracies, which have branches in place or under construction in Abu Dhabi, including France's Sorbonne University and Louvre museum, and New York University and the Guggenheim museum from the US.  But given the current financial climate in the West and the eagerness of Western politicians, academics, and other luminaries to court those with surplus cash, these institutions have held firm.   Nevertheless, as soon as the global economy rights itself and research funding and government grants begin to flow again in countries with elected leaderships and commitments to human rights, future crises of confidence in the UAE will be more testing, as very real reputational risks and the importance of clean global branding will again be remembered.

So what has been going on in 2010?  There have been several disturbing, high profile cases, including the March imprisonment for three months of an Indian couple for ‘exchanging racy text messages’, and the April imprisonment of a British couple in Dubai for allegedly kissing and touching each other in a public place.  While the severity of the latter "crime" is perhaps a necessary conversation that needs to be held in what is supposed to be a tourist-friendly city, what worries me is that the prosecution was built on a sole witness (a two year old infant) who did not appear in court.  Another worrying and rather disgusting case was that of an 18 year old Emirati woman in Abu Dhabi who had tried to press charges against five Emirati men and one Iraqi man for gang-raping her. Forensic evidence supported the charge of gang rape, but the girl chose to drop all charges when she was threatened with two years imprisonment and lashing for having illegal, pre-marital sex.  To my mind, the verdict served as a warning to other women even thinking about such a complaint. 

Another illustrative case is that of an Emirati man originally imprisoned for one year after failing to pay debts. He is now poised to have his sentence extended by five years for "insulting the president" in December after the prison’s water supply was cut.  His insult was apparently overheard by one prison guard – again, a sole witness.  Some may argue, in an ironic fashion one hopes, that the rule of law was perfectly upheld in this case, given that insulting the UAE's president (de facto the hereditary ruler of Abu Dhabi) is indeed a crime carrying a five year sentence.  But with even the US ambassador recorded in recent Wikileak cables describing him as 'a distant and uncharismatic personage', does a progressive Gulf state like the UAE really need to hang on to such archaic laws?

There have of course been many other worrying cases over the past year, but by far the kingpin was the one resolved all the way back in January 2010.  Given that it involved a senior member of the ruling family and, some would say, smacked of political interference in the judicial process, it has to my mind cast a shadow over the UAE.  Although muttered about, and discussed on (blocked) Internet forums from time to time, it remains a serious taboo. Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan - a younger half brother of both the emirate's ruler and crown prince - was caught on several videos apparently torturing Asian employees in rather creative ways. It became a subject of great embarrassment for Abu Dhabi in 2009, as many of the videos were posted on and on a (swiftly blocked) website,

In one case the victim is beaten, whipped, electrocuted, and run over by a 4x4 vehicle. In the video Issa is being assisted by a man wearing a uniform who was, according to early media reports of the video, a private security guard. But the uniform is undoubtedly that of a regular Abu Dhabi police officer, and a police vehicle is also in view at one point.  The misunderstanding was seemingly the result of an Abu Dhabi official informing the media that the assistant was not a policeman. 

When ABC News and CNN covered the story in the US it prompted the Abu Dhabi authorities to respond, stating that they had reviewed the video and acknowledged Issa's involvement.  They stated that "the incidents depicted in the video were not part of a pattern of behaviour" and that "all rules, policies, and procedures had been followed correctly by the police department."  Issa’s lawyer: "the story that we think ABC is being told is grossly misleading; it is in large measure demonstrably untrue, and it is defamatory to Sheikh Issa." The UAE Minstry for the Interior stated that all of the parties involved, presumably referring to the victims, had "settled the matter privately", as permitted under Abu Dhabi law.

This response, which promised no accountability for Issa or those other responsible, provoked criticism from Human Rights Watch, which stated that "‘if this is their complete reply, then sadly it’s a scam and a sham… it is the state that is torturing… if the government does not investigate and prosecute these officers, and those commanding the officers."  Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the ruler of Abu Dhabi requesting that he form an independent body to probe both the torture and "the failure of the Ministry for Interior to bring those responsible to justice."  The co-chairman of the US Congress Human Rights Commission was similarly critical of the inaction: "granted that they're strategically located in a key part of the world, but it's hard to imagine that we're going to keep going on as if it were business as usual when this kind of stuff happens… my guess is that this is just the tip of the iceberg."

The strength of this international reaction, coupled with the US temporarily suspending negotiations on a potential US-UAE nuclear technology deal, was seemingly sufficient to force the Abu Dhabi authorities to revisit the Issa torture case. Issa was placed under house arrest until his trial took place in December 2009.  Half of the trial (including the prosecution's witness statements), conducted by an expatriate judge, was held in secret, with The National newspaper beginning its coverage of the trial at only the halfway point - only covering the defence's statements.  Presumably in an effort to ready the UAE's population for the inevitable verdict.   Issa was duly released in January 2010 and - despite being filmed operating a machine gun, an electric cattle prod, driving a vehicle, and stuffing sand down a man's throat - it was claimed he was put into an induced coma by dishonest employees, who were convicted in absentia for extortion and manipulation.

The 2009 Freedom House report on the UAE stated that "the judiciary is not independent, with court rulings subject to review by the political leadership… although the constitution bans torture, there is compelling evidence that members of the royal family and the country’s police have used torture against political rivals and business associates."  Given the above, what will the 2010 report contain?