On getting the chance to write about the Middle East I knew exactly one topic that I would need to get out-of-the-way first so: the UAE. I grew up for the majority of my life in Abu Dhabi and a much smaller town called Al Ain, my parents still live in the Emirates and it will always be my home but there is a lingering guilt – I enjoyed a happy cushy lifestyle in exchange for ignoring the corruption, racism and human rights abuses.
The UAE is a relatively new country composed of 7 tribal states that joined together around 40 years ago after the British left. In the early 20th century the country’s main export were pearls that local divers would collect but now it is undoubtedly oil. Abu Dhabi is one of wealthiest regions in the world, thanks to the oil, and the large proportion of this is owned by the Al Nahyan family who rule the Abu Dhabi region and the country as a whole.
…when in a tight situation calling the right person can make any trouble go away.
Now, without getting into the pitfalls of an Absolute Monarchy, there are many other issues that are nowhere near where they should be in the public mind if someone mentions Abu Dhabi. Everything works on a system of wasta, essentially meaning the connections you have. If you know the right people you could get away with almost anything you wanted to, and I grew up with the right people. Though never one to exploit this, I had plenty of friends who did, when in a tight situation calling the right person can make any trouble go away.
That’s just on a low-level, in 2009 a video was circulated on the internet of Sheikh Issa, brother to the ruler of the UAE, torturing an Afghan grain seller. It’s still available online if you’re the type that wants to see for themselves but I warn you, it makes harrowing viewing. The video got picked up and aired on ABC in America, launching a campaign for justice – the UAE did what any country like it would have done, they placed Issa under house arrest (I should maybe change that to palace) and then waited for it to blow over.
These labourers are promised a great new life with plenty of money to send home…
The trial, if it can be called that, went ahead and Issa was acquitted, according to the judge he had been drugged and therefore there was “diminished liability”, so he’s now free. The man who smuggled the video out of the UAE (after being tortured by the police to get it off him) and his brother have been convicted in absentia and the victim was said to kiss Sheikh Issa on both cheeks when the verdict came through – he was compensated for his injuries. It should also be noted that in the video you can plainly see a man in police uniform helping to hold down the grain seller.
The way Sheikh Issa treated the Afghan grain seller is actually a perfect metaphor for how the country treats its labourers, men and women from poor villages in places like Pakistan and the Philippines, on whose backs the country has been built and developed – with speed comparable only to Stalin’s industrialisation. These labourers are promised a great new life with plenty of money to send home to their families and then have their passports confiscated on entering the country, so they can’t get away – it’s a story you hear constantly if you take the time to talk to people.
…bloggers’ voices are regularly drowned out by the parties funded by oil money.
Countries like the UK that tell us they stand for democracy and freedom do happy business with the Royals in the emirates. Holiday makers in Dubai don’t think about the conditions the builders went through to put up their 5 star hotels. There are some UAE bloggers who speak against the government, known as ‘The UAE 5’, who were recently pardoned for the crime of dissent and let out of jail after international pressure, other changes can be made too with enough pressure, though the bloggers’ voices are regularly drowned out by the parties funded by oil money.